September 16, 2019
The Proper 20C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 16:1-13 from the Lectionary Gospel; Jeremiah 8:18–9:1 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 113 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Timothy 2:1-7 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 18 (Lord’s Day 6)
Author: Scott Hoezee
This is an odd one! Indeed, the parable in Luke 16 surely counts as the oddest of all Jesus’ parables. This is not even a close call! You can read the whole thing once, twice, three times and the precise meaning of it remains mysteriously elusive. The shank of the problem is that the “hero” of this parable–the figure Jesus holds up as somehow or another having something to teach “the children of light”–is finally an anti-hero. He’s a crook, a swindler, a cheat.
What in the world could Jesus have been thinking?? The parable in Luke 16 follows hard on the heels of a parable we like a whole lot better: the Prodigal Son. But though the prodigal’s actions in that famed story are initially despicable, he ends up looking downright saintly in comparison to this corrupt manager. That has bothered not a few folks over the course of church history. Some have been so scandalized by Jesus’ use of a sinful wheeler-and-dealer that they have staged a number of desperate attempts to rescue Jesus from his own parable. But the attempts to turn this shrewd manager into some kind of decent fellow after all have generally speaking failed.
The straightforward reading of this tale is probably the correct one as it turns out. The manager of a wealthy man’s estate is about to get fired. For some reason–laziness, disorganization, or maybe even corruption–this manager has done a lousy job and this has at long last come to the attention of the boss. So he summons the manager, tells him to prepare one final report to be handed in at his exit interview, and that would then be that. Too lazy and weak for manual labor, too proud to beg, this man has to think fast. Since his boss wants one last presentation of the ledgers before the manager gets canned, the manager decides that now is as good a time as any to cook the books in such a way as to feather his own future nest.
So he calls in a number of the boss’s wealthier clients and cuts their debt-loads in half. When in startled amazement they ask why, the manager winks at them and says, “Don’t ask, but just remember I did you a favor once, all right?” In this way the man curries some goodwill with people who could lend him money, give him a new job, and maybe even house him when soon he finds himself out on his ear.
Startlingly, when the boss gets wind of these shenanigans, he is not angry! He approves. He claps the manager on the shoulder and says in essence, “You’ve done well for yourself!” Indeed, the last word from the boss in this parable is so positive, the reader is left to wonder whether maybe the manager ended up retaining his job after all. This rich man could recognize a fellow wheeler-and-dealer when he saw one, and he liked what he saw! Anyone this shrewd, anyone this clever at working the angles, was just maybe someone worth hanging onto after all.
In the often cut-throat world of business this kind of unsavory story is not uncommon. What is uncommon about this story is what Jesus says about it. You expect Jesus to say something like, “Verily I tell you, cheats such as this will one day find themselves in a place of much weeping and gnashing of teeth!”
But he does not say this at all.
Instead Jesus finishes this little vignette of corruption, takes a breath, and then says to the disciples, “You see! There’s something to that approach. Folks like this are far shrewder at dealing with this world than you children of light are!”
Huh? What’s the point here?
Let’s rule out the obvious: Clearly the point here is not that any form of theft, cheating, swindling, or dishonesty is a good thing. You cannot turn this passage into some legitimation of “business as usual”-type practices.
Nevertheless, something about this shrewd, vaguely corrupt man is being recommended so what is it? The answer begins to come into focus when you go all the way back to Luke 15:1-2 where you discover the setting for not just this parable but the three better-known parables that make up Luke’s fifteenth chapter.
The larger issue has to do with table fellowship. Jesus, as was his pattern, was hanging out and eating with all the wrong people in all the wrong places. The Pharisees muttered into their beards about how scandalous it was to hold a dinner party whose guest list was a “Who’s Who” of local lowlifes. Jesus responds to this complaint with three parables on lost and found. The point in all three is the same: the amount of rejoicing that comes when valuable lost objects are found makes it worthwhile to pay any price both to search for that lost thing or person and to then put on the fatted calf once the search is successful.
The parable of the prodigal son ends with a party. So as you transition into what we now call chapter 16, you can still hear the happy buzz of party chatter, the clink of silverware on china, and joyous music echoing in the air. Luke 15 ended with a vision of God’s kingdom. It is a picture of such fervent joy that we should want to capture something of that joy already now. If, like the Pharisees, we look at the so-called “sinners” around us and see them only as they now appear, then it becomes easier (and maybe even inevitable) to backhand them away as the kinds of folks with whom we don’t care to associate.
