Thursday, July 29, 2021

August 15, 2021 - 12 Sunday after Pentecost

                                                      Biblical Words                             [729]

I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Wisdom comes through Reverence of the Lord, and through the gifts that create human communion.  

I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14.  

The prophetic reading leaves the story of David behind and launches us into a range of topics related to Solomon, which will include in the next few weeks the theology of the Temple, the pragmatism of the proverbs, and the indignation of Job.

The Biblical presentation of Solomon is quite different from that of David. We do not get personally close to Solomon.  He is always in formal attire – and magnificent it is!  We may ogle the splendor that he brought to Jerusalem, making it a city of fine stone and cedar, and we may be impressed by the complex bureaucracy he implemented to administer his empire. And everyone knows of his hundreds of wives and more informal consorts, many of whom consummated diplomatic and dynastic arrangements with the nations and tribes from Egypt to Mesopotamia.

But perhaps their literary reputations are the best index of the fame of Solomon and David: 

·        Solomon was the patron of the carefully crafted but generalizing Proverbs;

·        David was the patron of the more intensely expressive Psalms.

The treatment of Solomon in the book of I Kings (chapters 3-11) is systematically organized in an "envelope" structure (1, 2, 3, 2', 1'):

1.  Narratives of Solomon's divine favor, ch. 3
2.  Details of administration and wisdom, ch. 4
3.  The Temple, 5:1-9:9
2'. Administration, wisdom, and wealth, 9:10-10:29
1'. Narratives of Solomon's divine disfavor, ch. 11

In the reading for this Sunday the main emphasis is on Solomon's choice.  At the beginning of his reign he goes to the great sanctuary at Gibeon and God appears to him in a dream (also a contrast to David, to whom God spoke only through prophets). 

God offers Solomon whatever he wants, and Solomon already has the wisdom to ask for understanding to govern well such a great people of God.  Specifically he asks for “a listening heart (leb shome'a) to judge your people” (verse 9, NRSV). This was, of course, the right door to pick, and God grants the wisdom and throws in wealth and long life as bonuses. 

The language of the whole episode makes it clear we are dealing with the Deuteronomistic speech writers of the late monarchic period.  In those days, a fairly precise theology of kingdoms rigorously faithful to the Lord had been worked out, based on prophetic and reforming experience. 

From that viewpoint, the basic assessment is clear:  Solomon started out right.  He was in awe of the magnitude of his task and knew he needed divine help to carry it out.  At the beginning of the concert, he and the Lord were on the same page.

Psalm 111.  

This Psalm reading is also used on the 4th Sunday after Epiphany in the present year.  On that occasion we celebrated this short alphabetic acrostic as a modest hallelujah by a learned person among the singers at the temple. 

When it accompanies the Solomon reading, however, this psalm stands out because of verse 10:  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," or more literally, “The beginning [or the basic principle] of wisdom is fear of the Lord.” 

This verse is the basic motto of the religious wisdom schools.  Though the basic idea is expressed often, the exact phrasing is found nowhere else. For example (these are my literal translations): 

  • Proverbs 9:10 has, “the beginning (tehillath, not r’eshith) of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Yahweh)”;
  • Job 28:28 has, “the fear of the Lord (Adonai, not Yahweh), that is wisdom”;
  • Proverbs 1:7 has, “the fear of the Lord (Yahweh) is the beginning (r’eshith) of knowledge (not wisdom)”;
  • and finally Proverbs 4:7 has, “the beginning of wisdom is to acquire wisdom”!

There will be occasions in later readings to look further at wisdom in proverbs, but on the basis of this psalm, it may be said that if wisdom is getting right with the world, the beginning of wisdom is getting right with God.

Such was Solomon's procedure in the story, and to this, surely, the singer of Psalm 111 would have said, Hallelujah!

Ephesians 5:15-20.  

And this time our Epistle reading carries forward fairly explicitly our theme from the Hebrew scriptures!  “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise…” (verse 15, NRSV).

The short passage moves on, assuming that getting drunk is not wisdom, but being filled with the Holy Spirit is.  In fact we may say that this passage, as part of today’s readings, adds the critically important ingredient of JOY.  

Wisdom heard and taken in (eaten) produces delight and singing.  Join in the banquet of wisdom “as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times…” (verses 19-20). 

John 6:51-58.  

The Gospel reading is not explicitly about Wisdom, but for many the sacraments are the means of preparing for divine wisdom. 

