Saturday, September 11, 2021

September 26, 2021 - 18th Sunday after Pentecost

                                    Biblical Words                                [735]

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22;  Psalm 124;  James 5:13-20;  Mark 9:38-50

Threats come to God’s people from the outside, but the disciples also find people who are not against them.

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22.  

At this point in our readings, the Lectionary interrupts the Solomonic-related selections to tell another (and much later) story of a great king and his court, especially of his counselors and his wives.  We skip to the book of Esther, set in Persian times.  Our reading gives only the climax of the story and the Jewish celebration based on it. 

In Jewish tradition this is one of “the Five Scrolls,” each of which was read at a Jewish festival during the year.  The last of the “Five,” Esther, is read at the festival of Purim, a minor festival in the 12th month of the year (approximately February-March), normally just one month before the Passover.  Purim, meaning “lots,” had to do with casting lots to determine a date or destiny for the coming year, though little is known about the ancient festival. 

The scroll tells the story of an attempted pogrom against the Judeans, an organized plot to dispossess and kill the Judean people living in dispersion among a host people, in this case the Persians. 

The top-ranking Persian official Haman became incensed because the Judean Mordecai refused to bow down to him.  In his fury Haman initiated the plot to have the Judeans in all the Persian provinces killed on a certain day.  Haman cast a lot to fix a divinely chosen date for the slaughter (3:7). 

At the last moment, as our reading relates, the beautiful Judean woman Esther, who had become the king’s favorite wife, exposed Haman’s plot to the king and Haman was hung high on his own gallows, intended for his Judean enemy Mordecai.  The date fixed by lot becomes a day of joy, festival, and gift-giving instead of a day of doom and death for the Judeans, and Mordecai proclaimed that Judeans everywhere should observe it (9:20-22). 

There is also a darker side to the story, omitted from our reading.  The plot of the evil Persians is turned against them and the Judeans are permitted to slaughter them instead of being their victims (8:11-12; 9:1-19).  This is a deep fantasy for subjugated peoples, that those who hate and harass them will, at a divinely fixed time, be themselves eliminated and killed instead. 

Both this darker element in the story and the names of the leading Jewish characters indicate that Purim and its story is a Judean adaptation of Babylonian seasonal rituals and their accompanying myths. 

The names “Esther” and “Mordecai” are simply the goddess Ishtar and the god Marduk with slightly different pronunciations of their names. 

The beautiful goddess appears before the high god and secures the deliverance of her people from the threats of their enemies, and the war-god Marduk defeats his enemy in the older council of the gods and takes over his status and powers. 

Reduced (or elevated) to the modest level of pious Judean people of the Diaspora, the drama of the old Babylonian myths lives on in local legend and the religious calendar. 

Psalm 124.  

While the story in Esther (in its Hebrew version) makes no direct reference to God, the Psalm reading vigorously corrects that oversight.  The psalm is an ecstatic thanksgiving for deliverance by the Lord from powerful enemies who have threatened to swallow up the people. 

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
      when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
      when their anger was kindled against us (verses 2-3, NRSV). 

The threat is restated with cosmic overtones –

the flood would have swept us away,

                  the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
      the raging waters (verses 4-5). 

This is the kind of language used in celebrating the Lord’s triumph over the floods of chaos in, for example, Psalm 93. 

This water imagery of chaos was conventional throughout the Mesopotamian cultural sphere, reflected graphically in Marduk’s triumph over Tiamat (“the Deep”) in the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish.  The Hebrew tehom, the “deep” of Genesis 1:2, and tehom rabbah, “great deep” of Isaiah 51:10, are echoes of the Babylonian tiamat. 

The psalm continues by blessing Yahweh for such a deliverance of the people, now pictured as the rescue of an innocent bird from a snare, very appropriate to the Esther story:   

We have escaped like a bird

      from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
      and we have escaped (verse 7). 

James 5:13-20.  

The Epistle reading brings us to the last selection from the letter of James. 

The reading concerns the ministry within the assembly of God’s people.  The means of this ministry are prayer and songs.  The people are urged to pray when they suffer and to sing when they are joyful! 

The elders in particular have a ministry to the sick, with prayer and anointing with oil in the name of the Lord.  The power of prayer by the righteous is urged, with examples of Elijah using prayer to prevent rain for three and a half years, and then using prayer again to bring rain and prosperity – alluding to I Kings 17 and 18. 

Related to healing the sick is the importance of confessing sins, an action in which believers minister to each other:  “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another…” (verse 16, NRSV). 

The last thought of the epistle is poignant.  Those who have been inside the community of faith may sometimes wander away.  “If anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (verses 19-20). 