Jesus, on the other hand, sees them as potential sources for heavenly delight, and he wants us to see them through that lens, too. He sees them as valuable lost objects, the re-finding of which could bring joy. So Jesus suggests we enjoy their company now in the hopes that we might enjoy one another’s company forever and ever as well. The potential for eschatological joy among such people in the future of God’s coming kingdom is great enough for us even now to do whatever we can to welcome them into the church.
That line of thought from Luke 15 is hanging in the air as chapter 16 opens (the setting from chapter 15 to 16 has not changed). So what is it about the shrewd manager’s attitude that Jesus finds useful for also the children of light? It is this: he gave thought to the future and it shaped his actions in the present. Further, he knew that for now monetary resources are one way to secure the kind of future vision you have drawn for yourself. So even though in his case it meant being devious, his desperate desire to see his future materialize helped him to conclude that it would be worth it to take the risks he did in currying favor with his boss’s clients.
This may be the point (at least in part): The church likewise has a strong vision of the future called the kingdom of God. What’s more, that future vision should include the potential joy that will rock the cosmos in celebration when more, and not fewer, people end up attending God’s big party. That vision of the future should influence us mightily in also the present moment.
Needless to say, Jesus’ challenge is a large and difficult one. The church often lacks such a consistently clear focus on God’s kingdom. If that bright vision of our future really did inform and animate our present moment in the church, maybe lots of things would change.
Maybe. But even if this is part of the point Jesus was making, couldn’t he have made it with a less scandalous, less confusing parable? Did he need to hold up a sneaky crook to help issue this kingdom challenge? Surely another version of the story about the widow’s mite or some such more homey tale could have delivered this parabolic freight just as effectively.
Possibly. But maybe Jesus has something more subtle in mind by holding up an anti-hero as his parable’s protagonist. Maybe this is an act of irony that pulls the rug out from underneath our feet even as it makes Jesus’ larger point all over again. Because what are we doing when we pull up our noses at this shrewd manager? Then again, what have commentators in the past been doing in all their furious attempts to make this manager a good guy after all? Either way or both ways aren’t we essentially saying that there are some greasy people in this world whom sanctified believers have no business pondering? Aren’t we trying to re-establish some daylight between ourselves as nice Christians and those secular types “out there” in whose company we would rather not be at all? And if so, aren’t we stepping back from Jesus to nestle up to the Pharisees as we saw them in Luke 15:1-2 when this string of parables began?
A few verses beyond this strange little parable is the better-known story about the rich man and Lazarus. Near the end of that parable the rich man asks father Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to shake his remaining brothers out of their wealth-induced stupor. Abraham replies that the rich man’s brothers already have Bibles–they’ve already got written down for them everything they need to know to live the right way. They already know what they need to know.
Thanks to gospel writers like Luke, we do, too. Are we listening?
Although most English translations have the word “money” in back-to-back verses (14 and 15), in the Greek the first instance is “Mammon” (MAMON in Greek) and the second is the semi-rare word (used just 3 times in the entire NT) of PHILARGUROS, which is literally a combination of the word “love”/PHILOS and the word for “silver”/ARGUROS. It may be curious to note that the Pharisees were fond of silver and as far as that goes, they no doubt did not think a lot of it. Yet Jesus uses the word “mammon” which carried with it the connotation of being a personified force. So taken together, verses 14 and 15 may be saying that while the Pharisees regarded money as a worldly good that they could use for their own advantage, God sees this as a potential idol, as something more akin to the Golden Calf than an innocuous matter of dollars and cents and balance sheets and bank ledgers.
The second installment of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy of movies tells two stories simultaneously. While viewers watch the moral and familial demise of the mafia don Michael Corleone in the mid-1950s, they see intertwined flashbacks from the early twentieth century when Michael’s father, the original Godfather Vito Corleone, steadily rose from a penniless Italian immigrant to a powerful, respected, and feared figure. The key moment when young Vito’s life turned the corner from poverty to (ill-gotten) riches is curious.
