Wednesday: Jeremiah 30:18-22; Psalm 118; Colossians 1:24-2:7; Luke 6:27-38
Jeremiah’s book of consolation, which the Lord told him to write, continues with an oracle of restoration. Now the Lord speaks directly to Jacob and tells him about the restoration of his people. God will have compassion on their tents and the city shall be rebuilt on its mount—Jerusalem—set on its rightful site. The sound of joy, merrymaking, and thanksgiving will come from them. God shall make them many, not few. They shall be honored rather than disdained. Their children shall gather in assemblies that the Lord will honor, while all who attempt to oppress them shall be punished. No longer will the prince of another people rule over them but their king shall come from among them. The Lord will draw the king near, and the king will respond and approach the Lord, fearlessly accepting the Lord’s invitation. The poem comes to its grand climax with these words: “You shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.” With these words the psalmist—possibly the king—calls the people to a hymn of praise that remembers the ways God has blessed and intervened on his behalf. The Lord has responded in the psalmist’s distress and so he confesses, “The Lord is with me, I will not fear; what can man do to me?” Consequently, he can look at his enemies with satisfaction; the Lord is among those who support him. Therefore, it is better to take refuge in the Lord than in men, in the Lord than in princes. The king now reflects that though the nations surrounded him to destroy him, in the name of the Lord he cut them off. He was pushed violently to the point of falling, but the Lord intervened. At this we have a psalm within a psalm—the king’s own words of praise directed to the Lord. “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become the source of my salvation. There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous.” In victorious joy he continues, “I shall not die, but I shall live to tell of the works of the Lord. He punished me severely, but did not give me over to death.” Herein, the early church heard the words of Christ speaking to them in and through the psalm, which is why it is appointed both for Palm Sunday and Easter Day liturgies. Finally, the psalmist prepares to go to the temple to pay his vows: “Open to me the gates of righteousness that I may enter through them and pay my vow. This is the gate of the Lord, only the righteous shall enter through it. The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone. This is marvelous in our eyes.” Again, phrase after phrase of this psalm has worked itself into the treasury of the Gospels and Christian prayer. “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The people shout, “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord (Hosanna!)” as Jesus rides into Jerusalem. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” All of this is the language of the worshipper in the temple, confessing loyalty and trust in God: “You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God and I will extol you.” The prayer concludes as it began: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”
In the Christ Hymn, Paul began to reveal one of the challenges facing the Colossians, and it seems to be a Gnostic form of Christianity. The Gnostics denied Christ’s incarnation—he only appeared to be human—and therefore, also his saving death. They viewed Christ only as a heavenly messenger of secret knowledge, which when attained assured their own spirits would return to the realm of the eternal, free from bodily constraint. It was a popular movement and one Paul continued to preach against throughout his ministry. Notice how often he makes use of physical imagery like blood and flesh and death when talking about Christ. And so Paul keeps vigilant in the struggle, even from prison, and views his imprisonment as somehow integral to Christ’s own suffering. He even makes the astonishing assertion that in his suffering, he is making up for what was lacking in Christ’s affliction, and doing so for the sake of the church. Paul is not suggesting that his sufferings are redemptive as Christ’s were. He has already made the point of the full sufficiency of Christ—all things were reconciled in him. Rather, Paul is talking about the travails and hardships he is enduring on behalf of Christ as Paul has been appointed by God to be the suffering apostle to the Gentiles. Remember, he is writing to a church he did not form and has not had a relationship with, and so this is as much missionary activity as pastoral concern. Paul simply sees himself as bearing these hardships as Christ did, and doing so on Christ’s behalf, as part of his charge to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles and to guard and build up the church that has emerged from that proclamation. Therefore, he is doing this for the church. He returns to the subject of “mystery”—a cardinal issue for Gnostics—and proclaims that though it was hidden throughout the ages, it has now been fully revealed to Christ’s saints. God has chosen to reveal among the Gentiles the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The gospel is about more than forgiveness and it is about more than secret knowledge that brings salvation. It is about the astonishing reality of Christ in us! This, not mysterious knowledge, is our hope. Paul now turns to his concerns for the neighboring church in Laodicea, as he wants to encourage them as well—clearly, this was intended to be a circular letter. Continuing with the theme of Christ in us, Paul expands it to remind us that hidden in Christ are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge—the things the Gnostic missionaries claimed essential, and that only they possessed. Paul wants to assure the churches to whom this is written, in order that they not be deceived and drawn away into a gnostic gospel. As they have received Christ Jesus the Lord, they are to continue to live their lives in him, just as they were taught, rooted in the faith and abounding in thanksgiving, for Christ lives in them.