The epistle is addressed to a modest but enduring community from which members sometimes stray off, presumably to other religious groups or to godless ways of life.  Each member of the Christian group is challenged to work with such individuals in the hope of occasionally winning one back so that all may rejoice in the soul recovered from the sickness of the world. 

The people of God are also saved from outside threats, one by one! 

 Mark 9:38-50. 

The Gospel reading (only 9:38-41 will be addressed here) presents the issue of outsiders in relation to the chosen group.  The outsiders here are not hostile, they are only competitors, at least as the disciples see them. 

Someone outside the circle of Jesus’ chosen disciples is performing healing miracles using Jesus’ name.  Jesus instructs the disciples that if such folks are doing good they are on our side.  “Whoever is not against us is for us.”   

This is a potentially difficult saying, especially for organized religion. 

The world is divided here, not into two groups, “we” and “they,” but into three:  (1) we, (2) those who are against us, and (3) those who are not against us.  

As the decades passed, much of Christian life in the larger world had to do with living with this large third group.  Christian churches in our own time live among these same three groups – especially among the great number who are simply “not against us”! 

This passage reflects a time when the name “Christ” had become the mark of his followers.  Outside people may be favorably disposed toward those who bear the name Christ, and such people are included in some way in the benefits of Christ’s coming:  “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward” (verse 41, NRSV). 

There is here a curious relation between those who are confessing Christians and those who do not confess but think Christians are nice people and good for the community! 

These circumstances might reflect a situation in Rome as early as the time of the Emperor Claudius (reigned 41-54 CE), when the larger Judean [“Jewish”] community there was disrupted by disputes over a “Chrestus.”  Because of these disorders Claudius banished all Judeans from Rome, around 49 CE.  (Mentioned in the Latin biographer Suetonius’ Life of Claudius, 25.4.)  Things done and lives changed “in the name of Christ” were beginning to make a difference in the Roman world. 

Our Gospel passage suggests that the coming of God’uggests that the coming of God'od called all sorts of people to serve the common good.   will -- whether their political or rels reign (kingdom) is happening among many people of good will – whether their political or religious beliefs fit our exact requirements or not.  Days of persecution and suffering were still ahead, but the Jesus followers were not unalterably set in a we-they opposition to the human world. 

That human world, the oikoumenē, was the mission field where God empowered all sorts of people to serve the common good. 


Monday, September 6, 2021

September 19, 2021 - 17th Sunday after Pentecost.

                   Biblical Words                        [734]

Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37.

The Family of God includes:  the marvelously capable woman, the Torah-directed man, the modest doer of good works, and the child in Jesus’ arms. 

Proverbs 31:10-31. 

The readings from the Solomonic traditions of the Hebrew scriptures conclude with the well-known passage from Proverbs about the ideal wife. 

This twenty-two verse poem is an alphabetic acrostic, each verse starting with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  

This explains why, for example, textile activities appear in different parts of the poem (verses 13, 19, 22, 24), each activity fitting a letter in a different part of the alphabet.  A writer has demonstrated her or his skill in the mastery of language while singing the praises of  “the capable woman/wife” (‘ēsheth ḫayil, verse 10). 

The poem appears to present a many-skilled kind of super-mom, who attends to all the household business from real estate (verse 16) to food importing (verse 14) to textile manufacturing (verses 13 and 19), including the supplying of a garment district (verses 18 and 24), to the management of charitable (verse 20) and educational (verse 26) enterprises.  All the members of her family are safe and comfortable (verse 21), her husband trusts her and stands high among the citizenry (verses 11-12 and 23) and her household staff is well supervised (verses 15 and 27).  She is honored and acclaimed by those who depend on her and love her (verses 28-29) and her faith in God exceeds all transitory charm and beauty (verse 30)! 

But wait!  The poem is susceptible of another reading:  the “woman” can also be an ideal city. 

It is not uncommon for prophets to speak of the city as a mother (metropolis = mētēr polis, mother city) whose conduct seriously affects the destiny of her children.  A literal rendering of verse 11 – “Her lord (ba’al) has trusted in her and plunder (shālāl) is not lacking” – fits a city better than a household or estate.  The wide range of the woman’s activities actually cover the needs of a prosperous royal or temple city, and together constitute the common good. 

Thus, the woman’s faithfulness to her lord, her never sleeping in her care for her dependents, her care for the poor and needy, and her overseeing the agricultural, commercial, and cultural needs of her family are a portrayal of the soul of the true city, the blessed human community. 

Psalm 1.  

