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! 

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