Monday, August 16, 2021

August 29, 2021 - 14th Sunday after Pentecost.

                                                      Biblical Words                                   [731]

Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

At moments God’s Word is exuberant and spontaneous, especially after the great liberation from binding convention.   

Song of Solomon 2:8-13.  

To have a reading from the Song of Solomon is both surprising and delightful. 

This begins a group of readings from the third division of the Hebrew scriptures, the Writings, HakKetubim.  Our readings have moved through the historical traditions to the middle of Solomon’s glorious reign, and now for a while we will sample some of the literature of Solomon’s loves and wisdom.  This week alone is from the Song, then will follow a few weeks from Proverbs and Job. 

But what a transition!  We move from the staid piety of the Deuteronomist’s dedication of the Temple to the lover’s summons to hear “the voice of the turtledove” and to “come away”!  The poetry that plays so joyfully with images of fertile nature and the sprightly animal world reminds one of Shakespeare’s early narrative poetry, particularly Venus and Adonis. 

About full-blossomed spring as the time of new life and the powerful urge of the young and healthy toward love, what comment is there?  Let the poetry, which echoes through the history of English literature, speak: 

Arise, my love, my fair one,
      and come away; …
The flowers appear on the earth;
      the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
      is heard in our land….
Arise, my love, my fair one,
      and come away. 

Interpreted through the ages as the summons of God to beloved Israel, as the wooing by Christ of his Bride the Church, it still has the lure and verve of a vigorous young man, alive to the vibrancy of new growth around him, making his urgent plea to the ravishing beauty behind the lattice, who is herself eager to be off! 

Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9.  

Only a little less exuberant about love is the Psalm reading, which says in its superscription that it is a love song (shir yedidoth).  Here we are dealing with a Royal Wedding.  The speaker begins with his own role and credentials: 

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;

      I address my verses to the king;
      my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe. 

He is the clerk and witness of the ceremony, and his song will be the signed marriage license. 

Then we get the wedding portrait of the bridegroom, the king:  “You are the most handsome of men; grace is poured upon your lips…”  He is also a warrior, who has girded on his sword and ridden victoriously to defend truth and the right (verses 3-4, NRSV), whose enemies fall before him, and whose throne is a monument of stability and righteousness (verses 5-6).  In his most luxurious clothes and finest grooming he is ready for the wedding, and to the sound of the wedding march he processes into an ivory palace surrounded by a bevy of royal princesses, the bride herself standing in golden garments beside him (verses 7-9). 

The prescribed reading stops there, in mid ceremony, but the psalm goes on with the (minister’s) charge to the bride to appreciate her good fortune and her very enviable position (verses 10-13a).  The bride is then led to the king’s chamber for their nuptials (verses 13b-15), and the singer (perhaps speaking God’s blessing) winds up by praising the king’s posterity – and his own part in magnifying the king’s fame and glory (verses 18-19). 

James 1:17-27. 

The Epistle readings now shift to another letter in the New Testament, the Letter of James, quite different from the letter to the Ephesians we have heard for the last several weeks. 

This writing is addressed to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1), which at least means people outside Palestine, whether Judean, Judean-sympathizers, or entirely non-Judean believers in Jesus as the Christ. 

Comment on James the Brother.  It is romantic to think that the James who writes this letter is the brother of Jesus – as Church tradition in the fourth and later centuries gradually decided – but the concerns of the letter and the circumstances of those addressed do not fit well the historical situation of James the Just (as even his Judean opponents called him).  This James, the brother of Jesus, was the head of the Jerusalem church from around 41 CE (see Acts 12:17; Galatians 2:9 and 12; Acts 15:13 and 19).  This James was murdered in 62 CE by Zealots during the turbulence leading to the Judean revolt against Rome (reported by the Judean historian Josephus). 

The Letter of James was written in Greek and is a collection of memorable sayings in the manner of wisdom literature.  It does not have a structure of thought so much as a succession of themes, with sayings grouped around each theme. 

In the passage for today there is strong emphasis on the power of the word. 

[God] gave us birth by the word of truth… (verse 18, NRSV),

Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls (verse 21). 

The passage goes on to make very clear that the “word” involved is an instruction for how to live.  The hearers of the letter must be “doers of the word” and not only hearers.  They should be “not hearers who forget but doers who act” (verse 25). 

Our passage concludes with a declaration that is truly memorable: 

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to care for orphans and widows in their distress… (Verse 27.) 

Wherever God’s people, of whatever description, are dispersed, this should be the word “implanted” in them that constantly receives new “birth.” 

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23. 

After many weeks pondering the Bread of Life in John 6, we return for the Gospel reading to Mark.  In one sense this is a big shift, but in another today’s reading continues the Judean-Christian tensions of John’s Gospel – tensions about the theology of food. 

