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). 

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