What It’s About: Both of these texts are extended if…then statements. An if…then statement is one where the second part is only true if the first part is true. The Jeremiah and Deuteronomy passages are quite similar in that they both have God setting out conditions for the future. If you turn from your evil, in Jeremiah, and if you obey the commandments, in Deuteronomy, then good things will happen. In particular, the Jeremiah text emphasizes God’s sovereignty over the nations, including Israel, and God’s ability to determine the future of the people. This is of course a common idea in the Hebrew Bible; the Deuteronomistic perspective, in particular always held that people (and nations) got what was coming to them. Good things happening? Must’ve been good. Bad things going on? You know what you did.
What It’s Really About: The Jeremiah is one more in a line of vivid texts from that prophet that the lectionary has given us in recent weeks. I happen to be married to a potter, so this text resonates especially well with me. What Jeremiah says is true: potters routinely abandon old, failing projects and turn them into new things. In our basement, we have a huge plastic trash can of what we call “reclaim,” which is scraps of clay, and sometimes whole pieces, that have failed somewhere in the process of production, and wait to be mixed back together into usable clay. Jeremiah is applying this image to God’s people; God can choose what to do with the clay. Indeed, in Jeremiah, God-the-potter isn’t always an ally; verse 11 is a shot across the bow to Judah that God is as willing to destroy as to create.
What It’s Not About: The Deuteronomy text presents certain question about covenant. Is Israel’s covenant with God an absolute covenant, or is it subject to if…thens? This passage evokes the covenant (see the word “swore” in verse 20), but there is also a very real sense that it is all revocable if the people don’t uphold their end of the bargain. Theologically, I have always held that while humans violate covenants with God routinely, that God does not break covenants. If God breaks covenants, in what sense is God God? And if God breaks covenants, aren’t we all pretty much screwed? It’s a difficult problem, and despite my theological conviction on this point, Deuteronomy seems pretty clear that God can and will abandon the people if they don’t hold up their end of the bargain. But is it a permanent rupture? Or something temporary? I leave this one to the biblical theologians.
Maybe You Should Think About: The image of the potter in Jeremiah is a powerful one if you know anything about pottery. Potters never waste clay. Old, failed pots might get recycled into new ones, but potters would never just toss the clay. There is a thrifty economy at work in pottery, and that’s what seems to be happening in Jeremiah with regard to God and the world. At issue in Jeremiah is not abandonment, but reworking. Origen of Alexandria called this apokatastasis; this is the notion that things (for Origen, all creation) will be redeemed and reconciled to God in the end. That seems to me to be very much in line with what Jeremiah’s image of the potter is saying. Reworking isn’t always a punishment; sometimes it’s more than we could have hoped for.
What It’s About: I love Philemon. It’s such a delightful little letter. It’s the #1 case study for “why is this in the bible,” with its decidedly non-theological content and its short length, but it’s also fascinating as a window into Paul’s world and his position in the early church. It has also been used as a proof text for slavery through the years, since Paul might have argued for Onesimus’ release on moral grounds, but didn’t, thereby tacitly approving of the institution. It’s a reminder that Paul was a real person who lived in the real world, albeit one that was very different than the one we know.
What It’s Really About: Philemon is about favor-trading, pure and simple. Onesimus (whose name means “useful” in Greek; many slaves were named for personal qualities) had run away from his master Philemon for reasons that are never made clear. (Presumably it was because he didn’t want to be enslaved anymore). He either ran to Paul or ran into Paul, depending on who you ask. Scholars debate this; both involve variations of the amicus domini tradition. Amicus domini means “friend of the master” in Latin, and it was a system by which a fugitive slave could appeal to a friend of the master to mediate a dispute. My own sense is that Onesimus sought Paul out; the Roman Empire was a big place, and they were not likely to just bump into each other accidentally. This letter is Paul’s attempt to mediate the dispute. He lays it on pretty thick; “I’m just asking a favor here, I won’t even mention that you owe me your very life.” He is hoping that his status in the Christian community, and in Philemon’s life especially, would be enough for Philemon to relent and let Onesimus stay with Paul.
What It’s Not About: It’s very frustrating, to our 21st century eyes, that Paul did not take this opportunity to say “slavery is bad, that’s why you should let him go.” To us, that’s the beginning, middle, and the end of the argument. But in the ancient world, of course, slavery was normal. It was sometimes considered immoral and sometimes not; they had debates about it just like other slaveholding societies did. Paul didn’t play the social critic in this instance, but rather worked within the system to achieve the release of someone he knew. But the thing to recall about Paul is that he had a very immanent eschatology. Paul thought that Jesus’ return was coming very soon (see: 1 Thessalonians 4), and that people ought not spend too much time changing their station in life. If you’re married, stay married; if you’re single, stay single (unless you can’t help yourself). Slaves, stay slaves, because time is short and we have better things to focus on. Today, of course, that seems shortsighted. But at the time, Paul was preaching a very short clock, and there was no sense focusing on anything but that.
Maybe You Should Think About: Every time I teach Philemon, I assign my students two letters to write. One is the letter Philemon might have written back to Paul if he had said yes to Paul’s request, and one is the letter Philemon might have written if he had said no. It’s a useful activity for thinking through the mechanics of social convention and social power, and how the authority of someone like Paul might have worked in the real world. After they write the letters, they have to answer: which was more likely? Students are inevitably split on their answers. Intriguingly, there was a later Christian bishop in Ephesus named Onesimus, but scholars debate whether it could have been the one from this letter. If so, he would have been very old. But it’s possible that this story had a happy ending.
What It’s About: This is one of Jesus’ harsh anti-family sayings. These are some of the ones usually supposed by historical Jesus scholars to be likely to be authentic, since it’s not likely that later Christians would have invented such harsh, unpopular, anti-family sayings. But it might be more appropriate to think of this as a pro-devotion text rather than an anti-family one. At stake here is a “don’t start what you can’t finish” ethic; if you can’t abandon everything to follow Jesus, don’t start. Easy for a childless and unmarried preacher to say.
What It’s Really About: I’m not actually convinced that this is meant to be taken literally. I read it as a hyperbolic statement of perseverance. ‘This won’t be easy,” Jesus is saying, “so know what you’re saying yes to.” I can’t imagine that Jesus was advocating abandoning families, hating father and mother, etc. But that’s my own sensibilities creeping into things; we all twist things to fit our own way of seeing things, and it’s possible that Jesus really was advocating severing familial ties.
What It’s Not About: Just like Paul’s ethics, Jesus here isn’t seeing beyond a certain temporal horizon. This isn’t a teaching meant for a church that endures for millennia. This is a project–a tower, a war–that would be completed soon. Jesus seems to have had the same short clock that Paul had, expecting the eschaton at any moment. The question for us is how to interpret eschatological expectation like this, twenty centuries later.
Maybe You Should Think About: What is the “project” today? Jesus is describing discipleship as a short-term thing, not an enduring institutional thing. But we live in the midst of institutions, and with a much, much longer clock on the wall. How do we take a teaching like this and make it work for us?