Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A Look at This Coming Sunday's Bible Lessons

[Each week, my aim, not always hit, is to present some comments on the Bible lessons assigned for the subsequent Sundays. My hope is to help members of the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for Sunday worship. Because we basically follow the Revised Common Lectionary used by many other churches, I hope that others will find the comments helpful, too.]

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 6, 2009

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 35:4-7
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10, 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

The Prayer of the Day
Gracious God, throughout the ages you transform sickness into health and death into life. Open us to the power of your presence, and make us a people ready to proclaim your promises to the whole world, through Jesus Christ, our healer and Lord.

General Comments
1. Isaiah 35:4-7: If modern scholars are correct, this section of Isaiah was originally addressed to God's people during their exile in Babylon.

Here, God promises that His people will return to the land He gave to them and those who have harmed them will be punished.

The promise that the blind will receive sight, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap, and the dumb will sing is alluded to in the Gospel lesson from Mark.

The mention of waters in the wilderness reminds me of the water from a rock provided to the ancient Israelites as they moved from slavery in Egypt to the promised land. (It also echoes of the second creation account, found in Genesis 2 and 3.)

2. Psalm 146: The psalmist talks to himself, or his "soul." The word for soul in Biblical Hebrew is nephesh, literally throat. As used here, nephesh has in mind the entire human being.

The use of nephesh bears a connection to the passage from Isaiah. Without the living water God provides (see John 4), we're left parched and dead. God refreshes those who turn to Him and are given life.

The psalmist resolves to never stop praising God.

One reason for elevating God above anything else is that mortals--not even the most powerful of people or armies--can provide us with the help--or the life--our thirsty souls crave and need. Only God can do that.

3. James 2:1-10, 14-17: James, ever committed to living out the faith we confess, chides the first-century Christians for giving preferential treatment to the wealthy with which it comes in contact. Meanwhile, James says, they ignore the poor among them. And they do this, he points out, when the poor--living life closer to reality--have always been likelier to embrace faith in God than have the wealthy. The wealthy, he says, delusionally think themselves self-sufficient and, on top of that, oppress the poor.

James commends the Golden Rule--what he calls "the royal law": "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Preferential treatment, James says, is a sin, a violation of God's law, and when we violate one of God's laws, we are liable for violating them all.

What good, James asks us, is unlived faith? Can inauthentic faith save us? If, by our behavior or preferential treatment, we honor Jesus with our lips and deny Him with our lives, what sort of faith do we really have?

James' condemnation of giving preference to some people over others sets the table interestingly for our Gospel lesson.

Gospel Lesson: Mark 7:24-37
First of all, it's important to put the two incidents recounted in our Gospel lesson into context.

Context #1: Jesus seeking respite. As early as Mark 6:31, after the apostles have come back from the mission of preaching repentance and casting out demons, Jesus is reported as wanting to go away to a quiet place with the twelve. But in the time between then and our lesson, Jesus has been compelled by compassion to feed the 5000, heal the sick in Gennesaret, and set the Pharisees and others right on what is clean and unclean.

Now, it appears that Jesus is so desperate for some down time that He takes the apostles with Him into Gentile territory. Even there, we're told, His fame as a wonder-worker precedes Him and when, in response to a Gentile woman's faith, He casts out a demon, He feels compelled to travel some distance away, to The Decapolis (the Ten Cities), a Greek-speaking, Gentile enclave.

Jesus needed rest. We need rest. But even our time of rest is not "me time," it's "God time." Jesus sought rest in order to be alone with the Father (Mark 6:46). God can give us rest. Only God can slake our thirsty souls, fill our empty hearts. This is why Jesus was always "interruptible": open to doing God's will, even when He was "off the clock." I am, I confess, a hard-headed student when it comes to living life Jesus' way!

Context #2: Clean/Unclean. As mentioned above, just before our lesson, Jesus has been challenged by the Pharisees for allowing His disciples to eat dinner without going through the process of ritual cleansing that their traditions held to be religiously essential. Jesus said that it's what comes out of us--things like sexual intimacy outside of marriage, theft, murder, and so on--that defile us, not the things that enter us from the outside.

Now comes our Gospel lesson in which Jesus goes to a Gentile country which would, by definition, have been seen as "unclean" by the Pharisees. He enters a presumably Gentile house, also "unclean." A woman approaches Jesus, an "unclean" thing for her to do. Jesus speaks with her, an "unclean" thing for Him to do in a society which forbade males to publicly speak to anyone other than wives, mothers, or sisters. The woman petitions Jesus on behalf of her daughter, demon-possessed, unclean.

Obviously, Jesus is bent on turning traditional ideas about what is clean and unclean on their head. While Jesus' earthly mission is to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the two incidents in our Gospel lesson foreshadow what will become the mission of the Church: Calling the entire world to repent for sin and believe in Jesus Christ.

24From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,
(1) Tyre sat on the Mediterranean coast in what was then part of Syria, like Judea, under the dominion of the Roman Empire. It is Gentile.

