Insights with Seitz: Symphony of Scripture
Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, November 21st, 2021

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, November 21st, 2021

November 18, 2020

We come to the end of our Lectionary Year. Every symphony has its crescendo and finale and the Sunday of Christ the King is that for the lectionary year.

All our readings look toward the end of things brought to completion by the King of Kings. David’s final words. Daniel’s final vision. Revelation’s NT version of that, much of it a recycling of OT apocalyptic visions and figures. We leave Mark for John and Jesus’ own final words to Pilate.

We begin with the last words of David. A man like other men, and a king like those who would follow him, in the steps of God’s Anointed. But also a king inside a special providential place, which in time will be occupied by the King of Kings. And so he is given to see this when, like Moses looking across into the Promised Land, he comes to the end of his days. The Holy Spirit has gifted him quite concretely – a feature Luther paid close attention to in his lectures on the psalms of David, where David is given to see the beloved exchanges between God the Son and God the Father. “He said to me you are my son, today I have begotten you.” “The Lord said to my Lord.” The line he paid attention to we find at verse 3: “The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.” And so David speaks of things pertaining to the house of God’s making in him. “Is not my house like this with God—like the sun rising on a cloudless morning—for he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure.”

The Psalm allows another to reflect on David, one of the few psalms where David is mentioned as the subject of the psalmist’s discourse and not his own. “Lord, remember David and all he endured.” David is himself but he also betokens all of God’s promises through time in him and leading to the King of Kings. “For your servant David’s sake, do not turn away the face of your Anointed.” He continues, “The Lord swore an oath to David; in truth he will not break it,” even in the face of seeming abandonment – in David’s day, so Psalm 89 – nor in the day of God’s Son the Christ. “A son, the fruit of your body will I set upon your throne.” And “I have prepared a lamp for my Anointed.” Mashiach. Messiah. Christ.

Daniel’s vision as recorded in chapter 7 uses the language of Son of Man for the kingship of his conception. The Ancient of Days is on this account the LORD God almighty seated at court, with attendants without number. A royal scene of final judgment, at which time the books recording all deeds done are opened. The Son of Man appears and enters the celestial courtroom. He is presented to the LORD God, and from his hand he receives a kingdom that has no end. In this dramatic depiction we have the OT’s equivalent of the creed’s “of one substance with the Father.” The identity of God and the identity of the Son of Man is both different but profoundly shared. To “sit at the right hand” is to share the selfsame identity of God Almighty. We see a kingship that is never destroyed for just this reason.

The apparel the LORD puts on, as the psalmist depicts it, is indeed, in the fullness of time, the flesh of the Son of Man. In so doing we see an enthronement that in fact has its origins from everlasting, from before the world’s beginning. Eschatology and eternal generation: two sides of the same divine identity and purpose before and through all time.

Revelation speaks of “the one who is and who was and who is to come”, the “I am who will be good on my promises through time,” the LORD, solemnly revealed to Moses. The grace and peace that come from God the LORD come in the same manner from Jesus Christ, who is the firstborn of the dead and the ruler as such of all the kings of the earth. Now the author turns his attention to this same Jesus as he comes a final time, not from the emptied tomb but from the eternal throne. Using the language of Daniel he comes on the clouds. And now we see the nail wounds born for us and permanently identifying the eternal Son of Man. All now see him. All. Every eye he has made, from the creation of Adam through all time. All will stand before the Cross and wail as they bear witness at last to the love shown forth there and from the very heart of God through all time. Crucified before the foundations of the world.

The Gospel reading for Christ the King Sunday comes from the passion account of John’s Gospel. Jesus has been arrested and condemned by Jewish officials. Yet because they seek to put him to death they must bring him to the Roman civil authorities, from the house of Caiaphas the high priest to the headquarters of the Roman governor Pilate. This begins a 35 verse string of episodes involving Pilate, the Jewish officials and Jesus. This is the only scene in which Jesus and Pilate are alone, since the Jewish officials cannot enter the praetorium due to the laws regarding defilement. These they respect, but they need another law to kill Jesus.

In a way the word “king” is a motif word running across all the scenes to follow. Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, somewhat out of the blue. Jesus responds that he has a kingdom different from the kingdoms of this world. Pilate again asks if he is a king. Jesus does not answer yes or no simply, but turns the question back on him. His is a kingdom of truth, and those who belong to this kingdom hear his voice. Pilate’s question “what is truth” tells us he is not of this kingdom.

But then as we read on it is Pilate who insists on calling Jesus a king, indeed, the king of the Jews. He has Jesus invested as a king, in mockery. The soldiers address him as King. In one final scene of desperation we learn the most powerful man on the scene is now afraid. He has said he is the son of God, the officials tell Pilate. Now it is their turn to call Jesus king, in an effort to corner Pilate. Pilate bring Jesus out one last time, and now the word is in the air without footnote. Behold your King. Shall I crucify your king? We have no king but Caesar. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. What I have written I have written.

And the rest is, as they say, history, under the King of History to whom God almighty has given all times and all dominions. The King “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” as a creed compactly says, “in accordance with the scriptures,” with Daniel, and Samuel, and Isaiah and psalms we read for today and all the scriptures from beginning to end. “And on the third day he rose again,” in accordance with the scriptures. And because of that inaugurated kingdom of truth, “he will come again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.”
As our lectionary year comes now to its end, we will let the scriptures have their last according word.

For he has made with me an everlasting covenant,
ordered in all things and secure.
The LORD has sworn an oath to David; *
in truth, he will not break it:
“A son, the fruit of your body *
will I set upon your throne.

To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

Ever since the world began, your throne has been established; *
you are from everlasting.
Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 14th, 2021

Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 14th, 2021

November 18, 2020

We are approaching the end of the lectionary year B, and as noted, we have this Sunday a reading from the apocalyptic portion of Mark, which in its entirety runs for some 37 verses. Our selection is but the brief, opening portion of that. 

Also as noted, the focus on the end times, at the end of the lectionary year, which has its correlates in Matthew 24 and Luke 21, continues into the first Sundays of Advent – Advent in this sense, meaning the Second Coming of Christ and not the First Coming alone. So Luke’s apocalyptic material picks up in Year C where Mark’s 8 verses give but a small summary, on the First Sunday of Advent next lectionary year. And Matthew returns the favor in his lectionary year, providing a summary from his Gospel that in turns sends us to Mark chapter 13’s longer account for Advent 1 of Year B, when it comes around again.

Both Luke and Mark situate the long, final, apocalyptic—end of days—speech of Jesus after the story of the widow’s mite, where it fits naturally enough. Jesus is leaving the sanctuary he has cleansed and where he has confronted religious leaders, the scene of the extended action after his entry from Jericho and the Mt of Olives until this, his final farewell. A sanctuary not made with human hands, as Hebrews puts it, will be and is now his present place of intercession, having laid down his life in the manner Hebrews and Mark know is once for all, for all.
The departure from the temple evokes scenes reminiscent from the prophetic witnesses, Ezekiel most especially, where it amounts to an ominous withdrawal of the Lord God himself for a season of judgment. This withdrawal by the Lord, this time, is permanent, the culmination of judgment against human sin and rebellion for one final time and forever, with Jesus the Lord and Jesus himself the sacrificial offering of God’s love for the world he has made. 

