Texts for Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Nov 17, 2019)
Texts: OT – Isaiah 65.17-25; NT – 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13; Gospel – Luke 21.5-19
All biblical quotations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted.
Texts cited: Texts For Preaching: Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C, eds. Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCain, James D. Newsome (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) – cited as TFP
“The Book of Second Isaiah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” Christopher R. Seitz, in The New Interpreters Bible, Volume VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001, pp. 309-552 – cited as TNIB
N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) – hereafter LFE
The Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 65 belongs to what most scholars and commentators – ancient and modern – refer to as “Second Isaiah,” which begins at Isa 40 and runs to the end of the book (unless one subscribes to a "Third Isaiah," which runs from chs 55-66). It is called this because suddenly at this point in the book – what we identify as chapter 40 – the Babylonian victory and captivity of Jerusalem and Judah is now fully presupposed (TNIB 327). The text breaks off predicting and speaks as a matter of fact that Jerusalem has “received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins (Isa 40.2).
Interestingly, our reading, 65.17-25, is a celebration of God’s future and the creation of “new heavens and a new earth” (v.17). This, however, must have been a most unlikely message at the time it was written to the Hebrew people living in Jerusalem (around the year 475BC). As noted in TFP 596, two full generations had passed since their ancestors had joyfully set out from Babylon, full of optimism and hope, to return to Jerusalem and restore its fortunes (cf. Ps 126.1). Almost half a century had passed and yet Jerusalem remained largely in ruins. The temple had been "restored," but it was a shadow of the glory of the former temple, and there was yet not city walls. Into this darkness, Second Isaiah, and our text in particular, announces the newness of God’s future for God’s people – the people of Israel. God doubles-down, so to speak, on the ancient promises and covenants and Second Isaiah declares that not only are they still true, they are much, much bigger and grander, than the people had realized. Similar to Jesus’s message last week to the Sadducess about resurrection reality, Yahweh announces in Second Isaiah that God’s future is not simply a restoration or perpetuation of historic Jerusalem – with its walls and marketplaces and temple. God’s future is radical! As TFP 597 explains, “The new Jerusalem that Yahweh had in mind far transcended the new Jerusalem of the merchants and traders and housewives who called the city of David home. Yes, that Jerusalem had been restored—somewhat, at lest. But…God’s ideal was not just a new Jerusalem, but a New Jerusalem!” The future does not just involve the reconstruction of Jerusalem and a restoration of the Davidic line, Israel’s God is about to create “new heavens and a new earth” (v. 17)! And this New Jerusalem will be a peaceable kingdom in which the brokenness of nature because of sin is also restored (v.25).
The reading from 2 Thessalonians 3 is a stern warning against behaviour within the community of those who confess Jesus as Lord that distorts the Gospel message of a present and future new reality brought about by God’s action for us in Jesus Christ (i.e., the “Good News”), so that it becomes a licence for self-indulgent behaviour that undermines the integrity of the community. Again, this lection may difficult to understand by many of us today, and it is tricky to read without lapsing into a kind of legalism in which faith is simply a matter of rules. But this is not what is happening here.
The problem addressed in the Thessalonian community is translated as “idleness.” In fact, the NIV and NRSV both title this lection “Warning Against Idleness.” And the command given is “to keep away from everyone brother [or sister] who is idle” (v. 6). The NETBible’s translation is much more helpful, in my opinion: “keep away from any brother [or sister] who lives an undisciplined life.” The Greek word here is ἀτάκτως (ataktos), which means “1) disorderly, out of ranks (often so of soldiers) 2) irregular, inordinate, immoderate pleasures 3) deviating from the prescribed order or rule.” So it primarily describes the sort of behaviour that is unruly, irresponsible, or self-indulgent. Apparently in the Thessalonian community of Jesus-followers there were those who irresponsibly ate the food of others in the community “without paying for it” (v. 8), and were unwilling to work (cf. TFP 599). We could call this “idleness,” but the deeper issue here seems to be that there is a deep refusal – we might call it rebellion – to enter into the life of the community of faith with the kind of commitment it requires. In other words, some people were taking advantage of the generosity of the community but not at all willing to be in mutual submission to the others (Eph 5.21-22) or to place the needs of others ahead of their own. This jeopardizes the very integrity of Christian communities, particularly those communities that emerged from Paul’s missionary journeys. And the letter is clear: this is not the tradition that was handed down to them by Paul (v. 6; again, the NETBible makes this clear in its translation).
Finally, in the Gospel lection from Luke 21.5-19, Jesus describe the eschatological future as a time of testing and turmoil– in general, but also specifically for those who confess Jesus as Lord. In fact, the confusion, violence, and persecution that followers of Jesus will encounter in God’s future for them, is not only something that will happen as a matter of course, but Jesus describes it in such a way that it is that which brings about their witness for Jesus (v. 13). (Here the NIV's translation conveys this much more clearly than the NRSV or the NETBible, which both translate the testing as merely providing an opportunity or a time for witness. But that is not really what the Greek seems to be saying.)
The initial focus of the reading is on the destruction of the Temple, and the Temple has been Jesus’s focus ever since his entry into Jerusalem in ch. 19 (what we often call “The Triumphal Entry”). Since arriving in Jerusalem (Lk 19.28-40), Jesus has cleansed the Temple (19.45-48), fielded challenging questions in the Temple (20.1-40), taught about the Messiah in the Temple (20.45-47), and has observed the poor widow giving alms in the Temple (21.1-4). Now Jesus, standing in the Temple gates, declares that the Temple would be torn down. Taken all together, what we see here, as N.T. Wright observes, is that the Temple “had come to stand for the perversion of Israel’s call that Jesus had opposed throughout his career” (LFE 251). As Jesus goes on to describe this time of the destruction – which he puts to the disciples as imminent and which Luke’s readers would already have seen – as a time of trouble and testing for God’s people. Jesus describes his followers as being opposed, betrayed, and reviled by pretty much everyone, including closest family members and friends. But Jesus also promises God’s protection for those who are faithful (21.18) and eternal life (21.19). Furthermore, this time of testing will bring about the conditions in which their witness to God is made clear (21.13). What we find in this text, ultimately, is that God’s reign undercuts and threatens every established power structure and brings about violent and dramatic opposition. But the end of it all is the coming of the Son of Man “with power and great glory” (21.28).