Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (8 September 2013)



  • Jeremiah 18:1-11 & Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
  • Philemon 1-21
  • Luke 14:25-33

First reading: The potter and the clay

The reading from Jeremiah 18 continues the lectionary selections from this influential OT book, and serves up a vivid metaphor of humanity as clay in the hands of a potter/god:

So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. (Jer 18:3–6 NRSV)

In the ancient world pottery was as common as plastic containers in our own kitchen cupboards, or used envelopes next to the phone prior to the email revolution. In one respect, Jeremiah is engaging in a very routine action as he visits the potter. To hear the “word of the LORD” requires him to pay attention to the everyday and the routine. “Those with eyes …,” Jesus might observe?

On the other hand, the significance of the ordinary and everyday become quite non-routine and unconventional, when Jeremiah hears what the “word of the LORD” is for him at the potter’s shop:

At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. (Jer 18:7–11 NRSV)

This passage represents a significant shift in ancient ideas about the covenant relationship between a community and its god(s).

Here we find Jeremiah disclosing the “fine print” of the covenant. Rather than being an unconditional deal that locks Israel into exclusive worship of Yahweh in return for perpetual preferential treatment over other nations, the covenant compassion of Yahweh is as likely to result in the heathens being forgiven and the chosen ones being punished. These are grounds, indeed, for the prophet to appeal to the “people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem” to review their own conduct. Being chosen is no longer sufficient for exclusive “most favored nation” status. Instead, it all turns on whether the nation chooses evil or turns from evil.

This idea was to find a distinctive expression in the story of Jonah. In that story – and to the serious discomfort of the prophet – the people of Nineveh turn from evil and are spared by Yahweh. It is a strange tale to include in the Jewish and Christian Bibles, but it is there precisely because it is such a prophetic text.

Second reading: Philemon

Paul’s letter to Philemon is one of the shortest texts in the New Testament, yet even so the lectionary is not able to assign the complete work for reading in church this week. Surely it is a good thing to read entire books when the opportunity to do so arises, and to discover afresh their character as occasional correspondence. Rather than carefully composed timeless documents, these are everyday acts of communication about real life issues in the lives of ordinary people. Like the potters shop, early Christian letters are routine and conventional aspects of daily life. Yet these letters can deliver a radical re-reading of life, and that is exactly what we see happening in this brief personal note from Paul to a wealthy Christian named, Philemon.

In this scrap of a letter, Paul invites Philemon into a new and more generous space as a disciple of Jesus.

The conventional response to a runaway slave, as Onesimus seems to have been, was to punish the offender in any way that master chose. Paul seeks not just the reinstatement of Onesimus without punishment, but his recognition by Philemon as a fellow-believer and a brother in Christ.

Paul had no canon law or ecclesiastical constitutions on his side as he overturned the unbroken tradition of many thousands of years in Mediterranean communities. He simply appealed for Philemon to recognise the new status that all three of them shared, and to “do the right thing.” Most likely Paul had no idea how this would all work out, or what a revolution in the human spirit he was starting. It certainly took his readers many hundreds of years to work out the fine print of this part of the new covenant traditions, and in some respects we still do not get it.

Scriptures are like that. They seem to affirm the tradition, but they also subvert, challenge and reform the tradition. It can be controversial, and often is. But then it was in Paul’s day as well.

Gospel: The Cost of Discipleship

This week’s Gospel comprises materials known from various “locations” within the early Jesus tradition. We have some items that are unique to Luke, others that seem to come from the Common Sayings Tradition found in the Sayings Gospel Q and Thomas, as well as another that has even wider attestation.

This set of material dealing with the cost of discipleship fits well within the larger unit (Luke 9:51-19:28) in which Luke uses the motif of Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem as both the symbol and the occasion for an exploration of what it means to be a disciple.

Hating One’s Family

In ancient Mediterranean societies the family was the fundamental and all-pervasive social reality. For Jesus to promote “hatred” of one’s own family still strikes us as odd, but nowhere near as forcefully as it would have struck his contemporaries. Perhaps a modern equivalent would be for Jesus to demand hatred of our own mothers. In our culture, “Mother” is one of the last remaining icons. We might gain some sense of the counter-cultural stance adopted by Jesus if we imagine a Christian renewal movement that called on its adherents to reject their mothers.

