4th Sunday after Epiphany

February 1, 2004
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Reading 2: 
Psalm 71:1-6
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Reading 4: 
Luke 4:21-30
By Ronald Farmer

Jeremiah 1:4-10
For two consecutive Sundays, the Hebrew Bible readings concern “call narratives,” those of Jeremiah and Isaiah respectively. Call narratives, although personalized to each recipient, typically follow a threefold pattern: the call/commission, the prophet’s objection, and a word/action of assurance from God. This pattern is easily discernable in today’s lection.

Following an initial paragraph providing historical context (vv. 1-3), the call narrative proper begins with the reception of a divine word (v. 4). Jeremiah’s commission, the LORD said, was pre-natal in origin. This statement underscores the fact that God’s selection of Jeremiah was not based on merit but was entirely an act of grace. God had known him intimately and commissioned him to be “a prophet to the nations” (v. 5). Jeremiah objected that he was but a youth and therefore was not capable of being God’s spokesman (v. 6). And the so-called “confessions of Jeremiah” (certain auto-biographical passages in the book) reveal that he continued to struggle with his call throughout his life (e.g., 20:7-18). Because objection is part of the structure of call narratives as a genre, initial objection serves as a mark of a true prophet. True prophets do not seek their vocation. Indeed, for one who properly understands the immensity of the prophetic task, objection is the natural and devout response.

The divine word of assurance overcame Jeremiah’s objection. He was told not to let his youthful inexperience cause him to cower, for his authority lay in the One who was appointing him. Jeremiah’s confidence was bolstered further by words that lie at the heart of the biblical message, “I am with you” (vv. 7-8). Then, to underscore this verbal reassurance, God “touched” his mouth and said, “Now I have put my words in your mouth” (v. 9).

The purpose of Jeremiah’s call is twofold. First, Jeremiah’s mission is “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.” But this negative, penultimate aspect of Jeremiah’s call is preparatory to the positive, final goal: “to build and to plant” (v. 10). God is for us, not against us, and therefore life is good and can be forever better.

Psalm 71:1-6
Today’s psalm is the opening section in a lengthy and complex lament by a devout, elderly person (vv. 9, 18). Throughout the psalm, (a) pleas for help alternate with (b) affirmations of trust/hope based on past deliverances, and (c) vows to extol God’s greatness through music to future generations.
Verses 5 and 6 link the psalm to the reading from Jeremiah (1:5). The poet acknowledged a special relationship to God since childhood. The natural response to God’s lifelong sustaining care is praise. Even while assaulted by his adversaries (whoever or whatever they may have been), the psalmist is confident that goodness, not evil, has the final word.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Chapter 13 is frequently read as a beautiful Hymn to Love, especially at weddings. Although it yields excellent meaning apart from its context, one should always remember that it is the “middle chapter” of Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts. Chapter 12 concluded with an instructive link: “Yet I will show you a still more excellent way” (12:31b). The more excellent way is the way of love. Chapter 14 opens with the command to “pursue love,” linking what Paul is about to say back to “the way of love.” Thus, these structural links reveal that the Hymn to Love is the most important part of Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts.
Technically speaking, the Pauline letters refer to love as one of “the fruit of the Spirit” (e.g., Gal 5:22-23), not a “spiritual gift.” Whereas there are no “every member gifts” (see last week’s commentary), every Christian is expected to bear the fruit of love. No doubt the Corinthians were eager to follow Paul’s exhortation to “strive for the greater gifts” (12:31a), but he would prefer that they follow the “more excellent way” of love.

