Friday, August 20, 2021

September 5, 2021 - 15th Sunday after Pentecost

                               Biblical Words                           [732]

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37.

 What is wise in the ordinary world may be reversed by divine mercy. 

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23.  

This season of “ordinary time,” devoted to hearing the Biblical traditions in sequence, continues with more readings associated with King Solomon. 

This selection from Proverbs gives samples of three kinds of wisdom sayings, teaching respectively

1) enlightened self-interest,

2) a moral order at work in the social universe, and

3) warnings to avoid injustice under threat of God’s punishment. 

Each proverb invites us to ponder some aspect of the human world (including God’s work in it), and, learning something, to adjust our conduct accordingly. 

Here are my pretty literal translations of the readings. 

1  A chosen name is better than great wealth;

         better than silver and gold is good favor. 

A “chosen” name is one that is on a list – a list of those to be invited, or consulted, or approved for credit.  “Favor” is attention and consideration at critical moments, especially by someone in a position of power toward someone seeking a “favor” – as when David says to Achish, “If I have found favor in your sight, let a place be given to me…” (I Sam. 27:5). 

The proverb affirms that reputation and favor are better than great wealth. 

Are they?  If you have the wealth, can’t you get the favor?  Another proverb says, “A gift opens doors; it gives access to the great” (18:16).  In the big picture our proverb must mean, If you have to choose between good character in the community and wealth – and sometimes you will have to choose – choose good character.  You will be better off in the long run. 

2  Rich person and poor person meet;

         maker of them all is the Lord. 

This proverb has a near duplicate in 29:13, “Poor person and creditor [Greek text] meet; the Lord enlightens the eyes of both.”  To translate “meet” as “…have this in common” (NRSV of 22:2) is pretty feeble for this Hebrew verb.  The verb means a surprising, shocking, encounter.  It means “run into a furious she-bear,” in Proverbs 17:12 and Hosea 13:8.  When a poor person in need runs into a friendly neighborhood lender, their eyes may light up at their prospects, but there is one Lord who oversees their transactions. 

8  One sowing injustice will harvest evil;

         the rod of his anger will fail. 
9  A kindly eye will be blessed,
         for he gives of his food to the poor. 

This type of wise saying affirms that good consequences will follow from good conduct and bad consequences from bad conduct.  The implication is that whatever appearances may be, deep down somewhere, if not openly obvious, wicked work will bring disaster – and good works will receive good rewards. 

Seen in a broad perspective, this is a pretty strong affirmation of faith.  It is a faith doggedly persisted in by masses of honest folks every day, and the wisdom tradition urges its ultimate truth. 

22   Do not rob a poor one because he is poor,

            and do not crush the afflicted in court,
23   because the Lord will take up their cause,
            and will extort the life of their extortioners. 

In the form of instructions from a sage to pupils or a senior official to subordinates, this wise saying could be straight from the prophets of Judah.  For example, “I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals…” (Amos 2:5), and “The Lord enters into judgment… ‘What do you mean by crushing my people; by grinding the face of the poor?’” (Isaiah 3:14-15). 

The sages and the prophets shared some basic issues of justice!

Psalm 125.  

The Psalm is a set of affirmations about the security of the place allotted to Israel, and a prayer for those who do good. 

The hills surrounding the city of Jerusalem (which are higher than the city in three directions) express solidly and permanently the cradling care of God for “his people” (verses 1-2).  The affirmation at the center of the psalm (verse 3) seems to relate to leadership:  No wicked chief or king (“scepter”) will rule over the allotted place of the righteous (= Zion), for such a ruler would lead the people into wrong doing.  Given the firm foundation of these hills, the singer prays for good to the doers of good, and predicts that the crooked will get lost (verses 4-5). 

The psalmist shares that faith in the moral order affirmed in the Proverbs passage. 

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17.  

The Epistle reading continues the rather practical instruction of the Letter from James. 

The reading shows an early church life in which there are considerable differences in the wealth, dress, and neediness of the members.  A variety of people may be present for Christian services.  “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly [synagogē], and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in…” (verse 2, NRSV). 

