Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (6 October 2013)



  • Lamentations 1:1-6 & Lam 3:19-26 (or Psalm 137)
  • 2 Timothy 1:1-14
  • Luke 17:5-10

First Reading: Lamenting the fall of Zion

This week’s passage from Lamentations interrupts a series of readings from Jeremiah. The scroll of Lamentations seems to take us directly into the pain and confusion when the armies of Babylon, under the command of Nebuchadnezzar, captured Jerusalem and destroyed its temple. These poetic laments are traditionally attributed to Jeremiah, but their authorship is unknown. They are mostly formal pieces, written to fit with a strict alphabetical acrostic pattern. This classic device of the idle literate is also seen in texts such as Proverbs 31:10–31 (The Good Wife) and Psalm 119. Whatever else we know from the use of an acrostic, we can be sure that these laments were not composed in haste and anguish, but in the leisure of a sage’s study—perhaps sometime during the exilic period when there seemed little likelihood of a return to Zion?

These poems have survived as part of the Bible because of their use in the liturgies of 9th Ab that commemorate the capture of Jerusalem. As one of the five festival scrolls (the Megiloth), Lamentations has served as a classic text for “believers in exile.” In time the 9th Ab came to be associated in Jewish worship with the disasters that befell Jerusalem in 70 CE and again in 135 CE, as well as other occasions of collective suffering that have marked their history.

Second Reading: Invoking the legacy of Paul

This week we begin a series of four Sundays when the second reading comes from 2 Timothy.

First and Second Timothy, together with Titus, comprise a distinctive set of writings among the NT letters of Paul, usually described as the “Pastoral Episltes.” Unlike most of the other letters attributed to Paul, these three are addressed to individuals. Timothy and Titus each appear as associates of Paul in his authentic letters, but now they are being offered advice on how to conduct themselves and how to order the lives of the Christian communities where they serve. Key themes in these letters include the danger of false teachings, the need for careful selection of those men (sic) chosen to serve as deacons and bishops, and the importance of correct behavior by various classes of people. The world of thought in these letters is similar to what we find in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch and in Luke-Acts. All three sets of writings presumably come from a similar time early in the second century.

The creation of false Pauline texts did not stop with these NT writings. Apocryphal texts attributed to Paul include the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Acts of Andrew and Paul, the Greek Acts of Peter and Paul, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Epistles of Paul and Seneca, the Martyrdom of Paul, the Passions of Peter and Paul, and the Vision of Paul. There were also additional letters by Paul: to the Alexandrians, to the Laodiceans, and a third letter to the Corinthians!

This week’s selection from 2 Timothy invokes the character of Paul, already long-dead but now portrayed as writing to his junior associate from prison while calmly contemplating his own death. This imaginary Paul is being deployed to assist in the struggle with opponents of the emerging centrist tradition in early second century Christianity. The actual recipients of this letter from Paul are engaged in a struggle on two fronts.

  • On the one side there were those who shared to some extent the anti-Jewish agenda of Marcion. These over-eager enthusiasts for a Paulinist perspective in early Christianity believed that all ties with the Jewish traditions needed to be cut. The Jewish Scriptures were to be rejected, and an expurgated collection of Pauline letters (now missing any traditionalist Jewish elements) was promoted as the basis for Christianity. In the social dynamics of that time and place, with several Jewish uprisings in between the major Jewish-Roman Wars of 66-73 and 132-135, a desire to put some distance between Christians and Jews in the public mind is perhaps understandable. However, Marcion’s prescription was seen as too radical, and his claims to be safeguarding the legacy of Paul needed to be addressed. The Pastoral Letters, and especially 2 Timothy, were composed to counter the co-opting of Paul’s authority for this anti-Jewish agenda.
  • On the other hand there were others within Christianity at the time who were pushing the boundaries in directions that the centrists considered gnostic. The schismatics whose rupture with the Johannine community triggered the Letters of John, come to mind as Christians prepared to discount (and even deny) the humanity of Jesus in their enthusiasm for a more speculative spirituality. Such groups continued to value texts such as the Gospel of John. Indeed, the first commentary on any NT book is a commentary on the Gospel of John by Heracleon, a Gnostic Christian, around 170 CE. The developing traditions now found in the Gospel of Thomas, seem also to reflect a tendency to abandon history in favor of myth. This constituted another threat to the centrist Christians who were eager to enlist Paul the Apostle in their cause.

We shall see these themes in some of the readings over the next few weeks. In this week’s portion we see Paul affirming the continuity of his faith, and the faith of Timothy, with Paul’s ancestors and Timothy’s mother (Eunice), as well as his maternal grandmother (Lois). Unless already alerted to the wider agenda, such a passing reference might go unnoticed. But when read in context we begin to pick up the point. Note especially the significant affirmation of Timothy’s Jewish upbringing and the positive value of the Jewish Scriptures in 2 Timothy 3:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed,
knowing from whom you learned it,
and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings
that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2Timothy 3:14–15 NRSV)

Gospel: Luke 17:5-10

Faith’s Power

The saying in Luke 17:5-6 seems to be a Lukan variant of a more widely-attested saying of Jesus about the power of faith to achieve what seems impossible, and should not be confused with the well-known parable at 035 The Mustard Seed:

(1) The earliest witness to this saying comes from 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul seems to be using it against those spiritual enthusiasts who claimed to be possessed (as individuals) of just such an amazing faith and yet, so Paul implies, lacked the underlying Christian charism of love:

1 Corinthians 13:2b
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

(2) The version attested by the Sayings Gospel Q has been reconstructed as follows:

If you have faith like a mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree:
Be uprooted and planted in the sea! And it would obey you.

