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Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Jeremiah famously asks, “Is there no Balm in Gilead?” It’s rhetorical, because we know there is, or was at the time he wrote this anyway. And the people he is talking to traffic in this balm. They are the healers, the ones who normally are bringing it to those in need. They are the physicians referred to in the next question. The unspoken answer to those first two questions is “yes”, which leads to the third question. The spiritual interpretation of that question is “why are the people of God (who should be the healers), so sinful”?

That question has a lot of assumptions. It assumes it’s the people causing the problem, not the prophets. Granted, Jeremiah did address the prophets and said their teachings were the problems. He is also speaks to the people who have listened to those bad prophets. Jeremiah’s solution, as discussed in previous weeks, is to lay down more laws. 700 years later, in the New Testament, we get the story of Jesus coming into conflict with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were known for enforcing unimportant laws, some of them are the very laws Jeremiah wrote.

I find it a bit ironic that “balm in Gilead” has been transformed into a metaphor for the healing that Jesus brought. If you are willing to say Jeremiah was wrong, and that some, perhaps many of his laws were wrong, that his retributive approach to the problems in his kingdom were wrong then sure, Jesus is the balm. But if you try to say every prophet that ever gave laws, the ones who got their names on books in the Bible, were all good and always right about their assessment of people, then you are trying to force an authoritative system on what should be a community system.

Matthew Henry, author of several Bible study books, says the real meaning here is "There is no balm in Gilead that can cure the disease of sin; and there is no physician there who can heal a nation in rebellion against the Lord." I don’t see that in the text, and I don’t see how it is useful at all for a prophet, someone who claims to be the healer they need, to say a nation is beyond hope. This is the worst form of fundamentalism of any religion, saying people can’t do anything right, that they can only worship and follow the arbitrary laws of their God (written down by prophets of course). What kind of prophet says it is so bad that even the plants and resources God provided for you are not enough to save you? Fortunately, interpretations like that are inconsistent with many aspects of the overall narrative and with specific other stories and characters. Fortunately Matthew Henry is not a well-known theologian.

Amos 8:4-7

9 weeks ago, I said I’d like to see more of Amos in the lectionary. Here he is again, but it’s a repeat of 4 of the verses that we visited back then. This does provide somewhat of a parallel with Jeremiah and Timonty, but I’m not sure why they are including this passage, while excluding some more valuable Amos.

Perhaps it is a contrast. Amos is speaking to people living in a time of successful military conquest and expansion by Israel, Jeremiah is speaking to people who are about to be conquered by another empire. Amos is speaking to a nation that had developed an exaggerated sense of exceptional-ism in the 8th century BC, comparing them to fruit that is getting past ripe and into rotten. 100 years later, Jeremiah is speaking to that same nation after the warnings of Amos have come to pass. The Assyrian Empire had risen. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon had been built. Israel was no longer a superpower.

Historical note: Israel was more likely a minor player throughout its history, but the Biblical story is that it was great for a while. As for Amos predicting the political landscape, we don't know much about Amos. These words may have been written later, with more knowledge of what was coming.

pps: I read a lot of opinions about each passage. Sometimes I find other sermon helpers that are completely brilliant. This one compares what Amos is talking about to our human rights abuses going on today.

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Besides becoming anti-woman and anti-Jew, the various communities following the messages of Jesus were trying to build a coherent theology. Some were splitting off to a more Gnostic approach, while writers like the author of Timothy were using concepts and symbols from the Old Testament.

This passage calls Jesus a mediator. Other passages say he was heralded by earlier prophets. The book of Timothy spends a lot of time synthesizing the old and the new. If I look at this as something not written by Paul, as some scholars say, I see someone who took Paul’s message and tried to integrate it into the developing communities. As the promised return of Jesus did not happen and the Romans continued to persecute them, they began to look back into their heritage, their narratives of who the messiah is and how he will come. They tried to figure out what they might have missed, what they could do to bring the beloved kingdom.

Luke 16:1-13

We have a difficult parable this week in Luke. I really enjoy these because there is no consensus. That's when history is fun, because you can't be wrong. Whatever anyone says, you can always say there are still open questions. Even the title of it is disputed. Was the steward "shrewd" or was he "unjust"? The linked translations calls him the “manager”. Where the parable actually ends is also argued. Parts may have been added on after verse 7. It's crazy.

I have already spent some time with this parable in my blog, so I won't repeat all of that. Skip down about half way through this post, past the stuff about Martin Luther King Jr.

What's a little unusual about this one is, the characters in the story are probably just what they say they are. They are not representing God, or anyone else. The scene is a small village and there is an absentee lord, a member of the elite. It is easy to read the words of the manager when he talks to himself, as being lazy. But we need to understand that he is already in a low position. If he loses it, he will become part of the expendable people, the lowest of the poor.

Almost all economic systems in written history depend on a tier of people like that. It helps to keep workers in place if they know what will happen if they don't keep the miserable job they have. There is also no standard of “innocent until proven guilty” in this story. The lack of protest of the accusation does not necessarily indicate an admission of guilt.

Adding to the complexity of the understanding of this story is the changing roles that the characters would have been experiencing. The roles of exploiter and exploited may be ancient, but this is a time of increased commercialization. People who once scratched out a living on their land were no longer in control of that land. Even with what minimal control they had, they needed others, like the manager, to handle the increasingly complex systems of transportation, levies, taxes and other specialization of work that was suddenly part of the system. All of this spread the wealth around, but the same exploitation of the land and the people who actually worked it was still in place.

In a few countries we now have commodity markets and crop insurance and government programs to protect the farmer. And that has led to a new kind of corruption in some cases. But in most of the world, people who work the land are still one bad season away from total failure. Not failure on their part, but failure of a world that refuses to value the people who feed us.