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Bible Study: Proper 21 (C) – 2013

September 30, 2013

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

The Hebrew prophets were renowned not just for prophetic words, but also for prophetic actions. Ezekiel lay on his side for a whole year. Hosea married a prostitute and gave her children insulting names. As for Jeremiah, well, he buys his cousin’s field. We hear every detail of this seemingly ordinary financial transaction, and we may find ourselves yawning.

But Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians, and it has become clear to everyone that the kingdom soon will be overrun. Does Jeremiah have no understanding of basic economics? To spend money now on a long-term investment is foolhardy – far worse, even, than signing off on an adjustable-rate mortgage!

Yet the prophet gives a proclamation from the Lord’s mouth: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” This is Jeremiah’s prophecy, but it’s not just words. The prophet demonstrates his faith: He’s “all in,” as they say.

Did Jeremiah change some hearts with his action? Perhaps some said, “Oh, that crazy Jeremiah. He’s always making a fool of himself.” But others may have said, “Whoa, that Jeremiah is really close to God. If he believes that this imminent invasion isn’t the end of the world, maybe there’s something to it.”

Hope is catching, and the prophets of Israel, in spite of their inflammatory rhetoric, were always messengers of hope. Even when they outlined in detail God’s unavoidable punishments on the people, they always came back to a long-term future in which Israel would once again become God’s favored people.

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

At first reading, this psalm seems to say that God protects us from violence and disease. Is this true? Many people have experienced a narrow brush with danger or death and attribute their protection to God’s action. But what about people who are not protected? Does Psalm 91 not apply to people in plane crashes, or innocent people shot in hazardous neighborhoods, or people who die of cancer? This seeming incongruity is enough to make some people throw up their hands and give up on God altogether. Clearly God doesn’t protect everyone, and God doesn’t even succeed in protecting the innocent much of the time. So what good is a psalm like this?

Yet here we all are, living in a world that is so often uncertain and dangerous. These words can be used in superstitious ways, but they are not mere folly. Many people who suffer incredible hardships come through them feeling that God has walked with them, and they do not demand an explanation as to why the hardship occurred. Tragedy happens with alarming frequency, but so do opportunities for compassion and love in the face of horror. Is God testing us? I don’t want to think so. But are we tested anyway? Undoubtedly. And perhaps God’s protection is more spiritual than physical: No matter what happens to us in life, ultimately, we are under God’s eternal care and protection.

1 Timothy 6:6-19

This passage isn’t about having; it’s about the ability to let go. It’s about priorities. When you have money, what will you do with it?

I’m reminded of a craft I was taught as a kid at camp, about how to make a “warm fuzzy,” a little puffy ball of yarn strung together a certain way. Along with the craft came a story about “warm fuzzies” and “cold pricklies.” If you try to hoard warm fuzzies, they will turn into cold pricklies. You can’t keep them; you must give them away. This is what it means to be “rich in good works.” This is how we “take hold of the life that really is life,” as opposed to the life that really is a living death.

To what are you clinging tightly? Money isn’t the only offender. In his series of books on the parables, Robert Farrar Capon wrote that God constantly showers us with gifts, and we are to enjoy those gifts while they are here. All gifts pass away. If we cling to them tightly, we may succeed in hanging on to them for a while. But if we do, our clenched fist will not be open to receive the next gift that comes along.

Luke 16:19-31

In this gripping story, Jesus gave us much of the imagery we still attribute to the afterlife: a heaven above, a burning fire of hell beneath, and a giant chasm between them. Doubtless Dante drew on these images and expanded on them when he created “The Inferno” and “The Divine Comedy.” I always try to remember that this is a parable, not a description of a metaphysical reality. Jesus seems to be illustrating a continuity between our lives now and our lives on the other side of death.

Sometimes it takes personal misfortune to awaken us to our selfishness and to spark our compassion. From Hades, the rich man begins to worry about the fate of his brothers, but it is too late.

Many of Jesus’ later parables urge us not to wait to change our lives. We don’t like to imagine a time, on either side of the grave, after which it will be too late to change. But at what point will change just become too difficult for us to bear? Must it take death to spark change in our lives? And is this moment, right now, too soon to begin really living?

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Christopher Sikkema


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