If the Solomonic passage (in Proverbs) extols the ideal woman, the Davidic passage in the Psalms praises the man of ideal Torah devotion. 

The gender-correcting NRSV has converted the single male of the Hebrew – “Happy the man who has not followed the counsel of the wicked,…” New Jewish Publication Version – into a plurality – “Happy are those who do not follow…”  But something serious is lost in this change to the plural. 

The scroll of Psalms was recited continuously in Judean piety after the time of Ezra, and its opening words put an unqualified charge to the individual:  each person in the center of his (or her) own being stands before God, and the Torah is the only mediator between them.  The charge is a personal and individual one.  To be totally devoted to the Torah in all movements of life – walks, stands, sits in verse 1 – is the key to all the rest of life. 

A happier solution of the gender issue is achieved by the New Jerusalem Bible:  “How blessed is anyone who rejects the advice of the wicked…” – though this still loses the escalation of verse one:  walks-stands-sits, as in the Hebrew (and the old RSV!). 

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a. 

The Epistle reading begins with a contrast between “the wisdom from above” and earthly divisive wisdom.  The speaker sees the external conflict between wisdom and unwisdom turned into a conflict within the person, the divided self (“your cravings that are at war within you”). 

The hearers are summoned to “show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”. . . 

The rest of the passage addresses the divided self. 

This speaker has a strong sense of the destructiveness of the divided personality.  Conflicts and disputes come from “cravings that are at war within you” (4:1).  One of the worst faults one can name is being “double-minded” (4:8b).  The divided, conflicted person is destructive and dangerous.  The true wisdom of God (3:17), which is “gentle” like the lamb, works within to bring peace and “a harvest of righteousness” (3:18). 

Mark 9:30-37. 

The Gospel reading presents the very human desires of Jesus’ disciples for “greatness.” 

The episode begins when Jesus again tells them of his coming passion and resurrection (verse 31), which is the key to Jesus’ own greatness.  However, what he says remains unintelligible to the disciples (verse 32).  They seem to be wholly fixed on another conception of greatness – as glory to come. 

Back at home base in Capernaum, after their trek through areas around Galilee, Jesus asks the disciples what they had discussed so intently on the road.  They are ashamed to tell him.  The envy and egotism that the writer of James would warn against a generation or two later was at work from an early time among Jesus’ chosen twelve. 

Jesus’ address to this condition is not to praise either a valiant woman of faith or a man of scripture study, but to place a child in their midst. 

The Reign of God – we have driven home to us in so many ways – turns things upside down.  The leaders must be the servants; the first can only be those who are last; the model of all is the one marked most of all as being dependent – the child, to paidíon (neuter), too young and innocent to even have a gender. 

The rest of this passage reflects a situation in which the name of Jesus has become a critical mark of his followers:  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me …” (verse 37). 

This saying also makes clear that “child” here does not mean only or primarily a toddler or pre-adolescent. 

If you are “welcoming” the person, the person has been out on one’s own, perhaps lost and pursued by oppressors, but dependent because of their distress, not because of their age.  The “child,” the little one, is one of the people who need and wait for Jesus in humility and dependence. 

The child is the homeless, the vagrant, the delinquent.  These children are those Jesus calls “the least of these who are members of my family” (Matthew 25:40). 


Thursday, August 26, 2021

September 12, 2021 - 16th Sunday after Pentecost

                                               Biblical Words                                         [733]

Proverbs 1:20-33Psalm 19;  James 3:1-12Mark 8:27-38

Wisdom is in the streets, and along a road toward Jerusalem. 

Proverbs 1:20-33.  

The reading from the Proverbs of Solomon presents a dramatic piece of street preaching – prophetic preaching.  We hear a narrator tell how Wisdom cries in the street, and then we hear her words in the rest of the passage. 

This figure is Woman Wisdom.  She appears in several passages through Proverbs 1-9, perhaps most dramatically, apart from the present passage, in 8:22-36.  She also has an opposite number in these chapters, the Woman Folly (9:13), also called the “loose woman,” an adulteress seducing naïve and foolish young men who ignore Wisdom (2:16, and see the full passages 7:1-27 and 9:13-18).  These personifications are dramatic, sometimes erotic, and may reflect deeper currents of religion and culture than simply literary devices.  

But in our passage we hear the I-told-you-so sermon of Woman Wisdom. 

To repeat, Woman Wisdom does street preaching.  She is heard in the street, in the squares, at the busiest corner, and at the entrance to the city gates – which were indeed the busiest corners in any ancient walled city.  What she offers concerns the real world, the world of traffic, trouble, and turmoil.  This is not ivory tower wisdom, not school-marm learning. 