Vito and two friends had begun to do well for themselves in thievery and stealing things like designer dresses–so well, in fact, as to attract the attention of the local mafia boss, Don Fanucci, who was known as “the Black Hand.” Don Fanucci approaches Vito and says, “I hear you and your two friends were recently involved in some shenanigans which netted you $600 each.” The don then demands some protection money, telling Vito that he needs to wet his beak a bit to the tune of $200 from each of the three men. The subtext of this “request” was clear: “Pay up or else!”
Upon hearing of this development, Vito’s friends immediately and fearfully decide to pay up. But Vito has a different idea. He tells his two friends to pay him $50 each. Vito, in turn, will give the don this money plus his own $50 and Vito will do it in such a way that Fanucci will accept the $150 instead of the $600 he had initially demanded. When his friends ask Vito how he’s going to pull this off, Vito tells them “Never mind that, but just remember I did you a favor once.” Vito then tells his friends that they are to go to Fanucci the next day, tell him that they respect him and that through Vito they will pay the don whatever he wants. The next day both men go and tell the don just that. Later Vito meets privately with Don Fanucci but pays him only the $100 he had collected from his two friends—he doesn’t even add his own $50. When the don demands to know where the other $500 is, Vito smirks and says he needs some time seeing as he was rather short of money at the moment.
Don Fanucci then comes to believe that Vito has shaken down his own two friends. Based on what the two other men had told Fanucci earlier, the old don assumes Vito had already received $200 from each friend but is now pocketing most of it even as he courageously winks at the don, who becomes an insider to Vito’s little fake scheme. Surprisingly, the Black Hand turns velvet. He smiles approvingly, openly admiring Vito’s courage. “You’ve done well for yourself,” he says. He then accepts the $100 as sufficient, offers to let Vito work for him, and even adds that if he can do anything for Vito, to let him know! Fanucci respected Vito as a fellow wheeler-and-dealer, a fellow sneak and cheat who knew how to work other people to his own advantage.
Sounds kinda familiar, at least if you’ve read Luke 16 recently . . .
Author: Stan Mast
By now your congregation is probably getting tired of sermons on Jeremiah. Truth be told, you may be as well. I mean, it’s just one message of darkness after another, sorrow upon sorrow with no hope. Why keep going when we know the Lectionary has scheduled 4 more in this litany of woe? (That’s 2 months out of a year devoted to the weeping prophet!) Enough already! Why go on?
Well, for one thing, there is a pattern here, or better a progression. We started with God’s call to Jeremiah to become a prophet who would uproot and destroy (Jeremiah 1). Then, Israel’s sin was specifically named (Jeremiah 2), though the lectionary inexplicably treated that subject out of canonical order. Again out of order, the possibility of hope was held out for Judah in Jeremiah 18. Then in Jeremiah 4 we heard the darkest message of judgment and destruction. Now in Jeremiah 8 we witness the sorrow all of the above has created in Judah, Jeremiah, and Yahweh. Our little passage reads like a gigantic teardrop.
If we follow the canonical order of Jeremiah (rather than the rearranged order of the lectionary), we seem to be walking a trail of tears that begins with Jeremiah’s call and moves through sin and judgment and sorrow to the possibility of redemption if Israel repents and repents to God. If I were to preach on this long series of Jeremiah’s words, I would entitle the series “Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” My emphasis would be on those next words of Psalm 23, “for you are with me.” That’s one reason I would stick with these dark readings from Jeremiah. They do take us somewhere helpful.
That “somewhere” is a place no one wants to be, but it’s a place all of us will land at some point in life. We’ve seen this place too often in the news. We saw it quintessentially after the disaster of 9/11. We see in the daily mass shootings in America, in the endless pictures of car crashes, in the incomprehensible suffering of hurricane victims. That is, we see it wherever people’s lives have been stupendously upended and they sit stunned in the wreckage of their lives. All they can do is weep and weep inconsolably because the thing that has happened to them makes no sense.
That was doubly the case for ancient Israel when they were finally dragged into Exile, leaving behind a land that had been devastated in every way. They had always believed, presumed, that such a thing could not happen to them, because their covenant God was with them. Why, he was right over there in Jerusalem, particularly in the temple. That place gave them assurance that no one could conquer them. Now, here they sit in the ruins, in a foreign land even, absolutely stunned that this could have happened to them. And weeping inconsolably. It’s a place no one wants to be, but all of us will be at some point, because this world is, as an old baptismal form put it, “a veil of tears.” So, preaching on this text gives us the opportunity to bring the gospel into a very dark place.