Beyond the blessings and woes, Jesus’ sermon begins by defining behaviors that emerge from living within God’s reign—actions so radically different from that of the world that they still astonish us and leaving us asking, “But what if …?” Jesus is unconditional: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If struck on the cheek, off the other. If someone takes your coat, offer them your shirt as well. Give to all who beg, and if someone takes away your goods, do not ask for them back. So astonishing is this command that we almost miss his conclusion: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” It is the other side of forgiving others as we have been forgiven. He continues to draw a distinction between those who belong to him and “sinners.” Sinners love those who love them, do good to those who do good to them, and lend to those they know can return the loan with interest. What value is there in that kind of behavior? Life is about more than reciprocity, and the “tit for tat” that dominates the lives of sinners. Behavior that will change this world means loving our enemies, doing good and lending with no expectation of return from them. For this kind of behavior is grounded in God’s behavior toward all of us—yes, everyone, even the sinner. When we behave that way, we reveal that we are children of God who know that life amounts to imitating God in all of our relationships—with both our friends and our enemies.
Tuesday: Jeremiah 30:10-17; Psalm 116; Colossians 1:15-23; Luke 6:12-26
In this mixed oracle the Lord begins by assuring Jacob not to fear and Israel not to be dismayed, for the Lord is going to save them from afar, and their offspring from captivity. They shall return from the lands to which the Lord has dispersed them and they shall be at ease, but those lands shall be chastised in just measure. Suddenly the poem shifts, and the one addressed is a woman who, as in earlier oracles, is presented as an unfaithful wife whose wounds are incurable, and beyond the help of any medicine. All of her lovers have proved false and care nothing for her. In restitution for her numerous sins and great guilt,the Lord has dealt her a blow as though he were her enemy. Yet, those who devour her shall be devoured, and all of her foes shall go into captivity. The plunderer shall be plundered, and those who make her prey shall become prey. The Lord promises to restore her health and heal her wounds. Though Zion is an outcast, the Lord will heal her.
What shall we give to the Lord for all of God’s goodness to us? This psalm professes love for the Lord who hears our cries, who is gracious, righteous and compassionate, and who preserves the simple (the naïve), who keeps our stumbling feet on God’s path, preserving our lives. The psalmist had been surrounded by the snares of death; the pangs of dying were upon him as he suffered anguish and distress. As is often the case, the emotional side of his encounter with death was even more traumatic than the physical reality of it. In that anguish he called out to the Lord to save him and the Lord did. “What then,” he asks, “shall I offer to the Lord in return for all of God’s goodness?” What can one give to God for all God’s goodness? The psalmist will lift the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. He is promising to go to the temple to offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving in the midst of God’s people. The psalmist makes a final vow: “I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.” He seals this promise with a pledge. Lifting the cup of salvation, in much the way we would offer a “toast” to another in tribute, he simply says, “Hallelujah!”