After several rounds in John 6 on the theme that Jesus is the bread of life, Jesus has just declared, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (verse 51).  Assuming that cannibalism is out of the picture, his perplexed Judean hearers ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

At this point we need to regroup enough to recognize that the whole dialogue has been going on with a major hidden agenda, namely, the Christian mysteries commonly known as the sacraments.  (Baptism is assumed in the background of 3:1-15.) 

Here, of course, Jesus’ words assume the practice and the theology of the Lord’s Supper. The hearers of this discourse know of  the breaking of the bread (of life) and the drinking of the wine (his blood). 

This sacrament is not described anywhere explicitly in the Gospel of John, as it is in the other Gospels and in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (11:23-26).  The assumption in John may be that the details of the Lord’s Supper remain hidden until believers are introduced to it as the mystery of the new life.  Thus the details of the sacrament are not for public consumption, but there can be no question what is meant by the blunt statements of verses 53-56. 

Some new language is introduced here.  The terms “flesh” and “blood,” rather than “bread” or “food,” suddenly become the primary terms of Jesus’ discourse.  These are terms associated with animal sacrifice – the flesh of the animal to be eaten (in some forms of sacrifice) and the blood to be poured out at the altar or sprinkled in covenant ceremonies.  This was ancient sacrificial language, by which communion was restored between the divine and those making the sacrifice. 

But that old sacrificial communion is now replaced by a new union in which humans, previously caught in the death of the world, are now offered the heavenly source of rebirth and new life.  This new kind of union is offered by him who said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (verse 56). 

After the sacramental statements have been made, the whole discussion of the bread is given a final summary: “This [the sacrament of the Eucharist] is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever” (verse 58). 

Those sharing in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper were caught up in the salvation promised by Wisdom, which is known in this Gospel as the Word (the Logos) of God, which “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). 

Friday, July 23, 2021

August 8, 2021 - 11th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                      Biblical Words                                      [728]

II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51.

Revolutions test people’s truth-telling, and some must trust that their Lord taught the true way.

II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33.

The prophetic reading leaps ahead in the saga of the reign of King David. The prophet Nathan had pronounced God's punishment on David for his sin against Uriah:  “I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house…” (II Sam. 12:11). 

The punishment is worked out in the stories that follow concerning David’s sons.  David had six sons before he came to Jerusalem (II Sam. 3:2-5). The first and third die in the events about to be narrated, and the fourth is later displaced as a would-be king by Solomon. The great drama, however, on the scale of a Greek tragedy, is that of David and Absalom.  The Lectionary skips most of this long and intriguing story, but I will summarize it here. 

David's crime consisted of sex and violence, and the incident that starts the retribution is a violent sexual assault by David's eldest son, Amnon, upon his half-sister Tamar. Tamar's full brother Absalom bides his time, then assassinates Amnon during the sheep-shearing festivities (II Sam. 13).

Absalom was banished to his mother's home country for years, but he was a very popular showman-type prince, now the heir to the throne.  Therefore David's Commanding General, Joab, pulls off a ruse by which David lets Absalom return (II Sam. 14). Absalom soon promotes himself as a kind of popular deputy king, and thereby “stole the hearts of the people of Israel” (II Sam. 15:6), that is, he led a rebellion of the tribes of Israel against the kingship of David.

There clearly was something special about David's departure from Jerusalem (II Samuel 15:13-16:14).  This narrative is a prolonged, semi-liturgical process.  There is a succession of declarations of loyalty by some and of enmity by others. The king's movements out of the city are carefully marked:  at the last house in the city (15:17) all of his loyal forces pass in review; down in the Kidron valley on the east side of the city he has the priests turn around and take the ark of the covenant of God back into the city while he moves on to face his trials without it (15:24-29).  

David then ascends the Mount of Olives in dress and attitude of lamentation surrounded by weeping supporters (15:30). On the summit of the Mount he proposes to Hushai, the loyal court counselor, that he return to Jerusalem and confound the counsel of Absalom (15:32-37).  As David moves on beyond the Mount a servant of the house of Saul brings much-needed supplies, and as he reaches Bahurim (place of weeping) he is cursed and mocked by another member of the house of Saul, whose life he spares because God may be speaking through him (16:1-14).

In this long departure narrative, each party’s future in the kingdom is determined by his response to the lamenting and humble king who is abandoning his city to a rebellious son.

