The Common Good
September/October 2010

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle C

by Walter Brueggemann | September/October 2010

September 2010: 'Come, Rejoice With Me'; October 2010: The Nature of Faith

September 2010

These lessons range over a rich field of faith, imagining with us and for us what a difference faith makes. The sequence of psalms pushes the emotional extremities of faith, in turn concerning instruction (Psalm 1); confession (Psalm 51); praise (Psalm 113); and assurance (Psalm 91). The height and depth of life are all brought before God.

The epistle readings are offers in "practical theology," insisting that trust in the gospel leads to a visible, daily difference in how life is lived. The gospel readings from Luke -- like the four Hebrew scripture lessons -- exhibit the ways in which the rule of God (in the life of Jesus) invites, warns, disrupts, and challenges.

When we pay attention, we are sure to be surprised by the presentation of God, who exposes us with our "possessions," who welcomes us back, and who plunges us into new thoughts and new actions about our resources. It is clear that gospel faith puts before us challenges and possibilities that would otherwise elude us completely. These challenges and possibilities do not admit of easy resolution. They do, nevertheless, give us more than enough to think and decide about.

Walter Brueggemann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

[ September 5 ]
Faith, Not Fate
Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Faith teaches us that we are not fated by the stars, not by hidden powers, not by economic forces. Rather, the life God gives us is a zone of freedom that we may exercise to choose our futures. The urgency of faith is to think seriously and long-term about choosing futures that God makes available.

Psalm 1 is a meditation upon "the two ways" of righteousness or wickedness, of prospering or perishing, of Torah obedience or rejection of God’s will for the world. The narrative of Jeremiah 18 echoes that same urgency. God does decide matters (Jeremiah 18:7, 9). But the choices made by "that nation" (biblical Israel) will cause God to reverse field. The imperative of verse 11 bids Israel to choose afresh, in sync with God the potter.

In the gospel, Jesus summons the crowds to make a decision: whether to follow him or not. As case studies, Jesus refers to two instances when decisions were made without adequate planning: a) a builder who cannot pay for the project, and b) a king who cannot recruit an army. The choice Jesus offers is the way of the cross -- discipleship. The practicality of "following" concerns "your possessions" (see Luke 14:33).

This sequence of texts moves from big decisions about God’s will for the world to the immediacy of economics. Clearly the big gospel choices about discipleship facing U.S. Christians concern the economy: the financing of wars, reliance upon oil, and our frantic pursuit of commodities. It is easy to judge that these choices are a "way of perishing." Discipleship is about contradicting such values in order that our society may "prosper."

The intimate letter of Philemon is a bid Paul makes to his friend "on the basis of love" (Philemon 1:9). The bid is to emancipate a slave, a choice about cheap labor. Obedience to Jesus is a long-term economic enterprise. Discipleship is not an occasional spectacular leap; it is a long-term passion for the alternative of Jesus.

[ September 12 ]
Joy in Heaven
Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-10;
1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

The news of the day is that disqualified people are welcomed by God. God's great joy is to welcome the wayward and the disobedient back into the company of the blessed. The psalm is the best-known confession of sin in the Bible. The speaker freely confesses sin and asks for God’s accepting forgiveness. The psalm purports to be David’s plea after the murder of Uriah and his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12). But the psalm has served many others who return to God.

In the narrative of Exodus 32, the movement is in the other direction. With the "Golden Calf," Israel has committed its quintessential affront against God by blatant idolatry. But after Moses' appeal to the earlier promises of God, "The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people" (verse 14). The psalm and the narrative portray two models of reconciliation, one by human repentance and one by divine generosity.

The gospel reading presents two parables by Jesus. Two images of recovery are utilized: a lost sheep recovered and a lost coin found. In both cases the recovery leads to the invitational imperative, "Rejoice with me" (Luke 15:6, 9). The presenting problem is that “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (verse 2). Jesus frontally violates social custom, with special reference to the rigid rules about eating. His transgression of social expectation evokes great hostility. These stories are about more than a shepherd or a woman. They are about "joy in heaven" (verse 7) and "joy in the presence of the angels of God" (verse 10). They are about the welcoming posture of God, who accepts those whom exclusionary society will not accept.

Finally, in the epistle, Paul offers himself as a case study in God’s mercy. His own experience attests to God’s love, which "overflowed" (1 Timothy 1:14) and exhibited God’s patience. Paul ends in doxology, the only appropriate response to God’s large generosity.

[ September 19 ]
Lead a Peaceable Life
Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1; Psalm 113;
1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

These readings offer varied witnesses to a God who is deeply engaged in the life of the world. The poetry in Jeremiah presents God in weeping grief over "my poor people" (Jeremiah 8:19, 21; 9:1). It is as though Israel has engaged in self-destruction, and God is deeply troubled by -- and helpless in the face of -- such self-destructive action.

Psalm 113 turns us away from God’s grief to exuberant praise of God. Verses 1-4 are an act of praise; verses 5-9 state the reasons for such praise. With reminiscences of the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and echoes in Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:51-53), the psalm celebrates God’s willingness to invert the world on behalf of poor people and barren women. God has the capacity to create new well-being in the world.