The Christ Hymn from Colossians makes the gospel’s astonishing claim that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the one through whom all things were created and the one in whom “all things hold together.” Not only were all things created by him, but also for him. In other words, he is the Sovereign God in human flesh; in Calvin’s words, “God’s accommodation to us,” so that we could know who God is, what God is like and what it is God desires. Paul employs these words in his letter to the Colossians (scholarly consensus is that Paul did not write this himself, but appropriated a hymn or confession commonly used in the liturgy of the churches of Central Asia, to make his homiletical point) to challenge the worship of spiritual beings and astral bodies that seemed to have been creeping into the churches’ faith. Christ is not only the Sovereign Lord, he is also head of his church and the firstborn of the dead. All of this is so that he might come to have first place in all things—especially human lives. But Christ is not a remote ruler of the universe unconcerned with creation. Rather, in him, not only was all the fullness of God pleased to dwell, but through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to God’s-self all things thereby making peace through the blood of the cross. More was taking place on the cross than a demonstration of God’s love for the world. In the mystery of God’s ways, all things were being reconciled to God—notice that it is past tense; God has done it! Having quoted the hymn, Paul now makes the personal application with the Colossians. Though they were once “estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,” Christ has now reconciled them and the rest of creation in his human body through death, in order to present them holy, blameless and irreproachable before God provided—and here is Paul’s point—they continue securely established and steadfast in the faith. God in Christ has done his part. Our part is to respond in faith with lives of gratitude. In addressing an error in the church’s worship in Colossae, Paul has given us witness to the faith of the church enshrined in the hymnody of the mid-first century of the Christian era, a faith it would take another three hundred years to hammer out in an official creed of the church. What was ultimately confessed at Nicaea in 321 CE actually was being confessed by followers of Christ in 60 CE.
Until now, Jesus has gathered followers. We know the dramatic stories of Peter, James and John, of Levi’s conversion and so on, but now Jesus officially calls twelve to a particular role in his ministry. But before doing so, he withdraws to a mountain to pray. Luke makes the point that he spent the night in prayer, and only thereafter chose twelve who he names apostles. The name comes from the Greek verb apostello, which means “to be sent with a commission.” These have been commissioned by Jesus to a particular task. Their number is symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel, chosen in the context of prayer, to be those who will be the leaders of a restored community of God’s people. Yet, even in the midst of the twelve, chosen after significant thought and prayer, one of them will become a traitor—an ever-present witness to the ability of the power of evil to co-opt good intentions. Having chosen the twelve, Jesus comes down the mountain, stands in a level place, surrounded not only by the apostles but also other disciples and a great multitude from not only Judea, but also from the coastal Gentile areas of Tyre and Sidon. They have brought with them their sick, diseased and demented to be healed, and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. So strong was the healing power emanating from Jesus that all in the crowd were trying to touch him. In this context, Jesus begins to preach an extended sermon, in Luke known as “the Sermon on the Plain.” It is similar to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (chapters 5:1 – 7:28), but here, rather than beginning with ten beatitudes, Jesus begins with a series of blessings and woes. The blessings are addressed to his disciples who are poor, hungry, weeping, reviled, and excluded because of their relationship to him. The series of complementary woes are addressed to those who are rich, full, laughing, and highly regarded, very much unlike those to whom Luke is writing. This sermon is as much for Jesus’ disciples in the church where this was later read, as for those gathered there in the plain that day. Behind it lies the question: what does life look like lived under and in obedience to God’s reign?
Monday: Jeremiah 30:1-9; Psalm 115; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 6:1-11
In the midst of Jeremiah proclaiming God’s judgment against Judah and Jerusalem, God brings a different oracle to the prophet and tells him to write the words down in a book—words of God’s love for his people and their ultimate restoration. They lie at the center of the weeping prophet’s words and portray a time when the exiled communities shall be returned to the land promised to them long ago, so that they may take possession of it. The Lord speaks directly, revealing the panic, terror and lack of peace the people now experience. These words have been spoken before, especially about the people being like a woman in labor, racked by uncontrollable pain that cannot be stopped until new life is brought forth. But now, the object of that pain is not God’s people, but those who hold them in bondage. God will break the yoke on his people’s neck; burst the peoples’ bonds so that they are no longer held as servants of strangers. When that day takes place, God’s people shall serve the Lord their God, and David shall again be raised up for them as their king. Thus begins a hint of messianic expectation.