Absalom, the darling of the people, has won the capital city. However, in the great battle out in the forest to determine the longer future, he fights too quickly and loses (18:1-18). Absalom himself is on the battlefield, and as disaster strikes he flees through the trees, only to be caught in a great oak.  A cohort of Joab’s tough guards surrounds and kills him.  This in spite of the instructions given directly and publicly by David to Joab and his brothers to protect the boy Absalom (II Sam. 18:5).  Joab and his men know where David's true political interest lies, whatever his sentiment for the rebel son.

We hear, finally, how an African runner from the battlefield brings the news to David, and the reading ends with David's gasping, almost incoherent cries of grief at the loss of his son Absalom. 

The words and themes of this grief inspired the title and story of a great American novel by William Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom!).

Psalm 130. 

The Psalm reading repeats the selection of the 5th Sunday after Pentecost. There we focused on the powerful opening word, “Out of the depths I cry to you…” Here we may think of the depths of David's grief over Absalom. 

But we may also think of David in that deep valley between the royal city and the Mount of Olives, sending the ark of God back into the city, trusting that God will work God's own will in these turbulent events. “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?”

At that point in the narrative, there is only an outside chance that David will even survive, much less return in triumph.  All is absolutely in God's hands.  If God gave us everything we deserve, there would be NO hope.  Yet David's conduct on that departure from Jerusalem sustains both his personal faith – “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits” – and the root faith in Israel's destiny – “It is [the Lord] who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.”

Ephesians 4:25-5:2.  

In the Epistle reading we have proceeded in the letter to the Ephesians to the “ethical” section, which usually follows the “doctrine” part of the letter.  The Apostle has just said, “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self…and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:22-24, NRSV).  Now, in today’s reading, we can see a set of mini-commandments, telling the hearers how to live the new life in detail. 

We have a list of eight basic “commands,” each of which is elaborated in the full text. 

Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors. 
Do not let the sun go down on your anger. 
Thieves must give up stealing (and work to share with the poor). 
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths. 
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit (“grieve” means disappoint, betray). 
Put away from you all bitterness. 
Be kind to one another. 
Be imitators of God…and live in love, as Christ loved us… 

John 6:35, 41-51.  

The Gospel reading continues our focus on Jesus as the Bread of Life in John 6. 

This whole chapter has three major parts, 

  • the miracles of the feeding of the five thousand and walking on the water (verses 1-21), 
  • the dialogues about the Bread of Life (verses 22-59), and 
  • the impact afterwards on Jesus’ followers (verses 60-71).  
Our reading for today is the central section of the dialogues on the Bread. 

As commented before, John 6 contains a mini-history of early Christian faith.  In fact, our chapter moves from a great popular following to a little dedicated core, from five thousand or more Jesus followers to a set of twelve committed disciples (verses 66-67).  Between the crowds at the beginning and the small group of disciples at the end are the Judean authorities who challenge the Jesus claims. 

In last week’s readings, those speaking to Jesus were the “crowd” (verses 22, 24), and they were told that the manna in the wilderness was not the real heavenly bread that gives life to the world, but that Jesus himself is that bread.  The concluding punch line was, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry…” (verse 35, NRSV). 

Most of our reading for today presents the responses to Jesus by “the Judeans.”  [“Judeans” is the actual New Testament word later translated in European languages as “Jews.”]  After the popular audience (the “crowd”) has heard of Jesus as the heavenly Bread, the religious authorities raise objections.  “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?  How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (verse 42). 

We clearly have reflected here the kinds of objections to Christian claims for Jesus raised by followers of Pharisaic and Rabbinic Judaism in the middle and late first century of the Christian era.  It was one thing for Jesus followers to claim that Jesus was the Messiah – the Davidic ruler-to-be who would return Israel to its ancient glory.  Now to talk about a heavenly Man come to earth (which is what “Son of Man” means in John, see verse 27) is a great break from Moses (see verse 32) and contrary to what is known about the human Jesus of Nazareth! 

Jesus’ reply to this objection includes the argument that not everyone is included in the salvation sent from heaven.  How or why is God’s own mystery, but God “draws” some to the heavenly gift while others are not so “drawn.”  “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day” (verse 44, NRSV). 

This discourse is aware that the mainline Judean community would increasingly refuse the proclamation of Jesus as the bringer of God’s reign.  Here (as elsewhere in the Gospels) the Christian belief is expressed that God ultimately directs people’s response to or rejection of Jesus. 