(2) There's no explanation of whose house Jesus entered, if its occupants were known to Jesus, or if He and the disciples paid to stay there.

(3) Jesus was so celebrated as a wonder-worker, He could go nowhere undetected. The question always was, of course, were these people following Jesus just to get what they wanted or because they saw in His wonders, the signs of His Lordship. I have watched the faith of many people crumble when they realized that Jesus wouldn't say yes to their every prayer. It was largely because Jesus wouldn't be the sort of Messiah they expected that eventually, the crowds who had once flocked to Jesus cried for His execution.

25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.
(1) As indicated above, this was considered damnably forward behavior. In Matthew's account of this incident, the disciples ask that Jesus send the woman away.

26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
(1) Mark underscores the woman's uncleanness by pointing out that she was a Gentile, a non-Jew, one who could have no claim on the mercy of God. All of us who are non-Jewish Christians must realize that we have no right to the grace and mercy of God--in fact, nobody does. But like this woman, we can, if we pay attention, see the gracious loving intentions of God for all who dare to turn to Him.

(2) Matthew drives the reality of this woman's "uncleanness," her distance from God, by referring to her by the more ancient name of her people, Canaanite. The Canaanites had been enemies of God's people, workers of injustice unwilling to share the land with the ancient Israelites.

(3) The daughter of the woman is demon-possessed. What to make of this in our post-modern world?

When I was a younger Christian, passages like this embarrassed me. Demon-possession? Mightn't this just be the way pre-modern peoples described things like mental illness? Today though, after several personal experiences and reading several books, including psychiatrist M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie, I've become convinced that demon-possession is a real phenomenon, one that even exists today. (I may write or preach more about this later.) I no longer blush when I read passages like our Gospel lesson.

27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
(1) This passage has occasioned much debate among Bible scholars.

Some say that Jesus satirizes His people's usual racist dismissal of non-Jews as "dogs," by using the term which would come to mean "house pet." The problem with this contention is that in Jesus' day, people didn't keep house pets.

Others claim that Jesus undergoes a kind of "conversion" experience as it relates to His people's chauvinism in the face of this woman's faith. The problems with this idea are that (a) Jesus had, according to the other Gospel-writers, already had a number of positive encounters with foreign people; (b) this interpretation would mean that Jesus was guilty of the sin of preferential treatment, thereby rendering His cross and resurrection meaningless. Only a sinless Savior can save us. Besides, it's obvious that Jesus didn't accept traditional notions regarding the uncleanness of non-Jews, else He wouldn't even be where we find Him in Mark's narrative!

No, I believe that Jesus is underscoring the teaching about the absurdity of thinking that uncleanness is an outside, rather than an inside phenomenon (Mark 7:20-23). The woman wasn't unclean because she was Syrophoenician.

Jesus wanted this to be clear before He proceeded to violate a traditional taboo by responding to the pleading mother's request.

28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
(1) The woman doesn't argue about her status. She realizes that she is, in the eyes of the Judeans, a dog, an outsider to God's promises, not a member of God's people. But she apparently knows enough about this God to also know that He delights in showing mercy to those who come to Him. The Old Testament tells the stories of many foreigners who benefited from the mercy of God: the people of Nineveh in Jonah's time; Ruth, who would become a descendant of King David; and Naaman, the Syrian commander, to name a few.

Pious Jews knew that there was nothing special about the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God simply chose the Israelites because God chose them, as an act of grace. And He did it so that Israel would cast God's light on the nations, becoming, we know, the birthing place of the Savior of the world, Jesus.

(2) The woman exhibits persistent, submissive faith, an example to all of us.

29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
(1) Clearly, Jesus regards her statement as a confession of faith. "I'm not entitled," she says, "But I believe." This is the sort of faith I pray that God will build in me!

30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.
(1) We're presented with an odd picture of Jesus. Clearly, from the miracle that precedes this one, Jesus didn't have to touch the affected portions of the deaf-mute's body. But He did. Here, Jesus is doing the very work God had promised to do for the exiles some seven-hundred years before.

34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”
(1) Ed Markquart says that the words, "he sighed," give Mark's narrative an immediacy that reads like a first-hand account. Markquart attributes this to Peter, whose account of Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection, have traditionally been thought to be Mark's primary source.

35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
(1) An allusion to Isaiah 35:4-7, our first lesson.

36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.
(1) Throughout Mark, we see Jesus trying to keep the lid on "the Messianic secret," the secret that He is more than a wonder-wokrer, but also the Messiah and Savior. Until people understand that Jesus has come to deal with sin by dying on a cross and to invite people to die to their own sins in order to have a claim in His resurrection, they're too likely to see Him as a genie who does their bidding.

But it's no use. Jesus' reputation--and the pressure on Him to be puppet king for people's selfish desires--grows with every miracle. And, of course, the disappointment people feel that Jesus isn't a messiah they can control contributes to the opposition to Him and to His crucifixion. In killing Him, the known world--Jews and Gentiles--who murdered Jesus, were, without realizing it, advancing the very plan of God.

37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

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