Archives for August 2012

Bible Study: 15 Pentecost, Proper 18 (B) – Sept. 9, 2012

Discussion Leader: Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to the deaf man, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” (Mark 7:34-35)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 and Psalm 125 (or Isaiah 35:4-7a and Psalm 146); James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Proverbs 22:1-2,8-9,22-23

Social justice and the proper use of wealth is a common theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The author of Proverbs begins this section by putting a commonly held truism of the time in the context of riches: the only thing that survives after your death is your good name, not your wealth. (Recall that this text precedes the belief in an afterlife.) Additionally, no matter whom we think we are, no matter what status we perceive that we have achieved, we share a common bond with all – we are creatures of God.

Verses 8 and 9 illustrate much of the theology of the book of Proverbs – there is a deeds/consequence matrix to life (i.e., good is generally rewarded, and evil punished). While we know that this is not always the case, we can see that the authors of Proverbs are trying to impart skill in living. Their goal is the “good life,” and their lessons here are exercises in character formation. For these sages, social justice was constitutive of a life well lived.

Finally, verses 22 and 23 underscore Israel’s preferential option for the poor. If one is to be wise and live a life suffused with wisdom, one will be attentive in one’s dealings with the marginalized. God is watching such transactions, and we should beware that God’s wrath is stirred when the poor are defrauded.

Who are the poor? Are they only those who are economically disadvantaged?

Why do you think the wisdom teachers felt compelled to unite the themes of social justice with wisdom?

Psalm 146

Like the reading from Proverbs, this psalm also links the themes of wisdom and justice. While the psalm is initiated and concluded with praise (the last words of verse 10 transliterally read “hallelu yah”), the listener is invited to ponder the one power that is true and eternal – the Lord. The psalmist apparently has timeless perceptivity. How often do people of our own age “live for” ephemeral things: their jobs, entertainment idols or what other people think of them?

Once again, the theme of justice for the poor is underscored. It is striking to note how often this topic reappears – in the Torah, prophets, writings, the teachings of Jesus and the other biblical texts. Verses 6 and 7 literally refer to God as the “maker” of heaven and earth, and the “maker” of justice. A recent trip to the Galapagos Islands and the jungles of Costa Rica brought these realities into stark relief for me. I was awestruck by the sheer power and creative genius of God, the one who “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them,” as seen in the vast oceans and diverse animal life of those wonderful places. Such a power is unfathomable and frighteningly mysterious. And according to this psalm, that awesome power has a long memory (God “keeps faith forever”) and chooses to act on behalf of those who are oppressed. An awareness of this reality is what the wisdom tradition refers to as “fear of the Lord” (i.e., recognizing that there is a God, and it’s not us!). Simply calling to mind and living one’s life according to the wisdom and ethics of this psalm is itself a form of praise in the eyes of the psalmist.

Where have you experienced the creative power of God, who “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever”?

How do you interpret the psalmist’s linking of God’s majestic power with the theme of social justice?

James 2:1-17

The epistle of James is primarily concerned with faith being implemented in action. This text contains the oft-quoted line “So faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Many commentators have referred to this epistle as “wisdom literature,” so it is fitting in light of the themes of our previous two readings. Once again, the theme of social justice and proper treatment of the poor are paramount. James presents a scenario in verses 1-6 to illustrate his point. He suggests that we are inclined to treat a stranger with great honor who appears to be wealthy. But a stranger who appears to be poor, we dishonor. In light of the way we often initially react to those we encounter in our everyday life, it’s hard to believe that James was writing for a first-century Near Eastern Israelite-Christian community, not 21st century America!

Following an exhortation about the importance of free dedication to the law, meaning that one follows the law out of love for God and respect for God’s will, not fear of punishment, James states that compassion is a constitutive element of true wisdom. It is not zealous legalism that the Lord desires, but mercy for the weak. This echoes the teaching of Jesus, as well as that of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Finally, James addresses the necessity of faith manifesting itself through action. Luther found this passage troubling, especially in light of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone, but in sagely fashion James is saying that truth faith is transformative. Orthopraxis (right action) is just as important as orthodoxy (right thinking). If the transformative power of Christian discipleship does not lead to a radical change in one’s living – to a way of mercy, compassion and an ardent desire to live God’s will for love of neighbor – then one’s claim to be a faithful follower of Jesus is diminished in authenticity.

