Wednesday, June 30, 2021

July 18, 2021 - 8th Sunday after Pentecost

                                Biblical Words                      [725]

II Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

God risks a Covenant with those of worldly power, and remains faithful to those who wait for the promised king.  

II Samuel 7:1-14a.  

The prophetic reading and the Psalm selection are about God’s promise of a perpetual reign for the house of David. 

At other times in the Lectionary cycles these passages are read preparing for Advent, the coming of the Anointed One who fulfills the promise to David given here.  In our current series of readings, however, David’s covenant promise from God is the highpoint in the story of God’s dealing with Israel in the age of the kings.  This is the place where the concrete historical reality of a royal dynasty in the ancient tribal kingdoms of Judah and Israel is claimed to be the working of God in the history of humankind. 

While the history of David’s own time is known only from the Biblical record, the existence of a Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem is attested in Assyrian and Babylonian records in the eighth to sixth centuries BCE.  

After the northern kingdom of Israel had been absorbed in the Assyrian empire (722 BCE), the royal house of David in Jerusalem continued as a rallying point for a restored Israel, especially in the eras of King Hezekiah (about 725 to 700 BCE) and King Josiah (640 to 609 BCE).  It was in this later time that the viewpoint on the whole history of the Age of the Kings was developed in Jerusalem.  This viewpoint (called “Deuteronomistic”) shaped the books of Samuel and Kings as we now have them.  

The promise to David (II Samuel 7) and Solomon’s dedication of the Temple (I Kings 8) are the high-points toward which the stories of Samuel, Saul, and the young David move, and they are the peak from which the stories of the later kings are a staggered decline.  The books of the “former prophets,” Joshua through II Kings, have their organizing center in the promise to David in II Samuel 7. 

Because of this focus on the king and temple in Jerusalem, these books (with the partial exception of Joshua) were later rejected as scripture by the Samaritans, who denied the centrality of David and Jerusalem in God’s plan for true Israel. 

Psalm 89:20-37. 

This psalm uses the language of “covenant” about God’s promise to David several times (for example, verses 28 and 34).  But the beginning of the psalm is even more emphatic:    

            I have made a covenant with my chosen one,

                  I have sworn to my servant David: 

            ‘I will establish your descendants forever,

                  and build your throne for all generations’ (89:3-4). 

This covenant promise is like the one made to Abraham in that it is unconditioned.  It does not say, “if you carefully obey my laws I will maintain your dynasty forever.”  It simply says, I will do this.  I will discipline your sons as needed (Psalm 89:30-32), but “I will not violate my covenant” (verse 34).  The fulfillment of the promise depends only on God; therefore, in some way or another, God will see it carried out, even if humans cannot discern the divine faithfulness -- and therefore feel betrayed. 

And, outside our readings, betrayal is asserted!  If we look at the whole of Psalm 89, we read also a long passage in which the speakers assert that God has betrayed the promise to David (Psalm 89:38-51).  “But now you have spurned and rejected him; you are full of wrath against your anointed” (verse 38). 

This latter part of Psalm 89 brings the divine promise into the troublesome uncertainties of reality.  The Davidic kings could be defeated.  The kingdom could be overrun by conquerors, as it was by the Assyrians and Babylonians.  How, under those conditions, can the faithfulness of God be understood? 

The pressures of historical reality drove the Judean people to reshape their own understanding of their place in history, even though – and precisely because – they never gave up faith in God’s promises.

Ephesians 2:11-22.  

The Epistle reading continues the current selections from the thick-textured letter called “To the Ephesians,” though it was written to all the churches of (the Roman province of) Asia. 

This rhetorically rich passage begins with the recognition of a great division among believers, the division between the “circumcision” and the “uncircumcision,” between those who have scrupulously lived by the Judean law and those who have been strangers to the keeping of that law. 

The passage affirms that this great division between the circumcised and the uncircumcised has been broken down in the reign of Christ.  The Anointed One has abolished the law that divides, “that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (2:15, NRSV). 

While this joyful vision of a new humanity is the primary emphasis, there is also a destructive aspect to this work.  The old is being abolished, the “wall” (about which some care a lot) is broken down, “hostility” is put to death (verses 14-16). 

