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. 


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