Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (27 October 2013)



  • Joel 2:23-32 & Psalm 65
  • 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
  • Luke 18:9-14


Joel: Dreaming of a better time

The short prophetic book of Joel (a name meaning, “Yahweh is my God”) makes a rare appearance in the Sunday lectionary cycle this weekend. Apart from being used every year in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, Joel is only listed this one time in the Revised Common Lectionary. In some US denominational lectionaries, Joel is also listed for Thanksgiving Sunday, Year B. The Episcopal lectionary also lists Joel for Easter 6C. Interestingly, in each of these cases it is Joel chapter 2 from which the reading comes. Other potions of Joel are never heard in the Sunday liturgies.

Almost certainly, the texts from Joel will be heard out of context. Like the passage chosen for this week, we are offered little more than a prophetic sound bite, and it is almost impossible to hear those words with any sense of their original context and significance. As it happens, even reading the entire book would not help us much as the date and circumstances of the book’s composition are obscure.

The first part of the book (1:1-2:27 in English versions; chs 1 & 2 in the Hebrew) is concerned with recovery from a devastating locust plague. The plague is seen as punishment sent by God, but hope is offered for survival and recovery. This section of the book is impossible to date, and could fit with any period in the history of ancient Israel after the building of the Jerusalem temple. The second part of the book (2:28-3:21 in English; chs 3 & 4 in Hebrew) is comprised of two apocalyptic hymns that promise divine punishment on the surrounding nations as Yahweh the divine warrior fights on Israel’s behalf. Apart from the final verses of ch 2, these hymns are never read in the Sunday liturgies.

The portion of Joel that does get drawn upon for Christian liturgies is chapter 2 with its mixture of repentance and renewal.

The classic text from this passage is:

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves, in those days,
I will pour out my spirit. (Joel 2:28-29)

With our naturalistic worldview, it is not fashionable to interpret natural disasters as divine punishments for national sins. Our secular societies also lack a theological framework within which to speak of God blessing or punishing a modern nation. Despite this, we are not reticent in asking God to bless our nation or save our sovereign; and in times of drought political and religious leaders call for prayers – and even repentance. As I prepare these words in October 2013 a major fire emergency is happening in Australia, with fears of a massive fire front several hundred kilometers wide.

Hopefully no-one will claim these fires as divine punishment. They are simply part of the cycle of life-death-life in the forests of this ancient land. Indeed, such fires — catastrophic to many creatures (including humans) living in the forest or close to their edges — are essential for the propagation of some tree species. The forests depend on these fires that cause such devastation to us.

Yet we might also wonder just when extreme weather events become the predicted results of climate change, and when we might discern a prophetic message in the cycle of nature about consumerism and industrialisation. We do not need to interpret these disasters as the gods inflicting punishment on recalcitrant nations in order to notice that collective and personal decisions (including our failure to make decisions) have inevitable consequences that affect not only humans, but also our fragile planet and all her life forms. Maybe we can pray that our old men (and especially our political “elders”) will indeed dream dreams of a better world, a more just society, and an economy that does not simply plunder the planet. While God may not punish us, Gaia certainly will.

Joel speaks of a collective wisdom that will emerge when God pours out his spirit on everyone – male and female, old and young, and even the slaves. May that time come. Soon!

Second Reading: Pseudo Paul and the Parchments

The NT reading this week concludes a series from 2 Timothy, one of the three “Pastoral Epistles” attributed to Paul but almost certainly coming from second or third generation Paulinists who are addressing a different set of issues than those that Paul dealt with in the 50s and early 60s of the First Century.

For links to online resources, and information about offline materials, see Peter Kirby’s Early Christian Writings web site, which dates the Pastorals between 100 & 150 CE.

This week’s passage omits six verses that have been important in shaping the Christian imagination of Paul and his companions:

Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message. (2Tim 4:9-15 NRSV)

Interestingly, the mention of “the parchments” may be one of our few early Christian references to written materials underlying the extant NT texts.

While scrolls were regarded as a more prestigious form of publication, and the codex would soon emerge as the pre-eminent format for Christian texts, parchment and papyrus notebooks were also used. We have no extant examples before late 2C or early 3C, but they are mentioned by Quintilian c. 90 CE.

The exact process by which early Christian texts developed remains unclear, but some non-Christians authors used the codex format already in late 1C and it was also beginning to be used for more substantial documents. The Roman poet Martial recommended parchment codices for travellers, and pocket editions of Homer, Virgil, Cicero, Livy, Ovid, etc were readily available. It seems that such convenient formats were popular with travellers and this may suggest why Christians adopted it so readily.

Scrolls were probably the original format for the Gospels & Acts, but parchment notebooks were likely to have been better suited for itinerant Christian leaders—just as this Christian text from around the turn of the century indicates: “above all … (bring) the parchments!”