In the real world, the old traditions and deep family practices do not easily drop away, and the great majority of Judeans who survived the Roman wars did not give up their distinctive practices for the sake of Christian ones.  There is a major cutting away of old ways that must be achieved, sustained by the joy and ecstasy of the new union in Christ and in the new life of the common body of believers. 

Paul did not view it as switching from Judean to Christian; he viewed it as everybody giving up old ways and genuinely becoming newly accultured in a way made possible “in Christ.” 

Thus there is the backward-looking aspect, the destruction of the old, and the forward-looking aspect – the unity, the peace, the citizenship of the saints.  This unity is imaged at the conclusion of our passage by the building of the temple of God, a structure which contains various complementary parts.  Such a building is blessed because it is “a dwelling place for God” (verse 22). 

Out of diversity and exclusiveness comes inclusiveness in Christ, a harmony and wholeness resulting from Christ’s rule – kingship – over all authorities, powers, and dominions that till now have controlled the world (verses 20-22). 

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56.  

The Gospel reading presents the return of the apostles from their missions (on which they were sent in 6:7-13).  After this great effort on their part, Jesus says it is time for a retreat for rest and renewal (verse 31).  Thus they take off by boat and succeed in reaching “a deserted place.”  

The people on shore are able to track them, however, and whatever rest they got was short.  The desperate need of the people ultimately takes priority, as the latter part of our reading emphasizes.  Out in the retreat area, Jesus “saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (verse 34). 

The Gospel writer emphasizes that the people recognize their shepherd, their king!  They stream to Jesus because they recognize in him the power and goodness that the great anointed one of old symbolized for them – the David to whom God promised an unending reign.  They followed this shepherd seeking a yet-to-come source of relief and fulfillment.  Jesus came for the simple as well as the complicated-but-faithful-people who yearned for the promise of old to come true – even that ancient promise to David. 

Our reading skips over some major actions of Jesus, including the miraculous feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:35-44).  We will hear about that feeding, and its aftermath, during the next several Sundays, as told in the Gospel According to John. 


Saturday, June 26, 2021

July 11, 2021 - 7th Sunday after Pentecost

                                    Biblical Words                            [724]

II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29.

When the Lord comes there is ecstasy before a holy mystery – though wicked kings blunder on in evil ways.  

II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19.  

Our reading from the history of kingship in Israel presents, with fabulous awe and exaltation, the entrance of Yahweh of Hosts into the future City of God for the first time! 

Yahweh of Hosts did not always reside on Zion.  Through the victories over his enemies, Yahweh led David to a triumphant possession of that holy place. 

Yahweh’s own movements were told in the Ark Narrative (I Samuel 4-6 + II Samuel 6), of which our reading is the climax. 

Marked by the presence of the Ark – God’s mobile throne – the mighty Lord had moved from the old Israelite sanctuary of Shiloh (because of the sins of its priests), and then had embarrassed and manipulated the victorious Philistines.  After the defeat of the Philistines, the Ark had situated itself on the Philistine-Israelite border to wait for David to take Jerusalem and make it ready for the Holy One. 

Tracing these movements of Yahweh became important in later times when the idea became fixed among the “true” worshipers that Yahweh could be found at only ONE holy place, instead of the many Yahweh places like Bethel, Gilgal, Beersheba, and – heaven forbid – Samaria!  (This narrative, like all the Old Testament, is controlled by a Jerusalemite viewpoint.)

Our narrative emphasizes three things: 

1) Yahweh was a holy power, deadly to improper contact (verses 6-11, omitted from the reading), though the holiness is also expressed in the mass of people coming to this event (verse 1) and the multitude of sacrifices offered during the deity’s transit (verse 13). 

2) It is important that All Israel was active and enthusiastic in this transit of Yahweh of Hosts to Jerusalem – 30,000 “chosen” men of Israel were involved, summarized as the action of “David and all the house of Israel” (verse 15, NRSV). 

3) Finally, this was a marvelously exciting event, with lots of instrumental music, singing, and uninhibited dancing. 

Our reading includes the brief description of Michal watching David cavort before the Ark (verse 16).  The narrative tells us that Michal was Saul’s daughter, but it assumes that we remember that she was also David’s (first) wife. 