The extended quotation from John Dominic Crossan in The Historical Jesus (1991:299-301) that we used three weeks ago, may be worth revisiting at this point:

The family imagined [in Q] has five members: father, mother, son, daughter, and son’s wife, all living together in the one household. “Note,” as Bruce Malina advises, “that there is no mention of son-in-law, since it was the new wife who moved into her husband’s house, not the husband into the wife’s family” (1981:101). I emphasize immediately that this is not simply saying that families will be split over Jesus, with some believing and some disbelieving. The division imagined cuts between the generations, the two parents against the three children, and vice versa. But it does not tell us which group is on Jesus’ side. We cannot presume that parents are against Jesus and children for him, or vice versa. Indeed, the point is not belief or disbelief at all. It is, just as in Micah 7:6, the normalcy of familial hierarchy that is under attack. The strife is not between believers and non-believers but quite simply, and as it says, between the generations and in both directions. Jesus will tear the hierarchical or patriarchal family in two along the axis of domination and subordination. Second, and even more significant, is that the division imagined cuts across sex and gender. That point is underlined by the version in Gospel of Thomas 16, which, despite having “five in a house: three will be against two, and two against three” gives only one example, and that the dominant male one: “the father against the son and the son against the father.’ That obscures the saying’s point: the split is between generations but across the genders. There can be women just as much as men on the side of Jesus, or on the other side for that matter. I return to that point below in considering Jesus’ missionaries, but even now it is already apparent: what happens to women if the patriarchal family is split asunder?
A similar point is made with 089 Hating Ones Family [1/2], although the protagonist of the saying is given in masculine gender. The opposition is with one’s “father and mother … brothers and sisters” in Gospel of Thomas 55:1-2, “father and mother” in Gospel of Thomas 101, “father or mother … son or daughter” in Q/Matthew 10:37, and “father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters” in Q/Luke 14:26. In other words, whatever number of generations are mentioned, both genders are always in question. I incline, therefore, to read 089 Hating Ones Family [1/2] in the light of 074 Peace or Sword [1/2] as referring, despite its male format, to both genders. Jesus, on the other hand, refuses to get involved in 097 The Disputed Inheritance [1/2], in which sons disagree over the father’s inheritance. He is not that kind of divider.
Finally, there is 015 Against Divorce [1/4], an especially well-attested saying of Jesus. The formulation of the divorce law in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is strictly anthropocentric: “when a man takes … marries …writes … puts … sends …” It concerns how a husband divorces a wife and says nothing whatsoever about how a wife divorces a husband. It does not have to do so because the law does not allow it. Unlike, say, Greek, Roman, or Egyptian law at the time of Jesus, Jewish law did not allow the wife to initiate divorce proceedings. Adultery, furthermore, was also androcentric. It was always a crime against male honor and male rights. Seen against such a cultural situation, the texts in 015 Against Divorce [1/4] are strikingly anomalous. That is not because both 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 and Mark 10:10-12, but not its parallel Matthew 19:9, have adapted Jesus’ saying to a wider Greco-Roman ambiance — they therefore forbid divorce either by husband of wife or by wife of husband — it is because the saying of Jesus situates itself directly in the androcentric tradition of Jewish Palestine but says,

(1) Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery,
and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
(Sayings Gospel Q: 1[or 2?]Q: Luke 16:18 = Matthew 5:31-32)

(2) Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. (Mark 10:11)

(3) If he put his wife away and marry another he also commits adultery himself.
(Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 4.1:6b)

John Kloppenborg has seen most clearly the implications of the term ‘adultery” against the Mediterranean background of an anodrocentric or even phallocentric honor and shame ideology. “By saying that the male who disembeds his wife and remarries commits adultery against her … Jesus implies that honor is not (only?) androcentric — I use the term descriptively rather than pejoratively — but (also or equally) gynecentric. Honor is still understood as a pseudo-commodity but it belongs as much to a woman as it does to a man. Hence a man can ‘steal’ his own wife’s honor by divorcing her and remarrying … In Palestine of Jesus’ day, which did not permit women to initiate a divorce, the dignity of women was not … easily guarded. It is for this reason that Jesus uses the dramatic term ‘adultery’ in so surprising a way. He thus brought sharply into focus the wife’s honor. It is as much to be protected and respected as the husband’s honor and the woman is as vulnerable to damage as the male” (1990:195). The opposition here is not just to divorce. To forbid divorce one has only to say that divorce is never legal. That is exactly what happens in the much less radical 252 Moses and Divorce [2/1]. The attack is actually against “androcentric honor whose debilitating effects went far beyond the situation of divorce. It was also the basis for the dehumanization of women, children and non-dominant males” (1990:196). When 074 Peace or Sword [1/2] is read in conjunction with 015 Against Divorce [1/4], Jesus sets parents against children, and wife against husband, sets, in other words, the Kingdom against the Mediterranean. But not just against the Mediterranean alone.


