YEAR C: SEASON OF PENTECOST
(Sunday between October 23 and October 29)
This week we have a brief excursus into the Book of Joel, one of the minor prophets. The book is not easy to fix in time, although internal evidence (quotations from other biblical books; the lack of any reference to Assyria or Babylonia; mention of the temple and worship established in Jerusalem but awareness of the destruction of Jerusalem; and references to certain foreign peoples) suggests to many scholars a fifth century BCE date, a century or more after Jeremiah and possibly half a century after the return from exile. The lectionary, therefore, places today’s reading in an appropriate historical position coming after the readings from Jeremiah.
Joel begins with the description of a natural disaster – a locust plague probably associated with drought (1:2-4, 8-20). This is interpreted as the Day of the Lord, an ancient concept originally associated with a day of victory of the Lord’s army in battle, but later associated with the Lord’s judgment upon his own disobedient people (cf. Amos 5:18-24). That is the way the natural disaster is understood, as God’s judgment upon the people (2:1-2). Moreover, the plague of locusts is described as an enormous army, unstoppable as it marches through the land (2:3-11). There is, however, some confusion in the text as to whether that is indeed the way the metaphor works. Is the locust plague like a great army, or is the army compared to a locust plague (see 2:20)? In any case, the distinction is a moot point for the people of Jerusalem and Judah.
But this disaster is not the end of the matter. In chapter 2:12 the tone changes. ‘Even now’ if the people turn to the Lord, he may yet turn and relent (2:14). At heart the Lord is known to be ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in covenant loyalty, and relents in punishment’ (v. 13). In response to the people’s turning, God turns and renews not only his people but the face of the earth (vv. 19, 21-22).
It is at this point that today’s passage begins. It picks up the joy at this great turn of events. Not only do the soil and the animals rejoice, but the ‘children of Zion’ rejoice in the Lord and his gifts to his people. Judgment issues in joy. And all of this is so that Israel may know that the Lord is in its midst, is their God and there is no other (v. 27). This is not just a point about the Lord’s ego and need to be wanted. It is a serious point about matters of allegiance and faithfulness, about who and what lies at the heart of the people’s lives. Ultimately it is about the Lord’s ability to sustain his people, and fill them with life (vv. 28-29). That is the point of the gift of the spirit in this context. It is available to all, old, young, male, female, slave and free. Mention of the gifts of prophecy, dreams and visions, is not to say that all would now have special powers to see into the future. Prophets were very rarely foreseers of distant things to come. The emphasis on prophets here is to draw attention to the nearness of the Lord, to an understanding and awareness of his presence and to his direct communication with his people, things once available only to a few gifted individuals, but now available to all (cf. Jer 31:34).
There has been an eschatological tone about what we have been reading thus far in Joel, but vv. 30-32 take the imagery and message to a new level. We enter the realm of apocalyptic with these verses. No longer are we talking about earthly realities, be they plagues or war; now the imagery shifts to great changes in the cosmic realm. There seems to be a new age of judgment yet to come beyond that already mentioned, and a new salvation for those who remain faithful beyond the turning of both people and God already outlined. Joel stands at the boundary between prophecy as Israel once knew it, and apocalyptic as it will emerge, as for example in the second half of the Book of Daniel, chapters 7-12, or in the New Testament in the Book of Revelation.
A few final points could be noted. First, while today’s passage is mostly about a joyous response to God’s mercy and deliverance, it is still deeply embedded in a wider message of judgment and repentance. In fact, God’s mercy is only known in and through the context of God’s judgment. Unless there is a turning on our part there can be no joy in the mercy of God. The tax-collector in the Gospel reading (Luke 18:9-14) understood it. This is not to slip back into thinking we can somehow buy God’s mercy and forgiveness. Rather, it is to understand more fully the intricate relationship of repentance, mercy and love. In a world where lies and deception have become ‘acceptable’ in declarations of war, or standard fare in the portrayal of refugees and others at disadvantage, or the fodder that feeds election campaigns, do we not need to understand again the place of repentance and judgment in our hope for a better world?
Secondly, while there may be little joy in waiting for truth to become an important part of public life, we draw our hope not from our own repentance, or that of our leaders, but ultimately from God’s grace and mercy and willingness to turn and change which outstrips any thoughts we might entertain in that direction. The only hope we have rests in God and God’s willingness to repent or turn. God knows us as we are even when we try and hide from ourselves, and yet would receive us in mercy (cf. Ps 139).
Thirdly, in several places in Joel the response of the people is expressed in worship (2:12, 15-17, 26 etc.). Even if it is hard in public life to speak of truth and repentance, in worship these things can, and must, be proclaimed. The apocalyptic note at the end of today’s reading (vv. 30-32) is a timely reminder that our daily struggles for truth and justice and calls for repentance and faithfulness, are but a reflection of a far greater struggle and call that goes on in the heart of God, and which is imbued with a mercy and faithfulness too deep for understanding. Only in worship can that be proclaimed. Only in worship can the deceptions and reluctance to repent, which pervade public and private life, be assailed. And only in worship can this be expressed in the presence of the one who is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
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