Bible Study: 20 Pentecost, Proper 25 (A)

October 26, 2014

Johanna Young, Deacon Formation Program, Diocese of Massachusetts

“Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

This passage finds us at the end of the story of Moses and marks the end of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Torah. It comes at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, often referred to as the Second Law.

Moses sees the Promised Land from the top of Mount Nebo (verse 1). That his last moments are on a mountaintop may remind us of the other mountaintop experiences where Moses met God face to face. But here it is different. It signals the end Moses’ role in the formation of a new community, the people of Israel.

Let’s focus for a moment on the phrase “servant of the Lord,” abad in Hebrew. During the long journey to the Promised Land there were many times when Moses was probably tempted to call it quits. How easy it would have been to say, “I can’t take it anymore! Too much complaining!” However, he gave into the temptation to seek some glory for himself (Numbers 20:12) and for that, God decreed he would not enter the Promised Land. The final story of Moses shows that even great people, who may seem larger than life to us, are, in the end, human. We can take some comfort in that. At the end of the day, it’s the journey that is important. Now Joshua picks up where Moses left off as abad, “servant of the Lord.”

Discuss what characteristics “a servant of Lord,” should possess. What seeds do servants of the Lord plant that inch us closer to the Promised Land.

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

Psalm 90 begins Book Four in the Psalter. According to scholar J. Clinton McCann, the psalm itself is divided into four parts: verse 1-2, God; verses 3-6, the frailty of all life; verses 7-11 (not included in the reading), humankind’s disobedience; and verses 12-17, a plea for God’s mercy and compassion.

Although it is the only psalm attributed to Moses, biblical scholars do not general believe he authored it. The theme of finitude, recall Moses’ death in Deuteronomy 34, is carried over in today’s psalm. The psalmist reminds us that we are all dust (recalls Genesis 3) and that we are all on the clock. The clock is ticking; the grass will not stay green forever. This is not the carpe diem philosophy of Ecclesiastes (3:12-13), but an occasion to petition for God’s compassion and mercy while we are alive. Again the word servant, in Hebrew abad, is repeated in verse 13.

Why did the lectionary leave out verses 7-12, and what affect does that have on the reading of the psalm? How do you reconcile God as refuge (v. 1) and God’s affliction and subsequent suffering (verse 15)?

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

What are the best practices for building up a Christian community and a ministry of love of one’s neighbor? Paul spells it out in today’s epistle to the community in Thessalonia, using himself and his companions as examples.

First of all, community builders must speak boldly and with courage, according to Paul. In Philipi, Paul’s message, which was spoken boldly and with courage, was met with great opposition. Speaking “truth to power,” as Gandhi phrased it, is often not accepted by those who want to maintain the status quo.

Second, community builders must have integrity. In the first-century, Greco-Roman world, leaders were tested for their strength of character. A community builder who seeks after his/her own glory or personal gain can rip a community apart.

Finally, community builders are “soul-sharers,” as Richard Ascough describes it in his commentary on Working Preacher. As “soul-sharers,” we are called to alleviate suffering in the world, caring for the vulnerable and needy of the community, much as a nurse nurtures the children in her care. In Paul’s time, it was common for the elite to have nurses, nannies, care for their children, and they would remain in close relationships into their adulthood.

“Paul calls each one of us to interact in our present Christian community with bold speech personal integrity, and soul-sharing” (Richard Ascough, Working Preacher, October 26, 2008). What other characteristics of a community builder would you add? How are the characteristics Paul describes to the Thessalonians relevant to today’s church?

Matthew 22:34-46

This week’s passage appears at the end of a series of debates with Sadducees, lawyers, chief priest, elders scribes Pharisees and their followers. Jesus has handily answered all questions, and finally, one of the lawyers asks: “Which commandment is the greatest?” (verse 36). Jesus responds with what Jewish people refer to as the Shema, “You shall love the Lord your god with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (See also Deuteronomy 6:4-5.) It expands the first commandment found in Exodus: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We know this as the Golden Rule. Versions of this verse are also found in Leviticus 19:18, Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14. This is not, eros, “erotic love,” but agape, “love” in the sense of “compassion” and “mercy.”

In her “Charter for Compassion,” Karen Armstrong points out that many religions have a version of the Golden Rule:

“Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” — Islam, Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi 13

“One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This the essence of morality. All other activities are selfish desire.” — Hinduis. Ahabharata, Anunsasana Parva 113.8

Jesus affirms these two commands are foundational. David Ewart writes: “As long as we observe both commandments, we can be confident we are on that Godly path. However if we choose to ignore either love, we will soon find ourselves in a spiritual ditch.”

Discuss what spiritual ditches you find yourself in. How might the love of God and neighbor help to dig you out?

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