The chapter opens with Paul utilizing his apostolic ministry as an illustration (compare the function of chapter 13 with the function of chapter 9, the “middle chapter” in the discussion of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols, in chapters 8-10). The New Testament contains many examples of Paul exercising the spiritual gifts listed in the opening paragraph (vv. 1-3): speaking in tongues, prophesying, revealing mysteries and special knowledge, exercising miraculous faith, giving away his possessions, and handing over his body to his apostolic calling (note: in place of this last expression some manuscripts read “giving my body to be burned,” a reference either to martyrdom or to being branded as a slave). Nevertheless, Paul stated emphatically that unless such admirable deeds are motivated by love, they benefit him nothing. (The careful reader will note that he did not say that without love these deeds would not benefit other people. If we could but look upon the heart, no doubt we would be amazed at how frequently commendable deeds spring from non-commendable motives.)

The next paragraph (vv. 4-7) is not a static definition of love; rather, it is a dynamic description of some of the things love does and does not do. Unfortunately, most English translations render the active Greek verbs as predicate adjectives following the verb “is,” a poor linguistic swap! The reader is strongly encouraged to engage in a word study of vv. 4-7, something space will not here allow. Paul’s description of love in action confirms his earlier statement that “knowledge puffs up but love builds up” (8:1).

In the final paragraph (vv. 8-13) Paul stressed the abiding quality of love. Because spiritual gifts—even prophecy, speaking in tongues, and knowledge—are partial, they are temporary. One day they will come to an end, when that which is partial is completed. In stark contrast, “love never ends” (v. 8). Indeed, love is the greatest of Paul’s frequently mentioned triad of virtues—faith, hope, and love—because love endures even when faith has become sight and hope is fulfilled. Love endures because God is love (see 1 John 4:8-10).

Throughout this passage the term for love is agape. Yet agape is but one of several Greek words designating the various forms of love. A question sure to be on the minds of readers of this passage is, How does agape relate to other forms of love, especially eros? William Beardslee, the founding director of The Process and Faith Program, suggested an answer in First Corinthians: A Commentary for Today (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1994) 131-3.

In this text Paul did not grapple with the question of how generous love, which asks nothing for itself (agape), and the love of longing or desire, which is a movement toward what does have value (eros), are related to each other. Many classic treatments of this contrast have made the two loves as different as possible. They are different. The contrast is a fruitful one for our thinking and our imagination.

But ask yourself the question: does Paul’s great chapter on love have nothing to do with how friends or people who love each other or married couples get along with each other? Of course it does! It cannot be the whole story, because all these relationships fulfill needs that are not in view in the chapter on love.
What Paul does is to bring agape so thoroughly into the human world that it can be, so to speak, a conversation partner with the other kinds of love. He pictures our own engagement in love, and sets it in relation to the concrete problems that we . . . live through, in such a way that we cannot escape its being a real possibility, something that can really come to pass in our lives. The deep engagement and interaction of love with all the energies of life means, as Christians have often been reluctant to admit, that there is no wholly unambiguous love. Love is always interwoven with claims for power, for instance, in ways of which the lover is often unconscious. Nevertheless, generous love is possible and real. . . .

What Paul says elsewhere about agape is foundational—that it comes from God, that it is God’s love, that the cross of Christ has actualized it in our Christian history in a decisive way. . . .

But chapter 13 gives us the other side, the picture of how love enters into the common life, how though it is God’s love it is also our love, which can enter into conversation with and give direction to the energies of our lives, including our erotic or romantic love.

These other energies do come from God and are good, although they are so powerful that we may find it hard to hold them in a harmonious whole. We cannot simply impose agape upon them. They have their own importance and their own integrity. But in Christian faith we discover that the truest clue to how we belong together and give to each other is the love that Paul so powerfully describes in the chapter. . . . [Agape] can give meaning and depth to the whole of life, and give direction to the very necessary self-expression and assertion of our needs that the other kinds of love, by their nature, express.

Luke 4:21-30
Today’s Gospel lection continues the programmatic story begun last week, the Preaching of Jesus at Nazareth. In today’s portion of the story we are introduced to two more themes that unfold in the Gospel narrative: the rejection of the good news by those scandalized by the radical inclusiveness of God’s grace, and the acceptance of the good news by those currently outside the community of faith (Samaritans and Gentiles).