This psalm, probably written for use communally, reflects on the greatness of God as the Sovereign One in heaven who rules over the earth. The psalm calls on God to act on the worshippers’ behalf lest their enemies, the foreign nations, say, “Where is your God?” Where? In heaven, and he does whatever he pleases! The psalm then levels an attack on the idolatrous enemies who worship idols, things of silver and gold, made of human hands that have mouths but do not speak; eyes, but do not see; ears, but do not hear and so on. Those who make them are exactly like the sightless, deaf and speechless idols; so too are those who worship and place their trust in them. The psalm then calls on the people of Israel to trust in the Lord! The Lord is their help and shield. The exhortation is repeated, probably antiphonally, another two times, followed by a reminder that the Lord has been mindful of his people and will bless them all, great and small—all who fear the Lord. There is then a blessing, perhaps offered by the priest, praying that the Lord give them and their children increase. The heavens are the Lord’s, the earth has been given to humans, and the netherworld belongs to the dead. There, the dead do not praise the Lord. The psalm ends with the communal affirmation and promise to bless the Lord from this time on and forevermore and ends with “Hallelujah!”
Today we begin a continuous reading of the Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul is in prison, probably in Rome though possibly Ephesus, and writing to the churches in and around the city of Colossae. Though Paul did not know the Colossians personally, he knew enough about them to write in order to support and encourage them in their devotion to Christ. On the other hand, Paul is concerned with some questionable practices that are seeping into their worship—possibly angel or astral worship. The letter opens in standard epistolary style with Paul identifying himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” He is accompanied by Timothy. After greetings of “grace and peace from God our Father,” Paul reminds them of his prayers of thanksgiving for them, having heard of their faith in Christ and their love for all the saints. This is because of the hope laid up for them in heaven, hope they have heard in the word of truth—the gospel that has come to them. That word is bearing fruit throughout the world, just as it is bearing fruit among them. Paul mentions Epaphras, the founder of the church in Colossae, whom he calls his beloved fellow servant and faithful minister of Christ on their behalf. It is Epaphras who has made the Colossian’s faith and love known to Paul. It is for this reason that, from the day Paul first heard these words, he has not ceased to pray for them, asking that they be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that they may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as they bear fruit in every good work while they grow in the knowledge of God. He also prays that they may be strengthened in order to enable them to endure everything with patience, joyfully giving thanks to the Father who has enabled them to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. God has rescued all of them—Paul and Timothy included—from the power of darkness and transferred them into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom they have redemption—the forgiveness of sins.
Walking to the synagogue on the sabbath, Jesus and his followers make their way through a grain field, and on the way some of them take the heads of grain in hand, rub them to remove the chaff, and eat the grain. The Pharisees see this and quickly point out that this is a violation of the law which prohibits work on the sabbath. Jesus asks them if they have forgotten how David, when he and his men were at the point of starvation, entered the tabernacle where the table held the Bread of the Presence, given to the Lord and only later eaten by the priests, took it, ate it, and also gave some of it to his men. His historical point made, Jesus again ups the ante saying, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” That must have left the Pharisees’ heads spinning, wondering what he meant. On another sabbath, Jesus enters the synagogue to teach and there finds a man with a withered right hand—the one of the two acceptable for eating, greeting and other public activity. The Pharisees and their scribes have now taken up watch against Jesus and are waiting to see whether he will cure on the sabbath so that they may finally bring an accusation against him. Jesus, of course, knows precisely what they are thinking and asks the man with the withered hand to approach him. As the man does, Jesus turns to the Pharisees and scribes and asks, “Is it lawful to do good or do harm on the sabbath, to save life or destroy it?” Which is their piety producing? Looking around the room, Jesus tells the man to hold out his hand, and as he does, it is restored. We can be sure the man rejoiced, and others in the synagogue responded in amazement and wonder, as they always do in Luke’s gospel when Jesus heals. But, the Pharisees are filled with fury and begin discussing with one another what they might do to Jesus. Jesus, for his part, knows that in their so-called religious scrupulosity, the Pharisees and scribes continue to miss God’s redemptive and healing purposes in giving the sabbath in the first place.
