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Proper 15 (Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost), Year C, August 15, 2010

First reading, Isaiah 5:1-7

The Historical Background: This section of the book has a kind of introduction in chapter 2, starting at verse 6: "You[, Lord,] have abandoned your people, the house of Jacob, Because they are filled with fortunetellers and soothsayers, like the Philistines; they covenant with strangers. Their land is full of silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; Their land is full of horses, and there is no end to their chariots. Their land is full of idols; they worship the works of their hands, that which their fingers have made. But man is abased, each one brought low. (Do not pardon them!) Get behind the rocks, hide in the dust, From the terror of the LORD and the splendor of his majesty! The haughty eyes of man will be lowered, the arrogance of men will be abased, and the LORD alone will be exalted, on that day. For the LORD of hosts will have his day against all that is proud and arrogant, all that is high, and it will be brought low."

The situation is that God's people have already divided between northern and southern kingdoms (called Israel and Judah, respectively). They're allied in many areas but not always in their relations with powerful neighbor Assyria; one king might try a military alliance with Assyria, while the other puts his people at risk by courting other allies. In any case, in Isaiah's judgment there was too much politics and not enough faith, too much luxury and not enough justice, too much militarism and not enough reliance on God.

The Prophet's Literary Method: Isaiah's rhetorical plan is to sneak up on the people and king who are objects of his criticism. So he starts, apparently casually, telling a story:

The Lector's Rhetorical Method: Think about how Isaiah would have spoken this: innocent-sounding and matter-of-fact in the beginning, then with surprise in his voice at the yield of wild grapes, imperative when he says "judge between me and my vineyard," pleading when he asks, "what more was there to do ...," resolute in announcing his plans for the vineyard.

Then he would have paused, with a piercing look at all his listeners. In measured tones he would announce the conclusion, even though his hearers already knew they were convicted. He would pause again in the last clause between naming each thing the Lord expected and what the Lord actually received.

Another possible first reading, Jeremiah 23:23-29

Historical Background of Jeremiah: The prophet lived from about 650 B.C. to perhaps 580 B.C. Most of his work was in Judah's capital Jerusalem. He tried to keep the people and several kings faithful to God amidst an atmosphere of political intrigue and backstabbing. Jeremiah was blunt about what was right and what was not, and he suffered at the hands of the powerful because of his outspokenness. (For details, see these Notes, which quote liberally from the Introduction to Jeremiah in The New Jerusalem Bible.

Today's selection from Jeremiah: Among the flatterers of the powerful and of the king were some court prophets. They would pretend to speak for God and tell the king what he wanted to hear, that God enorsed his royal whims. In today's passage, Jeremiah heaps scorn on the court prophets. He starts with the interesting rhetorical question, "Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off?" We'd assume God wants the people to think of Him as near, But Dan Nelson, citing John Bright, argues that this means God is not a local deity, an idol from whom one can easily hide, but a God in heaven who can see everything. The second verse confirms this. The remaining verses dismiss the dreams and ravings of the false prophets, and contrast with them the powerful word of God.

The Lector's Proclamation: Remember that Jeremiah was anything but a dull man. He was single-minded, outspoken in the extreme, courageous and willing to suffer (and to complain to God about it) for what he knew to be true. He could speak with irony and ridicule the false prophets with merciless sarcasm. That's what he's doing in this passage. Let your rendering have some of the prophet's energy. In verses 25 through 28, the Lord should sound wearied by the stupid false prophets. In verse 29, make sure to stress the subject of the sentence, my word, so your listeners know what it is that is like fire and like a hammer strong enough to shatter rock.

Second Reading, Hebrews 11:29-12:2

The Historical Background: This letter was written for the sake of Jews who had become Christians, and who were promptly rejected by other Jews. Kicked out of synagogue and cut off from family and old friends, from the comforting rituals and institutions they had known, these folks needed their faith bolstered. So the author praises a long list of faithful Jews from the past, particularly Abraham (in last week's second reading), detailing some of the difficulties they faced. Those heroic figures are the great cloud of witnesses mentioned in today's passage.

Note that the author stresses twice, in verse 11:13 and in verse 11:39, that the faith of these people was in God's promise, and that these all died with the promise unfulfilled.

The author wants his audience to think of themselves as athletes in a race in a stadium, where the faithful witnesses just praised are like spectators surrounding them and cheering them. Jesus, on the other hand, is not a cheering witness, but the supreme example. The sentences describing his fidelity are not just images; they're strong and direct statements.

Your Proclamation: To get into the mood to proclaim this, think of how you might counsel one of your children who has to work up the courage to do something difficult and unpopular. A youngster might know he should be kind to the kid in class that the others like to tease. A more mature child might know she has to break up with an unsuitable boyfriend. You, the wise parent, are sympathetic to your child's torment, but you want her or him to do what's right. While sounding accepting and not judgmental, you give all the encouragement you can. That's what the author of Hebrews was doing.

That's well and good, but this is a long passage, describing hero after heroine. Modulate your tone of voice in the somewhat repetitious sentences. But sound like you're coming to the point in verse 40. This is right after the second time the author points out that the faithful ancestors failed to receive the promise. Why? Because God was to provide something better in our time, and the ancestors had to wait. That explanation calls for marking with a pause and change of tone.

Now bring it home with an application to your readers/listeners: "Therefore, ..., let us ..." and a resounding praise of Jesus for enduring the cross and taking his seat at the right hand of God.

Several other commentaries on these passages. All are thoughtful, all quite readable, from the scholarly to the popular.
Links may be incomplete more than a few weeks before the "due date."
Father Roger Karban's column about these readings from 2001,
and his 1998 reflection on the same readings.
Lutheran pastor and college teacher Dan Nelson's notes for a study group
Dan writes about the RCL selections from Jeremiah, Hebrews and Luke
The Text This Week; links to homilies, art works, movies and other resources on the week's scripture themes

The Lectionary selections in the frame at the left, if any, are there for your convenience. The publishers of the page in that frame have no connection, except for membership in the one Body of Christ, with the publisher of this page. Likewise the publishers of the pages on the links above.

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Last modified: July 9, 2010