As always happens in real life, catastrophes raise a host of questions. That’s what we have in our reading. “Is Yahweh not in Zion? Is her king no longer there? Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their worthless foreign idols? Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why is there no healing for the wound of my people?” A cacophony of voices rings through this sad text, and sorting them out is no easy task.
Verse 18 seems to be Jeremiah calling for “my Comforter in sorrow,” because his heart is faint or sick. The announcer of doom is heartsick with sorrow over the doom that is coming. Is he calling Yahweh to comfort him? That’s a strange turn, given that Yahweh is the one who will bring the sorrow, but all of us who have grieved deeply know that strange turn.
Verse 19 puts the questions of the Exiles in the mouth of Jeremiah. Or is this Yahweh listening to the cries of his sinful people? That is the key question in these verses, and I will return to it once we’ve considered the individual verses. Let’s assume it is Jeremiah voicing the heartbroken questions of God’s people “from a land far away,” that is, Babylon. Where is our God? We had always believed that his presence in the temple in Zion made us impervious to attack. That old temple tradition had proven to be mistaken. And now that we’ve been conquered, we don’t know where God is.
In verse 20, God responds with his own question, an oft repeated question in Jeremiah, expressing God’s confusion and disbelief over Israel’s idolatry. “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, their worthless foreign idols?” It’s quite a picture of God, isn’t it? God is, indeed, in Zion, but his people have left him by pursuing foreign gods, in spite of all he had done for them over the centuries. Yahweh cannot understand it. And he is deeply angry.
After years of denying God’s anger, ignoring the prophets’ warnings, and continuing their sinful ways, Israel has finally gotten the message. It’s too late. It’s over. They put it poetically: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” They are crushed.
Knowing they are crushed crushes Jeremiah. Or is it Yahweh speaking in verses 21 and following? It seems to be Jeremiah speaking, expressing complete identification with his compatriots. He is not the dispassionate prophet Amos seems to be, announcing doom with no emotional involvement. Jeremiah is a model preacher, speaking faithfully for his holy God and identifying compassionately with God’s unholy people.
John Holbert uses this text to speak a hard word to modern preachers. “No preacher has the right to assault the people he/she has been called to serve, forgetting that he/she is one of them…. The preacher is in the audience of every sermon…[Jeremiah] is a model for any modern preacher who would speak the harder truths of the gospel.”
That is very true and important, but that is not the message of Jeremiah 8 and 9. We must be careful not to psychologize the message of this weeping prophet. However much we should identify with the deep passion of the prophet, our focus must be on the deep passion of God. Yes, Jeremiah wept inconsolably for God’s people, as expressed so painfully in Jeremiah 9:1. But was he doing that for himself, or for God?
That finally raises the question I’ve hinted at in previous comments. Who is the subject of the pronouns here? We can easily identify Israel in verses 19a and 20 and God in verse 19b. But could it be that the “my” and “I” in the other verses is actually God? Is this a picture of God weeping over his sinful people? Is God heart sick over their sin and the punishment he will visit on them? Does God “weep day and night for the slain of my people?” Can we even imagine a sovereign, holy, just God weeping his eyes out for his people’s sins and suffering, even as he inflicted that punishment for their sins? It’s hard to imagine, but it’s comforting, too. Even a punishing God is not a hard hearted God. Even as he punishes he is broken hearted.
This gives a whole new depth to those famous words quoted before: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Yahweh is “with me” even to the depths of my sorrow, not just spiritually with me, but emotionally and psychologically.
Indeed, God is even physically with me, as God incarnate. Even if my reading of the pronouns in this text is wrong and we cannot say that God in heaven weeps, we can surely say that God in the flesh weeps (and he, by the way, is in heaven after his resurrection and ascension). God incarnate was prophetically called “Man of Sorrows” who was acquainted with grief because of his identification with our sin and suffering.
We saw that from time to time as he walked this earth, at the graveside of Lazarus (John 11:35) and on the hillside overlooking Jerusalem (Luke 13:34-35), a text that has deep ties with Jeremiah’s hard words about Jerusalem). And recall how the writer to the suffering Hebrews spoke about the one who is greater than all the salvific figures and rites in Judaism. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet without sin (Heb. 4:15).” “Because he suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Heb. 2:18).”