Upon leaving the temple the disciples, awed at its massive size and seeming permanence – it had stones of huge girth, some weighing up to three hundred tons, and would have been by far the largest structure ever seen by them – they give voice to their astonishment. Imagine the contrast, from a tiny mite in a widow’s palm to the top of the Twin Towers. “All will be thrown down” Jesus says in response to their awe and “not one stone will be left on another.” All standards of measurement will be recast by a single wooden cross about the size the man standing before them.

Whatever one makes of the astonishing details of the end time, about to be spelled out, and their timing–details that have vexed interpreters, including the actual destruction of the temple not long off and how that correlates with the end time, given that it happened now over 2000 years ago and the end time has not come—details our 8 verse section mercifully spares us—one thing is certain. Before going to his death Jesus spoke of a final judgment, and of the end of the temple as it had previously belonged to God’s precious plans. And his own death on a cross is surrounded by just these same apocalyptic features, supplied most clearly by Matthew, and with Mark satisfied to report the dramatic rending of the temple curtain at the hour of his death. With the death of Jesus a new reign of God begins which will take us to the end of time in its significance. The beginning of birth pains, but the conception and the bringing to term are accomplished in this man Jesus and this sets in motion a temporal horizon encompassing all future time, including our own, placing us for the most part gentile outsiders, right alongside Peter and James and John and Andrew.

The Track One reading continues with the roll call of famous women of integrity, following Esther, Dame Wisdom and Ruth. Hannah’s position in the first chapter of Samuel also picks up the Davidic theme at the close of Ruth, where the birth of Obed to Ruth, Boaz and Naomi we learn is in fact the grandfather of David. The hopelessness of the last chapters of Judges, with the refrain, “there was no king in the land; everyone did what was right in their own eyes” represents its own kind of moral famine mirroring that of Ruth. And as the birth of Obed signals a new hopefulness, the barrenness of Hannah overcome opens onto a fresh new horizon in God’s generous and faithful plans with his people. “She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I asked him of the LORD.’” Following this Hannah breaks out in her Magnificat of praise, whose final lines make the pending resolution of Judges and the famines and barrenness of this life clear: “The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” Like all good inspiration, Hannah is given more to sing and say than even she can fully grasp within her own present walk with God. 

The paired Old Testament reading from Daniel 12 also gives a vision of the future not for Daniel’s own day, but for the times outside of his understanding. Far beyond the several generations separating Hannah and Samuel and indeed unto the end times. The reference to making wise has rightly been viewed as an inner biblical interpretation and application of Isaiah’s suffering servant song. “See, my servant will act wisely,” interpreted in the light of the whole poem as the servant making those wise who see in his death God’s final purposes—“by his knowledge my servant will justify many”–including even the nations themselves: “many nations will be amazed, kings will shut their mouths because of him.” Daniel is given to see this as an end time judgment where the faithful servants of the one servant are raised and given eternal life, after a time of upheaval and tribulation. A pre-figurement of the work of Christ on the cross and extended to the end times in the manner of Jesus own final teaching of his disciples, his last teaching before that end-time-in-time event now to unfold.

Our psalm lines out his ultimate fate as we await his coming and the final judgment he announced.
8 I have set the LORD always before me; *
because he is at my right hand I shall not fall.
9 My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; *
my body also shall rest in hope.
10 For you will not abandon me to the grave, *
nor let your holy one see the Pit.
11 You will show me the path of life; *
in your presence there is fullness of joy,
and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.

And finally our epistle reading for this Sunday, the final installment of our semi-continuous reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews. We are in the period between the once for all offering, sacrifice for sins, the author of Hebrews is at pains to set before us, undertaken in and by the unique priesthood of Christ; and the end times, when enemies will no longer beset his kingdom and his accomplishment of love.

We can let the exhortation from the author of Hebrews have the last word for this Sunday, as we next move to the Sunday of Christ the King, the last Sunday of this lectionary year.
“…since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 7th, 2021

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 7th, 2021

November 18, 2020

In our lessons for this Sunday, the conclusion from the book of Ruth wraps up Track One’s brief summary of that marvelous brief work, and joins to it an equally uplifting psalm 127. In Track Two the reading from 1 Kings 17, Elijah and the widow from Zarephath, has been chosen to come alongside Jesus’ bold commendation of the widow, who “out of poverty has put in everything she had” into the temple treasury. Mark has aligned this brief account with Jesus’ condemnation of those scribes who love their finery, but have fleeced widows contemptuously. The Epistle reading continues our selections from Hebrews, now at the 9th chapter. As Jesus has entered the sanctuary of the Temple and cleansed it, he confronts likewise the uncleanness of religious leaders in their manifold roles, contrasting it severely with the fragrant offering of a poor widow. Through his death he has entered a heavenly sanctuary and the author of Hebrews explains the permanent significance of that. To which in a moment.

Let’s start with Track One.

Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, we recall, had indicated how perilous the decision to come with her would be. Ruth is a widow, as is Naomi, but also now without inheritance or support, alone in a foreign country through her decision to cling to Naomi. Naomi’s husband Elimelech had a wealthy kinsman named Boaz. So Naomi conspires to put Ruth in his path. The poor may glean in fields, Deuteronomy tells us, even as in this case it is also risky, given the festivities which mark the final days of the occasion. 

Boaz has already taken note of her, we learn earlier in the story, gleaning with the others, and he commends her for her kind treatment of her mother in law, which has been made known to him. So the situation is auspicious. When Ruth tells her of this, Naomi sees it as a kindness of the Lord and concocts her plan. Ruth complies. 

Boaz is indeed an honorable choice, though we learn he is not the closest kin and so the plot thickens. But the unnamed kinsman relinquishes his claim and Boaz takes on the role of perpetuating the name of the deceased husband. When a child is born to the happy couple, the women of the village speak of the resolution of Ruth’s and Naomi’s losses both. “A son has been born to Naomi.” Indeed, he is the grandfather of David. The path paved by Ruth, we learn in the final verses of the book, had its forerunners going back in time, strong and bold gentile women all of them.

“Children are a heritage from the Lord and the fruit of the womb is a gift” the psalmist says – surprising even Naomi, who had cautioned Ruth—do I have sons still in my womb?– but who now finds a son laid on her own nursing breast.

Having these two widows provided by the Track One reading we are given a helpful entry onto the Gospel story of the widow’s mite. She has thrown herself and all she has onto the mercy of God though her gift of two lepta, the smallest coins there are, but all she has.
Our Track Two OT reading has been chosen from the 17th chapter of Kings to also provide a widow, from yet another episode in God’s plans with his people. In Luke’s Gospel the episode is referred to in this way, underscoring the point from another angle:
“In truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.”

Well-known and repeated often are the solemn injunctions in the OT to care for widows, whose fate is especially precarious. Neglecting this or abusing own’s power in probate are to be severely punished. 