Our reading ends with a final note that is very provocative and surprising.  Verse 51 concludes the discussion about Jesus as the “living bread,” but adds, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 

Flesh is a new word.  It opens a whole new discussion, which is next week’s reading from the Gospel. 


August 1, 2021 - 10th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                      Biblical Words                                            [726]

II Samuel 11:26-12:13a;  Psalm 51:1-12;  Ephesians 4:1-16John 6:24-35

 Human sin has consequences in history, even when profoundly repented, but some hear of a heavenly Bread of Life. 

There are many voices in these readings!  Nathan says, “You are the man”; David says “Mea culpa”; the apostle says, “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up”; and Jesus says, “Work for the food that endures.” 

II Samuel 11:26-12:13a. 

The prophetic reading continues the story of David and Bathsheba. 

We pick up the story after Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba’s husband, has been killed in battle as David had arranged it.  Bathsheba performs the mourning rituals incumbent upon the widow of a fallen warrior, then is married to David and moves into his palace to give birth to their son conceived in adultery.  In the transition to the judgment on David, the narrator comments almost dryly, “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” 

We do not hear what God said to Nathan the prophet, but almost as a toll of doom the narrator says simply, “the Lord sent Nathan to David.”  Nathan appears as a kind of Clarence Darrow; when something big is brewing it is enough to know that he is on the case!  But how will Nathan plead the case against David? 

Nathan plays the role of consulting David about an unfortunate case that came up in some province of the empire.  A rich man with many flocks and herds has stolen and butchered the only lamb, a precious little household pet, of a poor neighbor.  The poor man’s love of the lamb is told with touching pathos.  No response to this case is possible except great indignation and the judgment that the rich man be condemned and forced to repay the material loss four times over (verses 5-6).  The indignant David pronounces the judgment on the wicked man. 

The stage is set, and Nathan delivers his bombshell:  You are the man! 

Nathan then delivers, in the form of an oracle from the Lord, the pronouncement of David’s punishment.  After reviewing how God had rescued David from Saul, had given him rule over the houses of Israel and Judah and victory over all his enemies, the specific sin is declared to him:  You have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites (verse 9).  And the punishment:  as you killed your neighbor by the sword, so the sword will not depart from your own house.  As you took your neighbor’s wife, so your wives will be taken and sexually possessed in public by your neighbor. 

Because of God’s judgment, the consequences of David’s sin will reverberate down the history of his dynasty. 

Convicted beyond any doubt, David says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” 

Psalm 51:1-12.  

In the later stages of the collecting of the Psalms, a number of psalms were provided with headings describing moments in David’s history when he might have spoken this psalm (for example, Psalm 7).  The Psalm reading for this Sunday has such a heading, perhaps the most appropriate of all the matching of psalms to stories.  This heading reads, “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” 

This is a lament psalm, one in which the speaker argues that God should intervene to relieve distress.  Many lament psalms blame others for the speaker’s trouble, but if the trouble is not caused by others but by oneself – one has sinned! – then the speaker of the psalm must make a profound and moving confession of sin.  The speaker must appeal to God’s mercy and pity, in some cases making a big point of how much the speaker has already suffered – for example, Psalm 38. 

In such a confession the speaker may submit himself or herself in abject contrition. 

For I know my transgressions,
      and my sin is ever before me….
Indeed, I was born guilty,
      a sinner when my mother conceived me. (verses 3, 5, NRSV) 

At some point the petitioner must ask directly and explicitly for God to forgive the sins: 

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
      wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow….
Hide your face from my sins,
      and blot out all my iniquities.

The pleading sinner can then hold out some little hope to God for a renewed, wiser, and more valuable servant: 

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
      and put a new and right spirit within me….
And extending beyond our listed reading,
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
      and sinners will return to you….
O Lord, open my lips,
      and my mouth will declare your praise.
      (verses 13-14)

David, pleading before his High Lord, argues that he may yet be a valuable and faithful servant, chastened but sustained. 

Beyond inescapable consequences of sin there may yet lie forgiveness and the renewal of “a willing spirit.” 

Ephesians 4:1-16.  

The Epistle reading is one of the more famous passages about the unity of the church with its diversity of gifts. 

The oneness is driven home like a liturgical drumbeat:  “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (verses 4-5, NRSV). 

