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). 


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