In our story from Kings we have a famine like unto that of Ruth. God commands Elijah to go to Sidon and be fed there. On its face one might assume that the idea makes sense if the famine does not reach that far. And that appears right as Elijah’s request for water is complied with by the widow, out gathering sticks. But his request for food reveals how meager are this poor widows stocks. She has been collecting wood for a fire for her last meal, she and her son, and then to lay down and die. Elijah will have none of it, but she must prepare a cake for him all the same. Having done so Elijah provides his OT version of the multiplication of loaves and we learn that having thrown herself all in—so Ruth, so Naomi, so our widow for today with her meager 2 lepta—God is good on his promises. Jesus remembers the same story and holds it up to remind his hometown people just how far the love of God reaches into famines of our lives, yes to Moab or Sidon or at the very steps of the Temple itself. 

Our psalm lines it out nicely:
8 The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
And it also cautions:
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
Put not your trust in rulers…
When they breathe their last, they return to earth, *
and in that day their thoughts perish.

Our Gospel reading from Mark has the commendation of the widow preceded by yet a further encounter of Jesus with the religious leaders. In strong contrast with the good scribe who answered Jesus well and was told he was not far from the kingdom of God, here we see Jesus observing other scribes, those who love long robes, clothing of distinction, best seats in church and in culture both, the knowing salutations of admirers. Of course all these things could be tolerable if excessive, one supposes, but we learn they go hand in hand with taking advantage of the least of God’s own, those to be set apart for special care and attention, given their vulnerability. As if instead of Boaz protecting Ruth, she would be violated and thrown into hopelessness without bottom. Naomi’s bitterness tripled. Or as if Elijah stole the last stores of a poor widow and her dying son. Treasury gifts from a poor widow, giving all that she has, so as to finance lavish robes and places of honor and salutations for their public displays of the sale. Devouring widows houses is taking the only thing left to them, through skillful scribal manipulation or by other means not detailed by Jesus. 

Ironically the Levites are also numbered among those needing special attention, given their sacrificial role, without inheritance. Like unto widows. Something has gone terribly wrong here and as his last act before crossing the threshold to final trial, persecution, and death, Jesus takes the time to teach for one last time his disciples. 

Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
And in this action who is she most like, but the one who will give his life as a ransom.
Hebrews can have the last word then.

But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”

There is Ruth, Naomi, the widow of Zarephath and our final widow at the threshold of Jesus sacrifice of love.

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, October 31st, 2021

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, October 31st, 2021

November 18, 2020

I want to stop and take stock of where we are in the lectionary year. November provides the final four segments of Year B, years that typically end with the dramatic Second Coming readings from each of the three synoptic Gospels, this year represented by Mark 13. The lectionary obviously has us heading toward Jerusalem and Jesus teaching along the way, but it is in Lent that the Passion story itself is told. We have selections of readings from Mark, then, that come from chapters 11 and 12. Jesus has reached Jerusalem and triumphally entered before adoring crowds. He then turns to address in turns the religious leadership whose opposition to him has already been narrated and anticipated by Mark.

This focus on the Second Coming at the close of the year is not accidental. It is significant for its own sake and it also serves to anticipate Advent of the ensuing Christian year. The first Sundays of Advent also speak directly of the second Advent – hard sometimes to hear given the busyness of Christmas in the Cultural Year of Commerce. The one who comes in the cradle at Christmas is the King who will come again and whose coming is the very goal of history itself. Christ is our times and seasons, from his beginning and ending, gathering up our own, in Israel and in all nations under his reign. Before he goes up to Jerusalem to give his life as a ransom he draws attention to where this final death reaches out to gather up all time and space.
Year B consists of 52 Sundays of reading, tracking the narrative-line of Mark’s Gospel this year, and providing a rich symphony of readings drawn from every corner of the Old Testament. Including from those psalms whose ancient word resonates in accompaniment with the readings, giving us a seat in the symphony hall before and alongside Jesus, Ruth, David, Elijah and Elisha, Esther, Job, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Eldad and Medad and on the list goes. The accomplishment of the lectionary includes continuous readings from Acts and the letters of Paul, as well as the catholic epistles and Hebrews, our reading at this juncture of the year. In addition, for a great bulk of the year one can hear an effort to provide a continuous reading from the Old Testament, though its size makes for the necessity of a selection. For this Sunday, following the notes set forth in the final chapter of Proverbs, concerning the woman of valor, we move to Ruth. She joins Esther and Lady Wisdom from Proverbs and Hannah, whose song comes at the final Sunday of this lectionary year. 

We are in that section of Mark’s Gospel where the conflict and tensions are heightening, and from various directions. After the triumphal entry Jesus cleanses the temple. He curses a fig tree in what is an ominous gesture. In the temple, he is confronted by the chief priests and scribes and elders and questioned about his authority to act as he does. The parable of the vineyard is delivered and received as a direct accusation, including their murderous intentions, and his arrest is considered and then rejected as potentially too inflammatory. Pharisees seek to trap him into seditious talk vis-a-vis the Roman authorities, a trap he parries with ease. Then the Sadducees engage in a ridiculous resurrection scenario, given that they do not believe in it; it is their chief identity marker. This sets off a dispute amongst themselves, to which today’s Gospel reading makes reference. A lone scribe, “seeing that he answered them well” poses a question of his own. 

The passage is remarkable for several reasons, which should be clear given all we have witnessed about the way Jesus has responded all along his way to this point, with those he encounters. Luke and Matthew go a slightly different way, and make the questioner, consistent with other exchanges, negative. But on Mark’s landscape the encounter is positive, and a welcome sign that there is hope for all, and that belonging to a hostile grouping need not prevent one from seeing the truth. “Not far from the kingdom of God” is high praise from this Jesus. 

Jesus summarizes the Law by reference to the Shema of Israel’s confession, found in our OT reading for today, from Deuteronomy 6. The first table of the decalogue is covered by the phrase “the first commandment” and the second table by the “second commandment.” The quote itself is taken from the 19th chapter of Leviticus. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is enjoined of Israel where the neighbor is a fellow covenant member, but also, at the close of the chapter, for those gentiles who have come into the fellowship of Israel, in both cases reinforced by the solemn refrain “I am the Lord you God” – a nice inclusio which returns to the logic of the first commandment itself.

We could easily move to the Ruth reading at this juncture, which makes the point nicely in narrative form. More on that in a moment.

The scribe commends the summary, and in a striking move, covers the same ground himself in almost the same form exactly. It is this collation, “One Lord God, love neighbor as oneself,” spoken by Jesus and reaffirmed by the scribe, that brings forth the commendation. “Not far from the kingdom of God” means then, even if not knowing that the One Lord God Jesus worships faithfully through his obedient life, is making himself known in the Jesus standing before him, he is close to that truth by what he has said after Jesus has said it. More could be said here given the next section of Mark, where Psalm 110 is interpreted by Jesus as elevating the Messiah to the Lord that David himself addresses. But the conjunction only reinforces the point being introduced here. The Shema is not being rejected, but within its logic Jesus himself shares the identity of the one God who has sent him, whose love of neighbor as self extends to the giving of his life in love, incarnating the love of God himself for all, Israel and Gentile both.
In responding to the scribe as he does, Jesus may be speaking metaphorically, but also, in addition, geographically. The Kingdom of God is standing before him. Its loving expression will take place on a hill not far away. “You are not far from the kingdom of God” is literally true.
Deuteronomy six gives indication in textual form of the commandment to which Jesus and the scribe refer, as well as the express charge that it be taught to every generation, at all times and at all places, the point being made quite vigorously. 