Michal did not approve of the ecstatic styles of sacred dance in which David indulged.  But because this dancing was in honor of Yahweh, we are to understand that it was OK, even if it was an innovation from the viewpoint of old-time Yahweh people.  Thus, off-stage, as it were (that is, verses 20-23, omitted from our reading), Michal is punished by Yahweh by having no children – thus denying to her the status of queen-mother (ultimately occupied by Bathsheba). 

Psalm 24.  

The psalm reading is a ritual and a liturgy for Yahweh’s entry into the Jerusalem temple as that action was repeated periodically in the ceremonies of Zion. 

There is a declaration of Yahweh as owner of all the world (verses 1-2), followed by two things:  qualification tests for humans who would worship Yahweh in person (verses 3-6), and an exuberant proclamation of Yahweh’s entrance into the temple gates (verses 7-10). 

Who can enter Yahweh’s holy place?  The qualities required have nothing to do with ritual purity – such as freedom from contact with the dead or menstrual women.  They are “clean hands” (meaning no murders or assassinations) and “pure heart” (no deceit), no swearing to lies.  Also, one who acknowledges that blessing comes from Yahweh, the God of Jacob. 

After the entrance exam comes the real glory of this psalm:  the triumphal entry through the gates of the temple: 

Lift up your heads, O gates!

      and be lifted up, O ancient doors! 

      that the King of glory may come in. 

Who is the King of glory?

      The Lord [Yahweh], strong and mighty,

      the Lord [Yahweh], mighty in battle.  (verses 7-8, NRSV)

And in case you missed that the first time, the whole full-throated throng will repeat it for you again – as any good climactic hallelujah chorus should do (verses 9-10).  

Ephesians 1:3-14.  

The Common Revised Lectionary now begins a selection of readings from the Letter to the Ephesians.  Probably not addressed to Ephesians only, this writing was originally a circular letter, intended for several churches in the province of Asia (of which Ephesus was the capital). 

Ephesians is a challenge to one reading Paul’s writings.  (1) It is relatively unique in both style and thought (only Colossians is close to it among the other letters).  (2) It presents us with some magnificent phrases, which invite extended pondering.  (3) However, its thought sometimes gets lost in its exuberant rhetoric, and (4) it is pervaded by a heavenly aura second only to the Book of Revelation. 

(Its treatment of the ekklÄ“sia, the church, and “the heavenlies” [1:3, etc.] have made it a favorite of Protestant dispensationalists, who emphasize the “rapture” of believers to those heavenlies.  The term “dispensation” actually occurs in the King James translation of 1:10.)  

This first reading from the Epistle is an outpouring of language that overwhelms sense with eloquence. 

An early 20th century commentator wrote of this passage, “The twelve verses which follow [that is, verses 3-14] baffle our analysis.  They are a kaleidoscope of dazzling lights and shifting colours:  at first we fail to find a trace of order or method.  They are like the preliminary flight of the eagle, rising and wheeling around, as though for a while uncertain what direction in his boundless freedom he shall take.”  (J. Armitage Robinson, 1904). 

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that what are six complex sentences in the NRSV translation is a single sentence in Greek (Westcott and Hort edition). 

Nevertheless, so much is clear:  the whole passage is a blessing, a benediction (“Blessed be the God and Father…”).  It is common to find the center of the thought in the phrase “the mystery of his [God’s] will” (verse 9). 

It is also possible to see (as do the notes in The New Jerusalem Bible) this topic developed in a sequence of blessings, things for which God is blessed, running through the whole as follows: 

1) we were elected, verse 4 (“he chose” NRSV);
2) we were predestined for adoption, verses 5-6; 
3) we were redeemed from our sins, verses 7-8;
4) we received revelation of the mystery of God’s will, verses 9-10;
5) we received hope, “inheritance,” a promised future, verses 11 and 14;
both for us Judeans, verse 12;
and for you non-Judeans, who have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, verse 13. 

The overall sense of the passage is that there is a vast work of God underway throughout the cosmos and the ages, and we are the blessed recipients of its benefits, without any reference to our works or merits. 

Mark 6:14-29.  

The Gospel reading is an interlude in Jesus’ works in Galilee, filling the time while the disciples are out on their missions (6:7-13). 