It is clear that an effort is required to actualize this unity.  To sustain it, the writer begs the hearers to act “[1] with all humility and gentleness, [2] with patience, [3] bearing with one another in love, [4] making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (verse 2). 

Within this unity there are “gifts” in the form of offices to which gifted people are called:  apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (verse 11).  Taken all together, the purpose of these offices is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (the ministry itself obviously being everyone’s job) and thereby to “build up the body of Christ” (the building image, as in Ephesians 2:19-22). 

There is a maturity to which the Body of Christ can be expected to grow, and the passage concludes by exhorting the hearers to attain it.  “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”  No more murmuring like hungry children in the wilderness.  Rather a disciplined body of people, each of whom has mastered a contribution and a gift. 

“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (verses 14-15). 

John 6:24-35.  

The Gospel reading continues the long discourse on Jesus as the Bread of Life in the Gospel According to John. 

We pass beyond the relatively simple presentations of the other Gospels (as seen in the feeding of the five thousand in John 6:1-15) and begin to hear the voice of a transcendent Jesus who is explicitly the heavenly Redeemer come to earth.  (See the Special Note below on the Voice of Jesus.) 

In our reading, what seems to be only a puzzled question from the crowd (“Rabbi, when did you come here?” verse 25, NRSV) prompts an aggressive response from Jesus:  You people are looking for me, not because of the signs of spiritual truth I reveal, but because I gave you bread (verse 26).  (Compare the first temptation of Jesus in Matthew, to turn stones to bread.)  You seek me for economic reasons, not theological (life-and-death) ones. 

And here, by way of contrast, Jesus says about the bread what he had said to the Samaritan woman earlier (4:14) about the living water.  “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (verse 27). 

It is important to be clear that the whole discussion of the Bread of Life requires a distinction between what perishes and what endures, between bread that only lasts a day and must be replaced by another day’s bread, and bread that lasts because it is God’s nourishment, it is eternal. 

Here are some of the statements in this discourse that point to this great distinction. 

Verse 27.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. 

Verse 33.  For the bread of God is that which [or he who] comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. 

Verse 35.  Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry…” 

Verses 49-50.  Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 

All of the gospel in this chapter requires that we find for ourselves a distinction between the “here” and the “beyond,” between the worldly and the heavenly, between the passing and the lasting.  (See Special Note below on “The Bread of Life as Teaching.”)

However we understand our own lives in terms of this old (Platonic) distinction, we should apply it here to the bread that people eat every day and the bread that is God’s eternal nourishment – that is, the revelation of the ultimate truth about divine and human relations. 

Special Notes on Reading John 6

The Voice of Jesus.  This Gospel has clearly derived from a circle of believers in which some specially gifted persons could speak in the voice of Jesus.  We may not know exactly how this was achieved in the Christian circles of the mid-to-late first century, but someone, perhaps in an inspired state, could speak to the assembled believers as if Jesus were with them (again) and speaking before them in terms that illuminated their own times and challenges.  (Scholars often think of “the Disciple whom Jesus Loved,” who appears only in John, as this inspired speaker; see 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:20.) 

Eight centuries earlier the same thing had happened with persons who could speak in the voice of Moses – probably itinerant Levite priests who were special guardians of the Moses traditions. 

The entire book of Deuteronomy is spoken in the voice of Moses – even though it speaks about life and challenges the Israelites would face centuries later in the promised land.  This extended exhortation to the Israelites in the voice of Moses was the inspired work of devoted Levites dedicated to the renewal and reform of Israel!    Addressing Israelites in the late kingdoms, such persons could speak in the voice of Moses as if he were telling the Israelites what to do when they would be living in the inherited land. 

The same theological inspiration and similar communal needs sustained those who spoke in Jesus’ voice when there was yet no written authority for Jesus’ revelation. 

The Bread of Life as Teaching (Torah).  The Bread of Life in John 6 is probably informed by Judean teachings about the Wisdom or the Law of God, which sustains and enhances life for the faithful. 

That Mosaic voice in Deuteronomy already taught the larger meaning of the manna in the wilderness.  God “humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna,…in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3, NRSV). 

In the time of Jesus and Paul, the Judean scholar Philo of Alexandria was elaborating the manna story as an allegory of the soul’s nourishment from the word of God.  “You see of what sort the soul’s food is.  It is a word [logos] of God, continuous, resembling dew, embracing all the soul and leaving no portion without part in itself.  But not everywhere does this word show itself, but on the wilderness of passions and wickednesses…” (Philo, Allegorical Interpretation, III, lix [169-70], Loeb ed., Vol. I, p. 415). 

