Songs, Dreams, and Heroes: The Lectionary for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost

Songs, Dreams, and Heroes: The Lectionary for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost August 8, 2016
Saints and martyrs, painted by Fra Angelico, ca. 1423. Image in the public domain, taken from Wikipedia.
Saints and martyrs, painted by Fra Angelico, ca. 1423. Image in the public domain, taken from Wikipedia.

Isaiah 5:1-7 and/or Jeremiah 23:23-29

What It’s About: Both of these passages are unusual in their own ways. Neither fits very easily into the normal prophetic categories. But both are quite beautiful.

The Isaiah passage is a strange interruption into the narrative of the book; it is a poem or a song, sung by the prophet. It seems to be sung on behalf of another (“my beloved”), who might be a friend.The song is about a vineyard, which is carefully tended, but which yields only wild grapes. The owner, therefore, breaks down all the signs of cultivation (hedges, walls, pruning), and lets it devolve back into nature. This vineyard stands for Judah, who God has loved and cultivated, but which has strayed from what is right, and which will therefore be abandoned.

The Jeremiah passage is unique for its signs of an intra-prophet feud and Jeremiah’s (and therefore God’s) polemic against opposing prophets. This reveals something important about prophecy: that it was an institutionalized and sometimes competitive business, with more than one perspective represented. But it also reveals that there were competing visions for Judah and for God’s people.

What It’s Really About: In both cases, these prophets are trying to account for calamity. Why has God given over the people to peril, and what does God plan to do about it, if anything? In Jeremiah this is explicit; verse 23 poses that old theological question of immanence and transcendence. In Isaiah the question is more poetic and less specific, but the answer is even more clear: God is like a vineyard tender (so pretty immanent) who gives up when the work doesn’t take hold. These are prophets trying to make sense of oncoming disaster, and trying to reckon with the question of why, if God is the God of Judah, disaster is oncoming at all.

What It’s Not About: There is word play in the Isaiah that isn’t evident in English. Verse 7 contains two puns. The words translated “justice” and “bloodshed” sound very similar in Hebrew, and the words translated “righteousness” and “cry” do as well. So the prophet is creating and playing on expectations, and creating a memorable and pithy saying that hearers could keep in their heads. This is impossible to render into English, but knowing that it’s there enriches the reading.

Maybe You Should Think About: “Dream” is almost always a positive category for us today. We’re supposed to follow our dreams, we respond to soaring speeches about dreams, and dreaming stands in for hopefulness about the future. But here in Jeremiah, dreams seem to be a shorthand for something less good. Maybe Jeremiah’s opponents talked about dreams? Jeremiah certainly views them in harsh light, comparing them to the things that made the people previously forget God and chase after Baal. Are dreams always good?

 

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

What It’s About: The Hebrews text picks up from last week’s Hebrews text, continuing a litany of heroes of the faith. Throughout chapter 11, these figures–among the greatest in Jewish history–are introduced by the words “by faith,” creating a drumbeat cadence of faithfulness that is difficult to escape. In this sections of Hebrews, the narrative shifts to a more general reflection on these heroes, and the difficulties they endured and overcame. The result is a very powerful exhortation by the author, very well suited to encouraging people who were under pressure or enduring persecution.

What It’s Really About: Most scholars agree that Hebrews is a homily, not a letter, and that it was likely delivered in Rome in the late first century. This is by no means unanimous, but this section would seem to lend credence to that idea. It is not difficult to imagine these words being delivered in Rome, where some of the earliest persecution occurred under Nero, and where a large Jewish population would have made all the references to the heroes from the Hebrew Bible make a lot of sense. The preacher is speaking to her/his audience, giving examples that will land as powerful reminders to the congregation. This is a sermon that depends on exegesis of the Hebrew Bible to undergird a Christian ethic of perseverance through trouble.

What It’s Not About: Despite the focus on individual faithful persons, the passage largely eschews individualism for a group ethos of strength. Notice how the part of the text that starts in chapter 12, with the famous “great cloud of witnesses” line, points to a communal understanding of faith and even salvation. It’s all “we,” “us,” and “our,” pointing to an understanding of members of the congregation being in the struggle together with each other and with all those who had come before them in faith. This is a long way from the individually-conceived, Jesus-lives-in-my-heart way of talking about salvation that dominates contemporary American Christianity.

Maybe You Should Think About: This passage makes clear how powerful it is to name heroes and ancestors, and to claim their example as inspiration. Who would we add to this list today? Which persons have lived “by faith,” and which people have inspired us to endurance, perseverance, and strength?

 

Luke 12:49-56

What It’s About: This is a very strange, difficult, and frankly frightening text. Here, Jesus is predicting–and really, actively courting–turbulent and scary times. Many Christians (me included) like to think of Jesus as a peace-loving hippie, going around preaching love. But there are moments in the gospels that confound that view, and make it much more difficult to think of Jesus in such a one-dimensional way. The Jesus we meet in these verses is on the lookout for trouble, seeing the world as a place likely to devolve into conflict.

What It’s Really About: Was Jesus excited about the chaos described in these verses, or just being realistic about the world? His example of the clouds suggests that he was simply reading the signs. Jesus lived in an exceptionally volatile time and place; Judea in the 1st century was a tinderbox of tensions and aggressions. Several decades after Jesus’ death, Judea revolted against Rome, leading to the Jewish war and the utter destruction of Jerusalem, the surrounding countryside, and much of the people. In the second century, it happened again. This wouldn’t have been lost on Christians of the second and third generations, who would have read and heard these texts with the knowledge that the Jerusalem temple lay in ruins and that the kind of chaos Jesus described had actually come to pass.

What It’s Not About: Obviously this text wasn’t written with the 2016 presidential election in mind, but my goodness is it relevant. I don’t know about your Facebook feed, but mine is full of division and strife. And Jesus, in this passage, seems to be saying that division and strife is not always bad…it can sometimes point to real differences of opinion, in which not everyone is equally correct. Jesus welcomes division here because he expects people to stand up when they feel conviction. I wonder what he would have made of political debates on Facebook.

Maybe You Should Think About: Verses 54-56 remind me of that line from the Bob Dylan song: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Jesus isn’t dealing in some mysterious revelation here; he’s saying: you can see what I see just as well as I can. Why do you pretend that you don’t see it?”

 

 

 

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