The main story here (6:17-29) – of John the Baptist’s criticism of Herod, of the dance of Herodias’s daughter (elsewhere called Salome), and of Herod reluctantly serving John’s head on a platter – all this is a flashback.  What happens in the present time of the narrative is that Herod says, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised” (verse 16, NRSV). 

Herod Antipas is haunted by John the Baptist. 

This son of Herod the Great is a coulda, woulda, shoulda kind of ruler.  He holds grand events for his friends, but he is a deeply fearful man.  His conscience is troubled about his permitting the execution of John, enough so that the rumors about Jesus revive his conviction that he did not in fact get rid of John.  (Herod eventually became too ambitious and died in exile in Spain, with his wife Herodias.  So Josephus, Jewish War, 2.9.) 

The story of Herod Antipas in his luxurious court is set ironically against the activity of the disciples, who are passing on their itinerant journeys among the poor in Galilee.  Those folks in Herod’s court have no ears for the good news that is moving quietly through the countryside, the good news ultimately about the blessed mystery of God’s will for the salvation of all (Ephesians). 


Wednesday, June 16, 2021

July 4, 2021 - 6th Sunday after Pentecost

                               Biblical Words                    [723]

II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; II Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

The great City may have a humble beginning, and God’s servants may be denied by their own. 

II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10.  

(An under-stated report.  This passage is not a narrative, it is a report.  A narrative has some kind of tension and a release at its climax.  A report simply states incidents and conditions.) 

The reading from the Prophets is a plain, not to say flat-footed, statement of David’s becoming king of all Israel after being king of the “house” of Judah for a few years (5:1-5; on Judah see 2:1-4).  It continues with the barest report that David captured and expanded the city-state of Jerusalem, making it his personal property, the City of David (5:9-10).  

The passage immediately following our reading tells that David built a cedar-decorated royal palace and installed his wives and children (5:11-16).  As later times looked back, they saw David, in his new capital city, as a substantial king and a power to be reckoned with among the nations. 

In that later viewpoint, however, the City was as important as the Anointed King.  This is the point in God’s history with Israel at which the long-term destiny of the people begins to be focused on the City of God.  Toward this city much devotion, exaltation, and yearning hope would be directed.    

[See more at About ancient Jerusalem below.]

As the Samuel narrative continues (in next week’s reading), David will take steps to make Jerusalem the glorious dwelling place of the God of Israel by bringing the Ark of God into the city (2 Samuel 6) and planning a great temple of cedar for God there (7:1-3). 

However, the real glory of God’s dwelling in Zion is not in these historical books, but in the Psalms. 

Psalm 48.  

The simplicity and unpretentiousness of the Samuel account contrasts sharply with the presentation of Zion, the glorious mountain and city of God, in the Psalm reading.  

Together with psalms 46 and 76, this psalm alludes to and gives glimpses of a grand liturgical drama that was celebrated and enacted within the holy city over the centuries. 

In this drama, the city of God is assaulted by an assembly of many nations, who come against it from the north and threaten to overwhelm it.  At the critical moment, God displays God’s power in some traumatizing fashion, and the nations are shattered and dispersed.  The city is saved and magnified to the heights for all the world to see. 

Then the kings assembled,

      they came on together.

As soon as they saw it, they were astounded;

      they were in panic, they took to flight. (Psalm 48:4-5)

The prophets used this liturgical drama to portray the looming judgment of a righteous God on God’s own corrupt city (Isaiah 5:26-30 and 10:5-11).  The early prophecies of Jeremiah portray this drama becoming reality in the land: 

Blow the trumpet through the land;

      shout aloud and say,

“Gather together, and let us go

      into the fortified cities!”

Raise a standard toward Zion,

      flee for safety, do not delay,

for I am bringing evil from the north,

      and a great destruction.

(Jeremiah 4:5-6.  All of Jeremiah 4:5-31 is shaped by this drama.) 

Psalm 48 glories in the deliverance of Zion from this danger and celebrates the beauty and earthly glory of the royal city of God. 

The latter part of the psalm verges on idolatry by equating a specific historic structure with God’s own holiness. 

Walk around Zion, go all around it,

      count its towers, …

that you may tell the next generation

      that this is God,

our God forever and ever. 

The “this” of this statement probably refers not to the walls and towers only, but to
the event of God’s deliverance as the sole basis for security and peace.  Still, the temptation to “idolize” the city of masonry and cedar would eventually bring the divine judgment of destruction and exile.  (See, for example, Jeremiah’s “Temple Sermon,” Jeremiah 7:1-15.) 

