Tuesday, June 11, 2024

June 16, 2024 -- 4th Sunday after Pentecost

                                             Biblical Words                                         [886]

I Samuel 15:34-16:13Psalm 20; II Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34.

God’s reign moves secretly toward great outcomes, claiming both bodies and hearts.  

I Samuel 15:34-16:13 

The reading from the Historical Books takes us to the second episode concerning the emergence of kingship in Israel.  This topic is mostly about David, who is the central figure of the books of Samuel after I Samuel 16. 

This is the anointing of David.  A main emphasis in this story is on God’s knowledge of the inner character of persons.  This includes the always-surprising truth that the least likely candidate may be the best. 

Samuel is sent on a secret mission to Bethlehem, knowing that a new king is in the making.  Bethlehem is a small town and Jesse with his several strong sons is clearly the leading figure in the community.  Samuel's coming is a scary thing to the local people, who come trembling to ask “Do you come peaceably?” (verse 4, NRSV).  The entire episode bears an aura of covert action and mystery.  God is up to something in the midst of devious human circumstances. 

As the ceremonies progress, Jesse’s eldest son is introduced and Samuel is sure this handsome and impressive young man must be God’s choice for the next king.  God’s response is, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, …for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (verse 7). 

The selection process continues until all candidates have been rejected.  The person sought is not present!  There must be someone else – somewhere.  Jesse finally reports that there is one youngest son who only does shepherd duties, not yet having reached warrior status.  When this handsome teenager has been brought, God says, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one” (verse 12).  

Anointing is something that happens to the body, but it signifies an inner state of divine charisma.  The figure of destiny for Israel has been selected, and David becomes the Anointed One of God. 

Psalm 20. 

The Psalm reading is an emphatic and unambiguous royal psalm

It is a liturgical response by an Israel that believed and hoped completely in the Anointed One who ruled in Yahweh’s name from Zion.  It is at once a prayer and a confession of faith that God will hear the king in times of danger, will accept his offerings, and will give him victory. 

The psalm keeps perspective, however, by affirming that victory comes from relying on God, not on superior chariots. 

II Corinthians 5:6-17.  

The Epistle reading presents, on a more profound level, the theme that God knows the inner being and that worldly appearances are not what count.  Here too, anointing happens to the body, but it signifies an inner state of divine empowerment. 

First, concerning bodily life.  In the larger context Paul has said, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away [we are getting older], our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (II Corinthians 4:16NRSV).  He goes on to refer to bodily life as “being at home in the body”; but if we are “at home” in the body, we are at the same time “away from the Lord” (verse 6). 

Clearly being “at home” in the body is not just a physical condition; it is also an attitude.  It is the attitude of investing this life with our hopes and confidence.  Those who live by faith “would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (verse 8). 

The distinction between “at home” and “away” in relation to the body is not just future; it is present, in the experience of ecstasy (which literally means “standing outside [oneself]”).  Ecstasy is what Paul refers to when he says, “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you” (verse 13). 

Having ecstatic experiences is like speaking in tongues.  It may be great for the person having the experience, but it is not constructive for the community (see I Corinthians 14:1-6).  On the other hand, bodily life is necessary to the reality of personal existence with God.  It is life lived in the body that stands before the Lord in the last judgment (verse 10), and it was in the body that Jesus made the sacrifice that offered release from sin for all people (verses 14-15). 

Nevertheless, life beyond the body is so important that Paul asserts that everyone should be viewed in that way all the time.  “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view [literally “according to flesh”]; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation...” (verses 16-17). 

Life in the body has transcendent meaning because it is what we are before God.  Life in the body is the whole person continually related to the ultimate requirement and grace of the Holy One. 

Mark 4:26-34.  

As the Gospel readings continue in Mark, we come to the chapter on parables (4:1-34). 

In the Parable of the Growing Seed (verses 26-29) a comparison is made to the kingdom of God.  “The kingdom of God IS as if someone would scatter seed…”  The comparison does not equate the kingdom with the seed, nor with the “man” (the “someone” of NRSV) who sows and harvests the seed.  The comparison is not even with the earth that grows the seed after the man forgets about it. 

