Lectionary, Prop 25: The Witness of Mercy

Proper 25, for 10/24/2010
Our sins are bigger than we are, but God is bigger than our sins. When we deny our own weakness, we withhold the credit due to God for God’s mercy in accommodating that weakness. That’s the common ground of passages in the lectionary for Proper 25.

Joel 2:23-32

The threshing-floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.

If ever there was a passage for the recession, this is it. The early and latter rain has been poured down, as before, and the threshing floors shall be full of grain. The hardship came from the hand of God, according to this passage, and so does the restoration. Hang in there, Joel seems to say, God’s restoration is coming!

Then afterwards
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Why does the prophet emphasize male and female, young and old, slave and free? He wants to make sure that no class or gender tries to claim exclusive right to the revelation about to be revealed. Doing so is a revelation in itself — that God will strike this patriarchal, stratified society with revelation unbounded by presumed privilege. It is a gifted revelation, distributed by God as God sees fit. It is a lesson some quarters of Christendom have yet to learn.

Psalm 65

When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.

Some translations say, “Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out.” It is a concept so common in scripture and human experience that it is immortalized in the 12 steps of AA: “We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors.” Over and over, scripture points out that not only are we more capable when we rely on God, but our very inability to overcome on our own brings glory God. Our weakness, and God’s tendency to compensate for it (a.k.a, “mercy”) will bring us to God when all else fails. It is, in effect, a mechanism through which God keeps us in touch.

You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.

The parallels here to the Joel verses may in fact be the connection that brings both sections into the same Proper. We should all marvel and thank God for the earth’s ability to produce food and its relatively hospitable environment. We are no more self-made people than residents of a manmade planet. God’s on testimony makes this God — the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus — “the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.”

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

At first glance, this would seem to be the obligatory epistle passage, with little connection to the other passages. Whether or not Paul himself actually wrote this epistle, it is certainly the intent of the writer to represent Paul’s farewell to Timothy.

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Paul has won the race not through accomplishment, but by keeping the faith. I tried, he said, and that’s enough because Christ’s prize is to be given to “all who have longed for his appearing.”

After a summary list of persons who have been supportive and those who have not, Paul shares the assessment of the prophet and the psalmist, that God steps in where human effort fails:

At my first defence no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom.

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Jesus spent much of his recorded ministry pointing to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Yes, they were pious in many wonderful ways — by human standards — but no one is justified through boasting to or about God. It is surely a prime example of taking the LORD’s name in vain. It points to the “faith not works” theology that Paul would later embrace, and it’s a good fit. Jesus gives a pious man pious words, and fits humility to one already humbled by society — then declares the latter to be justified where the former is not. We may long for some perfect fit of pious deeds and humility, but Jesus makes it clear that the path of righteousness is humble reliance on God’s mercy.

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