II Corinthians 12:2-10.  

The Epistle reading for this Sunday is one of the most remarkable personal revelations of the apostle Paul in the New Testament. 

In his ongoing hassle to get the Corinthians to recognize the true nature of his apostleship, he is led to “boast” of his spiritual “adventures,” as it were – to contrast his own experiences with those of some self-important “apostles” with glowing credentials who are trying to set up as leaders of the Corinthian church. 

In this passage he speaks of himself in the third person – “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows” (verse 2, NRSV).  On behalf of this “person” Paul will boast of experiences in Paradise and heavenly things heard. 

Though these marvelous heavenly things are impressive, still they are not what the true service of God is about.  To keep him ever mindful of that, God gave Paul a “thorn in the flesh” – some physical or nervous disability that repeatedly humbled him.  Three times Paul asked that this tormenting burden be removed, but, like Jesus in Gethsemane, it was God’s will that the servant bear the burden and suffer among the people in God’s service (verses 7-9). 

“So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. …for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”   This is Paul’s statement of the great contrast between the prosaic everyday conditions of life and the glory of God’s reign behind it. 

Mark 6:1-13.  

In the Gospel reading Jesus goes home again, and, as in the title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel (“You Can’t Go Home Again”), it doesn’t work. 

The folks in Nazareth knew Jesus back when.  He is a nice boy and all that, but he has taken to putting on airs.  What is this about deeds of power done with his hands, about wisdom from divine sources?  His hands are good at carpentry, but for divine acts …?? 

The people of Nazareth know the everyday reality, the ordinary world of a boy and young man growing into a tradesman with peculiar religious intensities.  The wonders that came to Capernaum and to places on the other shores of the Galilean lake are not available to them.  Not available, because… “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house” (verse 4, RSV, not NRSV).  Since they lacked faith in the healer, there was little healing experienced in Nazareth, “and he was amazed at their unbelief” (verse 6, NRSV). 

But our reading does not stop with the failure in Nazareth.  Jesus now begins to mobilize his movement through “the twelve” – who are not called disciples or apostles here (verses 6b-13).  They go out two by two, traveling lightly, taking what is given them, moving on when rejected.  They summon people to repentance, presumably with the corollary that the reign of God is at hand (Mark 1:15), and, as Jesus had done from the beginning, they struggle with people’s demons and work to heal the sick. 

The power and reign of God is moving secretly through the countryside, whether the people of Nazareth, and even Jesus’ own family, know it or not. 


About ancient Jerusalem.

The earliest traces of Jerusalem by name are on Egyptian Execration Texts.  The Egyptians had rituals in which they wrote the names of their enemies on clay jars, uttered curses over them, and then shattered the jars in ritual actions.  The fragments of such broken jars have been recovered and some contain the name “urushalim.”  This was around the 1800’s BCE

In the 1300’s, the “king” of Jerusalem wrote letters to Pharaoh in Egypt, six of which have survived in “the Amarna Letters.”  These were diplomatic archives, written in the international cuneiform script, found in Egypt.  The king, Abdu-Heba, declares his faithfulness to the Pharaoh and denounces the treachery of his neighboring city-state kings. 

The next king of Jerusalem we hear about is Adoni-zedek, who appears in Joshua 10, leading a coalition of Canaanite city-state kings against Joshua – unsuccessfully, needless to say. 

Archeologically, there is evidence of settlement in Jerusalem in the Early Bronze age (3300-2200 BCE) and also in the Middle Bronze Age (1800-1600) before the time of Abdu-Heba. 

One writer, commenting about the extensive fortifications of early Jerusalem, says: 

Why anyone would covet Jerusalem…remains a mystery.  It had nothing to offer.  It’s natural resources (sheep, olives, fruit) were shared by every other hill town.  It was dominated by higher hills on three sides.  The water supply was poor.  It did not lie on any trade route in antiquity. 

[Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Jerusalem,” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Abingdon, 2008, Vol. 3, pp. 246-259, the quote on p. 247.] 

The Lord [Yahweh] – and David – must have found something to like!  