The key question is, Is it too late?  

Woman Wisdom seems to summon the simple, the scoffers, and the fools to learn from her, but goes on to say that they have already rejected her and her ways, and now disaster – panic and calamity – impend over them.  Therefore she laughs at them because of their foolishness.  

Looking at disastrous lives around her, she says, “I told you so!”  When it is too late, “then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; …”  Because they hated knowledge and despised Wisdom’s “reproof” (disciplining), they must suffer the consequences of their perversity (verses 29-31).  “For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them.” 

Is it too late?  Apparently there are still some who could listen and learn:  “[T]hose who listen to me will be secure and will live … without dread of disaster” (verse 33). 

It may still be possible to learn from the mistakes of others! 

Psalm 19. 

The Psalm for this Sunday is a familiar one.  It appears twice in the Lectionary in Year B, here and on the Third Sunday in Lent (along with the Ten Commandments).  It also appears once late in Year A (along with the Ten Commandments) and once in Year C, the 3rd Sunday in Epiphany.  This psalm is often associated with the Torah, and it is on its way to equating God’s law with God’s wisdom. 

The psalm opens as a hymn, exulting in God’s glory in the heavens, especially the march of the sun that rules over the daylight world (verses 1-6).  It ends by meditating on the mystery and threat of errors and faults over which humans have no control, errors that may lurk in the vicissitudes of life, even for the righteous (verses 12-14). 

It is the middle section that relates this psalm to Wisdom.  

This part is a hymn in praise of God’s “law” / “decrees” / “precepts,” etc.  Six synonyms are used for the guidance God has given, and six benefits from that guidance are cited. 

The law of the Lord … revives the soul;

The decrees of the Lord … make wise the simple
      (the same "simple" as in Woman Wisdom's preaching);
The precepts of the Lord … rejoice the heart;
The commandments of the Lord … enlighten the eyes;
The fear of the Lord … endures forever;
The ordinances of the Lord … are righteous altogether. 

This psalm is clear that God’s torah, God’s guidance given in historical times and available in specific forms, is the source of the wisdom needed by those who would follow God’s way and benefit from its blessings.  That Torah is the only trustworthy guide through the secret errors and hidden faults that could so easily destroy the simple and uninstructed. 

James 3:1-12. 

Since much of Wisdom is about speech – language and words – it is very fitting that the Epistle reading should give us a diatribe on the organ of speech:  the Taming of the Tongue.  (Title courtesy of the HarperCollins Study Bible.)  The wit, wisdom, and sarcasm of this passage is delightful.  It doesn’t need commenting upon as much as it needs re-reading. 

Still, a few high points to enjoy.  

The speaker admits to being a “teacher” (all of whom tend to talk too much), but – horrors – he also admits that teachers make mistakes!  He says “Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle” (verse 2, NRSV).  We know where the tongue is during that statement:  firmly in the cheek!!  

And of these forest fires that the tongue can set (verses 5b-6) – when he has warmed to this subject he insists that only hell can extinguish the evils sparked by the tongue! 

This reading from James links well with the Gospel reading of two Sundays ago when Mark has Jesus speak of the things that defile people.  It is the things that come OUT of people that defile, and that means things that come out of the mouth by means of the tongue:  “… wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:22-23). 

Mark 8:27-38. 

At first sight the Gospel reading is not about wisdom, at least not about the kind of wisdom that produces success in the world. 

This passage is the Great Turning Point in the Gospel According to Mark. 

Here it is finally openly declared by the disciples – with Peter as their spokesman – who Jesus really is:  the Anointed One (Messiah).  We can probably understand that by this title Peter meant a powerful leader who would rule in power to restore Israel’s glorious past.  The hearer of the Gospel, however, knows that this Anointed One brings the paradoxical wisdom needed by the foolish, the meek, and the needy. 

And in the same moment of this triumphant declaration, Jesus states clearly that he “must” go up to Jerusalem and get himself killed, in order to rise again. 

To the Peter who has just hit a high point of declaring Jesus’ identity, this is not acceptable, and the two have a tiff.  Jesus, in Mark's presentation, seems concerned to demonstrate to the other disciples that he is firmly rebuking Peter:  “Go to hell, Peter,” is more or less what he says (verse 33).  

And the very next section of teaching – not just to the disciples but to all the crowds who come around him – is that world-turned-upside-down aspect of the gospel.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (verse 35). 