“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Jesus is himself this doorpost and this public display, and his words to the scribe make clear there is no separation between his own faith and his own person, the one David himself addressed long ago as Lord. “The Lord said to my Lord.”

We conclude with our Track One OT reading.

It would be hard to imagine a story with more drama and more pathos being told in such a compact and economical way as the opening paragraphs of the book of Ruth. It truly speaks for itself in just the way it speaks and in that way, so commentary must defer to the text’s own unfolding. Read aloud it cannot miss its target. Famine, risky relocation, death of one husband followed by death of two sons and two husbands. Three lone women at a time when inheritance and home is all there is, such as it is. Naomi wisely counsels the Moab daughters-in-law to stay among their kith and kin. Orpah wept aloud, kissed Naomi and followed her advice. But Ruth clung to her and offered up the words we read.

Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
May the Lord do thus and so to me…

And in lifting up the sacred name “the Lord,” the Lord God of Israel is now her Lord. As to the question of Naomi, auspiciously posed, “do I still have sons in my womb?” we must wait as the story unfolds. This book has a surprising ending, is all we can say for now. Though it is a bitter—Naomi—moment, the Lord God of Israel will have the last word.

As the psalm puts it, and as we shall come to learn, “happy are they–Naomi and now Ruth the Moabitess—who have the God of Jacob for their help/ whose hope is in the LORD their God.” 

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, October 24th, 2021

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, October 24th, 2021

November 18, 2020

We have reached a major turning point in Mark’s Gospel. Indeed the major turning point. Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem to face the fate he has been promising will be his, and whose details have been given most recently down to specifics. The disciples persist in various forms of blindness and half-blindness, but doggedly he instructs them and they follow. Their fate too has been described, and it is to their credit they do not turn and head in the other direction. Not yet.

We now enter the frame passage matching the one that opened this middle section of Mark, whose counterpart of healing a blind man is back in chapter 8 at Bethsaida. Centering on three passion predictions. A section, as we noted last week, devoid of specific geographical orientation so the focus can fall on his teaching of disciples in the final days before reaching the fateful arena of God’s action in him. 

Jericho is now the named locale, the city but 12 miles east of Jerusalem itself. The city conquered first by Joshua, now conquered in its own way by the Son of David. The geographical notice is odd: he enters and immediately leaves, a point usually put down to redaction or some other explanation. But Mark likely wants the echo from Joshua to register. This also helps underscore, one can imagine, the urgency of the blind beggar. Last chance. Sitting by the road of his hometown exit, Jesus is setting his face toward the capital, the twelve in tow. Now or never.

And he is up to it. He cries aloud, to the point of disturbing a faceless crowd gathered around Jesus. Their rebuke only intensifies his blind urgency. Rumor has reached his ears that this is Jesus of Nazareth and he wants to see again. Presumably he has lost his sight. Many note this matches the reality of the disciples who had seen and been witnesses to Jesus dramatic work, and then begin to falter as the light grows dimmer and they need to find renewed sight to move forward into Jesus dark night. If so, the healing is a good harbinger. Things need not spiral down at this fateful hour. Cry out for the Son of David. You are right to persist with all your strength. With this messianic cry he further serves as a forerunner of the Palm Sunday crowds upon his entry into the city from the Mount of Olives. 

The throwing off of his cloak has lots of resonance with baptism, and the declaration of the baptizand that she or he want to see, find their new life in Jesus. Justin, Gregory Nazianzus, Clement all speak of baptism as a kind of sight receiving illumination. Jesus asks the question “what do you want me to do?” no matter how obvious the ailment or need, as we have seen previously. We must articulate our needs and not just box the air, if true healing and relationship with the healer are to be ours.

The following on the way is redolent of Isaiah’s second exodus language, and appropriate for one depicted as enrolled behind Jesus on his ultimate Way. Perhaps no bad model for the twelve themselves struggling for sight and insight both.

Our OT reading in Track Two’s pairing comes from Jeremiah, who has his own version of exodus language. We see this admixture in Isaiah as well, where second exodus is joined with pilgrimage, and the return to Zion is from all corners of the earth. There, further, we find the blind and the lame in their midst, a great company. They walk a straight path all the same, throwing off their cloaks of whatever weaving, because called by the one who is Father and Lord. The psalm for the day reinforces the praise called for by the prophet Jeremiah.

1 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
3 Then they said among the nations, *
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
4 The LORD has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.

Note as well how the fact of praised thanksgiving for God’s past actions, remembered and relived, becomes the occasion for present salvation as well, as tears sown are turned into harvested songs, and weeping into shouldered joy. A marvelous image of transformation, appropriate for the blind beggar on the way behind the healer.

Hebrews provides his own version of this ongoing, permanent, generation to generation salvation. Jesus holds his high priesthood permanently, because having walked the way of our salvation, he continues now as high priest forever. “Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” He is always asking “what do you want me to do for you?” and he is always ready to do just that, in his priestly role, for us sitting by the side of the road who call out in faith and honestly named need. Jesus needs to make no sacrifice for his own sins, for his priestly order is of a different caliber and character, given the sacrifice once for all time he has made for us.

In Track One we come to the final reading from Job and what one can call the denouement of the plot the book has set before us in all its stark unfolding. To speak of a resolution of course implies we know just what the book has set into motion. If it is to explain innocent suffering, it is unclear just how the divine speech or the ending has done that. As an old teacher once put it, “when you’re blue go to the zoo” is hardly an adequate solution. If it is just to reward Job for an ordeal no one can fully understand, except to say he was somehow right and the friends wrong, is true enough in terms of Job’s lavish and well earned final compensation. Sympathy, comforting and double what he lost, with beautiful new children to boot. 

But in my view we must remember how the book set the matter up to begin with, something Job himself did not know and never learned, appropriate if also terribly true to the nature of the test God allowed to befall him. Satan argued no one would serve God for naught. Job did just that, with nothing to show for it except an unwillingness to leave the field where he and God alone met, when all was said and done. Ezekiel 14 reminds us of how Job was remembered: a man of great intercessory power, who daily offered sacrifices for his children just in case they had been wayward. 

I think it is crucial to note at just what point Job is recessitated. He confesses that God has showed himself and that this amounts to a contrast between what one might know by hearsay and deep personal knowledge: “now my eye sees thee.” In the dust he hands himself over to God. And it is in just this posture that Job, we are told, takes up the role that had been his pride and that he was renown for and would always be: he prayed for the three that had turned against him. We do not read that God asked this of him. We do learn that their account of God provoked his anger against them. But in the end Job let all of that go and he prayed for his friends. Here is the denouement of the Book of Job. The Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he, still on the ash heap, had prayed for his friends. The rest of the story is just the sort of ending that is required, fitting for the hero of this long ordeal. Satan is vanquished, and true to form, nowhere on the scene, presumably back to his prowling the earth in search of new victims. Until that final day when he comes forth with all his might and is exposed and defeated by the Son of God himself.

Taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are they who trust in him and never waver. 

