Bible Study: 15 Pentecost, Proper 17 (C)

September 1, 2013

Chelsea Page-Collonge, Episcopal Divinity School

“But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” (Luke 14:10)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Jeremiah 2:4-13

This oracle of the prophet Jeremiah, popularized during the Babylonian exile, is situated about 40 years before the king of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and sent the prominent citizens of Judah into exile in Babylon.

Jeremiah was portrayed as supporting religious reforms initiated by the holy Judean king Josiah against idolatry. The Hebrew Scriptures frequently conceptualize idolatry as the precursor and reason for political misfortune and suffering; thus Jeremiah is pessimistic about the future of his people in this passage (“I accuse your children’s children,” v. 9). He portrays their transgressions (v. 8) as worse than those of other nations, because nations with false gods at least stay faithful to those gods (v. 10-11), and because those nations have never known a true God.

What is “shocking” and “appalling” (v. 12) is the exchange of a truly good heritage (v. 7) and glory (v. 11) for things that are worthless (v. 5) and do not profit (v. 8, 11). Jeremiah hints that this happens when times are hard and the people blame God (“What wrong did your ancestors find in me?” v. 5), and when God does not seem present and the people neglect to look hard for God’s presence (“Where is the Lord?” v. 6, 8).

When people lose trust in the wild, fluid, ephemeral, living water (v. 13) that is the fountain of God’s presence, they are tempted to reject what is received, transitory and undomesticated in favor of something they can create and control “for themselves” (v. 13). Yet what they build and pursue “far from God” (v. 5) also proves transitory and, furthermore, ineffectual and empty, like a “cracked cistern” (v. 13).

What blessings of God have you and your community rejected, and why?

What have you sought to replace those blessings with, and how well is that working?

Psalm 81:1, 10-16

The psalmist presents a divine being who longs, sighs and exclaims with passionate desire for relationship with God’s people. This relationship is characterized by hearing, listening and walking together (v. 11, 13). God is also represented as one who longs to feed, nurture and nourish (v. 10, 16); God’s people have only to “open their mouths wide” (v. 10) and receive in order to be satisfied (v. 16).

In a situation of oppression, to “nurture” God’s oppressed people also requires rescuing and defending the vulnerable from those who oppress them (v. 14). Yet we have to wonder if the divine being is really so eager to punish and intimidate God’s people’s enemies, as if the enemies of God’s people are actually the enemies of God (v. 15). If God rescues a people who are disobedient and stubborn (v. 11-12), God is likely to forgive those who oppress and rescue them from their oppressive ways. To “open wide” is to trust, and rather than cringing in fear and being resigned to eternal punishment (v. 15), we would do better to emulate God’s example of passionate longing for restored relationship, by singing with joy and raising a loud shout (v. 1) as the psalmist urges.

When has the stubbornness of your heart led you away from God’s ways? When has the stubbornness of your heart melted and restored you to relationship with God?

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Hebrews, not actually a letter by St. Paul, but more likely an early Christian sermon, is an extended theological reflection on the nature of Christ, which ends with some exhortations for Christian living.

As Christ is conceptualized to be a holy priest and a holy sacrifice, pleasing to God, Christians are called to a holy “way of life” (v. 7) that is the outcome of faith (“confession” v. 15) and that, in turn, creates certain outcomes (v. 7) or fruits (v. 15).

These fruits of mutual love (v. 13), doing good and sharing (v. 16) are named as “sacrifices” that are pleasing to God (v. 16). Addressed to a Hebrew audience, the message of this sermon is in line with the Hebrew Scriptures, which emphasize right relationship alongside right worship.

While the theology of Christ being a sacrifice on the cross has been problematic, the cross can be understood as a priestly symbol that connects the vertical (divine-human) dimension of relationship with the horizontal (human-human) dimension of relationship.

As followers of Christ, we are all called to stand in this priestly function, directing our witness, praise and way of life toward the belief that what we do in love for our fellow prisoners, leaders, victims, partners and strangers, is of central importance to God. With God and each other, we can be “content with what we have” (v. 5) and confident in our belonging to the holy, needing neither political nor economic power to be secure.

How is the love of God reflected in your actions toward others? If someone looked at your life and not your words, could they see what you truly love and value?

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Why were the people watching Jesus so closely? Were they looking to see if he would break a rule relating to Sabbath observance? (In the section of this story that is omitted, Jesus does indeed heal a person during this Sabbath dinner party.)

Were they looking to see what place at the table he would claim for himself? Would the place he chose be the highest place, consistent with his grand claims of being blasphemously close to God, or the lowest place, consistent with his disturbing message of an upside-down kingdom where the last shall be first? Either way, people were ready to be provoked.

Jesus redirects this occasion of someone else’s esteemed social event toward his own purposes, using it as a living metaphor to challenge his fellow guests to take a different attitude toward social status. He also hints that the true host and judge is God, who is coming (v. 10).  Jesus’ host at this dinner party is described as a leader, a person of prominence. How do you think he felt when his celebrity guest, Jesus, took the role of host to himself and began managing and judging the other guests? Do you think he regretted inviting Jesus?

Jesus reacts to this tension by challenging his host to reevaluate the criteria he has used to invite people to his dinner parties. The story suggests he has invited only people of social status, the kind of people who feel confident enough to seek the places of honor, and celebrities like Jesus, who might be able to repay him in fame and fortune, or at least being a part of the action.

What would happen if the host gave up all social calculations and became the kind of host that God is, a host who seeks out the humble and the last? Jesus indicates that this kind of host will be an invited and welcome guest in the wedding banquet of heaven, the kingdom of God.

How do calculations of social status impact your participation in the kingdom of God?

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