And as if speaking to the many generations of wisdom teachers, as well as aspiring wisdom pupils of the present, he says, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” 

Wisdom seeks what is truly profitable -- profitable to humans as the value and goal of their lives.  And when the gospel of Jesus is placed in that curriculum, values tend to get overturned.  Final blessedness lies in trudging to Jerusalem and testifying to God’s work in Jesus, with the full likelihood of dying as a result. 

The Wisdom presented in the gospel could not be better said than by Paul’s words. 

For Judeans demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Judeans and foolishness to the Nations, but to those who are the called, both Judeans and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (I Corinthians 1:22-25, NRSV modified). 

The wisdom of the gospel is to remake the world in the image of God’s love through Jesus the Anointed One. 


Friday, August 20, 2021

September 5, 2021 - 15th Sunday after Pentecost

                               Biblical Words                           [732]

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37.

 What is wise in the ordinary world may be reversed by divine mercy. 

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23.  

This season of “ordinary time,” devoted to hearing the Biblical traditions in sequence, continues with more readings associated with King Solomon. 

This selection from Proverbs gives samples of three kinds of wisdom sayings, teaching respectively

1) enlightened self-interest,

2) a moral order at work in the social universe, and

3) warnings to avoid injustice under threat of God’s punishment. 

Each proverb invites us to ponder some aspect of the human world (including God’s work in it), and, learning something, to adjust our conduct accordingly. 

Here are my pretty literal translations of the readings. 

1  A chosen name is better than great wealth;

         better than silver and gold is good favor. 

A “chosen” name is one that is on a list – a list of those to be invited, or consulted, or approved for credit.  “Favor” is attention and consideration at critical moments, especially by someone in a position of power toward someone seeking a “favor” – as when David says to Achish, “If I have found favor in your sight, let a place be given to me…” (I Sam. 27:5). 

The proverb affirms that reputation and favor are better than great wealth. 

Are they?  If you have the wealth, can’t you get the favor?  Another proverb says, “A gift opens doors; it gives access to the great” (18:16).  In the big picture our proverb must mean, If you have to choose between good character in the community and wealth – and sometimes you will have to choose – choose good character.  You will be better off in the long run. 

2  Rich person and poor person meet;

         maker of them all is the Lord. 

This proverb has a near duplicate in 29:13, “Poor person and creditor [Greek text] meet; the Lord enlightens the eyes of both.”  To translate “meet” as “…have this in common” (NRSV of 22:2) is pretty feeble for this Hebrew verb.  The verb means a surprising, shocking, encounter.  It means “run into a furious she-bear,” in Proverbs 17:12 and Hosea 13:8.  When a poor person in need runs into a friendly neighborhood lender, their eyes may light up at their prospects, but there is one Lord who oversees their transactions. 

8  One sowing injustice will harvest evil;

         the rod of his anger will fail. 
9  A kindly eye will be blessed,
         for he gives of his food to the poor. 

This type of wise saying affirms that good consequences will follow from good conduct and bad consequences from bad conduct.  The implication is that whatever appearances may be, deep down somewhere, if not openly obvious, wicked work will bring disaster – and good works will receive good rewards. 

Seen in a broad perspective, this is a pretty strong affirmation of faith.  It is a faith doggedly persisted in by masses of honest folks every day, and the wisdom tradition urges its ultimate truth. 

22   Do not rob a poor one because he is poor,

            and do not crush the afflicted in court,
23   because the Lord will take up their cause,
            and will extort the life of their extortioners. 

In the form of instructions from a sage to pupils or a senior official to subordinates, this wise saying could be straight from the prophets of Judah.  For example, “I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals…” (Amos 2:5), and “The Lord enters into judgment… ‘What do you mean by crushing my people; by grinding the face of the poor?’” (Isaiah 3:14-15). 

The sages and the prophets shared some basic issues of justice!

Psalm 125.  

The Psalm is a set of affirmations about the security of the place allotted to Israel, and a prayer for those who do good. 

The hills surrounding the city of Jerusalem (which are higher than the city in three directions) express solidly and permanently the cradling care of God for “his people” (verses 1-2).  The affirmation at the center of the psalm (verse 3) seems to relate to leadership:  No wicked chief or king (“scepter”) will rule over the allotted place of the righteous (= Zion), for such a ruler would lead the people into wrong doing.  Given the firm foundation of these hills, the singer prays for good to the doers of good, and predicts that the crooked will get lost (verses 4-5). 

The psalmist shares that faith in the moral order affirmed in the Proverbs passage. 

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17.  

The Epistle reading continues the rather practical instruction of the Letter from James. 

The reading shows an early church life in which there are considerable differences in the wealth, dress, and neediness of the members.  A variety of people may be present for Christian services.  “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly [synagogē], and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in…” (verse 2, NRSV). 

