Monday, September 27, 2021

October 10, 2021 - 20th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                       Biblical Words                                              [737]

 Job 23:1-9, 16-17;  Psalm 22:1-15;  Hebrews 4:12-16;  Mark 10:17-31. 

 The suffering righteous seek relief, but the wealthy righteous face a great challenge. 

Job 23:1-9, 16-17. 

The reading from the scroll of Job gives poetic voice to Job’s complaint, following his silent suffering in the prose Prologue (last week's reading in chapters 1-2). 

Preceding our passage there has in fact been several rounds of debate between Job and his friends, who originally came to comfort Job in his misery (2:11-13). 

These debates (chapters 3-27; later chapters are monologues) are written in the most sophisticated and elaborate poetry in the Hebrew scriptures.  Each of the three friends speaks about Job’s situation and Job replies to each one immediately.  Our passage comes in the midst of the third cycle of such speeches. 

The greatness of the book, and most likely its power and popularity in its own time, lay in the artistry and thought of these separate poetic speeches.  Each speech was worthy of pondering and study, and early pupils of this advanced branch of wisdom must have memorized and discussed each one in turn.  None of the speeches is a straw-man cliché, though the friends steadily argue the validity of conventional wisdom. 

There is a somewhat unconventional treatment of the Job scroll in my Study Bibles blog (Study Bibles blog – “The Job Project,” August, 2021).  

In our passage, Job yearns and cries out for a PLACE where he can present his case.  Where is the Place of God’s hearing?  If Job could only get to that place and present the evidence and argument for his innocence, he “would be acquitted forever” (verse 7, NRSV). 

There, in that divine place of judgment, Job says, “I would learn what he would answer me.”  “Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?  No; but he would give heed to me” (verses 5-6). 

In that place God would not overwhelm, but listen. 

But alas, the place can’t be found.  It cannot be found up ahead, nor is it located behind; it is not seen to either the left or the right (verses 8-9).  Echoing the profound meditations of one of the psalmists (Psalm 139:1-18), Job says, “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me [burned me in a refiner’s fire], I shall come out like gold” (verse 10). 

Job has his confidence – but for the time being he has no one to speak to – except his contentious friends. 

Psalm 22:1-15. 

The Psalm reading gives even more powerful expression to God-forsakenness than does the Job passage.  The opening words of this psalm are the only words that Jesus speaks from the cross in Mark’s passion narrative, where they are given in Aramaic, Jesus’ everyday language:  “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (NRSV of Mark 15:34). 

The first part of this psalm alternates between the miserable condition of the speaker and the goodness of God’s past actions: 

1.  I am abandoned and unheard, vv. 1-2;
      2.  You heard and saved the Israelite ancestors, vv. 3-5; 
1’.  I am a worm, despised and mocked by all, vv. 6-8;
      2’.  You have known and kept me since my birth, vv. 9-10. 

This alternation creates a claim upon God by the speaker.  God’s past actions create an expectation that God’s servant will be cared for and saved.  This expectation is expressed in the simple plea of verse 11:  “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.” 

The piteous description in verses 12 to 15 is intended to evoke indignation at the cruelty inflicted upon the speaker.  A single metaphor is sustained, that of a hunted animal, probably the “deer” referred to in the title prefixed to the psalm. 

This beautiful wild animal is assaulted by enemies all about, bulls and lions.  The attention moves steadily from a large ring surrounding the animal toward its center as its body is violated: 

Many bulls encircle me … they open wide their mouth at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.   

As they pierce the skin the inner organs are exposed and torn open: 

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast. 

And the final drained and lifeless carcass is evidence of a ruthless slaughter: 

… my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

Nothing in the book of Job exceeds this evocation of compassion. 

(This reading leaves us in the nadir of despair.  This is as bad as things can get.  Where are we headed?)

Hebrews 4:12-16. 

The Epistle reading picks up the role of God’s judging word – trying and testing. 

This piercing two-edged sword “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (verse 12, NRSV).  The  suffering innocent in the psalms, as well as Job in chapter 23, prayed that they might be known and searched by God.  Through God’s word, God knows the truth of each person’s inner life, and a proper judgment of their innocence can be made. 