The Vindolanda texts (Northumberland) discovered in the UK include large numbers of “thin slivers of smooth wood” which seemingly served as ancient version of the loose-leaf binder. These texts date to c. 100 CE and represent a further stage in the development of the codex.

Gospel: Rethinking the Pharisees

At the heart of this parable (which is preserved only in Luke) is a contrast between two familiar stereotypes: the Pharisee and the tax collector.

As we saw in the notes for Proper 24C, the tax collectors were dubious characters in the view of 1C authors:

… tax collectors are connected in Greco-Roman literature with those who trafficked in prostitution and slavery, particularly to brothel keepers and pimps, those responsible for supplying women and slaves for banquets (Kathleen Corley, Women and the Historical Jesus, 85)

Assuming then, for our purposes, that the publican served as a symbol for non-observant Jews who were in engaged in corrupt and immoral conduct; what are we to make of the Pharisee in this little story?

The cameo essay in The Acts of Jesus (pages 240-241), may serve as a starting point for discussion groups wishing to explore the history and character of the Pharisees and the historicity of their representation in the NT gospels.

Our information about the Pharisees comes from just three sources:

  • the 1C Jewish writer, Josephus
  • early Christian texts such as the Gospels
  • rabbinic literature

Each of these sources has its own strengths and weaknesses.

(For an extract from John P. Meier on the limitations of rabbinic texts as sources for historical reconstruction in the NT times, click here.)

The cameo essay in The Acts of Jesus traces the material relating to the Pharisees found in the Sayings Gospel Q, in the Gospel of Mark, and the Gospel of John. John P. Meier includes the treatment of the Pharisees in Matthew and Luke in his extended discussion of the Pharisees in A Marginal Jew: III. Companions and Competitors (pp. 289-340).

The underlying theme of all recent studies on the Pharisees is the need to distinguish the historical Pharisees of the 1C from the negative stereotypes found in Christian writings from the NT Gospels down to recent Sunday School curricula. Not only was Paul himself both a Pharisee and a devotee of Jesus Christ, but at least some of the Pharisees who were contemporaries of Jesus seem to have been supportive of his mission.

John Meier introduces a short review of 20C portraits of the ancient Pharisees with the following paragraph:

The dirty little secret of NT studies is that no one really knows who the Pharisees were — although many thought they did before a wave of more critical studies hit the academic beach in the 1970s. As Joseph Sievers bluntly remarks, “we know considerably less about the Pharisees than an earlier generation ‘knew.'” The history of 20th-century research is strewn with many portraits of the Pharisees, most of which are discarded today. (p. 311)

It is essential to distinguish between research into (the beliefs, history and practices of) the Pharisees, and the question of Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees in the period 25-30 CE.

If we take the former first, we can outline the likely history and emphases of the Pharisees as follows. What follows is a précis of Meier’s “thumbnail sketch” of their history and beliefs.

The origins of the Pharisees lie around 150 BCE, during the early Hasmonean period. They were one of several religious and political responses to the crisis caused by the aggressive Hellenization of Jewish life in the time of Antiochus IV. The Pharisees’ response to this crisis was centered around a renewed commitment to the study of the Torah and the careful observance of customary requirements in certain areas of life, such as tithing, purity laws, the sabbath, marriage and divorce, and temple ritual. Essential to this Jewish renewal movement was a growing body of oral tradition that elaborated and expanded the requirements of the Torah. Underlying this passion for faithful living was the vision of Israel as a covenant community whose future blessing/punishment was contingent on observance of the Torah. Unlike other Jewish sects, the Pharisees had a missionary zeal and actively sought to spread their interpretation of Judaism among the people at large. When opportunity allowed them to do so, they were quite willing to use the power of the state to impose their practices on the general population. The Pharisees had little opportunity for political power under the despotic rule of Herod the Great and the Roman prefects of Judea, but gained renewed influence at the beginning of the Jewish War in 66 CE. After the Romans suppressed the Jewish uprising, the Pharisees coalesced with other devout and studious Jews at Yavneh to form the beginnings of the rabbinic movement. They then faded from history although their spiritual heirs, the rabbis, began to exert control over Palestinian Judaism. (Compare Meier, A Marginal Jew, III,330)

The question of Jesus’ historical relationship to the Pharisees is rather more vexed. There is broad NT support for the tradition that Jesus engaged in dialogue and debate with Pharisees, even if every individual report of those interactions is subject to historical questions. Meier notes that “every single Gospel source” reflects this tradition:

  • Sayings Gospel Q: the woes in Luke 11:39-44
  • Mark: dispute stories such as 2:16,18,24 & 3:6; etc
  • Matthew: see 5:20; 21:24; 23:2; etc
  • Luke: 7:36-50; 11:37-38; 13:31; 15:2; etc
  • John: 3:1; 7:32,45,47f; 9:13,15f,40; 11:46f,57; 12:19,42

While there is no reason to doubt that Jesus had common interests as well as significant differences with the Pharisees, we also have to allow for the fact that all these Christian texts are shaped by the struggle between “Christian Jews” and “Pharisaic Jews” in the decades after Easter, and especially after 70 CE. It remains an open question just how much of the NT portrait of Jesus engaged in dispute with the Pharisees reflects events prior to 30 CE or the tensions after 70 CE.