What an immensely comforting word to people sitting stunned in their sorrow! When you can’t find God anywhere, the Gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that he is sitting right beside us weeping along with us. When there is no balm in Gilead and the pain will not stop, “my Comforter in sorrow” is with me on this trail of tears through the valley of the shadow of death.
All these words about sorrow reminded me of the classic work on grief by Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler, in which they identified the “five stages of grief.” Remember? They were denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. A careful and creative reading of our text for today may reveal some of those stages of grief. Is Israel in the depression stage? God seems to be in the anger stage. Reminding people of that book may help your people get in touch with the dominant mood of the text.
As I got in touch with that mood, I recalled a book I read years ago. Remember The Book of Sorrows by Walter Wangerin? I don’t remember the plot, but the title seems to fit the whole prophecy of Jeremiah, and this text in particular.
Author: Scott Hoezee
In Robert Duvall’s film, The Apostle, we see a vignette of what could be described as a very “in your face” style of praise. The revival worship services of a certain stripe of Deep South fundamentalism are high-decibel, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, gizzard-piercing spectacles that are most decidedly not for the faint of heart!
And yet, in their own way, the urgency of such services, the imperative-like demand that people participate with everything they’ve got, make this style of worship an heir to the Old Testament tradition of the psalms. Many of the psalms were designed to get in your face. The psalms often order you to join the cosmic chorus of praise to the one true God. Psalm 113 is a good example. More than that, however, this brief psalm is an eloquent statement on not just the urgency of praise but also on one of the chief reasons God deserves to be praised. So this morning let’s reflect on the 113th psalm.
Like many psalms so also the opening and closing words of Psalm 113 have now been translated, “Praise the LORD.” In the original Hebrew, however, this is the phrase hallelu yah, which we often translate literally as “hallelujah,” as in Handel’s famous “Hallelujah Chorus.” These days, when we sing the word “hallelujah,” we think it means something like, “I am praising you now, O God.” “Hallelujah” is to us a personal statement of worship, the equivalent of our saying, “Way to go, dear God! I thank you for what you’ve done!”
Or we interject it as a generic statement of relief. “I thought I had burned the apple pie but it’s fine!” your spouse might say to you. “Well, hallelujah” you might reply. Actually, however, both the more pious and the more generic use of this word are rather different from how the word gets used in the Old Testament.
Because in the original Hebrew the phrase hallelu yah is in the imperative mood–this is a command. Thus, when you read the words “Praise the LORD” at the beginning and conclusion of Psalm 113, you should picture the psalmist as pointing his finger at you and saying, “You there! Yes, you! Get up on your feet, open your mouth, and start singing to God–that’s an order!” There is a holy urgency to the psalms. The poets who composed these ancient songs were desperate to get as many voices into the choir as they could.
But why? Why should this order be issued with such intensity and why should anyone follow this command? In his book on the psalms, C.S. Lewis admits that before he became a Christian, he found the Bible’s incessant demand that we praise God highly offensive. Why is God forever asking to be praised? Isn’t that a bit conceited? After all, if you work with someone who is forever talking about himself or who is always asking you to compliment his work, sooner or later you grow weary of this self-centered narcissist.
So if the Bible is God’s own book, then isn’t it odd that he is forever soliciting our praise? Doesn’t that make God out to be, well, a bit vain? Taken in isolation you could read Psalm 113 that way, but seen in the context of a fallen world, this is not so odd after all. Because seen the right way, God’s request that we praise him is wholly appropriate.
In all of life we take note of and celebrate good things. When you hear an excellent concert, you applaud–a virtuoso performance may even lead you to start a standing ovation. Any other response strikes us as unfitting. If you enjoy an excellent meal well prepared and presented, you praise the host. Goodness pulls us in–we’re drawn to good things like iron filings to a magnet. And we are also drawn to express our praise.
Indeed, sometimes we even try to widen the circle of praise by inviting others to join in on our appreciation. When a critic writes a glowing review of an outstanding film, she’s widening the circle of appreciation. When an author writes a pre-publication comment to be printed onto the back cover of another author’s new book, he does so to express his own praise for the book in the hope that his words will encourage others to buy and savor the book, too. When we see excellent or lovely things, we naturally express praise for them.
The problem with us in this sinful world, however, is that we are routinely blind to the goodness of God. If only we could see things clearly, then we would day and night find reasons to give God praise. So if God’s inspired Bible regularly asks us to give God glory, it’s not out of arrogance but desperation–the Bible is trying to open our eyes.