As we move through the brief parable, the subjects of the verbs keep shifting.  First the man scatters seed and goes about his daily business; then the seed sprouts and grows; then the earth “produces of itself” stalk, head, and full grain; then the grain has ripened; and finally “he” extends a sickle to cut the grain for the harvest.  There is no single actor here; there is a succession of actors, and all of their actions add up to one EVENT. 

The event is the grain growing from seed to harvest, full cycle. 

The kingdom of God is like a process that goes from seed to harvest.  The long middle part of this process – the growing – is the work of the seed and the earth.  It goes on by itself (the Greek word in verse 28 is automatÄ“, as in our word “automatic”).  At the critical point, the grain is ripe, the harvest is ready. 

The question to the hearer of the parable is, Where are we in the process?  Has the grain fully ripened?  Is it yet time for the harvest?  Those are the questions the parable is intended to inspire about the imminent coming and presence of the kingdom of God

In the Parable of the Mustard Seed (verses 30-32) there is also a comparison to the kingdom of God.  “With what can we compare the kingdom of God…  It is like a mustard seed…” 

The marvelous thing about the mustard seed is also that it represents a process of growing and maturing.  When sown it “is the smallest of all the seeds on earth”; yet it becomes “the greatest of all shrubs.”  It is so grand that it imitates the world-tree.  It “puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (compare Ezekiel 17:23). 

Both the grain and the mustard seed are fast growing plants.  Things move right along, whether the humans around pay attention or not.  And they move toward an end, toward a climax.  The grain gets ripe – and after that it will rot in the field if not harvested.  The mustard bush gets very large, supporting many bird homes.  Their growth is INEVITABLE, and when it is complete, something must happen! 

kingdom of God is at hand; it is at a climax.  There is no putting it off to a more convenient time.  That, undoubtedly, is the punch line of these two parables, in Jesus’ time – and since.  

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

June 9, 2024 -- 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

                              Biblical Words                                          [885]

I Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15); Psalm 138; II Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35. 

God’s Reign outlasts human kings, the death of mortals, and plunders the house of the Strong Man.

I Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15). 

All of the books of Samuel and Kings are about kingship in Israel and Judah: 

·        how kingship itself emerged in Israel,

·        how the particular kingship of David and his dynasty was selected,

·        how the one kingdom split into two, and (at great length)

·        how those smaller kingdoms struggled until each was destroyed by great empires of the east – understood as God’s judgment on the unfaithful Israelite rulers and their realms. 

In the macro-vision spanning all scripture, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were an interruption in the kingship of Yahweh over Israel. 

If Israel had remained faithful after the death of Joshua (see Joshua 24) there would have been no need for kingship; Israel would have prospered and endured.  At the other end of the history, hundreds of years later, in the modest days of the Persian Empire, the little temple-state of Yehud (Judah) was ruled by high-priests faithful to Yahweh, and they needed no kings to complicate their favor from their Persian overlords.  The glory days of David, Solomon, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah were only an interlude in the true reign of God, the Theocracy in which Yahweh alone was King. 

Our reading.  The selections from I Samuel present the first stage of that Theocratic viewpoint.  

The Israelites demand a king, “so that we also may be like other nations” (verse 20).  The Israelites are, of course, rejecting the leadership of Samuel in this request, and when Samuel consults Yahweh, Yahweh says, in effect, “Don’t take it to heart.  They have been rejecting me like this for generations, ever since I brought them out of Egypt” (verse 8). 

(On the various Biblical presentations of Samuel, see below, Special Note:   Samuel and the Theocracy.) 

However, this is the moment in history when Yahweh is going to let the Israelites go their own way:  Let them have their kingship, only be sure you tell them how oppressive it is going to be, so later they will know they brought this misery on themselves (the gist of verses 9 and 18). 

In these verses we are hearing only one side of the argument, of course.  Throughout Israelite history, till at least the time of Ezra, there seems to have been two views on kingship:  For it, and against it.  The “against” voice is heard in I Samuel 8 and some verses of 10 and 12; in later readings we will also hear the voice “for” kingship! 

Psalm 138. 

The psalm reading is unrestrained praise of Yahweh, whose reputation extends throughout the world (known to “the gods,” as well as to “all the kings of the earth,” verses 1 and 4). 