Or, in the community where Christians keep track of each other, there could be sharp differences in their goods.  “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily need,…” (verses 15-16). 

In these conditions of common life, our speaker highlights two offenses to which church members are tempted.  The first is “favoritism” (verse 1) or “partiality” (verse 9), an offense that we might call discrimination.  Elsewhere early Christian tradition made very clear that “God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:11 and Ephesians 6:9 with similar sayings in Colossians 3:25 and Acts 10:34).  A little later in our reading the speaker refers to “the royal law,” which is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (verse 8, quoting Leviticus 19:18).  Also in that old scripture stands the prohibition against showing “partiality.”  “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great:  with justice you shall judge your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:15, NRSV.)

The old torah insisted on strict even-handedness in rendering justice – not even the poor should receive any favoritism.  In the situation addressed by James, EVEN the poor should be treated with an even hand.  “But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (verse 9).  The shabby homeless one who wanders in to pray should be treated as respectfully as the lawyer and the first lady of the city. 

The other offense addressed by our reading is lack of mercy, that is, failure to be generous to the needy. 

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food…and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (verses 15-16).  That is, in such a case what has happened to your religion?  “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy” (verse 13).  And, whether Martin Luther liked it or not (he called James “an epistle of straw”), the gospel pronounced here says, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (verse 17). 

Mark 7:24-37.  

The Gospel reading is also about favoritism – discrimination – and about the mercy that gives healing.  The reading combines two contrasting episodes while Jesus was traveling in territories that were heavily non-Judean.

The first episode is about the Syrophoenician woman who was outside the allotted place and people to whom Jesus’ mission was directed. 

Jesus has gone on retreat – trying to avoid people in his need for a break.  A mother, driven by determination to get relief for her daughter, hears of his presence in her region and throws herself at his feet – vacation or no vacation.  The narrative explains that she was Greek (the word is hellenis), a Syrophoenician by birth – ethnic labels that make clear she was not an Israelite by any criterion.  She is seeking mercy from the now famous teacher and healer, mercy for her demon possessed daughter back home. 

In reply to her request, Jesus is quoted as making the famous (or infamous) remark, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (verse 27, NRSV).  (It may be significant that Jesus’ metaphor puts the issue in terms of foods and eating, considering that earlier in this chapter he has demolished the grounds for discriminating against people because of food laws!)  This reply is certainly a sharp case of discrimination, of favoritism toward the self-esteemed chosen people, Israel, and against the other peoples of the nations (“gentiles”). 

The woman grasps the direction of his response, but driven by her desperation she is inspired to make a wise reply.  Yes, but, children being what they are, the dogs will certainly get their share too – from what falls off the table. 

The woman believes in both the rightness of her case and in God’s ultimate support.  For the only time in the Gospels, Jesus is outdone – and admits as much.  “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter” (verse 29).  Discrimination and favoritism have been replaced by mercy, and the hearer of the Gospel knows that good news has been proclaimed to the nations! 

The second episode of the reading is a very unusual healing of a hearing-and-speech-impaired man.  Particularly striking is the almost bumbling manner of the healer’s work.  Having taken the man aside so they are alone, Jesus sticks his fingers in the man’s ears, puts spit on his tongue, looks up to heaven, and mutters something in Aramaic – like a magic formula or incantation.  This is certainly a different portrayal from the usual magisterial pronouncement of healing that is instantly accomplished.  This looks as if we have exposed the hidden truth of Jesus the Magician! 

(This episode is sufficiently dark that neither Matthew nor Luke have repeated it from Mark’s Gospel!) 

In Mark, however, this healing story has a twin (also omitted by Matthew and Luke) – a story told a little later about healing a blind man in much the same manner.  “He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’…Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored…” (Mark 8:23-25). 

Commentators have well observed that these two stories, which stand out so graphically from other healing episodes, are symbolic of hearing and seeing the true message of Jesus.  These stories are about Jesus transforming the hearing and seeing that the disciples need in order to understand Jesus’ true mission and meaning.  These stories are about the great time coming when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped” (Isaiah 35:5). 

The disabled will no longer suffer discrimination, but will receive mercy! 

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