Or, in the community where Christians keep track of each other, there could be sharp differences in their goods.  “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily need,…” (verses 15-16). 

In these conditions of common life, our speaker highlights two offenses to which church members are tempted.  The first is “favoritism” (verse 1) or “partiality” (verse 9), an offense that we might call discrimination.  Elsewhere early Christian tradition made very clear that “God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:11 and Ephesians 6:9 with similar sayings in Colossians 3:25 and Acts 10:34).  A little later in our reading the speaker refers to “the royal law,” which is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (verse 8, quoting Leviticus 19:18).  Also in that old scripture stands the prohibition against showing “partiality.”  “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great:  with justice you shall judge your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:15, NRSV.)

The old torah insisted on strict even-handedness in rendering justice – not even the poor should receive any favoritism.  In the situation addressed by James, EVEN the poor should be treated with an even hand.  “But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (verse 9).  The shabby homeless one who wanders in to pray should be treated as respectfully as the lawyer and the first lady of the city. 

The other offense addressed by our reading is lack of mercy, that is, failure to be generous to the needy. 

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food…and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (verses 15-16).  That is, in such a case what has happened to your religion?  “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy” (verse 13).  And, whether Martin Luther liked it or not (he called James “an epistle of straw”), the gospel pronounced here says, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (verse 17). 

Mark 7:24-37.  

The Gospel reading is also about favoritism – discrimination – and about the mercy that gives healing.  The reading combines two contrasting episodes while Jesus was traveling in territories that were heavily non-Judean.

The first episode is about the Syrophoenician woman who was outside the allotted place and people to whom Jesus’ mission was directed. 

Jesus has gone on retreat – trying to avoid people in his need for a break.  A mother, driven by determination to get relief for her daughter, hears of his presence in her region and throws herself at his feet – vacation or no vacation.  The narrative explains that she was Greek (the word is hellenis), a Syrophoenician by birth – ethnic labels that make clear she was not an Israelite by any criterion.  She is seeking mercy from the now famous teacher and healer, mercy for her demon possessed daughter back home. 

In reply to her request, Jesus is quoted as making the famous (or infamous) remark, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (verse 27, NRSV).  (It may be significant that Jesus’ metaphor puts the issue in terms of foods and eating, considering that earlier in this chapter he has demolished the grounds for discriminating against people because of food laws!)  This reply is certainly a sharp case of discrimination, of favoritism toward the self-esteemed chosen people, Israel, and against the other peoples of the nations (“gentiles”). 

The woman grasps the direction of his response, but driven by her desperation she is inspired to make a wise reply.  Yes, but, children being what they are, the dogs will certainly get their share too – from what falls off the table. 

The woman believes in both the rightness of her case and in God’s ultimate support.  For the only time in the Gospels, Jesus is outdone – and admits as much.  “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter” (verse 29).  Discrimination and favoritism have been replaced by mercy, and the hearer of the Gospel knows that good news has been proclaimed to the nations! 

The second episode of the reading is a very unusual healing of a hearing-and-speech-impaired man.  Particularly striking is the almost bumbling manner of the healer’s work.  Having taken the man aside so they are alone, Jesus sticks his fingers in the man’s ears, puts spit on his tongue, looks up to heaven, and mutters something in Aramaic – like a magic formula or incantation.  This is certainly a different portrayal from the usual magisterial pronouncement of healing that is instantly accomplished.  This looks as if we have exposed the hidden truth of Jesus the Magician! 

(This episode is sufficiently dark that neither Matthew nor Luke have repeated it from Mark’s Gospel!) 

In Mark, however, this healing story has a twin (also omitted by Matthew and Luke) – a story told a little later about healing a blind man in much the same manner.  “He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’…Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored…” (Mark 8:23-25). 

Commentators have well observed that these two stories, which stand out so graphically from other healing episodes, are symbolic of hearing and seeing the true message of Jesus.  These stories are about Jesus transforming the hearing and seeing that the disciples need in order to understand Jesus’ true mission and meaning.  These stories are about the great time coming when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped” (Isaiah 35:5). 

The disabled will no longer suffer discrimination, but will receive mercy! 

Monday, August 16, 2021

August 29, 2021 - 14th Sunday after Pentecost.

                                                      Biblical Words                                   [731]

Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

At moments God’s Word is exuberant and spontaneous, especially after the great liberation from binding convention.   

Song of Solomon 2:8-13.  

To have a reading from the Song of Solomon is both surprising and delightful. 

