Friday, July 23, 2021

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.


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