But there is a drastically important problem that may be exposed by this penetrating work of God’s word:  What if all is not well in the inner soul?  What if we are not really as innocent as we have wanted to believe – and to have others believe?  What if, in fact, we are sinners? 

The second part of the Hebrews passage addresses this condition.  It also announces the central and decisive thesis of the entire Letter: 

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin (verses 14-15). 

If we are not in fact innocent when we reach the place of God’s judgment, we need mercy or forgiveness or someone who can annul, cancel, atone for our sinful condition. 

Taken in our radical human condition, we are not in Job’s situation; our condition is more like that of Cain, and requires atoning blood and a resurrection to restore us as God’s new creation (see Hebrews 12:23b-24). 

The whole central part of Hebrews unpacks this need for a mediator.  A mediator who gives a new covenant, who is the heavenly high priest empowered to annul past sins, and who also leads to a new community of the faithful which is marching through the wilderness of present trials.  In our passage, there is an ecstatic acclamation that there is such a mediator – who knows profoundly our human condition. 

Mark 10:17-31. 

The Gospel reading brings three incidents or pronouncements concerning the contradiction between wealth and the Reign of God. 

1)  The first is the rich man who has observed all the commandments and asks what else is needed to inherit “eternal life.”  (This phrase, eternal life, occurs in Mark only in this passage; it is frequent in the Gospel According to John, where it takes the place of “kingdom” language; see John 3:3-5, and the climax about "eternal life" in 3:14-15.) 

Jesus tells the rich man that the one thing still lacking is to sell all his goods, give the proceeds to the poor, and come to follow Jesus, which means to become a homeless beggar and to trudge toward Jerusalem to die.  Jesus tells him this only after “looking at him, [he] loved him…” (verse 21, NRSV).  We may take this to mean that Jesus looked deep into the man – searched his soul and tested his heart, as the Job passage has it – and then gave his verdict. 

The man is unable to accept this enormous challenge, and goes away grieving. 

2)  But things get even harder for the rich.  Jesus sees that the disciples need some reinforcement on this point, so he says “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (verse 25).  Then who can possibly make it?, exclaim the “astonished” disciples.  And how shall we take the mysterious answer to that?  “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible” (verse 27). 

One suspects that early followers, responding to well-to-do people deeply interested in the salvation brought by Jesus, concluded that God would find a way to let these folks in without turning them into mendicant beggars.  The impossible-possible saying by Jesus was thought to apply to this situation, and Mark so recorded it. 

3)  Another puzzling pronouncement results from Peter’s assertion that the disciples have done what Jesus told the rich man was required; they have given up all and are trudging with Jesus.  Jesus now says all such persons will receive their rewards – houses for houses, family members for family members, fields for fields – and along with these things, persecutions. 

This most likely means that wherever they go, in addition to periodic persecutions, they will find housing, will find family-like support and relations, and will find agricultural work.  The community of believers will be a close-knit supporting group.  

Almost as an after-thought, Jesus adds:  Oh yes, you will also have eternal life in the age to come (verse 30). 

However we listen to it, Jesus’ various sayings about wealth make it a great barrier to acceptance in God’s Reign.  The immediate generation of Jesus’ hearers was apparently summoned to give up the world’s ways and turn over all cares to God, which included going toward destinations likely to mean death. 

In time, the Christian pilgrimage was to last long enough and extend to enough places that wealth gradually became a responsibility and a trust, as is reflected, for example, in Paul’s collections from his better-to-do churches in Greece for the poorer saints in Judea (II Corinthians 8-9). 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

October 3, 2021 - 19th Sunday after Pentecost

                            Biblical Words                                [736]

 Job 1:1; 2:1-10;  Psalm 26;  Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12Mark 10:2-16

A righteous person may suffer, but some hear that the Son of God cares for the children.

Job 1:1; 2:1-10. 

The readings from the Hebrew scriptures return to the “wisdom” literature.  We now follow the wisdom tradition along one of its more radical and difficult side paths, the scroll of Job.  (For the first two millennia of its existence, this writing was a scroll, not a "book.")  

In the time of Ezekiel (around 600 BCE), Job was known to educated Judeans as a figure of the ancient past, famous for his righteousness, along with Noah and Daniel (Ezekiel 14:14 and 20).  These three men were non-Israelite figures who were models of faithfulness to God in extremely trying times. 