The Gospel According to John has gone even further in making the bread in the wilderness the Logos of God which came to provide life for the world.


Sunday, July 11, 2021

July 25, 2021 - 9th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                      Biblical Words                                         [726]

II Samuel 11:1-15;  Psalm 14;  Ephesians 3:14-21John 6:1-20

The powerful may be tempted to great sins, while the hungry are fed  in God’s own way. 

The readings for this Sunday are not an obvious match-up. 

The prophetic reading and the psalm do go together:  they are about human corruption of a kind that produces ruthless crime in high office.  The epistle prays that church people may avoid such things through an inner power from the Spirit.  In the Gospel, on the other hand, Jesus performs mighty works that are nourishing and puzzling. 

II Samuel 11:1-15. 

The prophetic reading is the beginning of the story of David and Bathsheba – the crime.  (The punishment comes in next Sunday’s reading.) 

This whole section of II Samuel (chapters 9-20) is probably the best piece of prose writing in the Hebrew scriptures.  It is remarkably modern in its realism and sophistication about court life and human motivations, and in the way it keeps all the action on the human plane.  God communicates to the prophet Nathan, but otherwise the real presence of God in II Samuel is behind and through the play of human struggles, defeats, and deliverances. 

In his mature years David became suzerain over several surrounding kingdoms and peoples.  He is represented as receiving tribute from the Philistine city-states, the Edomites, the Moabites, the Amalekites, the Ammonites, and Aramean kings in the region of Damascus (II Samuel 8:11-12). 

When David’s vassal, the king of the Ammonites, died and was succeeded by his son, the son insulted David’s ambassadors, thus declaring independence.  This young new monarch counted on the support of a coalition of Aramean states to the north to join him in throwing off David’s power.  However, Joab and the Israelite army defeated the Arameans in open battle and drove the Ammonites back into their capital city Rabbah (= Amman, still the capital of the modern kingdom of Jordan), where they were then besieged.  All this is related in chapter 10. 

As Joab conducts the siege of Rabbah, David resides in Jerusalem.  The city had been his personal domain for some years and, as the center of a considerable empire had become wealthy and bustling. 

As David strolls his roof-top, in what was presumably a usual routine, he views a beautiful woman engaged in her late afternoon bath – obviously out in a patio or yard visible from above.  Realistically, it is not likely that she was there by accident; almost certainly the first move was Bathsheba’s.  The king is attracted to her uncontrollably, and uses his power to possess her, first by bringing her to him for adulterous relations, then, when she becomes pregnant, by getting rid of her husband, Uriah the Hittite. 

The central part of the narrative (verses 6-13) is the poignant loyalty of Uriah to his king and to his military duty:  when invited by the king to enjoy a furlough at home with his wife, Uriah insists on remaining on duty and sleeping in the barracks at the king’s palace, and even when drunk Uriah will not yield to the lure of his wife’s bed.  Thus David is forced to more drastic steps, and has Uriah carry back to Joab the scroll containing orders for his own execution by means of contrived military action. 

The narrator unfolds these things with skill and an amazing coolness.  Only at the end, by way of a transition to the indictment of David (verse 27), does the narrator make the laconic comment, “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” 

(Note:  For those composing the narrative, Bathsheba was the key person.  She belonged to the Jerusalemite aristocracy and would become the Great Lady [mother of the king, a powerful position in the Jerusalem court] when her son Solomon was chosen the next king.  Through her, the Davidic dynasty would be Jerusalemite rather than Judean [the tribal kingship].  See the political struggle in I Kings 1.) 

Psalm 14. 

The psalm expresses the despair and cynicism about “good” people that must be evoked by David’s conduct in the story. 

Everybody is “corrupt; they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good” (verse 1).  This is the meaning of the “fool’s” assertion that “there is no god.”  If there were a god, people couldn’t get away with all this; there would be some good people somewhere. 

As the psalm progresses, there is a gradual transition to the language of the Zion drama, of the enemies who come against God’s sacred place. 

These ruthless but misguided “evildoers” do not know the Lord; they think consuming the poor like bread is a prerogative of power.  “There,” however, in that sacred place, God’s city, the Lord IS a “refuge” (the word Luther translated “mighty fortress”) for the poor.  (This psalm is repeated in Psalm 53, where the threat of the enemies is even clearer, 53:5.) 