Readings for the Fourth Week of Easter
Sunday: Genesis 18:22-33; Psalms 136; 1 Peter 5:1-11; Matthew 7:15-29
The three “men” who appeared to Abraham and Sarah to announce the coming of their child have moved on to Sodom. Abraham has traveled with them as his nephew Lot lives in Sodom. The men reveal the judgment God is bringing on Sodom because of the outcry that has come to him over the people’s behavior there. The men go on but Abraham stands before the Lord and asks if the Lord will sweep away the righteous with the wicked. Suppose there are fifty righteous people within the city—will they be swept away rather than forgive the city because of the fifty righteous within it? Is that just? The Lord responds that if he finds fifty righteous in the city, he will forgive the whole city—the Lord is not only a God of judgment but one of compassion. But that is not enough for Abraham who lowers the number to 45—will the Lord destroy the city because five are lacking, or perhaps even ten? No, the Lord will not destroy it if he finds 45, 40 or even 30 righteous within it. Abraham presses the Lord’s patience one more time—what if only ten among them are righteous? No, for the sake of ten, the Lord will not destroy. Abraham’s haggling with the Lord is over—it is clear that God can be gracious even in the face of great sin. The Lord goes his way and Abraham returns to his tent. Do not let it be missed that ten is the number of men the Talmud requires for a minyan—the basic community necessary to represent God’s people before him in various religious requirements such as corporate worship.
God’s goodness and steadfast love endures forever. This becomes the refrain in a litany of praise extoling God for both who God is and what God has done. The Lord is God of gods and Lord of lords, who alone does great wonders. God made the heavens and earth and all that is within them. God struck Egypt to bring Israel out from their enslavement, divided the Red Sea, made a path through it, overthrew and devoured Pharaoh in the sea, lead the people through the wilderness, struck down great kings and gave their land to Israel as a heritage. God remembered them, not only in prosperity, but also in their second bondage and again rescued them from their foes, probably a reference to the Babylonian exile. Citing the Lord as the source of sustenance to all people, the psalm ends with one more title for the Lord: the God of heaven (see Daniel 2:18, 19, 37, and 44) whose steadfast love endures forever.
The author of 1 Peter identifies himself as an elder in the church at Rome and writes to his fellow elders reminding them of their charge: tend the flock of God, exercise oversight, not under compulsion but willingly and not for sordid gain. Rather than “lord it over” those in their charge, they are to be examples, living in humble gratitude for their work. When the chief shepherd of souls appears—shepherd being another term for the elders of that day—he will award them a crown of gold. So too, the younger in the community must accept the elders’ authority. Further, everyone is to clothe themselves in humility, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Those who humble themselves under God’s mighty hand will be exalted in due time. So, they are to cast all their anxiety on him—he cares for them. They are to discipline themselves, keep alert and vigilant. The adversary, the devil, is prowling around seeking someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in faith, knowing that the brothers and sisters in the faith are undergoing the same strife. After they have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called them into his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish them. The exhortations end with a doxology blessing God’s power forever and ever. So be it!
Jesus brings his Sermon on the Mount to conclusion, warning about false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. They are not unlike the troublesome missionaries who disrupted many of the Gentile churches of Paul’s day. How can you tell the sheep from the wolves? By their fruits you will know them. One doesn’t gather grapes from thorns or thistles. Only good trees bear good fruit. Further, trees that fail to bear good fruit are ultimately cut down and used for firewood. You will know them by their fruits. For you see, not everyone who says to Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” will enter into his kingdoms—only those who do the will of his Father in heaven. On judgment day, many will come and say, “Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons and do many deeds of power in your name?” To them, Jesus will say, “Go away from me evildoer, I never knew you!” So, everyone who hears Jesus’ words and acts on them will be like the wise man who built his house on a rock. When the rains and floods came, the house stood. Those who hear his words and do not act on them are like the fool who builds his house on sand. When the rain and floods came, they washed it away, and its fall was great. Build your life on the rock-solid truth of Jesus’ words. His sermon has astounded those who heard it, for Jesus was teaching, not like the scribes—the official teachers of the law—but as one with authentic authority.