This passage in Mark establishes a major break between the Jesus movement and the Judaism of Jesus’ time and later.   

As a reformer, Jesus is not simply reinforcing the old law; he is changing it.  He is definitely leaving out something (see the criteria in Deuteronomy 4:2)!  He is leaving out the whole body of dietary rules that so fractured table fellowship, even among Christians themselves (Galatians 2:11-14). 

(For an impressive interpretation of this passage from a Liberal (Reformed) Jewish viewpoint, see the Special Note below.)

The entire passage, 7:1-23, is a very composite, even inconsistent, block of Markan tradition.  Most careful interpreters agree on this, but differ a lot in how they describe its development. 

As likely as any is a simple reading of four stages in the development of the tradition behind the passage.  (This is NOT a description of stages of writing; it is stages in how Jesus people evolved their discussions of these related topics.) 

1.      The first issue was hand-washing before meals (verses 1-2, 3-4), a challenge raised by Pharisees against Jesus’ disciples – not against Jesus, but against his disciples, that is, a conflict between Pharisees and early Jesus followers.  This issue is raised but not actually addressed in the passage.  It is now subsumed in the next, later issue. 

2.      The second issue is scripture versus traditions (verses 5, 6-8).  Here Jesus elevates the hand-washing issue into a scripture issue:  He cites a prophetic passage that indicts the Pharisees because they place their oral tradition on an equal footing with Moses’ written torah.  Verses 9-13 (not included in our reading) is an add-on example to support the charge about that oral tradition:  the Pharisees supposedly elevate “qorban” vows above the written commandments concerning parents.  Most scholars recognize this was not historically true, but the Jesus tradition came to sharply oppose the Pharisaic “oral law.”  

3.      The third issue is Jesus’ revolutionary declaration about what actually defiles people (verses 14-15, 17-20).  Not what goes into people (like food from unwashed hands) defiles them, but what comes out of people (verse 15).  The basic concept is so far-out that Jesus has to have a special in-house session with the disciples to reinforce it (verses 17-19), a standard technique in Mark for addressing issues that came up in the later church.  This discussion does not develop naturally out of what precedes but is a profound theological extension of the rejection of the Pharisaic purity laws.  This is no longer a critique of the oral torah; it is a rejection of major parts of the Mosaic legislation itself.  This is the freeing of Jesus believers from living by Leviticus. 

4.      Finally, a Hellenistic (non-Judean) inventory of what comes out of people:   a list of human defilements (verses 21-23), which resembles lists of vices that appear in Paul’s letters (Romans 1:29-31; I Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21). 

The entire passage has moved from a local Pharisaic purity issue to a basic separation between two emerging world religions.  This section marks the departure of Jesus followers from mainline Judean practice, by at least 70 CE. 

Special Note:  A Jewish Interpretation of Mark 7:15.

The following is a discerning and far-sighted statement of the historical significance of this teaching of Jesus:  C. G. Montefiore, The Synoptic Gospels (2d ed., 2 vols., London:  Macmillan and Co., 1927), Vol. I, pp. 130-131. 

Mark 7:15:  “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”  (NRSV)

(Paragraphing has been added to what in the original is a long unbroken text.)

This section is of profound significance and value; it raises questions of the deepest importance. … For here Jesus enunciates a doctrine which appears not only to be new and emancipating, but which seems to constitute one of the two chief justifications or reasons for the main way in which Liberal Judaism looks at the old ceremonial law. 

For first of all came the old prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries  B.C.  They said:  The true service of God is not ceremonial, but moral; God desires love and not sacrifices, the knowledge of Him rather than burnt offerings. …This teaching is resuscitated by Jesus…

But here he says something which is akin to the prophetic doctrine, but is yet novel.  There were two aspects of the old ritual and ceremonial practices, two sides to them.  Some of them were supposed to affect God, and some of them were supposed to affect man.  The prophets dealt mainly with those which were supposed to affect, please, or propitiate God, and they tell us that God does not care for them:  it is not so that he is propitiated or pleased. 

In this section Jesus deals with those which were supposed to affect man, and these were mainly rules and customs about clean and unclean, which again depended upon conceptions – very old, widespread conceptions – about clean and unclean.  Just as the prophets upset the old ideas about the service of God, so here Jesus upsets old ideas about clean and unclean. 

As the prophets moralized and inwardized men’s ideas about the service of God, so Jesus moralizes and inwardizes men’s ideas about clean and unclean.  In a religious sense it is only man who can be clean and unclean; nothing else.  Only man can make himself clean and unclean; outside things cannot make him clean or unclean.  The conception of ritual or Levitical purity and impurity is overthrown and abolished.  Upon these two doctrines, the doctrine of Hosea, upon the one hand, the doctrine of Jesus, upon the other, the new attitude of Liberal Judaism towards the ceremonial Law depends. 

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