This begins a group of readings from the third division of the Hebrew scriptures, the Writings, HakKetubim.  Our readings have moved through the historical traditions to the middle of Solomon’s glorious reign, and now for a while we will sample some of the literature of Solomon’s loves and wisdom.  This week alone is from the Song, then will follow a few weeks from Proverbs and Job. 

But what a transition!  We move from the staid piety of the Deuteronomist’s dedication of the Temple to the lover’s summons to hear “the voice of the turtledove” and to “come away”!  The poetry that plays so joyfully with images of fertile nature and the sprightly animal world reminds one of Shakespeare’s early narrative poetry, particularly Venus and Adonis. 

About full-blossomed spring as the time of new life and the powerful urge of the young and healthy toward love, what comment is there?  Let the poetry, which echoes through the history of English literature, speak: 

Arise, my love, my fair one,
      and come away; …
The flowers appear on the earth;
      the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
      is heard in our land….
Arise, my love, my fair one,
      and come away. 

Interpreted through the ages as the summons of God to beloved Israel, as the wooing by Christ of his Bride the Church, it still has the lure and verve of a vigorous young man, alive to the vibrancy of new growth around him, making his urgent plea to the ravishing beauty behind the lattice, who is herself eager to be off! 

Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9.  

Only a little less exuberant about love is the Psalm reading, which says in its superscription that it is a love song (shir yedidoth).  Here we are dealing with a Royal Wedding.  The speaker begins with his own role and credentials: 

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;

      I address my verses to the king;
      my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe. 

He is the clerk and witness of the ceremony, and his song will be the signed marriage license. 

Then we get the wedding portrait of the bridegroom, the king:  “You are the most handsome of men; grace is poured upon your lips…”  He is also a warrior, who has girded on his sword and ridden victoriously to defend truth and the right (verses 3-4, NRSV), whose enemies fall before him, and whose throne is a monument of stability and righteousness (verses 5-6).  In his most luxurious clothes and finest grooming he is ready for the wedding, and to the sound of the wedding march he processes into an ivory palace surrounded by a bevy of royal princesses, the bride herself standing in golden garments beside him (verses 7-9). 

The prescribed reading stops there, in mid ceremony, but the psalm goes on with the (minister’s) charge to the bride to appreciate her good fortune and her very enviable position (verses 10-13a).  The bride is then led to the king’s chamber for their nuptials (verses 13b-15), and the singer (perhaps speaking God’s blessing) winds up by praising the king’s posterity – and his own part in magnifying the king’s fame and glory (verses 18-19). 

James 1:17-27. 

The Epistle readings now shift to another letter in the New Testament, the Letter of James, quite different from the letter to the Ephesians we have heard for the last several weeks. 

This writing is addressed to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1), which at least means people outside Palestine, whether Judean, Judean-sympathizers, or entirely non-Judean believers in Jesus as the Christ. 

Comment on James the Brother.  It is romantic to think that the James who writes this letter is the brother of Jesus – as Church tradition in the fourth and later centuries gradually decided – but the concerns of the letter and the circumstances of those addressed do not fit well the historical situation of James the Just (as even his Judean opponents called him).  This James, the brother of Jesus, was the head of the Jerusalem church from around 41 CE (see Acts 12:17; Galatians 2:9 and 12; Acts 15:13 and 19).  This James was murdered in 62 CE by Zealots during the turbulence leading to the Judean revolt against Rome (reported by the Judean historian Josephus). 

The Letter of James was written in Greek and is a collection of memorable sayings in the manner of wisdom literature.  It does not have a structure of thought so much as a succession of themes, with sayings grouped around each theme. 

In the passage for today there is strong emphasis on the power of the word. 

[God] gave us birth by the word of truth… (verse 18, NRSV),

Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls (verse 21). 

The passage goes on to make very clear that the “word” involved is an instruction for how to live.  The hearers of the letter must be “doers of the word” and not only hearers.  They should be “not hearers who forget but doers who act” (verse 25). 

Our passage concludes with a declaration that is truly memorable: 

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to care for orphans and widows in their distress… (Verse 27.) 

Wherever God’s people, of whatever description, are dispersed, this should be the word “implanted” in them that constantly receives new “birth.” 

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23. 

After many weeks pondering the Bread of Life in John 6, we return for the Gospel reading to Mark.  In one sense this is a big shift, but in another today’s reading continues the Judean-Christian tensions of John’s Gospel – tensions about the theology of food. 

This passage in Mark establishes a major break between the Jesus movement and the Judaism of Jesus’ time and later.   