Saturday: Daniel 6:16-28; Psalms 23; 3 John 1-15; Luke 5:27-39
The king is trapped by his own decree and the scheming of his jealous subordinate governors. He must place Daniel in the lions’ den. As he does, he publicly issues a plea that Daniel’s God, whom Daniel has faithfully served, deliver him—the point of the book. Daniel is placed in the den, a stone is laid over its door, the king sealing it with his own signet as well as the signets of his governors. Nothing can be changed. Then the king goes to his palace and spends a sleepless night fasting. At daybreak, the king rises and quickly goes to the lions’ den to inquire about Daniel, who joyfully responds, “O king, live forever! My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O King, I have done nothing wrong.” King Darius rejoices, commands that Daniel be taken out of the den. Daniel is found to have experienced no harm in the night. Then the king gives the command that the scheming under-lords be thrown into the den, along with their wives and their children, just for good measure (remember, this is a story not history). In good story fashion, all are devoured by the lions before they reached the bottom of the pit. God has rewarded Daniel for his faithfulness under persecution. Daniel has refused the command that he worship someone other than the Lord. The author of the book has made his point again and again, writing to a people in exile or under religious persecution. The story ends with King Darius writing to all peoples, nations and every language through the whole world (remember Daniel 4:1, when King Nebuchadnezzar did the same thing!), not only wishing them abundant prosperity, but making a decree that all in his royal dominion “people should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel.” The book ends with a doxology lauding God’s universal power and the Lord’s protection of his faithful servant Daniel, reminding us that Daniel also prospered under the reign of Cyrus the Persian. We now leave the book of Daniel, as its second half is a series of four apocalyptic visions that will be visited on occasions later in the two-year cycle when the lessons are appropriate to the season and theme of the day.
The best known of all the psalms, and perhaps the most intimate in the entire Psalter, Psalm 23 portrays the Lord as a shepherd who cares for us as a shepherd cares for his sheep—the word for sheep is singular—this is not a flock!—and does so in such a way that the sheep has no wants. The Lord leads to verdant pasture and to still water. Sheep are infamously skittish, and the noise of running water is problematic. But still water is safe to drink. Now the image turns even more personal: he restores my “soul”—the word in Hebrew means: “inner being,” “self,” or “sense of being alive and strong.” He leads in right paths, for the sake of his own name. It is God being true to God’s own nature. Remember that shepherds in the ancient Middle East did not follow sheep, but walked out ahead of them, their voices the sign for the sheep to follow. The Lord leads us always in the right way by his word. All of this is an affirmation of the intimate care and concern each of us can expect from the Lord. Even in the darkest valleys and bleakest times of life, there is no need to fear because the Lord is there, present, ready to help. The crook and walking staff that are so crucial to the shepherd’s work give the psalmist security and comfort. God sets a table—providing all that is needed. Even in the presence of our enemies, we can be so assured and confident in God’s care that we have the leisure to eat at a well set table. The Lord not only feeds, he anoints our heads in blessing and fills our cups beyond the brim. “Goodness and mercy” are God’s gifts, and they will not simply be given to us, but actually pursue us all the days of our lives. “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long,” is both a vow and a confession, as the reference is twofold. First, it is a reference to the temple, where God was believed to live, but more, it is a vow expressing commitment to daily intimacy with God regardless of where one might be. The word the King James translated “forever,” means,“my whole life long,” as most footnotes now indicate. It is rendered in other translations: “through length of days,” or, “as long as I live.” But post Jesus’ resurrection and promises, “forever” is absolutely appropriate as well. Though this psalm is most often associated with funerals or memorial services, it is really an affirmation of God’s daily care. This is also the psalm that lies behind Jesus’ describing himself as the “Good Shepherd.” But he not only cares for his sheep, he actually lays down his life for them.