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Octrober 17th, 2021

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Octrober 17th, 2021

November 18, 2020

Six Sundays ago, our reading was the first passion prediction, and this Sunday’s reading follows the third and final one of the set. We also noted that this particular section of Mark is framed by two healing stories involving blindness, in 8:22-26 and following our reading for this Sunday, in 10:46-52, the healing of blind Bartimaeus. Prior to this framed section Mark has given frequent geographical notice of Jesus’ movements, as he crisscrosses Galilee and his synagogue ministry there, and begins to move outward into Gentile regions, Tyre, Sidon, the cities of the Decapolis.
Over the last six Sundays we have been in more indeterminant space. Clearly Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem—his announcements say this—but the geographical notices and specifics of his movement thin out. The focus is on the teaching of the twelve, and dealing with their blindness, exhibited in various ways. Mention is made of Judea at the start of chapter 10. Jerusalem Pharisees next make an appearance to test Jesus about divorce. The third passion prediction locates itself quite clearly in proximity to Jerusalem, and after our reading for today, Jericho is the location of the healing of Bartimaeus. Caesarea Philippi and Galilee, where the first two announcements took place, are now fully in the rear view mirror. The third prediction makes it clear. “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem.” “We are going up to Jerusalem,” Jesus says, “and the son of man will be delivered to chief priests, condemned, delivered to Gentiles, mocked, spit upon, scourged, killed and on the third day rise.” This is a much more specific and detailed account of what is in store, suitable, one might say, for the final and most proximate announcement. Jerusalem is just around the corner, just over the horizon. The Greek passives (delivered, handed over) are of course the same terms translated elsewhere ‘betrayed.’ Isaiah 53 has the same word in its Greek translation. The Lord handed him over as a sin offering.
Almost in reverse proportion to previous announcements, where the fate Jesus declared was to come was rebuked, or reacted to with silence, and the third day rising ignored, this time the detailed account of death, terrible in its stages, is apparently accepted by James and John, and instead their ear picks up the third-day rising as decisive. So taking Jesus aside they say, “Grant us to sit on your right and on your left in your glory.”

Our Old Testament reading is the final servant song, and its language has clearly found its way into Mark’s account for today. The servant is handed over—delivered—and he is mocked and scourged, and killed. He gives his life as a ransom—God makes his life an offering for sin (Isa 53). His final destiny is however vindication and some form of new life – “he shall see his offspring”—the servants of the servant, in Isaiah’s depiction, and “shall prolong his days. Out of his anguish he shall see light. The righteous one my servant shall make many righteous. He has born the sin of many, he has borne their iniquities.”

This is the cup that Jesus says to James and John is his to drink. It is the baptism with which he is to be baptized. Mark doubtless has this scenario in view, and Jesus in his understanding does as well quite explicitly. Less clear is why James and John ask that Jesus do whatever they ask, a blank-check as it were, at just this moment. Jesus does not comply with this lofty request but, in his usual way, presses the question back to them. Just what do you have in mind? Are we to imagine that after three announcements texts like Isaiah 53 or Daniel 7 have begun to shape how they are hearing these announcements in the final analysis, and so embolden two of them to take Jesus aside and ask for something like the righteous fate of those God gives a share: the righteous one my servant shall make many righteous? He shall divide the spoil with the strong. Or Daniel 7, “one like a son of man was presented before the Ancient of Days, to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom.”

What Jesus says indicates that whatever scenario may be in their minds, their grasp of it is partial at best. The path that ends in glory is not a hero’s trailblazing so as to hand out prizes to two who got first in line and asked before the others. Those who follow Jesus will drink the same cup as he does, and the ten others will be neither higher or lower in whatever way one might imagine that in human terms. Whatever servant following is to look like, ruled out is gentile ranking concerns and God’s final disposing known alone to him. That is getting way ahead of the game and is not the path Jesus or they will find their life on. It is not so among you. For the son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom – so Isaiah’s servant’s path as well. The ‘we’ confessions of those who witness the servant’s fate and offering are the proper responses of the servants who would follow.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

The symphony of scriptures gives both an account of Jesus’s fate, guiding him and assisting Mark as he frames his account, as well as providing the lines Jesus is seeking to raise up amongst his closest twelve followers, whom he never abandons, in spite of blindness and constant need for teaching and correction. So it is with us as well, must surely be Mark’s pedagogy.

Psalm 91 comes alongside, then, to script out what all this looks like from God’s side.
14 Because he is bound to me in love,
therefore will I deliver him; *
I will protect him, because he knows my Name.
15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; *
I am with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and bring him to honor.
16 With long life will I satisfy him, *
and show him my salvation.

The glory that will be Jesus’ final place in God’s disposing will go through the stages set forth by him in the final passion prediction. Because he is bound to me in love, therefore I will deliver him.

Our Epistle reading from Hebrews allows the lectionary a measure of selection, and so the portion from chapter 5 is able to join up nicely and fill out the OT and Gospel reading for today.
The great high Priest is a Jesus who is a Son. In his suffering and life with us, he learned obedience and in so doing became perfect, in a way no one can rank in human terms. In this way he has become the source of eternal life for those who in turn obey him. And his high priesthood is one of constant knowledge of the weaknesses of humanity, weaknesses he deigned to face into with the twelve, as we have seen, and so he is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward.

And we have finally in our Track One selections from Job one of the four key episodes the lectionary has chosen to provide, to summarize the extraordinary story that our hero inhabits in his 42 chapter walk with God.

In as strong terms as is possible, the friends and then Elihu the wise, counseled, warned, refused to accept as credible, warranted, or right Job’s demand to be heard by God. Instead they focused on his supposed moral errors or bad theology and demanded he do the same.
Job gets from God what he demanded. God. Not an idea about God, or theological explanations, or theories of sin and judgment, or why the innocent suffer, and no offers of condolence or excuse. Job wanted God and God comes to him as God is, from his side and from the realms of his power that only belong to him. Animals are displayed that have nothing to do with human affairs, but do their thing out of human sight, yet as God sees them, knows them, enjoys them. His bold questions to Job require from him an honorable girding of loins, as he is treated as one God is prepared to be God before, this man who has born the burden of days like no man before.

The text is not chosen to sit beside Mark 10 in any conscious sense. It belongs to an absurdly brief four Sunday glimpse at a tale of suffering and a cortex of battle without parallel. Have you seen any one like Job, God boasts. He invests himself fully in this man, whose defeat of Satan involves his free choice to stay on the field of battle for no reason other than God. When Jesus says, “it is not mine to grant,” or “it is for those for whom it has been prepared” or “no one is good but God alone” he bespeaks this same obedient stance, yet as one who has known it and given it up for us and for our sakes. To create a family in eternal life alongside him, just as we wait in his time for Job to receive the glory God will in the end grant him. Along a path that will ask him freely to pray for the friends, even while still on the ash-heap. Our hero defeating Satan by his willed act of love and compassion.

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 10th, 2021

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 10th, 2021

November 18, 2020

We continue our Track One readings from the Book of Job; the Epistle reading from Hebrews; Track Two’s Amos and Mark pairing, and accompanying psalms. 