What are signs of a faith that is “transformative”?

How might we as sagely Christians resolve tensions between the letter of the law (be it biblical or ecclesiastical) and the biblical injunction to mercy and compassion?

Mark 7:24-37

Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman is the only instance where we see him lose an argument! But it is also an episode where Jesus appears to change his mind. At first, Jesus responds to this woman with disdain. Dogs were not domestic pets in his culture, but rather we seen as unclean scavengers. The woman’s persistence, despite the insult, indicates her trust in Jesus as a holy man. Jesus is often recognized as a master of language, in that he always has a response for his interlocutors. (Recall that in this culture no one every publicly asked a question of another to gain information. Rather, the hope was to inflict shame by catching one’s opponent unable to answer.) In this instance, we can almost sense a pregnant pause as Jesus is stumped by this woman, considers her plea, which involves expanding his healing ministry to non-Israelites, then affecting the cure of her daughter.

It has been suggested that prior to this, Jesus saw his mission as exclusively to the house of Israel, but he matured into the sense that this good news was for all nations. If this is the case, Jesus’ actions here are a clear challenge to the closed religious mind that is unable to evolve.

After the healing of the woman’s daughter, Jesus takes a circuitous route through “gentile” territory. Perhaps this is Mark’s way of presaging the church’s mission to the wider world, as well as Jesus’ apparent shift in perspective. The story of the healing of the deaf man highlights a number of notable elements. Let’s briefly consider two.

First, Jesus utilizes a ritual in his healing of this man. The use of spittle, the touching of the ears, looking to heaven, and the ritual words, all speak to the importance of ritual actions. Such gestures impact us on a very soulful level, and have the ability to open our hearts in singular ways to the grace of God.

Second, note the reaction of the crowd in verse 37. Their words allude to Isaiah 35:5-6. In that text, Israel was looking forward to a glorious future under God’s reign. The implication is that in Jesus’ ministry that glory has been inaugurated. It is especially important to realize that physical wholeness was to be one of the blessings of the coming kingdom of God. Unfortunately, throughout much of Christian history the body has been subjugated to the soul. But for Jesus and the Israelites, the body was an essential part of what it means to be a human person, and God is deeply concerned about physical well being.

What are the implications for contemporary believers of Jesus “changing his mind”? How might this challenge us?

How does Jesus’ attention to and compassion for people’s physical maladies tie into the themes of the other readings we have today?

Bible Study: 14 Pentecost, Proper 17 (B) – Sept. 2, 2012

Discussion Leader: Laurel Mathewson, Sewanee

“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:15)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 and Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10 (or Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 and Psalm 15); James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

What an invitation! There are few more evocative, alluring images of joyful satiation than this excerpt from the Song of Solomon. In fact, this brief book is filled with such sweet, colorful and tantalizing images, it’s worth a fifteen-minute read. Interestingly, you’ll find that there is nothing sentimental or superficially romantic about this poem. Alongside does prancing in gardens and moonlit rendezvous, you’ll find scenes of confusion, loss and violence: these lovers encounter each other in a city prowling with armed guards and cultural, if not racial, prejudice. Enjoy this song of songs for its unbridled joy, and grant also that it speaks to a vision of the fulfillment of time wherein love enters into its most profound consummation.

Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10

Does kingly language work for you? Why or why not? If you do happen to find the monarchical overtones grating, try this: imagine this psalm was written by a poet in the king’s court. Let’s also assume the psalmist was male. What was his purpose in writing this verse? Was it praise to God, the king, or both? While we may never know exactly who wrote the psalms, it can be helpful to imagine different authorial perspectives. It can also be spiritually fruitful to imagine Jesus reciting the psalms in Hebrew in his first-century Palestine synagogue. What did this psalm mean for him?