Even though the psalm heading says “of David,” given our reading above we may fancy that this psalm is Samuel’s speech, raising high his swan song with Yahweh: 

We (You, Yahweh, and I) have done well; when I called you answered (verse 3). 

We know these rebellious Israelites are in for a bad run, and we know the theocracy was a good thing for them.  For what has been, I greatly thank you, and celebrate your world-wide reputation – even if the unwise Israelites do not recognize what a good thing they have had! 

II Corinthians 4:13-5:1. 

The Epistle reading is about personal resurrection -- the greatest change in God’s rule over the faithful from the glory times of Israel to the faithful service of the Jesus followers.  (The Old Testament does not have belief in resurrection -- with one late exception in Daniel 12:2.) 

The reading starts out in the middle of some arguments, but soon moves to a very powerful focus:  we hear a couple of the strongest affirmations in the New Testament of the future resurrected life of the believer! 

"We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.... For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."  (Verses 14 and 5:1, NRSV.) 

It is not often acknowledged in Christian writings, but this emphatic and very confident faith in the resurrection was the result of Paul’s rearing and faith as a Pharisee! 

The Pharisees were the first religious party to insist as a basic doctrine of faith that the faithful would be resurrected to a future life.  Paul, and eventually all other Jesus followers, accepted that doctrine as a basic presupposition of the religious life.  (See the words of Jesus in Luke 12:4-5, = Matthew 10:28.)  

It was, however, a new thing in the religious universe of the Judaism of the Roman period.  (The Sadducees, for example, did not believe in the resurrection.)  The belief in the resurrection was the gift of the Pharisees to all later Judaism and Christianity! 

All Christian Biblical scholars, who think the doctrine of the personal resurrection of the believer is an important matter, should read a chapter in Ellis Rivkin’s book, The Shaping of Jewish History (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971; reissued, with expansions, under the title,  The Unity Principle, by Behrman House, 2003).  The chapter to read is, “The Pharisaic Revolution:  A Decisive Mutation” (pp. 42-83 in Scribner’s ed., pp. 49-99 in Behrman ed.). 

Here is one critical quotation from that chapter: 

For this was the essence of the Pharisaic revolution:  God offered the individual, through the system of the twofold Law, eternal life in the world to come, and eventually bodily resurrection; this was the reward for loyalty to the twofold Law.  By this shift in sanctions the Pharisees transformed Judaism [from a priestly religion of temple and rituals] into a religion of personal, individual salvation.  (Page 53, Scribner’s ed.) 

Long before he met Jesus, Paul learned of the resurrection from his Pharisee teachers. 

Mark 3:20-35. 

The Gospel reading presents two moments when the Reign of God appears among people.  The people (even Jesus’ family) think Jesus, the bearer of God’s power, is either crazy or demon-possessed!  

This is a long passage with two main parts:  the framing narrative about Jesus’ family (verses 21, 31-35), and the confrontation with the Jerusalem scribes about the source of Jesus’ power over evil spirits (verses 22-30). 

Jesus’ family.  The passage says Jesus went “home” (verse 19b, NRSV).  This is probably Peter’s house in Capernaum rather than Nazareth.  Jesus’ only venture back to Nazareth was rather a failure, as Mark reports it (6:1-6).  He probably understands Jesus’ family to travel a day’s journey up to Jesus’ base of mission, only to be snubbed because of Jesus’ main priority, the will of God (verse 35). 

Being relatives of a Messiah could be a very trying experience! 

Beelzebul (Satan).  But the main message of the passage is about the new power Jesus brings.  Confronted with amazing healings and exorcisms of demonic powers, the authorities of Judaism up in Jerusalem have to come up with some PR to put down the new provincial faith healer.  They do not deny his power!  Instead, they ascribe it to the Evil One.  This new man is not from God; he is in cahoots with Satan!  

“Beelzebul” was already an old title.  An Elijah story going back seven hundred years before Jesus refers to “Ba‘al-zebub,” Lord of the Flies (II Kings 1:2).  That version of the name was a deliberate Israelite distortion of the title “Ba‘al-zebul,” Lord of the Boundary (Realm), an honorable name of a god of healing in the Philistine city of Ekron. 

