Engaging the Word: Readings for 9/4/16 (The 16th Sunday after Pentecost)

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By Barbara Klugh

Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33. Go to www.lectionarypage.net to read or print the weekly lectionary.

In this week’s readings, Jeremiah warns the house of Israel to turn away from their evil ways, Paul writes a personal letter regarding the return of a slave to his master, and Jesus defines the cost of discipleship.

Prophet Jeremiah by Giuseppe Benetti (1825-1914) at Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa, Italy. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Prophet Jeremiah by Giuseppe Benetti (1825-1914) at Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa, Italy. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jeremiah 18:1-11: This week’s reading is the parable of the potter and the clay. God sends Jeremiah to the potter’s house. Jeremiah observes the potter working at his wheel and sees the potter rework a spoiled vessel into a good one. Jeremiah gets it that this is how it is with God.

God speaks through Jeremiah: “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” Recalling Jeremiah’s original appointment as a prophet to the nations, Jeremiah proclaims God’s absolute dominion “to pluck up and break down,” or “to build and to plant.” God states his intention to bring disaster on the spoiled nation, but says He will change his mind if the nation repents. God tells Jeremiah to say to the people, “Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”

Of course, we know that is not the end of the story. God never gives up, never stops molding us, even though sometimes we have a breakdown in the process of Christian formation. God, in his mercy, keeps working with us, keeps pouring the living water onto our dry faith, and shapes and reshapes us again and again.

Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17: Psalm 139 is a prayer by an individual, which is unusual in the collection of psalms. The psalmist feels intimidated at first, then feels nurtured by God. He marvels that God is ever-present and knows him completely—his thoughts, his ways, and his body, even before he was born.

Epistle to Philemon page from Rochester Bible, c. 1130. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Epistle to Philemon: page from Rochester Bible, c. 1130. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Philemon 1-21: Philemon is the shortest book in the Bible, a carefully worded letter written by Paul while he was in prison. It’s about the return of Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave (maybe). Martin Luther labeled it as “holy flattery.” Although addressed to three people and the Christian community that meets at Philemon’s house, it’s really aimed at Philemon. It’s not clear how it happened, but Onesimus has been under Paul’s influence for a period of time and has become a Christian believer. Paul knows that Philemon has the legal right to put Onesimus to death, yet Paul appeals to Philemon not only to take back Onesimus, but to treat him as a beloved brother in Christ.

From Wikipedia: “Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his A History of Christianity, described the epistle as ‘a Christian foundation document in the justification of slavery.’ Due to its ambiguity, the letter was a cause of debate during the British and later American struggles over the abolition of slavery. Both sides cited Philemon for support.”

There’s enough uncertainty in this brief letter to keep scholars interested. Most scholars think that Paul wrote Philemon while he was imprisoned in Rome around 60 AD. But since the letter is not dated, Paul could have written it while he was imprisoned in Ephesus. In that case, the letter would have been written around 54-56 AD. In addition, the consensus is that Onesimus was a runaway slave, but nothing in the text is conclusive on this point. It could have been that Philemon sent Onesimus with a gift to Paul, and Paul asked him to stay. Or, one scholar (Allen Dwight Callahan in the Harvard Theological Review) suggests that Onesimus and Philemon are brothers both by blood and religion, but had a falling out, and the intent of this letter was to reconcile the two men.

I’ve been reflecting on Onesimus. Onesimus must have been aware of Philemon’s right to execute him. Yet, he trusted that Paul’s letter would shield him from harm. Or, maybe once Onesimus became a Christian under Paul’s tutelage, he himself believed that Philemon would treat him not according to Roman law, but with Christian love.

Jesus teaching. Window at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Charleston, SC. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jesus teaching. Window at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Charleston, SC. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Luke 14:25-33: As Jesus continues on the way to Jerusalem, he is drawing big crowds, and he wants them to know the cost of discipleship. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The commentaries I’ve read say that hyperbole, used to make a point, was common in the speech of the culture of the time. “Hate” in this context means to “love less.”

After 2,000 years, the words of Jesus still have the power to startle us. Jesus sounds harsh and even scary, but to me he’s being compassionate in telling the truth. It is hard to follow him, and it takes a total commitment. And if we make the commitment, we will be transformed into Christ’s image slowly but surely.

 

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