The third letter of John appears to have been written by the same elder who wrote Second John, and shares the same concerns for truth and walking in it. It is written to Gaius, who may well have been the elder overseeing the troubled congregation. After wishing Gaius well and praising him for walking in the truth, he remembers brothers and sisters, probably itinerate missionaries who have recently been with Gaius’ congregation, who have now moved on to John’s people and reported on Gaius and his hospitality. Receiving traveling missionaries was considered both an honor and responsibility in the church of the New Testament. However, it also presented problems when the missionaries’ message was divisive. Gaius is commended for his hospitality, something the visitors have testified to “before the church”—the first and only use of the word “church” in all of the letters or Gospel of John. The evangelist has previously written to the church (whether the second letter of John or not, we do not know); but a man named Diotrephes has not only failed to heed John’s word and authority, he has actually begun to spread false charges against John and his people. In addition, he has refused hospitality to visitors from John, and is preventing others from doing so as well, expelling from the church those who do not comply with his demand. Evidently Diotrephes was also an elder in that church—each house church had one. The letter is written not only to discredit Diotrephes as one who does not have the truth, but to encourage the church to continue to receive the brothers and sisters who are traveling missionaries. In addition, they are to receive Demetrius—evidently the person delivering the letter from John. For Demetrius has the truth itself. John has much more to say to Gaius about these and other things, but he prefers not to put them on paper with pen and ink, but instead, come to him and see him face to face. After extending a word of “peace,” John includes other friends from the church who, with John, also send their greetings. John then asks that the “friends there,” each be greeted by name. This letter was somewhat contested when it came time to decide what belonged in the canon of the New Testament, but by the 4th century it was considered the work of John the Apostle, and therefore included. Its value to us today is its witness that even in the church of the New Testament, there were disruptions, challenges to leadership, and struggles and differences among those vested with leadership in the church. How do you know who is true? Do they foster love or division?
Jesus moves on from healing the lame man and comes upon a tax collector named Levi, sitting at his tax booth, and calls Levi to follow him. Tax collectors were among the most despised within the Jewish community because they were not only collaborators with Rome, but also infamous for their abuse of their privilege. Having already paid Rome the amount of the tax for the right to collect it, everything the tax collector demanded in tax from the Jews went straight into the collector’s pocket, creating a situation ripe and infamous for abuse. That Jesus should call Levi to follow him was scandalous enough. Levi, in turn, leaves everything immediately—gives up his lucrative business—and follows Jesus. Thereupon Levi gives a great banquet in his home and invites all of his friends—fellow tax collectors, for they had few if any other friends! Jesus and his disciples are enjoying Levi’s hospitably when the Pharisees and their scribes come upon them and complain to Jesus disciples, asking why they are eating and drinking with tax collectors, who the Pharisees have now labeled “sinners.” Jesus overhears them and responds that, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” He has come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance. One would expect the Pharisees to be overjoyed by this news, but rather, they continue to press Jesus for behaving differently from them. They ask Jesus why it is that though they and John’s disciples frequently fast and pray (twice weekly for the Pharisees), Jesus’ disciples do not fast but eat and drink? Jesus simply responds that it is not possible to constrain the friends of the bridegroom while he is in their midst. There will come a suitable time for them to fast. But for now, he is among them as the bridegroom, a clear messianic image. But having said that, Jesus now turns to the subject of the forms of piety the Pharisees are trying to impose upon the people, and tells his well-known parable about sewing a new patch of cloth on an old garment and new wine into old wineskins. In Luke, this saying has a unique twist: the new the Pharisees are importing into Israel’s ancient religion is tearing the fabric of the old, whether garments or wineskins, and is destructive, for the old—Torah—is good. It is not only good enough, it is better, as anyone who has ever compared old and new wine well knows. The things the Pharisees are importing into people’s day to day religious lives are actually destructive to the ways of God that Jesus has come to announce.
Author: The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Created: June 21, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, offers thoughts on today’s lectionary readings.