James 1:17-27

That’s quite a powerful concluding statement on the nature of “pure” religion! Intriguingly, the author’s two exhortations appear to stand together tensely, almost in contrast. Caring for orphans and widows, at least today, can be a very messy activity – certainly not one I’d take on if I intended to remain unstained by the world. Did the author mean for this tension to exist, or is this something read into the text by its contemporary audience? For the two projects to complement each other, perhaps the author is imagining an “unstained” church in which orphans and widows behave in orderly fashion (!). Or perhaps he refers to vague aspects of “the world” not necessarily involved in the complicated care of the disenfranchised. The idea that the “church” and the “world” are distinct has gone in and out of fashion over the past two millennia; how does this distinction work for you? If the church is the people of God, then where is the church Monday through Saturday? What is it doing? And where?

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

It’s hard to discern the emotions behind the words, but if the Pharisees and scribes tossed their question to Jesus innocently, then Our Savior’s response was not entirely gracious. It feels like a bit of an overreaction, really. Of course, the question may have snapped with snark, instead. Either way, it appears that the questioning of whether Jesus’ teaching resided within or outside of the “tradition of the elders” struck a nerve. Jesus didn’t see himself as the founder of a new religion, but rather an interpreter of his own religion, Judaism, as understood through a mysterious and profound relationship with God.

How much ought we to trust tradition in our religion? When does tradition constrain or enable our personal and collective spiritual growth?

Bible Study: 13 Pentecost, Proper 16 (B) – Aug. 26, 2012

Discussion Leader: JK Melton, General Theological Seminary

“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’” (John 6:60-62).

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43 and Psalm 84 (or Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 and Psalm 34:15-22); Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43

What a day it must have been to dedicate the Temple at Jerusalem. The dedication of the temple can stand in for many things and help us expand our imaginations: the dedication of our own churches, the dedication of our gifts, the dedication of our lives. Indeed, we need to dedicate ourselves daily to the work that God has given us to do. The pageantry of this event certainly helped to set the scene and reveal its importance. We must find ways to commit deeply to our own dedication to God, so that people may come to hear God’s great name because of the way we live our lives.

How can we more fully dedicate our lives to God, making an offering of ourselves, our souls and bodies? What do we need to do so that we may always deepen our commitment to God and grow into deeper dedication?

Psalm 84

The psalm clearly echoes the themes of the reading from the Hebrew Bible, and it is easy to imagine it has a hymn on that day. Can we live in God’s house? We cannot live in the Temple at Jerusalem – no one can. Likewise, we cannot dwell in our churches. This is probably a good thing for us and for the gospel. After all, all of creation is God’s house. As a result, we can live in God’s temple always and everywhere.

Do we live our lives like we live in God’s dwelling? How might our lives change if we remember that we do indeed live in God’s house?

Ephesians 6:10-20

The imagery of this passage is tricky. Most of us live far from military imagery, and even farther from military imagery of the Roman Empire. With youth groups, I have done an activity where we re-imagine this text using modern and personal metaphors. Cell phones, Facebook, cars, and any number of modern devices – even lucky shoes – have been suggested by these youth. How might you re-imagine this passage to convey Paul’s point?

This passage continues the themes that I have highlighted in the Kings reading and the psalm. We must put on the whole armor of God because our whole lives must be dedicated to God’s work. Christ never asks for a little bit. As a result, the closing thought of this passage is of vital importance. Paul’s prayer must become our own. We must pray to be alert and to persevere. We must also make a bold witness for the gospel. What would our lives look like if we lived into Paul’s prayer?

John 6:56-69

The disciples found this teaching difficult. I think we are a lot like them. Jesus is teaching us the words of spirit and life, but there are those among us who do not believe, and often Jesus’ teaching is just plain difficult. Truly, much ink has been spilled trying to figure out what it means to eat his flesh and drink his blood! I’m not sure that it is helpful to become bogged down in those theological debates. Rather, what does it mean to nourish the spirit and live by it instead of the flesh?

Jesus asks the twelve if they wish to leave. Peter answers that there is nowhere to go; Jesus gives the word of eternal life. As we know, it is easy to turn to sources other than Jesus for sustenance. As Jesus says, those things – that is, the flesh – are useless. Are we sustaining ourselves in spirit? Are we taking Jesus’ words, the words of eternal life, and feasting on them?