The urging of the epistle is that Christians in the empire should lead a peaceable life, and even pray for the king. The ground of such imperatives is the great doxology of verse 5. Here God provides a mediator to negotiate the trouble between God and the world. The epistle ties the deep claims of Jesus to a mandate for a particular life in the world.

These lessons attest to the God who grieves (Jeremiah), transforms (the psalm), and saves (the epistle). The parable of Luke is exceedingly difficult, as we cannot be sure of its meaning. It is possible to see the “master” in the parable as the trustworthy God who is the only source of well-being in the world. Before this master we need not cringe in fear, and we need not turn from God to trust in wealth or other resources of the self. The sum of the lesson is its pondering about how different life is because of the truth of the God of the gospel. It is no wonder that we hold to the truth of God, even in a world filled with doubt and vexation.

[ September 26 ]
Buying God’s Futures
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

There are two ways in the world: the way of trustful obedience or the way of self-reliant ambition. The epistle reading makes the case with urgency. "They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous" as a way to well-being (1 Timothy 6:18), while those who "want to be rich" (verse 9; see verse 17) are on their way to self-destruction. The focus is on money as a tool for self-securing, whereas the gospel is about being secure with the God who "richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment" (verse 17).

The parable maps out the crisis of self-serving wealth. The epistle speaks of those who "plunge people into ruin and destruction" (1 Timothy 6:9), and the rich man in the parable lives out the destiny of ruin. The either/or nature of the choice is clear: The deep threat concerns a society that is "hell-bent" on self-security through wealth and power.

The text from Jeremiah concerns the purchase of his family farm while the land is occupied by a foreign invader. Jeremiah relies on the deep promises of God that God’s intent for the future will outlast present devastation (Jeremiah 32:15). Thus the "other way" is to believe that the future is governed by God. It is a way that evokes concrete, risky action. Jeremiah quite literally "buys in" on a future yet to be given.

Psalm 91 is the serene attestation of one who has walked the walk, trusted God, and found God to be utterly reliable. Verses 1 to 6 testify to God’s reliable goodness; verses 14 to 16 are a first-person declaration by God of God’s resolve to rescue, honor, and satisfy.

The claim of this other way is indeed counterintuitive. It is the truth that the faithful have long found to be a life-producing reality. The parable, like the world, is filled with those of us who learn too late.

“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/ptw.

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October 2010

We are given an entire month to ponder the nature of faith, its depth, its radical summons, and its reach into every sphere of our life. It is clear that faith, in biblical perspective, cannot be understood generically. It has its form and substance only because of its Subject, the God of Israel who has come among us in Jesus of Nazareth. The sweep of faith runs from the deep rootage in the ancient promises and commandments of Sinai to the missional passion of Paul in the early church. The texts make unmistakably clear that the faith of the church constitutes an odd way in a world that is sometimes hostile to that faith and consequently requires steadfast intentionality in its daily enactment.

Here the listener is summoned to reliance on God and obedience to God. And because that reliance and obedience are deeply countercultural, there is repeatedly a summons to persistence and durability.

This set of gospel readings provides accent points for us. Jesus instructs his disciples in faith as duty (Luke 17:5-10), exhibits the power to transform (Luke 17:11-19), summons to persistence in prayer (Luke 18:1-8), urges reliance upon God’s righteousness and not our own (Luke 18:9-14), and evokes radical obedience in the world through restorative economic activity (Luke 19:1-10). This gospel sequence imagines a community with a different, liberated, joyous purpose in the world.

Walter Brueggemann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

[ October 3 ]
A Holy Calling
Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

The two readings from the Hebrew scriptures offer voices of faithful Jews who have lost their place in the world. The verses from Lamentations describe the loss in vivid, painful imagery. Psalm 137 resolves, even in displacement, to hold to the deep rootage of Jerusalem. These texts may be crucial now in the U.S. church, because ours is a season of loss, in church and in society, of “the way it used to be.”

The New Testament asks about faith as following Jesus. The epistle champions stubborn, resilient faith, modeled by a remembered mother and grandmother (Eunice and Lois). Paul asks for a “rekindling” in order to have a “spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” He reminds his readers of their “holy calling” sustained by “sound teaching.”

The disciples misunderstand faith in quantifiable terms: “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). Jesus changes the subject, casting the disciples like “worthless slaves” (Luke 17:9-10). Jesus chides his disciples for their lack of faith, smaller than a mustard seed; he transforms the issue of faith into the performance of duty.

“Faith” in these readings has many dimensions and nuances, and cannot be reduced to one thing. It is honest sadness, tenacious remembering, performance of duty, a holy calling, and holding fast to sound teaching. That “holy calling” is a sharp contrast to the self-indulgence and autonomy of dominant ideology among us today.