The message of the psalms and of the Bible generally is that if only we could see and understand God better, we would be naturally led to praise him. Unhappily, we don’t see so well, and so the psalmists need to order us to do what should come naturally.
But, of course, writers like the poet of Psalm 113 don’t leave the reasons for this praise in the abstract. In this case the psalmist mentions two specific things for which to give praise: one has to do with the sheer splendor of God, the other has to do with the attention God pays to us in the mundane details of our lives. Why praise God? Because he is exalted–he made everything there is. Not only that, however, this God’s real splendor is that he takes care of the poor and is deeply concerned for the plight of childless women.
But it is precisely here that some of us feel like Psalm 113 trips us up. Because in rather absolute terms this psalm says that God enriches the poor and brings babies to those struggling to get pregnant. Alas, we know full well this does not always happen. And the poor? They don’t typically always see their fortunes reversed, either.
So if this is supposed to be our motivation for praising God, we may question the wisdom of this psalmist’s choosing these particular items. But maybe getting hung up on this point (important though it is to bear in mind pastorally when preaching) makes us miss the psalm’s main point.
For one thing, Psalm 113 does not promise that this will always happen. Instead it may well be that these words reflect the experience of this particular poet. Maybe he had experienced these blessings in his own life and, if so, then of course it is appropriate that he list them as reasons to give God praise. But for the rest of us this may be one of many psalms that you need to read as part of a larger collection of psalms. Because there are plenty of other psalms, some of which we’ve looked at this summer, which admit and lament the fact that things don’t always work out so sunny.
So perhaps we need to take the concluding words of Psalm 113 as this psalmist’s experience. This was his particular way of illustrating the larger truth that God takes loving note of our earthly lives. You see, God stunned the imagination of the ancient Israelites not just because of his awesome power but even more so because of his tender care.
That’s perhaps another reason why this psalmist picked out the poor and the childless–in ancient Israel you could not get much more marginalized than to fall into one of these two categories. A woman unable to have children was considered a social cipher in the ancient world. And the poor were likewise overlooked–as is still too often the case today, the desperately poor exist at best on the fringes of our awareness. Because they lack power, glitz, influence, and social standing, the poor just don’t capture our imaginations the way the rich and powerful do.
In other words, these two groups of people were the invisible members of society. Especially in ancient Israel the poor and the barren were the lowest of the low, the ones so puny in stature that they were overlooked by almost everyone. And yet these are precisely the ones whom God notices and cares about.
And somehow this facet of God’s character was more striking to the Israelites than even his heavenly powers. Nearly all ancient societies believed in gods who were full of light and power and splendor. But most of those gods were also reputed to be aloof, to be so soaringly above it all as to treat human beings as at best pawns. In King Lear Shakespeare has a line that well summarizes many ancient attitudes: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, They kill us for their sport.”
But not so the one true God as he revealed himself to Israel: this was a God who could spin quasars with one hand and lift up some nameless poor person with the other. This was a God who could make mountains smoke and who could at the same time tenderly smile on a childless woman. This is, in other words, a God who notices us in all our smallness. God is not so lofty that he can barely even see us on this earth. God is, as a matter of fact, more attentive to this world than we are! He sees and is distressed about people whom even we overlook in our focus on the powerful and the successful. In other words, the God who is more powerful than anyone is less interested in power than we are!
In Jewish circles Psalms 113-118 are known as the “Hallel Psalms.” These are the psalms that get read at the start of Judaism’s highest festivals of celebration, chief among which is Passover. Thus, it is very likely that Psalm 113 was the first psalm recited by Jesus in that upper room on the night he was betrayed.
And what a stellar new meaning these words gain when we hear them on the incarnate, flesh-and-blood lips of God’s Son! How much more particular, how much more specific, how much more earthy and utterly mundane can God get than taking to himself a body of skin!? If Jesus is who we Christians have always said he is, then we can know for sure that the basic idea of Psalm 113 is true: namely, that the true wonder of God is his ability to transcend his own transcendence, to get out of himself and into us!
My Old Testament Professor John Stek once used this analogy: suppose a widowed young mother works her whole life to give her son, Charlie, the best possible life. Suppose she toils in some sweat-shop during the day and scrubs toilets in an office building by night just to scrape together enough money to give her son decent clothing, education, food, and shelter. But suppose Charlie is an ignorant clod who little notices his mother’s efforts and who even squanders a good bit of what his mother gives him. Suppose that instead of fulfilling any of his mother’s hopes for him, he spends his time with unsavory denizens of cheap bars and tawdry brothels.