The scroll of Job is complex in structure as well as in religious thought. 

There is an outer framework (Prologue and Epilogue) written in prose.  The Prologue (chapters 1-2) presents the utterly patient Job who loses all his worldly goods, children, and health but refuses to curse God.  The Epilogue (42:7-17) presents a happy, if somewhat dark, ending in which all Job’s losses are restored. 

The bulk of the scroll, in between, is in poetry, very sophisticated and artistic, in which different speakers argue various positions about Job’s situation and God’s righteousness and power.  In this section Job complains about God, asserts his own innocence, and yearns for a chance to make his case before God.  (This is “the angry Job.”) 

There is a fundamental difference in perspective between the prose framework and the poetic debate.  The prose story (chapters 1-2) shows things on both the heavenly and earthly levels. The heavenly drama lets us know what is really causing all of Job’s suffering (God letting “the Satan” torture him).  By contrast, the speakers in the poetic materials (chapters 3-27) know only the confusion and conventional wisdom of earthly human experience. 

Our Reading (2:1-10) is the second heavenly scene of the Prologue.  

God brags about his faithful servant Job to the Prosecutor (“the sātān” in Hebrew), whose job it is to search the earth for wicked people who need punishing.  The Prosecutor replies that Job is faithful only out of self-interest.  God had already given the Prosecutor a free hand to test Job, first by destroying Job’s world, and now by torturing Job’s body – short of death.  Job’s wife ridicules his “integrity” and suggests he curse God and die.  Cursing the source and sustainer of life is equivalent to pulling the plug and ending one’s misery. 

The key to the selected reading is Job’s reply to his wife:  “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”  This echoes Job’s earlier response to the loss of all his property and his children:  “Naked came I from my mother’s womb [the earth], and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21, NRSV).  

The challenge to us of this “patient Job” is, Where is the anger?  Where is the indignation at this gross and absurd injustice?  Such indignation may lead on, of course, to the self-centered, “Why ME, O Lord?”  This voice will be heard from Job, but only in the poetic debates in chapters 3-27, from which next week’s reading is taken. 

There is a somewhat unconventional treatment of the Job scroll in my Study Bibles blog (Study Bibles blog – “The Job Project.”)  

Psalm 26. 

It is not difficult to find a Psalm reading that complements Job’s situation.  There are many psalms that cry out in the voice of the suffering innocent, and Psalm 26 is one of the most straightforward of them. 

This psalm cries out for God to examine rigorously the speaker’s person and life, for God to “judge” (NRSV “vindicate”), to “try,” and to “test” the speaker.  The speaker wants his or her day in court, confident that if the truth can be revealed, his or her “integrity” will be demonstrated and upheld.  (The “integrity” of NRSV verses 1 and 11 is the same Hebrew root as in the Job Prologue.) 

The psalm reflects the fact that in much of ancient justice the great problem was to get a hearing.  One could be perfectly honest and proper in one’s conduct but through error or malice be blamed for some disaster.  The only recourse was to plead for a hearing in the court of a judge who is sure to hear and recognize the truth.  Without such a hearing, the wrong continues and the world thinks you are a sinner and deserve your trouble. 

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12.  

The Epistle reading starts a new book, which we will be reading for the next seven weeks. 

This composition called “To the Hebrews” was written around 75 to 100 CE, and was being read by folks in Rome by the latter date.  It was NOT written to “Hebrews,” that is Judeans.  It was written to people who have been Christians for a while but are now under some pressures, externally, and perhaps internally as well.

Later Christians (Clement and Origin of Alexandria, around 200 CE) knew that this work was too different from Paul’s main letters to have come from him.  However, this was a case where the work was too good to let quibbles about apostolicity keep it from the Christian scriptures.  In time, the church decided that Paul must have written it so it could be kept in the New Testament.  It has been esteemed, especially by theologians, as one of the great writings of Christian history. 

Hebrews is not really a letter, though the last chapter has some of the usual endings of a letter.  It is a sermonic discourse, suitable for study, pondering, and discussion.  It was not for beginning Christians, but for advanced study.  (“Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation...”, 6:1, NRSV.)  It unfolds more aspects of the revelation and work of the Christ than the hearers or readers may have recognized before. 