Job endures three rounds of dialogues with his friends, who after sitting seven days in silence at his dilemma, open their mouths. And open them they do. I take the view that the rounds are not static and repetitive rehearsals of set views, but rather initially Job is counselled to rely on his innocence. However, frustrated at his responses to this counsel, they become increasingly hostile and accusatory. Round three, where we find ourselves today, shows the friends sputtering and running out of gas. Zophar, the third friend, has nothing to say at all. Job remains vigorous in his defense and indeed begins appealing to the wisdom the friends had previously extolled but now in his own defense and on his own behalf. Our discourse for today demonstrates his resolution. This is a matter not for sparring with debaters. It has to do with his own flesh and blood standing before God, and with God himself. Job knows this is a matter for God and God alone. We must now wait only a short time for God to speak up, after one last valiant effort from the young, and impatiently so, Elihu. 

The choice of Psalm 22 gives good indication of what abandonment by God feels like existentially. The Psalmist never shies away from speaking forth his or her anguish. God is named as the source of this abandonment, but named and addressed he is. It is his ear the psalmist speaks to, and for his hand the psalmist waits, in full vent of pain when that is the fate. As we saw last week in Hebrews’ use of this same psalm, known for its use by the son of God at the moment of his shared experience with the psalmist before him, it is a psalm whose final victorious voice is praise and transmission to brothers and sisters in the great congregation. And this will be Job’s final fate as well, though the journey there will cost him everything. Yes, a mortal can serve God for his own sake. With that Satan is silenced, his false claims defeated, and his hand stayed. The path Job walks the Son of God will walk for each and everyone of us, and for our sakes. The type of Job will find its fuller anti-type and accomplishment, through what Barth called Job’s true witness to Jesus Christ.

This is one of our Sundays where the remarkable fit accomplished by the lectionary choice of OT reading needs to be pointed out. Listen to and read Amos chapter 5 carefully, in conjunction with Mark and the story of the rich man (called young by Luke and a ruler by Matthew, though here is not young but an adult with great estates). Mark’s story cannot help but evoke pity and sympathy for the rich man and the path he refuses to take. He is being asked to give up all in exchange for treasure that will last forever, following the man at whose feet he has thrown himself. And he says no, shocked and distressed, and by some renderings of the Greek verb, angered or bitter at Jesus’ request.

To read Amos as a lens on the passage produces a less ambivalent take on what happens and on the rich man before us. The one who reproves in the gate is Jesus, he is the one who speaks truth – and the reaction is hatred and abhorrence. The charges levelled by Amos are rank disregard for the poor, trampling, stealing, afflicting, appropriating, and by these means acquiring great wealth and houses built of hewn stones. Seek the Lord. Hate evil, love the good—good teacher the rich man says in address to Jesus–establish justice in the gate, it may be that the Lord God will be gracious. 

Though coming from a different context, Amos and Mark have measures of possible overlap. Jesus says God alone is good, and though this has been the source of theological discussion in the history of interpretation—in what way is God good but not Jesus?–what we know for sure is that Jesus shows himself here as always his clear, heart-searching and heart-seeing self, just as he is with his disciples and with all those he encounters. He will look at this man and love him. He is the gracious and good Lord God himself in his address to men and women. To call him good apart from this divinely given role and mission needs clarification about the true source of goodness and how Jesus is a teacher whose goodness penetrates into the very recesses of our educational needs and life giving correction. 

Another small feature that lines up with Amos and other OT realities. Jesus produces the second table of the decalogue, the first capable of summary as God is Lord alone, God is good. And though “thou shalt not covet” can be taken to spill out and over from illicit desire only and into action, here we have a summary of the last commandment as “thou shall not defraud.” Defraud is dishonesty and illicit desire in action. It is akin to trampling on the poor, afflicting, appropriating and by this means gaining grand estates – in Amos’ language, house of hewn stones with levies of grain and pleasant vineyards.

When Jesus says one thing is missing, his heart-piercing eyes see something so deeply amiss that his love requires its excision. Seek good and not evil, and the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said – when you called me good and in so doing were calling on God himself. The Lord God of hosts is here and is here being gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and of vast love. He looked on him and loved him. 

Sadly, the one who ran and threw himself at Jesus feet will just as surely walk away. What is never too much for God—with God all things are possible, Jesus will say in private to his disciples—can all the same be rejected by a heart loaded with rich distractions and great estates.

Our Epistle reading from Hebrews brilliantly reinforces the perspective from Mark and Amos. The word of God—scripture—the word Jesus Christ pierces into the deepest recesses. Like the rich man looked in in love, all are laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do. 
And yet because of this piercing is his own act of love, we have a great high priest capable of all things, ready for our approach. Seek the Lord and live, Amos says. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness so that we may receive mercy in time of need.

Job never relinquishes his quest for the God of his own stricken heart. And so he is, as our psalm says, made glad by the number of days he was afflicted, and more so, the years of his suffering adversity. 

Teach us to number our days means nothing less than God’s love is always the final number for those who trust in him. The minor notes are numbered and limited. This is what makes the major notes so resplendent in God’s symphony or love and forgiveness for us. 

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 3rd, 2021

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 3rd, 2021

November 18, 2020

There is a good deal of symphonic overlay in our lessons for this Sunday. This is due to the recycling of texts across our readings, as the Bible speaks from depth to depth, as it so often does! That is its genius. A book unlike any other book.

Jesus cites verses that appear in Genesis 1 (God made them male and female) and Genesis 2 (For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh). The OT reading for the day is taken from this same section in Genesis 2. The psalm chosen for the day is psalm 8, which is itself a reflection or meditation on the same opening texts from Genesis.
5 What is man that you should be mindful of him? *
the son of man that you should seek him out?
6 You have made him but little lower than the angels; *
you adorn him with glory and honor;
7 You give him mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under his feet: 
Mastery over the works of your hands corresponds to Genesis 1 and 2 both: humankind is to have charge of the earth—be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish, birds, every living thing—and the naming of the animals which is related in our OT reading. 
8 All sheep and oxen, *
even the wild beasts of the field,
9 The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, *
and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea

Leaving the Letter of James, our Epistle reading for the next 7 Sundays, that is, right up to Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the lectionary year, are all selections drawn from the Letter to the Hebrews.

The portion for today from the first chapter of Hebrews quotes this same Psalm 8. But you will note that it makes some important alterations. The spatial qualifier ‘a little’ has in Greek become open to a temporal reading, instead of “a little lower than the angels” (or sons of God) “for a little while lower.” 

The effort to render ‘adam (man or mankind) of Psalm 8 into inclusive language (‘human beings’) has the consequence of setting up a clear even sharp contrast, otherwise left more open for Hebrews’ use: On this inclusive language generated version, the psalm promised that human beings would have dominion, but this did not transpire: “we do not see everything in subjection to them.” 

Older translations (man/son of man) left more space for interpretation. The “little while” of the son of man’s lowering could then refer to Jesus and the incarnation, and the subjugation to come a matter of providential inauguration by Christ in his descent, and now crowned with glory and honor. Jesus the descended one having tasted death for all mankind. In this he is our—mankind’s, Adam’s—pioneer and perfecter, therefore. 