So suppose one day, after having her son once again tell his old lady to get lost, suppose this mother finally says, “Son, I deserve better than this from you! I deserve more gratitude than you’ve ever given to me–in fact, out of sheer respect you should try a lot harder to live a decent life.”
Now, would you conclude this woman was arrogant and vain, looking for praise out of a conceited desire to ratchet up her ego a few clicks? Hardly. It would be only fitting if such a son were to thank his mother.
Anything less would be rude.
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Author: Chelsey Harmon
Concerned about the divisions, the dissension from doctrine, and the deplorable way their inner congregational conflict looked to nonbelievers, Paul left Timothy in Ephesus to try to make things better in the church. Back in chapter 1 verse 3, Paul reminded Timothy what he charged Timothy to do when he left: “instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculation rather than divine training that is known by faith. But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.” In other words, Paul charged Timothy to correct the congregational members in a way that people experienced the actual transformation of the Holy Spirit because without such Spirit-filled correction, the changes would not last. The main goal wasn’t to get the toppled power structure upright again, but for the faith to be real.
This week’s lectionary section brings us to the first explicit instructions Paul gave to the young leader who had the seemingly impossible task of helping the church in Ephesus pull itself out from under the influence of the bad teachers and back on the Jesus way.
In Paul’s eyes, the very first step was prayer! What a novel idea! The first step to address the divisions, the dissension from truth, and the church’s relationship with the community, was, and is, to pray. And not just pray, but to intercede, to make supplications for, to give God thanks for… EVERYONE. Enemy… friend… foe… stranger… family… oppressor… ally… people in power… Paul… Timothy… the false teachers… the people being led astray by the false teachers… EVERYONE. Well thanks, Paul, no wiggle room there!
Paul urged Timothy and the church in Ephesus to make prayers of all kinds for all kinds of people because that reflected the desires of God for all people. Praying for people in more than one kind of way is a specific spiritual exercise that keeps the people we pray for humans. In other words, when we get into a rut of praying for people—especially when we are praying for people that fall more on the ‘enemy’ end of the spectrum—we can easily dehumanize them by making our prayers only about what we want to see changed. But when we can sit with the Holy Spirit long enough to be able to pray with thanks for our enemy (WHAT?!), or we can pray God’s blessing upon them by interceding for them (WHAT?!), or we can pray for them to have their needs met in specific ways by God, i.e. supplications (WHAT?!), we are reminded that they are more than the conflict and/or bad behaviour we want to see changed. Not surprisingly, praying all the kinds of prayers is the kind of prayer life that finds itself in the stream of prayers that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are continuously offering for God’s people. Such prayers have a way of reminding us that the people we’re praying for belong to the same human race as ourselves—we’re all human after all. And such prayers, when offered with sincerity (even if that sincerity is slow to arrive in our lives and we have to fight hard to keep it), are the marks of a “a pure heart, a good conscience and sincere faith.” (1 Tim 1.3)
By keeping people human we just might be able to find room for them in the grand vision of what God is up to. Paul made prayer first on his list of things to do because of the desires of God. Jesus, he wrote, “desires everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (verse 4). There’s that “all” (in the form of the word “everyone”) again! It’s as though Paul continually used “all” throughout this section on prayer because he wanted to make sure that the church in Ephesus understood how these dissensions were connected to something much bigger. In fact, their squabbles were connected to the spread of the gospel—and at the time of writing, it wasn’t a step forward, but a huge step back.
Looking back at the charge that Paul gave to Timothy, looking ahead at the contents of the letter, and looking around at the historical context—which isn’t so different from our own—it isn’t a stretch for us to assume that the divisions forming in the Ephesian church were also causing some elitism to take root. Elitism, a form of separating one group of people from another, doesn’t fit well in an “all” framework like the one Paul is painting here in the opening verses of chapter 2.