It may be noted that Mark says Jesus replied to these accusers “in parables” (verse 23).  Jesus says, in effect, If you are going to use the language of mythology to talk about my power and the demonic world, I will also use figurative language to answer you. 

Jesus’ reply is probably more famous because Abraham Lincoln quoted it than because it is scripture:  “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come” (verses 25-26, NRSV). 

The point is that Satan’s “house” has been assaulted.  “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered” (verse 27).  An escape of prisoners from the house of the Evil One has begun, and a procession of escapees is following Jesus in great joy and thankfulness (see verse 20) – even if his family does think he is crazy! 

People may say they are waiting for God’s reign instead of for human rulers, but do they really know what to expect? 


Special Note:  Samuel and the Theocracy

Those who wish to read the scriptures as consistent and harmonious in their several parts have a special challenge with Samuel.  He simply acts differently and reflects quite different viewpoints in different parts of I Samuel.  He does not hang together as a consistent historical agent, much less as a comprehensible personality. 

There are in fact about five Samuels, each with his own strand of traditional material in the book of First Samuel. 

First there is Samuel the “seer” or “man of god” who is locally famous for giving divine guidance on human problems, such as finding lost donkeys (I Samuel 9:5-10:7).  The reciter of this strand of tradition carefully explains, “for the one who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer” (I Samuel 9:9).  This Samuel can be directed by God to anoint future kings, though always secretly (I Samuel 10:1 and 16:1-13), and he may be associated with guilds of “prophets” noted for their ecstatic outbursts (besides I Samuel 10:5-6, see especially 19:18-24). 

The Second Samuel is the priest, trained at the prominent sanctuary of Shiloh in the tribal territory of Ephraim.  This is the Samuel of Hannah’s vow, which makes Samuel part of the resident staff under the head priest Eli (I Samuel 1-2).  His priestly role is also emphasized later at Mizpah (Benjamin territory), though his cultic actions there are mingled with his figure as a “judge” (I Samuel 7:7-9). 

Third is Samuel the prophet.  In one sense the Seer is a prophet (as the first reciter told us), but in I Samuel 3 we get Samuel as a prophet distinguished from others and given a special message from Yahweh.  (Like most prophetic “calls” in Israelite tradition, this “call narrative” is in fact a divine sanction of a particular message, not simply of special powers for the prophet.)  The message Samuel was impelled to deliver from the night-speaking God was that the “house” of Eli the priest was doomed (I Samuel 3:10-14). 

While the Prophetic Samuel starts at Shiloh in continuity with the old priesthood, the mature prophet Samuel is associated with Ramah and a circuit of towns related to it, all of which are in the territory of Benjamin (I Samuel 7:15-17).  This prophetic Samuel is on his way to being the king-maker of the rest of I Samuel, though the Deuteronomistic traditionists (collectors of the traditions in Joshua to II Kings) undoubtedly built upon an older prophetic image of Samuel. 

The Fourth Samuel is the construction of the Deuteronomistic traditionists.  This is the figure of the king-maker who was guided by Yahweh in detail in conceding that Israel could have kings and in sanctioning the new kings by anointing them, as well as in dooming the disobedient Saul and his dynasty (I Samuel 8, 10:17-25; 12, and 15). 

This is Samuel the agent of the Theocracy. 

Probably related to this king-maker Samuel, and definitely a Deuteronomistic construction, is the Fifth Samuel, the “judge” as presented in I Samuel 7.  That chapter presents Samuel as a perfect (and final) “judge” in line with the Deuteronomistic theory of judges (Judges 2:11-23). 

This Samuel delivers the Israelites from the Philistines (by doing the liturgy, not by leading in battle) and they have perfect peace for twenty years.  (There may have been older views of Samuel as an actual judge for the local people, with a judicial circuit and sons expected to succeed him, I Samuel 7:16-8:3.  This, however, was no more than a hook for the fully blown “judge” of the finished chapter 7.) 

This is the final exaltation of the Theocracy – of rule by God instead of by humans.  On this view, all that Israel needs is the right man as “judge” on Yahweh’s side (such as the high priest in the time of the Persian empire).  Given this, any request to have “a king like all the nations” can only be perverse and wicked disloyalty to God!