[ October 10 ]
Enacting the Extraordinary
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-12; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Jesus violates the holiness rules by healing a leper, and he does so by reaching outside his ethnic community to the rejected “other,” the Samaritans. He is an agent of the new rule of God, an instance of the “Kingdom of God ... among you” (Luke 17:21). The other readings, in lesser ways, attest to the tenacious, loyal durability that makes transformative life in the world possible.

First, the letter to the Jews in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:4-7) urges them to settle in where they are displaced and to pray for the shalom of Babylon.

Second, in the epistle Paul claims himself as one who suffered hardship for the sake of the gospel (2 Timothy 2:10). Paul moves from his own endurance for the gospel to summon the church to endure; his notion of good endurance is to be “a worker who has no need to be ashamed ... of the word of truth” (verse 15).

Third, Psalm 66 celebrates God’s awesome, transformative deeds (1-9) and identifies the ways in which God has subjected God’s people to suffering trouble (10-12). But verse 12 culminates in a powerful “yet.” Nevertheless, we are brought to well-being!

The exiles endure, Paul endures, and Israel in the psalm endures. Those who endure for an alternative life by trusting God come to joy and well-being. Such lives are filled with transformative power. The healing capacity of Jesus exhibits the power to violate the ordinary in order to enact the extraordinary ... among lepers ... among outsiders ... even those not filled with gratitude!

[ October 17 ]
Persistence, Pleading, Patience
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 119:97-104;
2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Ours is a “now” technological culture of instant gratification, with no waiting, no remembering, no lingering, no long-term loyalty or passion. Against that, these readings commonly urge persistence in matters of faith and life.

Psalm 119 affirms persistence in conduct. The Torah is for meditation “all day long” (verse 97). The commandment is “always with me” (verse 98). This speaker moves through the day with great intentionality, refusing to give in to an easier ethic.

The epistle urges persistence in the church: “Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” (2 Timothy 4:2). The accent is upon the teaching of “sound doctrine” that does not yield to “itching ears” (4:3). The church always itches to dissolve the claims of faith and to transpose gospel demands into easy assurances. In the face of that, the urge here is to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed” (3:14), and then to “carry out your ministry” (4:5). The aim is an obedient discipleship that is “equipped for every good work” (3:17).

Luke’s parable of Jesus teaches persistence with God. Jesus likens prayer to the pleading of a desperate, nagging widow. Prayer is nagging God until God grants a petition for mercy and justice. Jacob is presented as a model of persistence: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26).

Persistence in conduct, in church teaching, and in prayer marks the church as a dissenter in a world of quick fixes.

[ October 24 ]
A Good Life in God
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; Psalm 84:1-7;
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

The temptation in our culture is to imagine that we are autonomous and self-sufficient. Against that, these texts attest that a good life is a gift from God that is lived back to God. The gospel narrative was addressed to the “self-righteous” who arrogantly imagined their own virtue and strutted their success and wealth.

The other readings witness to a life fully dependent upon and responsive to the goodness of God. Jeremiah voices Israel in its desperation when it senses God’s absence (Jeremiah 14:8-9, 19-22). Twice the poetry comes to a vigorous reliance upon God. In verse 9, it is “yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us”; in verse 22, “Is it not you?” In the end Israel knows that it has no other source of comfort.

Psalm 84 voices an Israelite eager to come to the temple to commune with God. The speaker yearns for God (“longs, yea, faints”) and knows that being “happy” depends upon connection to God. In his valedictory address, Paul ponders his death. Unlike the self-righteous man in the parable, Paul knows that it is God who gives “the crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8). Paul trusts that God “will rescue me” in all times to come as “the Lord stood by me” in the past (verses 17-18).

Self-reliance has acute limitations. Reliance upon God is a bottomless assurance of the well-being we cannot generate for ourselves.

[ October 31 ]

If Zacchaeus Can Change ...
Isaiah 1:10-18; Psalm 119:137-144;
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

In a world of self-preoccupation, these readings focus on obedience to God’s commands as a way of life and as a source of life. Obedience is the practice of loyal love that keeps us freshly connected to the presence and purposes of God. In the epistle, Paul commends his readers for “every good resolve and work of faith” (2 Thessalonians 1:11). He imagines a church, under great pressure, unyielding in its steadfast adherence to the gospel.

Paul is a child of the Hebrew scriptures. In this oracle of Isaiah, the poetry first lambasts Israel for its waywardness and phony piety, and then issues a series of imperatives that urge Torah obedience concerning justice for widows and orphans. Psalm 119 celebrates that way of Torah and attests that it is “my delight” (verse 143). The psalmist trusts God in the face of adversity and will not yield on the commandments.

The accent on “good resolve and works of faith,” the cruciality of the Torah for well-being, and the trust in God’s commandments all converge in the gospel reading in which Zacchaeus, by a summons from Jesus, reverses his life and resolves to rectify his anti-neighborly conduct. His attraction to Jesus leads to a daring economic initiative on his part, the kind anticipated by Isaiah and so urgently required in our world. Obedience becomes the ground for a joyous life. Jesus keeps inviting us—as he invited Zacchaeus—to live “otherwise.”

“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/ptw.

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