Do you notice how the “alls” finds their place under the “one”? As Paul explained, we’re part of the “all,” but “there is one God… one mediator… Christ Jesus, himself human,” as in, Jesus is both part of the all as well as maker of the all, and he “gave himself as a ransom for all.” We are the all, Jesus is the one who was merciful enough to connect the all to the one. Paul’s sound doctrine here is in direct opposition to what the false teachers were spreading. These truths about Christ are the lynchpin of the knowledge of the truth—not some myths and digging deep into genealogies. And if Jesus gave himself for all, it only makes sense that he desires to see everyone be saved—not to have some people excluded because of their ethnic heritage, or excluded by “believers” for any other reason/standard by which we humans like to measure and compare ourselves to one another. As it turns out, these truths are also a pretty good starting point when you’re teaching about God.
The two pieces connect. We pray for everyone in all kinds of ways to avoid sinning against them by making them less than ourselves; in essence, we pray for all because we are part of the all. And we pray for everyone because doing so is right and acceptable to the God who desires good—and the ultimate good of salvation—for everyone, going all the way back to the beginning of all things being made, carried through the Abrahamic covenant to be a blessing to the nations, solidified in the instructions to the Israelites to seek the good of the city where they were exiled, culminating in the incarnation of Christ, and commanded to faith communities as part of their witness to the good news of the gospel.
There was one group that Paul decided to single out as part of the “all”: “kings and all who are in high positions so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” (verse 2) Why? Well if everything we’ve thought through above is the way the Spirit intends us to understand Paul’s instructions on prayer, then the same goal applies: the witness of the gospel. If the infighting within the church had made its way outside into the public sphere, the church itself was in jeopardy, and if the church was in jeopardy, then the spread and witness of the gospel was in jeopardy.
The ability to lead quiet and peaceable lives that are characterized by godliness and dignity is the result of praying for everyone in all kinds of ways, including for people who could make surviving, let alone thriving, really difficult for a Christian community in the Roman empire. We make them human, too; not more than human as the emperor may have desired, there’s still only the one God, but a part of the all.
No one who has read Paul is surprised to hear him mention the Christian’s lifestyle. What is interesting in this case, though, are the words he chose to use. When Paul wrote of holiness, he did not use the religious word hagios, but a word that leans toward the external acts of holiness rather than internal purity. Likewise, Paul could have used diakonos (righteousness), but he used a Hellenistic term for godliness or respectability. Reading between the lines, Paul’s word choice means that Christians can live true to the gospel and way of Jesus, and be respected by nonbelievers in their city because of the way that they live.
The temptation is to focus on the other pair of descriptors, a quiet and peaceable life, as though they were separate from the second pair (godliness and dignity). More than a few modern uses of this text are used to excuse the “persecuted” Christian from caring what any one in society says about them, and as reasoning why we can withdraw from the public sphere. “The best way for me to live a godly life is with some peace and quiet, unstained by the world” sort of attitude. But Paul, in any of his letters, never promised that Christians get to separate themselves from the world, because the world is full of people who Jesus desires to have hear, see, and be surrounded by the good news! How does that work if Christians refuse to engage the public sphere?
Perhaps the quiet and peaceable life is outward expression of someone who has taken seriously Paul’s entreaty to offer supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for everyone. One usually prays in quiet, after all. And seeing other people as humans cultivates a peace among one another. As it turns out, one of the issues that comes up on the “need to address” list that Paul wrote for Timothy in this letter is gossip—and what is gossip if it’s not the opposite of a quiet, peaceable, prayer-filled life expressing love from a pure heart, good conscience, and sincere faith? Not that it needs mentioning, but gossip is also rather counter to a lifestyle known for its godliness and dignity.
Praying for Leaders
How does one pray for political leaders? Though the church has had Paul’s advice for a very long time, this particular topic popped up earlier this year when Franklin Graham declared June 2nd a special “Pray for the President” day and invited Christians, pastors, and congregations to join him in praying for President Trump. Anyone aware of the current political and religious landscape in the USA can make a very strong educated guess what sort of prayer Graham was looking for. Yet, many Christians do not see the current US president in the same way as Graham. Does that mean they shouldn’t or can’t pray? Do such differing viewpoints tarnish the witness of the gospel? Not necessarily, according to Paul. Here evangelical churches have some things to learn from other traditions, particularly the Anglicans / Episcopalians. All over social media after Graham’s call for June 2nd, mainline priests highlighted the fact that their denominations regularly pray for people in power because there are number of set prayers for them in the Book of Common Prayer. The prayer book is available online: https://www.bcponline.org/