Saturday, August 21, 2010

Proper 18 Year C

Proper 18 C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5.12-17; OR Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Walter Brueggemann lists prevailing metaphors for God in the Hebrew scriptures, including gardener, shepherd, mother, healer and, as in Jeremiah, potter.  He then describes the two major functions of "these metaphors of sustenance" which "include dimensions of Yahweh's powerful governance [and] Yahweh's insistence on order of a certain kind.  Where that order is not honored or enacted, Yahweh is fully prepared to abandon the object of sustenance [Israel].  The metaphors of sustenance turn out to have a dimension of demand, reflecting Yahweh's sovereign expectation."  "On the one hand, Israel's testimony employs metaphors that articulate Yahweh's judgment in the interest of reparations, rehabilitation, and beginning again."  "On the other hand, some images seem to bespeak an ending without a beginning." (Theology of the Old Testament, p. 277ff/279)

The psalmist acknowledges his creatureliness and the Lord's unique role as his creator who "shaped" him in the womb.  (Robert Alter writes that the word "shaped" used here in v.5 is closest to the action of a potter; The Book of Psalms, p.480)  The Lord, therefore, knows him better than he knows himself.  This is a staggering realization that overwhelms the psalmist.


(See also comments from the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, A.)  The farewell speech by Moses moves to its conclusion with the starkest choice for God's people: "life and prosperity" or "death and adversity."  Loving the Lord, walking in the designated way and the obeying the Lord's rules will result in blessing; if not, you will not survive in the land promised.  God calls "heaven and earth" as a witness of the choice God has given to God's people and the consequences of each alternative.  "Choose life...."

The psalm placed by ancient editors at the beginning of the psalter sets the tone for the entire collection: "the Lord embraces the way of the righteous/and the way of the wicked is lost."

Writing from prison, Paul advocates for the freedom of a slave, Onesimus, who has become a partner in ministry with him. Paul never makes the direct request nor asserts his authority.  Instead, he makes his appeal "on the basis of love...."  He hopes that the runaway slave's owner will welcome his slave back "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother... both in the flesh and in the Lord."  The basis of Paul's appeal is the new kind of relationships the church should engender, which are quite different than norms in society.

Luke has just completed a series of stories and sayings by Jesus (14:1-24) which emphasize the unconditional, open invitation for any and all as welcomed into God's reign.  So it makes sense that by now the crowds following Jesus have become very "large."  But now Luke's Jesus lays out some tough choices.  Following Jesus is a choice each individual makes, sometimes without family.  It can entail carrying "the cross...."  Luke provides two unique analogies.  What happens if you build a structure without estimating "the cost, to see whether you have enough to complete it?"  Or, what military leader wages war without first trying to determine whether he has adequate resources?  For Luke, everything characteristically comes down to this: "none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." 

The farewell address of Moses to God's people presents one choice between two, and only two, alternatives:  "Life and prosperity" or "death and adversity."  The responsory psalm (1) is just as absolute: one can chose to be found or "lost."  The stakes for a whole nation Jeremiah describes can be just as awesome: rehabilitate or oblivion.  Luke's Jesus is uncompromising:  "Whoever comes to me and does not hate (emphasis added) father and mother, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple."  And, the commitment he demands is total: "none of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

Paul Ricouer believes that hyperbole and paradox are essential to the intent of biblical narratives.   In various essays collected together in Figuring the Sacred, Ricoeur writes that the intent is to force the hearer/reader to become "dislocated in her or his life project." (p.59)  They are meant to cause a crisis, to upset, to shatter preconceptions and presumptions.  They are "destined to shake up ordinary thinking, as though it were necessary to bend a branch in another direction than the one it habitually takes."  (pp 121-122)  The intent is to make "the extraordinary break forth in the ordinary."  Ricoeur surmises that "there is no [biblical] parable that does not introduce... some implausible characteristic, something insolent, disproportionate; that is, something scandalous." (p.229)  But the intent is not complete at merely inciting shock and disorientation.  "All discourse," Ricoeur writes, "including political and ethical speech, is touched by this demand for 'something more' that is hinted at in the saying and extravagant life of the parable, in the paradox and hyperbole of the proverb, and in the announcement that the kingdom of God is present." (p.61)

It is not honest to water-down the stark, absolute choices and their dire consequence in biblical narratives, such as those appointed for this Sunday.  They are meant to jolt us out of our complacency.  The fact that a few human beings have actually come close to fulfilling them means they are not to be dismissed as utterly impossible to attempt; (the church calls such people saints).  But they are meant to dislodge you from whatever accommodations you have made with these choices and their consequences over the years and aspire to "'something more'...."  It is a willingness to allow the "potter" to reshape the flawed earthenware into something more beautiful and more useful