Sunday, June 13, 2021

June 27, 2021 - 5th Sunday after Pentecost

                       Biblical Words                   [722]

II Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; II Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43.

Grief and anxiety come to the faithful, but the Lord responds in God’s own time.

The readings for this Sunday present people expressing deep and profound feelings.

Such feelings are called forth by the death of loved ones (David and Jairus), the depths from which one speaks of one’s own iniquities (Psalm 130), and the anguish of many years of pain and ostracism (the woman with the blood-flow).  Only the Epistle reading, about the collection to sustain the saints in Judea, is more occupied with the ordinary world. 

II Samuel 1:1, 17-27. 

The reading from the Prophets is David’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, a poem that gave European rhetoric the outcry, 

“How the mighty have fallen!”  

While modern Biblical scholars have doubted that the religious poetry of the Psalms comes in any substantial way from a historical David, this archaic poem of lamentation is thought to have come from David himself.  Its power and beauty have been uniformly praised. 

The lament comes from the trials of war; the mighty have fallen “in the midst of battle” (verse 25), and the prowess of Saul and Jonathan as warriors is celebrated (verse 22).  Not mentioned at all in the poem is that David himself is a warrior, who will in fact revenge the deaths of Saul and Jonathan and conquer the Philistines. 

This poem is like a funeral oration that concentrates single-mindedly on the glory and greatness of what has been lost.  David had a strong loyalty toward King Saul (verse 24) and an even stronger love for Jonathan (verse 26).  That meant that it was now a time to weep, and the present moment is one in which “the weapons of war [have] perished!” (verse 27). 

Historically, the man David had much to gain from the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.  It reduced the obstacles to his becoming king of Israel himself.  A cynical reading of his purposes in this lament would ascribe it to good media management, unbounded praise for the leaders now out of the way – in order to capture the support of their followers. 

Such manipulative motives, however, look a bit like modern projections back on people of an ancient culture.  If Saul and Jonathan had been slain in worthy battle against Israel’s oppressors, it was the doing of God (as had been the great defeat of Israel in Eli’s time, I Samuel 4). 

David was a charismatic leader through whom God would work out a destiny of God’s own choosing; David’s role was to exert himself as adroitly and effectively as possible, mindful always of the primacy of his God, and trust that the “glory” (actually “beauty”) of Israel would once again shine from a high place (see verse 19). 

Psalm 130. 

The Psalm for this Sunday has been known through Christian centuries by the Latin of its opening words:  de profundis, “out of the depths.”  It is the sixth of the seven Penitential psalms, though hope and trust are more pronounced here than in some of the other Penitentials. 

Let’s pause over the Hebrew word translated “depths,” which occurs five times in the Hebrew Bible.  It is poetic and cosmic in its reverberations: 

I am sinking into the slimy deep and find no foothold;

I have come into the watery depths;

the flood sweeps me away.  (Psalm 69:2  NJPS)

Rescue me from the mire; let me not sink;

let me be rescued from my enemies,

and from the watery depths. (Psalm 69:14  NJPS) 

Was it not you who dried up the sea,

the waters of the great deep;

who made the depths of the sea

      a way for the redeemed to cross over? (Isaiah 51:10 NRSV) 

In a taunt song over Lady Tyre, portrayed as a magnificent commercial ship, her goods are lost in the depths. 

Now you are wrecked by the seas,

      in the depths of the waters;

your merchandise and all your crew

      have sunk with you. (Ezekiel 27:24) 

It is from these cosmic depths that our psalmist prays: 

Our of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. 

In Psalm 130 these depths are all the powers that threaten to overwhelm the speaker, but particularly the “iniquities” of one’s life (verse 3). 

If we imagine David uttering this psalm, the depths could be the defeat and occupation of Israel by Philistines after Saul’s death.  Israel calls from these depths and hears the injunction to “wait for the Lord” (verses 5-6).  Whatever plans a David might make for deliverance, “It is [the Lord] who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities” (verse 8). 

II Corinthians 8:7-15.  

The Epistle reading is not about death, but about living generously as servants of the Christ.  The passage urges the Corinthians to be generous and eager in their collection to assist the poverty-laden believers in Judea. 