As a reformer, Jesus is not simply reinforcing the old law; he is changing it.  He is definitely leaving out something (see the criteria in Deuteronomy 4:2)!  He is leaving out the whole body of dietary rules that so fractured table fellowship, even among Christians themselves (Galatians 2:11-14). 

(For an impressive interpretation of this passage from a Liberal (Reformed) Jewish viewpoint, see the Special Note below.)

The entire passage, 7:1-23, is a very composite, even inconsistent, block of Markan tradition.  Most careful interpreters agree on this, but differ a lot in how they describe its development. 

As likely as any is a simple reading of four stages in the development of the tradition behind the passage.  (This is NOT a description of stages of writing; it is stages in how Jesus people evolved their discussions of these related topics.) 

1.      The first issue was hand-washing before meals (verses 1-2, 3-4), a challenge raised by Pharisees against Jesus’ disciples – not against Jesus, but against his disciples, that is, a conflict between Pharisees and early Jesus followers.  This issue is raised but not actually addressed in the passage.  It is now subsumed in the next, later issue. 

2.      The second issue is scripture versus traditions (verses 5, 6-8).  Here Jesus elevates the hand-washing issue into a scripture issue:  He cites a prophetic passage that indicts the Pharisees because they place their oral tradition on an equal footing with Moses’ written torah.  Verses 9-13 (not included in our reading) is an add-on example to support the charge about that oral tradition:  the Pharisees supposedly elevate “qorban” vows above the written commandments concerning parents.  Most scholars recognize this was not historically true, but the Jesus tradition came to sharply oppose the Pharisaic “oral law.”  

3.      The third issue is Jesus’ revolutionary declaration about what actually defiles people (verses 14-15, 17-20).  Not what goes into people (like food from unwashed hands) defiles them, but what comes out of people (verse 15).  The basic concept is so far-out that Jesus has to have a special in-house session with the disciples to reinforce it (verses 17-19), a standard technique in Mark for addressing issues that came up in the later church.  This discussion does not develop naturally out of what precedes but is a profound theological extension of the rejection of the Pharisaic purity laws.  This is no longer a critique of the oral torah; it is a rejection of major parts of the Mosaic legislation itself.  This is the freeing of Jesus believers from living by Leviticus. 

4.      Finally, a Hellenistic (non-Judean) inventory of what comes out of people:   a list of human defilements (verses 21-23), which resembles lists of vices that appear in Paul’s letters (Romans 1:29-31; I Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21). 

The entire passage has moved from a local Pharisaic purity issue to a basic separation between two emerging world religions.  This section marks the departure of Jesus followers from mainline Judean practice, by at least 70 CE. 

Special Note:  A Jewish Interpretation of Mark 7:15.

The following is a discerning and far-sighted statement of the historical significance of this teaching of Jesus:  C. G. Montefiore, The Synoptic Gospels (2d ed., 2 vols., London:  Macmillan and Co., 1927), Vol. I, pp. 130-131. 

Mark 7:15:  “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”  (NRSV)

(Paragraphing has been added to what in the original is a long unbroken text.)

This section is of profound significance and value; it raises questions of the deepest importance. … For here Jesus enunciates a doctrine which appears not only to be new and emancipating, but which seems to constitute one of the two chief justifications or reasons for the main way in which Liberal Judaism looks at the old ceremonial law. 

For first of all came the old prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries  B.C.  They said:  The true service of God is not ceremonial, but moral; God desires love and not sacrifices, the knowledge of Him rather than burnt offerings. …This teaching is resuscitated by Jesus…

But here he says something which is akin to the prophetic doctrine, but is yet novel.  There were two aspects of the old ritual and ceremonial practices, two sides to them.  Some of them were supposed to affect God, and some of them were supposed to affect man.  The prophets dealt mainly with those which were supposed to affect, please, or propitiate God, and they tell us that God does not care for them:  it is not so that he is propitiated or pleased. 

In this section Jesus deals with those which were supposed to affect man, and these were mainly rules and customs about clean and unclean, which again depended upon conceptions – very old, widespread conceptions – about clean and unclean.  Just as the prophets upset the old ideas about the service of God, so here Jesus upsets old ideas about clean and unclean. 

As the prophets moralized and inwardized men’s ideas about the service of God, so Jesus moralizes and inwardizes men’s ideas about clean and unclean.  In a religious sense it is only man who can be clean and unclean; nothing else.  Only man can make himself clean and unclean; outside things cannot make him clean or unclean.  The conception of ritual or Levitical purity and impurity is overthrown and abolished.  Upon these two doctrines, the doctrine of Hosea, upon the one hand, the doctrine of Jesus, upon the other, the new attitude of Liberal Judaism towards the ceremonial Law depends.