Carrying One’s Cross

The cross has long been the definitive symbol of Christianity and its founder. As early as the 50s of the first century, Paul (writing in 1 Corinthians) could simply use “the cross” as a recognised symbol of a much larger set of ideas and beliefs:

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

To many NT scholars the post-Easter development of this motif eliminates the possibility of this saying originating with Jesus. The Jesus Seminar, for example, rejected the saying from the database of authentic Jesus sayings on the grounds that its post-Easter understanding of the cross as the defining symbol for Jesus could not be fitted with his historical situation prior to Easter.

On the other hand, John Dominic Crossan — who was co-chair of the Jesus Seminar — affirms the historicity of this tradition:

The complex 044 Carrying Ones Cross [1/3] could be dismissed almost immediately as a retrojection of Jesus’ death back onto his own prophetic lips. This would be especially persuasive if it were found only in Mark 8:34, but it is found in both Gospel of Thomas 55:2b and the Sayings Gospel Q at Luke 14:27 = Matthew 10:38, neither of which show any great interest in the historical crucifixion of Jesus. On the other hand there is the following text:

If you want to be crucified, just wait.
The cross will come.
If it seems reasonable to comply, and the circumstances are right,
then it’s to be carried through, and your integrity maintained.
(Epictetus, Discourses 2.2.20; Oldfather, 1.228-231).

There is, therefore, no need to take Jesus’ saying as either retrojected or projected prophecy. Jesus “was discussing,” as Leif Vaage put it about Epictetus, “the (possible) consequences of following a certain philosophy … The cost of adopting a particular way of life is … graphically imagined … The fate portrayed … certainly seems a conceivable outcome of the kind of social challenge and outrageous behavior” (1989:173) seen so often throughout this chapter.*

[* The Vaage reference is to “Q1 and the Historical Jesus: Some Peculiar Sayings (7:33-34; 9:57-58,59-60; 14:26-27)” Forum 5/2, 1989, 159-76.]


Tower Builder and Warrior King

These two parables are without parallel in either the Jesus tradition or the rabbinic tradition.

As an aside, it worth noting that the Tower Builder is perhaps the only parable of Jesus that reflects his traditional involvement in the building crafts of his time. For someone typically understood to have been a “carpenter’s son,” Jesus shows little interest in the family craft when shaping his wisdom that otherwise draws so deeply on his observations of everyday scenes. We hear of farmers, fishers, housewives, tenants, crooked judges, etc. But rarely of buildings, of furniture, or of those who make them.

Maybe we have built too grand an edifice on the single occurence of tekton (carpenter) in Mark 6:3 (=Matt 13:53)?

Whether or not Jesus was actually a construction worker or a timber craftsman, these two parables pick up from the wider wisdom tradition insights about prudential consideration of major projects:

By wisdom a house is built,
and by understanding it is established;
by knowledge the rooms are filled
with all precious and pleasant riches.
Wise warriors are mightier than strong ones,
and those who have knowledge than those who have strength;
for by wise guidance you can wage your war,
and in abundance of counsellors there is victory.
Wisdom is too high for fools;
in the gate they do not open their mouths.
[Proverbs 24:3-7]

Gerd Lüdemann [Jesus 2000:361f] is typically more sceptical than many other NT scholars concerning the historicity of the Jesus traditions, but he is inclined to hold his judgment in the case of these two parables:

In my view there is more to be said for the authenticity than for the inauthenticity of these verses. Here the speaker is a wise man who, as in Thomas 98, observes the harsh reality and foresees the difficulty of carrying out a challenging plan. Unfortunately the context of these parables is unclear, so it does not become evident what kind of self-examination is called for.


Renouncing All

Verse 33 is found in no other Christian text, although it is consistent with a number of other sayings attributed to Jesus:

Presumably this saying has been created by Luke to provide a suitable conclusion to the series of sayings that he has gathered from various sources.

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:


Music Suggestions

Traditional List

  • O God our help in ages past – AHB 46
  • Praise the Lord with joyful cry – AHB 108
  • Take my life and let it be – AHB 520
  • Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go – AHB 480

Contemporary List

  • Give thanks to the risen Lord – AOV 1,015
  • The Lord is my shepherd – AOV 1,126

See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.

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