This word – that the Lord is the refuge of the besieged poor – is the real punch line of the psalm.  The final verse is a later sigh, desperately wishing for Israel’s salvation. 

Ephesians 3:14-21.  

The Epistle reading is a prayer that those hearing this letter may receive inner strength through the Spirit to become “rooted” and “grounded” in love – that is to be solid and firm in their devotion and mutual love.  The prayer further seeks for the hearers a comprehension of the vastness of the love of Christ, which fills all dimensions and surpasses conventional knowledge. 

It is, in other words, a prayer that the hearers be transformed by the love of Christ.  Then they will not be subject to the universal corruption spoken of by the psalmist.  The prayer is raised by the apostle to that heavenly Father who is the ultimate reality behind all fatherhood/familyhood (patria) on earth and in heaven (verses 14-15). 

John 6:1-21.  

The Gospel readings from the Gospel According to Mark have advanced to the stories of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand out in the countryside and his walking on the water to reach frightened disciples at night.  For these stories, however, the Lectionary switches from Mark to the Gospel According to John. 

(Mark is the shortest of the Gospels and John does not have a separate year in the Lectionary, so portions of John are slipped into Mark’s year.) 

In John’s version, the feeding of the five thousand is accompanied by a long set of dialogues in which Jesus elaborates his own divine reality as the Bread of Life.  For five weeks, the Gospel readings will be taken from this long chapter 6 in John, including most of its 71 verses. 

This chapter, in the most theological of the Gospels, can be seen as a mini-history of New Testament faith. 

It contains (1) samples of gospel tradition ranging from typical Galilean activities of Jesus and his disciples, to (2) controversies between Jesus and Judean religious leaders, to (3) declarations of high sacramental theology, and (4) even anticipates separations among Jesus’ later followers.  As we go through the five weeks of readings from this chapter we will trace several different developments in the shaping of Christian belief in Jesus as the incarnate Lord. 

This first reading from the Fourth Gospel is very similar to the stories of feeding the people in the other Gospels.  The feeding of the five thousand in Galilee is the only major episode reported in all four Gospels, until the last days in Jerusalem are reached.  

(There is a total of 6 stories of feeding the multitudes in the four Gospels, a major topic in the tradition.  The topic is probably related to communal living for Jesus followers in which the disciples were responsible for food and clothing.  See Luke 12:22-31, 41-46 and Acts 2:42-46 and 4:32-37.)  

In assessing these different accounts, most scholars compare John’s version with Mark’s, Mark being the oldest of the other Gospels.  John’s version has many similarities to Mark’s:  in both there is a challenge to the disciples to feed the masses, in all versions there are only five loaves and two fish, Jesus blesses (or gives thanks over) the food and the disciples distribute it (implied in John), and after everyone has eaten fully the disciples gather twelve baskets of leftovers.  So much is common.  

However, there are several features in John not present in Mark’s version:  Jesus has gone up a mountain with the crowds below him, the episode takes place at the time of the Passover, Jesus takes the initiative in identifying the problem presented by the vast crowd, two of the disciples are addressed by name (Philip and Andrew), and the five loaves and two fishes are provided by a boy.  Overall, it seems that the two stories went their own way long before Mark’s version was written as we know it. 

John, however, presents a response of the people to these actions of Jesus. 

He has provided miraculous food to the people out in the wilderness, the very thing that Moses did for the Israelites.  This must mean that Jesus is the one prophesied by Moses:  “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people” (Deut. 18:15, NRSV).  It is obvious to those who have eaten this bread that, “this is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (verse 14).  The next move is to acclaim Jesus as the Messiah and begin to celebrate the liberation! 

Jesus recognized what was in the wind, that they were “about to come and take him by force to make him king” (verse 15), and he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.  Jesus must thwart the popular movement because it is a distortion and betrayal of the kingship that is truly his.  More will be said in later readings about Jesus and Moses.

The reading concludes with the enigmatic episode of the disciples trying to cross the stormy lake at night.  In the midst of their struggle they see Jesus walking toward them in the turbulence and the dark.  Terror seizes them; Jesus speaks the word of reassurance, “It is I [ego eimi], don’t be afraid” (verse 20), and immediately the boat reaches its destination. 

Those who accompany a Moses-like Jesus on migrations toward a promised land must expect some rough times – though they may also expect to hear that Jesus is present for them in their need!