And this, in a marvelous turn based upon Hebrews’ final verse use of Psalm 22, allows special notes to sound forth. Jesus the sufferer of Psalm 22’s “my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” has walked a path that ends in his proclamation of God’s name in the congregation of those who are now brothers and sisters. “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters/In the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” The mankind given mastery because of his suffering and victory. “O Lord our governor, how great is your name in all the earth”: the final line of Psalm 8, is true after all, true because of the little while descent the son of man underwent for those of us little lower than the angles, promised mastery and given it by God in his son. 

The Gospel reading from Mark 10 picks up on different verses from the Genesis reading, those involving God’s forming of woman to be a fit partner for Adam, having paraded the formed-from-the-dust animals before him so that he might name them. Naming is not relational conversation, which the man desires, and for that there needs to be a species like unto himself and indeed derived from him. There is ish and ishah, man and woman, a partner fit for him, and he for her. It is to this text that Jesus turns because in the garden the ideal and the original intention are set out. Later commandments arise to deal with divorce, but they are the consequence of human hardness of heart and so signs more of that than of God’s designing. Jesus therefore cites the relevant verses from Genesis. 

The Pharisees are trying to test Jesus, Mark says, with this question about divorce being permissible or not. He gives his response from the same law to which they appeal and indicates the priority for interpretation. We hear no more from them, as Jesus again takes his own disciples aside for instruction.

We then have a brief snippet in which the theme of little children re-emerges. Just previously Jesus placed a little child in their midst to counter the disciples with rank concerns, and his reference to little ones at the end of chapter 9 referred to his true followers. Here we see yet another episode where the disciples are caught rebuking an action that Jesus himself encourages and welcomes and even here blesses.

The embrace of children is consistent with the force of Genesis 2: they shall become one flesh. Jesus embraces and blesses and lays his hands on the designs of God at creation, rejuvenated by the Son of God over the hardness of heart in Moses generation or here before his own eyes in the actions of the disciples. These are not salutary days for the misguided, in need of instruction, disciples.

Track One leaves Esther and moves to Job. The 42 chapter book is given four episodes to speak up, in the logic of Track One’s selections from OT books, during the Sundays of October. 
Our selection is taken from chapter 2, the second of two rounds of the Satan given permission to test Job. Job is introduced as the paradigm of righteousness. The prophet Ezekiel refers to him in the same way, alongside Noah. The author of the book locates its hero in primordial times, righteous like unto Noah. He is further renown, we are told, for his life and manner of prayer and daily offering on behalf of his family. Steadfastness is the character trait remembered in the fifth chapter of James. In what does the test consist? The answer is given in chapter one and the entire drama to unfold turns on it, though Job does not know, even as we are given the answer. Satan holds that no one will serve God for naught, for nothing but God’s own sake. God believes Job is such a man. But for Job to prove so, he must demonstrate his steadfast commitment to God through an ordeal in which he loses everything that might be said to cause his steadfastness, and be left alone with God. He does not curse God to his face as Satan promises, but begins a journey into hell on earth all the same, whose verdict we will not discover until he demonstrates his perseverance through it all.

It will take three rounds with so-called friends, but in the end he stands firm, and demonstrates the wisdom our psalm depicts for this day. Give judgment for me O Lord, for I have lived with integrity, and will not forfeit it through an ordeal like no other. 

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 26th, 2021

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 26th, 2021

November 18, 2020

After hearing last week of the woman of valor, from the last chapter of Proverbs, I spoke of the clear evocation of Ruth, who is called by the same term by Boaz in the book which follows Proverbs in Hebrew lists. Valiant she is. And Track One will turn to her in weeks to come. 

For this Sunday we have another of the strong women of valor from the OT, Esther. The story of Esther, Mordecai, Haman and the great Persian King Ahaseurus (Xerxes in some versions) is drawing to its dramatic conclusion in the single reading the lectionary is providing from that book for this Sunday in Track One. It is a tale of intrigue, danger, cunning and evil intention, kingly power and great faithfulness. Esther valiantly risks her life to protect her own people, though she could have remained hidden in her Queen’s rank and privilege. A woman of valor, who can find one? Esther is found faithful. And Haman who sought to have all the Jews of the realm executed for reasons of personal slight, ends up on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai, a faithful Jew unwilling to bow down before him. The fool of Proverbs meeting his own just end and falling into the pit he had prepared for others. This is the only biblical book explicitly linked to a religious festival for which its story serves as the warrant. The festival of Purim, or lots, is commemorated annually on the 14th and 15th day of Adar (early March in our calendar) “as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into holiday.” To read Proverbs 31 and then Esther allows the symphony of scripture to sound forth.

And so too the Psalm appointed for Track One, from Ps 124. Let us hear its 8 verses:
1 If the LORD had not been on our side, *
let Israel now say;
2 If the LORD had not been on our side, *
when enemies rose up against us;
3 Then would they have swallowed us up alive *
in their fierce anger toward us;
4 Then would the waters have overwhelmed us *
and the torrent gone over us;
5 Then would the raging waters *
have gone right over us.
6 Blessed be the LORD! *
he has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.
7 We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; *
the snare is broken, and we have escaped.
8 Our help is in the Name of the LORD, *
the maker of heaven and earth.

The Gospel reading from Mark 9 follows on from the healing of the epileptic and the second passion prediction. In the former scene, the epileptic’s father had explained quite frankly to Jesus that the disciples had been unable to drive the demon out. So Jesus went to work and healed the boy.

As if picking up from that thread, ironically, in our reading for today we have John complaining about an unnamed exorcist who is doing successfully what the twelve had been unable to do and reporting to Jesus they had tried to stop him. As if the right thing to do. “Because he was not following us.” Us.

Our OT lesson has been chosen to reinforce the Gospel, where the same language appears from Joshua “My Lord stop them” echoing Jesus’ “do not stop him.” Moses has tired, understandably, from an endless series of complaints and murmuring from the people. He has just – for a second time – seen to the provision of miraculous feeding in the wilderness, manna here followed by quails, now in super abundance. At wits’ end he calls to a sympathetic burden-bearing Lord to help him. Our lesson consists of a selection of relevant verses so as to provide the story of Eldad and Medad at its conclusion. God responds to Moses by having him assemble 6 elders from the 12 tribes, convening at the tent of meeting. There the cloud descends and the Lord God takes the spirit from Moses and apportions it upon the assembled elders, whose prophesying demonstrates their enrollment as his spirit-filled aid.

For reasons not given, two elders were missing, Eldad and Medad, and yet at exactly the same time as the others they received the exact same spirit endowment and prophesied in the camp. When the word comes to Moses from a surprised messenger, Joshua complains that the two had not been there with the others.

Moses responds in anticipation of Pentecost. Would that all would prophesy as have the seventy plus two. The nameless someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name prefigures the spirit at work in the church, as do Eldad and Medad prophesying boldly back in the camp. It will be enough to call upon the name of Jesus and by God’s power watch demons routed in and by his name. “Not following us” presumes a restriction not in God’s plans and in any event, nowhere shown to be decisive given the twelve’s own failure where this unnamed man has prevailed. Marvelous works in Jesus name march forward in blessing and the one working in this wake “will not soon be able to speak evil of me.” Bearing the name of Christ is the vocation, for disciples without distinction, as well as those who do not stand in the way but indeed offer a cold drink of refreshment to any and all doing the work of healing in Christ’s name.