(3) The Gospel of Thomas has two versions of this saying:

Thomas 48
Jesus said, “If two make peace with each other in a single house,
they will say to the mountain, ‘Move from here!’ and it will move.”

Thomas 106
Jesus said, “When you make the two into one, you will become children of Adam,
2and when you say, ‘Mountain, move from here!’ it will move.”

(4) The Gospel of Mark uses this saying in the context of Jesus cursing the fig tree, itself a symbol of the destruction that would befall Jerusalem and its awesome Temple structures. The important thing here is that there must not be even the slightest hint of doubt in the believer’s faith:

Mark 11:22-23
Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God.
Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’
and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass,
it will be done for you.

= Matt 21:21
Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt,
not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree,
but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’
it will be done.

(5) Finally, Matthew and Luke each develop the saying so that the emphasis falls on the point that even “little” (mustard seed sized) faith is effective:

Matt 17:20
He said to them, “Because of your little faith.
For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain,
‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move;
and nothing will be impossible for you.”

= Luke 17:5-6
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,
you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’
and it would obey you.

In these various instances of this widespread aphorism we can see the persistence of an underlying structure. The conclusion is always the same: subject to some condition being fulfilled, the impossible becomes achievable. But the description of what that prior condition changes from one example to the next: is it individual faith (free of any shadow of doubt), faith no matter how miniscule/fragile, common/shared faith (rather than individual charisma), or unity and harmony within the community (or the individual)?

The Servant’s Duty

The other part of this week’s Gospel takes us into a social setting that is quite foreign to most Western readers. The story assumes not only the acceptance of slavery, but an honor/shame social system in which honor is presumed to lie with the powerful while the subservient have no inherent dignity. This mindset now stands in stark contrast to the values expressed in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], which asserts the dignity and worth of each and every human person.

These are the liberal values of contemporary secular Western societies, although they are often attacked by both Western Neo-Conservatives as well as by Two-Thirds World leaders who resent Western cultural and political domination. They are not biblical values, even if many people see them as vaguely Christian in character. They have more to do with the spirit of the Enlightenment than with traditional religious views of humanity and society.

There is a partial parallel to the story in the version of 046 The Tenants given in the Shepherd of Hermas, a Christian text thought to have been written in Rome around 100 CE. In this version, one of the servant’s has a “proper” sense of his duty as a slave and is commended for this by the master–even being made a joint heir with the master’s own son:

He deliberated to himself saying: ‘I have completed the lord’s command. Now I will dig up this vineyard, and it will look better when it is dug; without weeds it will give better fruit, since the weeds will not be choking it.’ So he dug up the vineyard and pulled out all the weeds that were in it. That vineyard improved and was thriving without weeds choking it. 5After a while, the owner of the slave and the vineyard returned and went to the vineyard. Seeing the vineyard nicely enclosed and even dug and weeded, and the vines thriving, he was extremely happy about what the slave did. 6Calling his loved son whom he held as heir, and his friends whom he held as advisors, he told them what he had commanded the slave and what he found achieved. These congratulated the slave according to the testimony given by the owner. 7He said to them: ‘I promised freedom to this slave if he kept the commandment I gave him. He kept my commandment and added good work to the vineyard, and so has pleased me greatly. In return for this work he has done, I want to make him joint heir with my son, for he appreciates the good and did not neglect it, but completed it.’ [Hermeneia]

Both the Gospel of Luke and the Shepherd of Hermas reflect the social conservatism of Christianity in the early decades of the second century. It is from this same period that we get the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus) with their household codes that exhort Christians to reflect proper respect to those above them in the social order: wives to husbands, children to fathers, slaves to masters, etc.

The radical vision of Jesus (“give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but give God what belongs to God”) soon gave way to the collective instinct that traditional values should not be challenged. Christians were told to pray for the emperor and to show respect to those in authority.

The ancient tension between Gospel values and cultural norms may be again exposed in contemporary calls for “family values” and faith-based engagement in party politics. Are Gospel values to be found in historical expressions of human society, or in a prophetic critique of any and every human institution that claims ultimate value?

Current conflict over human sexuality, and especially same-sex relationships, points to deep-seated cultural values that are in tension with the liberal secular values enshrined in artefacts such as the UDHR. Conservatives opposed to homosexuality appeal to the Bible as if it provided timeless truths free of the cultural conditioning of its authors and original audiences. To their chagrin, progressives also appeal to the counter-cultural instinct of the faith tradition that birthed the Bible in the first place.

The Bible does not serve either side well in such disputes. It is a flawed text insofar as it assumes and promotes such things as slavery, demon possession, ethnic cleansing, racial superiority, a three-tiered universe, and the subordination of women. Such realities should be an embarrassment to traditionalists and progressives alike. The Bible does not fit neatly with our cultural assumptions, as this week’s Gospel reminds us. The immense spiritual value of the Bible may lie more in its capacity to empower our human quest than its ability to (re)solve our immediate challenges.

Jesus Database

  • 035 The Mustard Seed – (1) Gos. Thom. 20:1-2; (2) 1or2?Q: Luke 13:18-19 = Matt 13:31-32 ; (3) Mark 4:30-32 = Matt 13:31-3.
  • 055 Caesar and God – (1) Gos. Thom. 100; (2) Eger. Gos. 3a [50-57a]; (3) Mark 12:13-17 = Matt 22:15-22 = Luke 20:20-26.
  • 173 Faiths Power – (1) 1Q or ?2Q: Luke 17:5-6 = Matt 17:20
  • 383 The Servants Duty – (1) Luke 17:7-10; (2) Her. Sim. 5.2,4-7

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

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

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