Last week’s and this week’s readings overlap at v. 21, a pivotal verse. For generations, the people had been looking forward to the fulfillment of their messianic hopes. Jesus’ announcement electrified the congregation! The dean of contemporary preachers, Fred Craddock, expressed the significance of Jesus’ announcement as follows:

The “someday” of hope is now the “today” of fulfillment (v. 21). For Luke’s church and for us, it is still “today,” and preaching that turns “today” into another vague and distant “someday” has not listened carefully to the text. (Craddock, Hayes, Holladay, and Tucker, Preaching through the Christian Year: C [Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1994] 88.)

Beginning with v. 22, the passage becomes more difficult to interpret. Although we do not have a report of Jesus’ sermon, clearly the congregation’s initial response to the sermon was positive. By the end of the story, however, the congregation tried to stone him. At what point, and for what cause, did the congregation turn on him? Some interpreters see the beginning of the change of attitude in the question, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” These commentators understand the question to arise from feelings of doubt: Does he really expect us to believe that he is a prophet? Other interpreters, however, believe that the question expresses amazement rather than skepticism: Who would have thought that he would be a prophet? The latter is the better reading, in my opinion. The following reconstruction provides a convincing explanation of the congregation’s devolving response to Jesus.

Initially, the congregation was elated. They had heard of the wondrous things he had said and done elsewhere before coming to his hometown (vv. 14-15). If he did those things among strangers, imagine what he will do among us! They felt themselves to be in a privileged position. In response to this attitude, Jesus uttered a famous proverb: “Doctor, cure yourself!” (v. 23) This is open to two interpretations. (1) The most natural understanding, and the way it is used elsewhere, is to make “yourself” refer to Jesus. Unfortunately, that reading does not make much sense in the present context. (2) “Yourself” can refer to Nazareth. That certainly fits with the remainder of the verse: “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.”  In response to their attitude of privilege, Jesus uttered another proverb, one that occurs several times in the New Testament (Mark 6:4, Matt 13:57, Luke 4:24, John 4:44). The fact that patris can be translated “hometown” or “home country” helps explain the expansion Jesus made in vv. 25-27.

The Nazarenes had heard Jesus’ sermon from the perspective of privilege: God’s blessings were about to fall upon them. To their amazement, Jesus stated that God’s blessings were not limited to Israel, but were for the Gentiles as well. To demonstrate that this was not a new teaching regarding God’s grace, he referred to the stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha who brought God’s blessings to Gentiles rather than Jews (1 Kings 17:1, 8-16; 18:1; 2 Kings 5:1-14). Clearly, no one, even “God’s people,” should ever think of themselves as privileged. God’s love is inclusive, not exclusive. Adopting an exclusivist attitude actually causes one to miss God’s blessings, for closed hands, hearts, and minds can no longer receive blessings.

Filled with rage, the congregation drove Jesus out of town to the edge of a cliff, where they intended to throw him onto the rocks below. (Stoning could be either by casting stones at the victim or casting the victim on stones.) How Jesus escaped the mob’s fury is not described, a fact that has occasioned much fruitless speculation.

Alan Culpepper summarized the lesson in pointed fashion: “The paradox of the gospel . . . is that the unlimited grace that it offers so scandalizes us that we are unable to receive it. Jesus could not do more for his hometown because they were not open to him. How much more might God be able to do with us if we were ready to transcend the boundaries of community and limits of love that we ourselves have erected?” (The Gospel of Luke, in The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995] 9:108-109.)

Ronald L. Farmer served as  the Irvin C. and Edy Chapman Dean of the Wallace All Faiths Chapel Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Chapman University. In addition to numerous essays and articles in various books and journals, he is the author of Beyond the Impasse: The Promise of a Process Hermeneutic and Revelation in the series Chalice Commentaries for Today. He now resides in Ecuador with his wife.