The main way that the meaning of the Christ is unpacked and developed is by studying the Torah, Prophets, and Psalms of the Judean scriptures (in their Greek translations).  Thus, Hebrews is continually laying out the previously hidden meaning of the past scriptures, as such meanings can now be seen because of the coming of the Son of God. 

The opening paragraph (included in our reading) is as loaded with vast theological claims – and intimations of future doctrines of Christianity – as the opening of the Gospel According to John.  It is a succinct summary of what the writer can assume the hearers are familiar with and of what will be restated and elaborated in this writing, 

For the rest, this writer and these hearers are located firmly in the second generation of Christians:  The message of salvation “was declared at first through the Lord [Jesus], and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit…” (2:3-4). 

The selected reading concludes with a main emphasis of the work, that the saving work of Jesus led him into suffering.  While Jesus the Son of God is now crowned with glory (as attested in Psalm 8, quoted in verses 6-8), a glory that he has opened for all who belong to him, it is a glory achieved only after suffering, even suffering to death. 

This, the writer declares, was entirely appropriate:  “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings” (2:10). 

What was the Job problem in the Judean scriptures – why does the righteous Job suffer? – becomes the Atonement problem in Christian doctrines – why did Jesus have to die to get forgiveness of sins for believers? 

Much of the rest of Hebrews speaks to this mystery. 

Mark 10:2-16. 

The Gospel reading relates incidents during Jesus’ journey toward suffering in Jerusalem.  The passage does not discuss suffering or its theological meaning directly.  Rather, it focuses on family matters – divorce, children, and (later in the chapter) wealth. 

The Pharisees come to test Jesus on the matter of divorce.  Besides being a controversial issue between Rabbinic schools, divorce was a hot topic politically.  John the Baptist had condemned Herod Antipas’ divorce and remarriage and had lost his head as a result (Mark 6:17-29). 

The Torah seems to have two different pronouncements on the matter:  Genesis 2:24 says a man and a woman become one flesh, and, Jesus will say, they were meant to stay that way.  On the other hand, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is the explicit Judean law on divorce, allowing a man to divorce a wife but requiring him to give her a written document, after which she can marry again.  (Bear in mind that this was a society in which a wealthy man could have multiple wives.  Polygamy was open to those who could afford it.)     

The issue in the Gospel passage is the relation between (1) God’s original creative intention and (2) accommodations to human frailty and error.  Jesus takes the side of God’s original intention, and the Pharisees probably intended to expose his stricter practice and its over-riding of the Mosaic law. 

Mark presents Jesus’ final pronouncements as delivered to the disciples in a private session indoors.  For Christian practice, re-marriage after a divorce is a violation of the commandment against adultery (10:10-12).  When Matthew repeated this Markan passage, the prohibition was qualified by adding the phrase, “except for unchastity,” allowing divorce from a person convicted of adultery (Matthew 19:9).  (The communities reflected in Matthew’s Gospel had found the need for qualifications, for loop-holes.)   

Paul’s view of divorce apparently followed Jesus’:  He reports to the Corinthian Christians that “the Lord” commanded that there be no re-marriage after divorce (I Corinthians 7:10-11). 

This Gospel passage shows Jesus as the new law-giver, or at least authoritative law-interpreter.  Alongside Jesus’ earlier radical revising of the Jewish food laws (Mark 7:1-23), this pronouncement on marriage is another step toward shaping a new way of life that will separate Jesus’ followers from Pharisaic (Rabbinic) Judaism. 

We have to think that Jesus’ words apply to a pristine community, expected to thrive in the newness of God’s reign.  However, in more troubled, complex, and sociologically studied (modern) times, divorce may be the more compassionate and gracious course required within a caring community. 

One likes to think that the passage about the children (10:13-16) is placed immediately after the passage forbidding divorce because of care about the children and their need for parenting.  This passage has no other point than to lift up the dependence, innocence, and perhaps the childlike joy and play of these kids as having highest priority in God’s Reign.  The disciples are warned to not let their officiousness deter these little ones, for they (the kids) are the model and constant reminder of the attitude and mood in which the Reign of God should be received.  A new life for parents – making possible a better marriage as well as better parenting – is part of that Reign. 