There is one note that links with the depths of the other readings:  “For you know the generous act [literally “grace,” charis] of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (verse 9, NRSV).  This probably echoes the view of Christ’s work sung of in Philippians 2:6-11.  Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” 

In God’s work of redemption, Christ went down into the depths of human life to transform it and make humans rich.  The Corinthians are imitators of Christ when they yield up some of their meager wealth to save and ease the trials of distant fellow believers. 

Mark 5:21-43.  

The Gospel reading is the account of two healing miracles, one inserted into the other. 

Jesus is fresh off the boat from the East Bank when an esteemed religious leader of the community hurries up to him, falls at his feet, and begs desperately for Jesus to come and save his daughter, who is on the verge of death.  Mark’s account emphasizes the desperation of the father. 

While Jesus is on his way, our attention is directed to the crowd where there also is a desperate woman.  She has suffered for twelve years from a continual menstrual flow, and the best medical practice has only impoverished her without providing a cure. 

Whatever the medical dangers of her condition, it rendered her a social outcast. 

According to the lore that became firm Judean practice, blood was a highly contaminating substance.  Consequently, during menstruation women were ritually unclean and could engage in no normal contact even with family members.  (The law for this woman’s case is in Leviticus 15:25-30.)  She could probably be in this crowd only by deception and a daring violation of the rules. 

This desperate woman pursues her own plan and determines to grasp a hope of cure by touching a magic garment, that of the now famous healing teacher.  In the crowd she grabs an edge of Jesus’ garment and experiences a shock through her body:  she knows in her inner depths that healing has happened. 

But Jesus turns and confronts her:  she has not been furtive enough; she is caught in the act and falls down before Jesus in fear and pleads her story.  Jesus knows in his depths what has happened.  He blesses her, and tells her it is her faith, not some magic, that has made her well. 

Meanwhile word comes that the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue ruler, has died.  To a collapsing father, Jesus says, Don’t be afraid, only keep faith. 

At the house there is a tumult of grief with weeping and wailing.  Jesus puts everybody out except the parents and his three most confidential disciples.  He then takes the twelve-year-old girl by the hand and commands her in her native tongue (Aramaic), “Little lamb, get up!”  She does so and proceeds to walk around.  Mark then relates that Jesus urged them to keep it a secret – a likely prospect! – and tells them to feed the healthy little creature. 

The Gospel tells the story of an impending, then actual, death.  In the world’s ordinary events the young girl would have been a tragic statistic.  But God “does not delight in the death of the living” (Wisdom, 1:13, an alternate reading for this Sunday). 

No, the Reign of God has started a campaign in Galilee – it is breaking in at surprising moments and in unexpected ways.  Jesus moves with confidence against the prevailing opinion that Death has won this person.  He takes her hand – surrounded by those who love her and those who follow him faithfully – and presents her living, ready for something to eat.  (The mourning, and her fasting, are at an end.) 


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

June 20, 2021 - 4th Sunday after Pentecost

                         Biblical Words                    [721]

I Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23) 32-49; Psalm 9:9-20; II Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

In God’s work there are victories, times when the storm of chaos is overcome by a word of peace.

I Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23) 32-49.  

Our readings about the beginning of kingship in Israel bring us to the famous story of David and Goliath.  The last half of I Samuel is about David, the true and future king, in his relations to Saul, the once and failing king. 

First is how David became a public person. 

There are two ways that David gets introduced to Saul’s court:  In one David is brought to court to play soothing music to still Saul’s troubled soul (I Samuel 16:14-23).  In the other, David shows up as an intrusive brat (see 17:28) on the field of battle and wins his credentials as a warrior.  The Goliath story is the second of these introductions of David to Saul’s court. 

The center of the David and Goliath story is David’s report to Saul of his powers to protect the sheep from lions and bears – with God’s help, to be sure (verses 32-37).  Given David’s experience at wrestling and killing aggressive lions, this loud-mouthed giant, Goliath, will be no trouble.  After all, he has insulted the Lord and Israel. 

After rejecting the cumbersome armor Saul puts on him, David selects his smooth stones, approaches the boastful giant in bronze armor, and pierces his forehead with an accurate shot from his sling (verses 38-49).  It was indeed a heroic entry into the ranks of Saul’s warriors and men at court. 

Scholars have long recognized, of course, that the story has been well tailored and fluffed in the media centers of Jerusalem, probably starting in Solomon’s time if not in David’s.  