A complicating factor in all this is the way that the stereotype of the Pharisee (and the adjective, “Pharisaic”) has played out in Christian history. This can be seen in the way that Jewish faith has been represented in Christian polemic as legalistic and hypocritical, in contrast to the heartfelt and authentic faith of Christians. In addition, the invective directed against “the Pharisees” and/or “the Jews” in NT texts such as Matthew and John has been taken as license for anti-Semitism within western Christianity. Dialogues which originated in the internal disputes of Christian Jews and Pharisaic Jews during the second half of the 1C become “texts of terror” (to recycle a phrase from Phyllis Trible) in the rhetoric of Gentile Christians.

Given all these complexities, we have to move with care when interpreting texts that attack the Pharisees or, as in this week’s story, use them as stereotypes of misdirected piety.

With that in mind, it is helpful to note that the rabbinic tradition itself offers parallels to the underlying spiritual dynamic in this week’s Gospel:

R. Nahunya b. Haqaneh when he came out of the Bet Midrash used to say: “I give thanks before Thee, O Lord my God and God of my fathers, that Thou hast placed my portion with those who sit in the House of Study and not with those who sit at street corners, for I and they rise early, I to words of Torah, but they to vain matters; I and they labor, but I labor and receive a reward, whereas they labor and receive no reward; I and they hasten, I to the life of the world-to-come, but they to the pit of destruction.” [B. Ber. 28b]

It was a favorite saying of the Rabbis of Yavneh: “I am a creature of God and my neighbor is also his creature; my work is in the city and his is in the field; I rise early to my work and he rises early to his. As he cannot excel in my work, I cannot excel in his work. But perhaps you say, I do great things and he does small things. We have learned that it matters not whether a man does much or little, if only he directs his heart to Heaven.” [B. Ber. 17a]

In addition to these direct parallels, Samuel Lachs (Rabbinic Commentary, 324) notes the following saying attributed to the Hillel to Elder:

Do not separate yourself from the community;
trust not in yourself until the day of your death,
judge not your fellowman until you have come into his place. [M. Avot 2.4]

John Meier offers this summary of the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees:

It is hardly a wonder, then, that Jesus would have interacted more with them than with any other Jewish movement or party. Both Jesus and the Pharisees shared a consuming desire to bring all Israel, not just an esoteric sect or a privileged elite, to the complete doing of God’s will as laid out in the Law and the prophets. No doubt Jesus and the Pharisees would have agreed on many basic points: God’s free election of Israel, his gift of the Law, the need to respond wholeheartedly to the Law’s demands in one’s everyday life, God’s faithful guidance of Israel through history to a future consummation involving the restoration of Israel, a final judgment, the resurrection of the dead, and perhaps some sort of eschatological or messianic figure as God’s agent in the end time. At the same time, disagreements were inevitable, (1) granted the peculiar mix of present-yet-future eschatology that implicitly put Jesus himself at the center of the eschatological drama that he proclaimed, (2) granted the eschatological significance he attributed to some of his “miracles,” (3) granted some of his unusual teaching on halaka that flowed from his eschatological message: e.g., (a) the total prohibition of divorce; (b) celibacy as one possible way of serving the kingdom; (c) the rejection of voluntary fasting; and (d) the neglect of various familial obligations and purity rules … (p. 338)

It seems, then, that Jesus (and most certainly his followers after Easter) shared with the Pharisees a passion for the renewal of Israel as a community that expressed and promoted the imperial rule of God in human affairs, but that they differed profoundly over the way to achieve that. Where the Pharisees looked to the Torah and the oral traditions of the Elders, the Christian community looked to Jesus and the community gathered around his open table. On the one hand, Christians elevated Christ over Caesar. On the other hand, they located the ultimate epiphany in the person of Jesus rather than the teachings of the Torah.
Where Jesus may well have promoted the archetypal sinner (publican) over the archetypal believer (Pharisee) as a symbol of humanity open to God’s justice, the temptation to think like the self-righteous believer remains a real and present danger to his followers.

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

  • Gather Your People – GA530
  • Alleluia, the gospel is among us (Bruxvoort-Colligan)
  • You Are Near – GA451
  • Here I Am, Lord – GA496

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

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