We now get a series of what could appear to be independent sayings, concerning stumbling blocks placed before little ones, the little ones of Jesus, followers; stumbling blocks set up by followers themselves; and a final saying about salt and fire.

The first appears to continue the train of thought concerning hindering those who work in Jesus name. It sharpens the foregoing “do not stop him” into, if one does, a severe fate of judgment awaits, millstone in finality. Then the direction shifts to followers themselves, and the severe judgment theme applied to them: the hand that acts in sin, the feet that transport into sin, the eye that opens the sinner onto wrong paths and wrong actions. From the earliest interpreters on, these warning have not been taken so literally as to commend self-maiming – something strictly forbidden in the law of God. They do serve to warn sternly about hindering the actions done in Jesus name and those that are blocked by believers whose hands, feet and eyes are the cause of their downfall. 

Fire and salt as a pair evoke the language of Leviticus 2. Every sacrifice by fire is to be salted. The sacrifice of Christian service, in Jesus name, requires purging fire and salt – wisdom. Otherwise it is without effect. You cannot make salt without saltiness salty. It is good for nothing.

The psalm lines out the true path of service. The fear of the Lord is clean and endures forever. More to be desired than gold. Cleanse me from secret faults, lift all stumbling blocks, salt and fire my life. Then shall I be whole and sound and innocent of great offense.

And our final reading from James as the Epistle lesson describes as well such a life of service. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Salty. It has the power to lift stumbling blocks, and it has the power to bring back the sinner’s soul from death and will cover indeed a multitude of sins. The salt and fire of Christian work in the strong name of Christ.

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 19th, 2021

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 19th, 2021

November 18, 2020

We skip over the Transfiguration (it is read on the last Sunday before the Lenten season starts) and the healing of the epileptic to arrive at the second passion prediction. In all three of these scenes we have misunderstandings by the disciples, to various degrees, from rebuke to arguments concerning rank, each followed by Jesus’ correction. Episodes 2 and 3 are very similar in this regard.

What has brought on this concern for rank, and do the disciples mean now or at a future time? The third scene is clearer than our present one: there James and John speak of Jesus in his coming glory, and wanting to sit alongside him. The Transfiguration may be partly responsible, where Jesus has taken three aside and elevated them above the others. This was the view of the church father Origen, in seeking to understand the Marcan portrayal and its logic. The announcement by Jesus of his pending death may also have triggered anxieties about the disciples’ role more generally into the future, and recourse to arguments about rank may have served to displace their confusion at this juncture in their walk with Jesus. Making the disputes of course no less misguided, and patient of correction by Jesus. Yet one can imagine, if he is to die and he is their leader, what next and who is in charge?

Mark tells us that on this walk through Galilee Jesus is not engaging in his customary healing ministry, but is rather teaching the disciples in a focused way, away from any distractions. So we may well wonder how all this was registering with the disciples. The silence of them before Jesus’ second announcement in Mark’s narrative portrayal may be an improvement on Peter’s rebuke, but we learn that behind it they have been arguing all the same amongst themselves. “Parking lot talk” as it has been called, after a particularly intense meeting where people do not speak their mind but exit full of uncertainty and start unloading. 

Jesus announcement is couched in the language of Isaiah 53 and Daniel 7, with its use of “betray” paradidonai – literally, “to hand over” (God’s handing over of the suffering servant; the saints being handed over in Daniel). Here we likely find the reason for the OT selection from Jeremiah, thus broadening our examples from the OT. “It was the Lord who made it known to me, and I knew” – that is, the evil deeds of those who will in time put Jesus to death, into whose hands he is handed over. “Let us cut him off from the face of the earth, so that his name will no longer be remembered.”

But Jeremiah’s name is remembered and his words are recorded for us to see and recall, and for Jesus to see in them a pre-figurement, including the words “you O Lord judge rightly, to you I have committed my cause” – a cause greater than Isaiah’s or Daniel’s or Jeremiah’s because gathering them all up into one final march to Jerusalem to face the powers of darkness and so defeat them. The psalm associated with Jeremiah, psalm 54, ends on notes of victory. “For the arrogant have risen up against me, and the ruthless have sought my life” becoming “you have rescued me from every trouble.” The psalmist knows the way of affliction and death and treason, as does Jeremiah, and he puts his trust in God alone, who brings victory through death and not around it.

Jesus takes a child in his arms, having first placed the child in their midst, having called the twelve to him. The child in their midst. A disturbance, an intrusion, a reality-check in the world of adult posturing, like the children who accompany football players onto the field before the match begins. Let the child be the model, and in welcoming that role and place, one is welcoming me. Death is not to be defeated by top rank but by lowest rank, and welcoming me is a welcome of my way of strength and of assurance. Indeed, God himself is welcomed in this way.

It is striking how well James tracks alongside the Gospel for today. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” “The wisdom from above”—a phrase used previously by James, from the Father of Lights—”is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

Why are there arguments amongst the twelve on the way? Fear of the road ahead, no map with obvious markings, unsure of the leader, and so looking instead at their own motley group and trying to find “the best,” “the top,” “the strong” – yet no longer sure how those words work. James says disputes arise because of deep cravings, wanting something we do not have, and so striking out. Of failing to acknowledge our fear or our need and so failing to ask, to stop and say to Jesus, help my unbelief, help me understand the way you are going, keep me from falling silent and changing the subject to matters of rank and envy, always quick to fill the void.
James’ counsel is direct. Submit yourself to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, take the child whose needs are readily known, and embrace them, and hand them over to him with strength and authority without human ranking. 

What a strong and helpful reinforcement James brings, coming alongside our short lesson for today, where a lot has been left unsaid in the vortex of walking behind the cross of Jesus. Sometimes we need a direct command to cut through our arguments and equivocations. James and Jesus are at the ready.

Every child of course has a mother, who is the wife of a husband, the two of them together having created new life. Proverbs final chapter is devoted to the woman of strength. The text is chosen in the logic of Track One, which is to give us something of a survey—piecemeal it must be—of the OT in its own idiom. Three texts from the 31 chapter Book of Proverbs, opening and closing chapters and one from the middle. The woman of valor, looking ahead, will be joined by Esther and Ruth and Hannah, alongside selection from Job – books which belong to the miscellany collection of the Writings in the Hebrew Bible. These will be our Track One readings for Sundays to come.

The 22 verses of chapter 31 chosen for today represent an acrostic, a skillful composition, each verse beginning with the corresponding letter of the 22 letter Hebrew alphabet. The orderly composition imitating the orderly skill of the eshet hayil. The same term is used by Boaz of Ruth in 3:11. The woman of valor, where can one find her? In the book that follows Proverbs in Hebrew listings, courageous, faithful, prepared to take risks, and upon succeeding, taking up as this valiant woman described today. Ruth, who left her own country and gods, and came under the shelter of Israel’s Lord, and in that place gave birth to the grandfather of King David.

“Give her a share in the fruit of her hands and let her works praise her in the city gates.” And so it is. “The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, a son has been born to Naomi, they named him Obed, he was the father of Jesse, the father of David.” For in God’s faithfulness to the woman of valor, the healing spills out to include Naomi herself, and the child born is her fruitful blessing as well as Ruth’s. Her husband too praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you have surpassed them all.”

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