In the official annals (the Pentagon archives, as it were), credit for shooting down Goliath went to a fighter named Elhanan.  “Then there was another battle with the Philistine at Gob, and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” (II Samuel 21:19). 

Later, in the times of David’s kingship, those archives showed that Elhanan served in the King’s elite guard in Jerusalem (23:24).  At such a time it would have been fair to credit David with the victories of his men, especially after David was forced to retire from active battle (21:15-17).  As we have it, however, the famous deed of slaying Goliath has been transferred to the divinely chosen youth at a time when his royal destiny still lay far ahead. 

The scribes of Solomon’s court knew that there was something special about the young David.  As a mature leader, he brought about greater changes in their world than anyone in many centuries.  He had to have been God’s man, and thus a heroic man, from the beginning. 

David and Goliath was made into a great story, and has become the universal symbol of the triumph of the worthy one who is also a hopeless underdog. 

Psalm 9:9-20. 

The Psalm reading is a selection from a psalm that ended up being split into two psalms in the Hebrew text, giving what Protestant Bibles have as Psalms 9 and 10.  (They are still one psalm in the ancient Greek and Latin translations, and therefore also in Orthodox and older Roman Catholic Bibles.)  

There is a difference in emphasis, however, between the resulting psalms:  Psalm 9 is mainly a thanksgiving for God’s victory, appropriate for David to sing after his triumph over Goliath.  Psalm 10, on the other hand, is mainly a prayer that God will defeat the arrogant wicked, suitable for Saul to have prayed before David showed up! 

The concluding verses of our reading declare that the weak are protected against the arrogance of the nations: 

The wicked shall depart to Sheol,

         and the nations that forget God. 

For the needy shall not always be forgotten,

         nor the hope of the poor perish forever. 

Rise up, O Lord!  Do not let mortals prevail;

         let the nations be judged before you. 

Put them in fear, O Lord;

         let the nations know that they are only human. 

(Verses 17-20, NRSV.)

II Corinthians 6:1-13.  

The Epistle reading is a passage that makes a powerful appeal to the Corinthians to affirm the validity of Paul’s apostleship, and to make a move from their side toward reconciliation with him. 

As in his other writings, Paul makes amazing rhetorical use of lists.  Here he tumbles out a wildly-improbable stream of credentials for an apostle – the kind of apostle that he is.  In verses 4-8, he ticks off 24 conditions that constitute his apostolic credentials (following NRSV punctuation).  

Then comes this magnificent climax (in the New Jerusalem Bible translation): 


[We are] taken for impostors and yet we are genuine;

unknown and yet we are acknowledged;

dying, and yet here we are, alive;

scourged but not executed;

in pain yet always full of joy;

poor and yet making many people rich;

having nothing, and yet owning everything.  (Verses 8-10.) 

The world presents floods of hardships and waves of troubles to these apostles struggling to keep the ship of faith afloat.  Yet, dying they are still alive, poor they make many rich. 

Mark 4:35-41.  

The Gospel reading takes Jesus and the disciples from teaching the people in parables to battling the elements for a mission beyond the sea.  Our passage is the story of Jesus calming the storm.  It is a delightful piece of narrative, with nice touches of detail – such as the other boats that are with him (verse 36). 

It is, however, clearly a symbolic narrative.  The wind (anemos here, not pneuma) and the sea are the elements of chaos against creation. 

Review.  In Mark so far, Jesus has carried healing and hope into the villages of Galilee (1:21-45), brought opposition from religious authorities out into the open (2:1-3:6), organized the disciples in the face of opposition (3:7-35), and made the first attempts to teach the meaning of the kingdom of God (4:1-34).  Now, a kind of new departure occurs as they launch into the deep for their next level of engagement between the Spirit and the works of evil. 

Jesus sets out on the lake with the disciples.  The waves roar up to threaten the little ark like the waves of chaos in the psalms of God’s enthronement – “the floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring” (Psalm 93:3, NRSV). 

After he calms all with his words of peace, Jesus says to the terrified disciples, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?” (verse 40) – as if to say, Don’t you remember the rest of the psalm?  

“More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters,

      more majestic than the waves of the sea, 

      majestic on high is the Lord!"   

The work of the Lord moves onward to cross this troubled sea.