Jesus hugs these kids, who depend on the big people in their lives, and gives them his blessing! 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

September 26, 2021 - 18th Sunday after Pentecost

                                    Biblical Words                                [735]

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22;  Psalm 124;  James 5:13-20;  Mark 9:38-50

Threats come to God’s people from the outside, but the disciples also find people who are not against them.

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22.  

At this point in our readings, the Lectionary interrupts the Solomonic-related selections to tell another (and much later) story of a great king and his court, especially of his counselors and his wives.  We skip to the book of Esther, set in Persian times.  Our reading gives only the climax of the story and the Jewish celebration based on it. 

In Jewish tradition this is one of “the Five Scrolls,” each of which was read at a Jewish festival during the year.  The last of the “Five,” Esther, is read at the festival of Purim, a minor festival in the 12th month of the year (approximately February-March), normally just one month before the Passover.  Purim, meaning “lots,” had to do with casting lots to determine a date or destiny for the coming year, though little is known about the ancient festival. 

The scroll tells the story of an attempted pogrom against the Judeans, an organized plot to dispossess and kill the Judean people living in dispersion among a host people, in this case the Persians. 

The top-ranking Persian official Haman became incensed because the Judean Mordecai refused to bow down to him.  In his fury Haman initiated the plot to have the Judeans in all the Persian provinces killed on a certain day.  Haman cast a lot to fix a divinely chosen date for the slaughter (3:7). 

At the last moment, as our reading relates, the beautiful Judean woman Esther, who had become the king’s favorite wife, exposed Haman’s plot to the king and Haman was hung high on his own gallows, intended for his Judean enemy Mordecai.  The date fixed by lot becomes a day of joy, festival, and gift-giving instead of a day of doom and death for the Judeans, and Mordecai proclaimed that Judeans everywhere should observe it (9:20-22). 

There is also a darker side to the story, omitted from our reading.  The plot of the evil Persians is turned against them and the Judeans are permitted to slaughter them instead of being their victims (8:11-12; 9:1-19).  This is a deep fantasy for subjugated peoples, that those who hate and harass them will, at a divinely fixed time, be themselves eliminated and killed instead. 

Both this darker element in the story and the names of the leading Jewish characters indicate that Purim and its story is a Judean adaptation of Babylonian seasonal rituals and their accompanying myths. 

The names “Esther” and “Mordecai” are simply the goddess Ishtar and the god Marduk with slightly different pronunciations of their names. 

The beautiful goddess appears before the high god and secures the deliverance of her people from the threats of their enemies, and the war-god Marduk defeats his enemy in the older council of the gods and takes over his status and powers. 

Reduced (or elevated) to the modest level of pious Judean people of the Diaspora, the drama of the old Babylonian myths lives on in local legend and the religious calendar. 

Psalm 124.  

While the story in Esther (in its Hebrew version) makes no direct reference to God, the Psalm reading vigorously corrects that oversight.  The psalm is an ecstatic thanksgiving for deliverance by the Lord from powerful enemies who have threatened to swallow up the people. 

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
      when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
      when their anger was kindled against us (verses 2-3, NRSV). 

The threat is restated with cosmic overtones –

the flood would have swept us away,

                  the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
      the raging waters (verses 4-5). 

This is the kind of language used in celebrating the Lord’s triumph over the floods of chaos in, for example, Psalm 93. 

This water imagery of chaos was conventional throughout the Mesopotamian cultural sphere, reflected graphically in Marduk’s triumph over Tiamat (“the Deep”) in the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish.  The Hebrew tehom, the “deep” of Genesis 1:2, and tehom rabbah, “great deep” of Isaiah 51:10, are echoes of the Babylonian tiamat. 

The psalm continues by blessing Yahweh for such a deliverance of the people, now pictured as the rescue of an innocent bird from a snare, very appropriate to the Esther story:   

We have escaped like a bird

      from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
      and we have escaped (verse 7). 

James 5:13-20.  

The Epistle reading brings us to the last selection from the letter of James. 

The reading concerns the ministry within the assembly of God’s people.  The means of this ministry are prayer and songs.  The people are urged to pray when they suffer and to sing when they are joyful! 

The elders in particular have a ministry to the sick, with prayer and anointing with oil in the name of the Lord.  The power of prayer by the righteous is urged, with examples of Elijah using prayer to prevent rain for three and a half years, and then using prayer again to bring rain and prosperity – alluding to I Kings 17 and 18. 

Related to healing the sick is the importance of confessing sins, an action in which believers minister to each other:  “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another…” (verse 16, NRSV). 

The last thought of the epistle is poignant.  Those who have been inside the community of faith may sometimes wander away.  “If anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (verses 19-20). 

The epistle is addressed to a modest but enduring community from which members sometimes stray off, presumably to other religious groups or to godless ways of life.  Each member of the Christian group is challenged to work with such individuals in the hope of occasionally winning one back so that all may rejoice in the soul recovered from the sickness of the world. 

The people of God are also saved from outside threats, one by one! 

 Mark 9:38-50. 

The Gospel reading (only 9:38-41 will be addressed here) presents the issue of outsiders in relation to the chosen group.  The outsiders here are not hostile, they are only competitors, at least as the disciples see them. 

Someone outside the circle of Jesus’ chosen disciples is performing healing miracles using Jesus’ name.  Jesus instructs the disciples that if such folks are doing good they are on our side.  “Whoever is not against us is for us.”   

This is a potentially difficult saying, especially for organized religion. 

The world is divided here, not into two groups, “we” and “they,” but into three:  (1) we, (2) those who are against us, and (3) those who are not against us.  

As the decades passed, much of Christian life in the larger world had to do with living with this large third group.  Christian churches in our own time live among these same three groups – especially among the great number who are simply “not against us”! 

This passage reflects a time when the name “Christ” had become the mark of his followers.  Outside people may be favorably disposed toward those who bear the name Christ, and such people are included in some way in the benefits of Christ’s coming:  “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward” (verse 41, NRSV). 

There is here a curious relation between those who are confessing Christians and those who do not confess but think Christians are nice people and good for the community! 

These circumstances might reflect a situation in Rome as early as the time of the Emperor Claudius (reigned 41-54 CE), when the larger Judean [“Jewish”] community there was disrupted by disputes over a “Chrestus.”  Because of these disorders Claudius banished all Judeans from Rome, around 49 CE.  (Mentioned in the Latin biographer Suetonius’ Life of Claudius, 25.4.)  Things done and lives changed “in the name of Christ” were beginning to make a difference in the Roman world. 

Our Gospel passage suggests that the coming of God’uggests that the coming of God'od called all sorts of people to serve the common good.   will -- whether their political or rels reign (kingdom) is happening among many people of good will – whether their political or religious beliefs fit our exact requirements or not.  Days of persecution and suffering were still ahead, but the Jesus followers were not unalterably set in a we-they opposition to the human world. 

That human world, the oikoumenē, was the mission field where God empowered all sorts of people to serve the common good. 


Monday, September 6, 2021

September 19, 2021 - 17th Sunday after Pentecost.

                   Biblical Words                        [734]

Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37.

The Family of God includes:  the marvelously capable woman, the Torah-directed man, the modest doer of good works, and the child in Jesus’ arms. 

Proverbs 31:10-31. 

The readings from the Solomonic traditions of the Hebrew scriptures conclude with the well-known passage from Proverbs about the ideal wife. 

This twenty-two verse poem is an alphabetic acrostic, each verse starting with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  

This explains why, for example, textile activities appear in different parts of the poem (verses 13, 19, 22, 24), each activity fitting a letter in a different part of the alphabet.  A writer has demonstrated her or his skill in the mastery of language while singing the praises of  “the capable woman/wife” (‘ēsheth ḫayil, verse 10). 

The poem appears to present a many-skilled kind of super-mom, who attends to all the household business from real estate (verse 16) to food importing (verse 14) to textile manufacturing (verses 13 and 19), including the supplying of a garment district (verses 18 and 24), to the management of charitable (verse 20) and educational (verse 26) enterprises.  All the members of her family are safe and comfortable (verse 21), her husband trusts her and stands high among the citizenry (verses 11-12 and 23) and her household staff is well supervised (verses 15 and 27).  She is honored and acclaimed by those who depend on her and love her (verses 28-29) and her faith in God exceeds all transitory charm and beauty (verse 30)! 

But wait!  The poem is susceptible of another reading:  the “woman” can also be an ideal city. 

It is not uncommon for prophets to speak of the city as a mother (metropolis = mētēr polis, mother city) whose conduct seriously affects the destiny of her children.  A literal rendering of verse 11 – “Her lord (ba’al) has trusted in her and plunder (shālāl) is not lacking” – fits a city better than a household or estate.  The wide range of the woman’s activities actually cover the needs of a prosperous royal or temple city, and together constitute the common good. 

Thus, the woman’s faithfulness to her lord, her never sleeping in her care for her dependents, her care for the poor and needy, and her overseeing the agricultural, commercial, and cultural needs of her family are a portrayal of the soul of the true city, the blessed human community. 

Psalm 1.  

If the Solomonic passage (in Proverbs) extols the ideal woman, the Davidic passage in the Psalms praises the man of ideal Torah devotion. 

The gender-correcting NRSV has converted the single male of the Hebrew – “Happy the man who has not followed the counsel of the wicked,…” New Jewish Publication Version – into a plurality – “Happy are those who do not follow…”  But something serious is lost in this change to the plural. 

The scroll of Psalms was recited continuously in Judean piety after the time of Ezra, and its opening words put an unqualified charge to the individual:  each person in the center of his (or her) own being stands before God, and the Torah is the only mediator between them.  The charge is a personal and individual one.  To be totally devoted to the Torah in all movements of life – walks, stands, sits in verse 1 – is the key to all the rest of life. 

A happier solution of the gender issue is achieved by the New Jerusalem Bible:  “How blessed is anyone who rejects the advice of the wicked…” – though this still loses the escalation of verse one:  walks-stands-sits, as in the Hebrew (and the old RSV!). 

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a. 

The Epistle reading begins with a contrast between “the wisdom from above” and earthly divisive wisdom.  The speaker sees the external conflict between wisdom and unwisdom turned into a conflict within the person, the divided self (“your cravings that are at war within you”). 

The hearers are summoned to “show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”. . . 

The rest of the passage addresses the divided self. 

This speaker has a strong sense of the destructiveness of the divided personality.  Conflicts and disputes come from “cravings that are at war within you” (4:1).  One of the worst faults one can name is being “double-minded” (4:8b).  The divided, conflicted person is destructive and dangerous.  The true wisdom of God (3:17), which is “gentle” like the lamb, works within to bring peace and “a harvest of righteousness” (3:18). 

Mark 9:30-37. 

The Gospel reading presents the very human desires of Jesus’ disciples for “greatness.” 

The episode begins when Jesus again tells them of his coming passion and resurrection (verse 31), which is the key to Jesus’ own greatness.  However, what he says remains unintelligible to the disciples (verse 32).  They seem to be wholly fixed on another conception of greatness – as glory to come. 

Back at home base in Capernaum, after their trek through areas around Galilee, Jesus asks the disciples what they had discussed so intently on the road.  They are ashamed to tell him.  The envy and egotism that the writer of James would warn against a generation or two later was at work from an early time among Jesus’ chosen twelve. 

Jesus’ address to this condition is not to praise either a valiant woman of faith or a man of scripture study, but to place a child in their midst. 

The Reign of God – we have driven home to us in so many ways – turns things upside down.  The leaders must be the servants; the first can only be those who are last; the model of all is the one marked most of all as being dependent – the child, to paidíon (neuter), too young and innocent to even have a gender. 

The rest of this passage reflects a situation in which the name of Jesus has become a critical mark of his followers:  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me …” (verse 37). 

This saying also makes clear that “child” here does not mean only or primarily a toddler or pre-adolescent. 

If you are “welcoming” the person, the person has been out on one’s own, perhaps lost and pursued by oppressors, but dependent because of their distress, not because of their age.  The “child,” the little one, is one of the people who need and wait for Jesus in humility and dependence. 

The child is the homeless, the vagrant, the delinquent.  These children are those Jesus calls “the least of these who are members of my family” (Matthew 25:40).