INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
PROVERBS 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23.The Book of Proverbs consists of Jewish wisdom sayings and poems collected and edited by some unknown author(s), probably in the 5th century BC or later. It may well have been educational document intended to guide serious students along paths of righteousness, intelligence and human fulfilment. The emphasis on social justice found in Israel’s great prophets, especially Isaiah and Amos, stands out clearly in these selected doublets.
PSALM 125. This is another of the Songs of Ascent, most likely sung by pilgrims approaching Jerusalem and the temple. Mountains do indeed surround Jerusalem as vs. 2 states. This provides a fitting symbol for the protection God provides for Israel. The rest of the psalm restates Israel’s religious tradition: righteousness that fulfils the nation’s covenant relationship with God.
ISAIAH 35:4-7A. (Alternate) This is another passage which envisions the Shalom of God, God’s reign of peace, justice and love. To a people who had suffered frequently from invasion, subjugation and exile, this imaginative prophecy would have brought great comfort. More recent visions of Utopian societies draw much from Old Testament passages like this.
PSALM 146. (Alternate) This brief psalm of praise, one of the five that end the Psalter, celebrates the hopes of Israel in God’s desire for freedom and justice.
JAMES 2:1-10, 14-17. A rhetorical question in vs. 1 states the thesis of this brief homily: favoring the wealthy creates social injustice. The next three verses illustrate the issue. Vv. 5-7 sets out God’s will in this regard in another series of rhetorical questions. James puts this in a scriptural context in vv. 8-11 and then summarizes his argument in vv. 12-13.
Beginning in vv. 14, James deals with the implications for faith of this ethical principle. Faith that does not produce good works is a false faith. An intellectual religious commitment without corresponding changes to one’s moral life cannot be a saving faith.
MARK 7:24-37. Two healing miracles, at least one of them on foreign territory, give rise to instructions from Jesus to keep his presence and his power secret. The attempt to heal failed, as vs. 36 points out.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS
PROVERBS 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
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The Book of Proverbs consists of Jewish wisdom sayings and poems collected and edited by some unknown author(s), probably in the 5th century BC or later. It may well have been educational document intended to guide serious students along paths of righteousness, intelligence and human fulfilment. During the post-exilic Persian, and especially the Hellenistic domination of Israel after 330 BCE, there was strong pressure on Jewish young people to adopt syncretist religious and cultural practices. The ancestral traditions needed to be reinforced more effectively. This became the primary purpose of the Book of Proverbs.
As a teaching compendium, the redactors intended students to learn and recite by rote these doublets and poems in much the same way that we learned children’s nursery rhymes. Its collection came long after the use of these sayings had been orally transmitted from generation to generation. The book contains unsurpassed insights into human affairs of all kinds, especially in relation to social and religious matters. Attributed to Solomon, many of these sayings may well have been common currency in his time (10th century BCE). Their enduring moral and spiritual value is attested by their use in the oral traditions of many religious cultures until recent times. Sadly, however, as the knowledge of and reading of scripture has declined in western civilization, so has the use of this proverbial wisdom.
These excerpts actually represent the end of a second collection of proverbs and the beginning of a third which scholars have identified within the book The break appears at 22:17 as the title phrase, “The words of the wise …” and the succeeding lines of poetry indicate (vss. 17-23). There is reason to believe that this third collection is based on a very similar Egyptian document dated about 1000 BCE.
The emphasis on social justice found in Israel’s great prophets, especially Isaiah and Amos, stands out clearly in these selected doublets. A strong element of legalistic righteousness has been blended in to create a sense of moral justification for good
behavior resulting in good fortune.
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As we have seen in previous readings, this is another of the Songs of Ascent (Pss. 120-134) most likely sung by pilgrims approaching Jerusalem and the temple. Mountains do indeed surround Jerusalem as v. 2 states. Mount Zion is only one of several on which Jerusalem is situated. Originally, it was the location of the fortress which David successfully captured (2 Samuel 5:6-10). The temple Solomon built stood, not on Mount Zion, but on Mount Moriah, where the Islamic Dome of the Rock is now situated.
In later Hebrew prophesy and poetry, Zion became a symbolic name for Yahweh’s holy city in which the temple stood. This provided a fitting symbol for Yahweh’s protection of Israel just as the mountains surrounding Jerusalem served as sentinels for the city’s security.
The rest of the psalm, composed in post-exilic times, restates Israel’s religious tradition: righteousness fulfils the nation’s covenant relationship with Yahweh. Two distinct groups of people are identified: those who put their trust in Yahweh and those who have associated with the godless. The phrase “the sceptre of wickedness” in vs. 3 hints that the latter group may have included some powerful Israelites who may have conspired with foreigners thereby endangering the nation’s independence.
Recently, a Jewish rabbi described his tradition as a religion of morality. Many church folk mistakenly define their religious convictions in similar terms. But that is not what the Christian scriptures describe. Much as we respect our Jewish neighbors, mere morality doesn’t make it. Ours is a redemptive or salvatory faith tradition, rooted nonetheless in the continual historical redemption of Israel by God. It rests on repentance for moral failure to which all succumb, the gracious forgiveness of God and the renewal of life acceptable to God through faith in Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate in human form and a present power in us through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
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(Alternate) This is another passage which envisions the Shalom of God, God’s reign of peace, justice and love. To a people who had suffered frequently from invasion, subjugation and exile, this imaginative prophecy would have brought great comfort. More recent visions of Utopian societies draw much from Old Testament passages like this.
“This exultant lyric of confidence and joy,” to quote my late professor of OT, Dr. R.B.Y. Scott, (Interpreter’s Bible. 5.358) includes parts of the two main themes of the poem: the manifestation of Yahweh as deliverer of Yahweh’s helpless, exiled people and their joyful return to Zion. The passage exudes confidence, giving expression to the indomitable faith that has withstood the innumerable shocks of history for three millennia. If it any verse is to be made the text for a sermon (e.g. vs. 4), it would be appropriate to read the whole poem rather than this brief excerpt.
Obviously the poem dates from a time near the end of Babylonian exile (539 BCE) and would be more appropriate as part of Deutero-Isaiah (Isa. 40-66). With the eschatological poem in ch. 34, it had at some unknown time been attached the prophecies of Isaiah, who lived in the 8th century BCE.
The images of vss. 5-6a may seem exaggerated until we recall very similar words of Jesus to the disciples of John the Baptist when they came asking if he was indeed the Messiah (Matt. 11:2-6; Luke 7:18-23). It is possible that Jesus had this passage in mind when he uttered those words, although the image is of the most helpless and vulnerable having the most cause to praise God.
The restoration of ecological wholeness envisaged in vss. 6a-7a can be seen in the way modern Israel has reclaimed parts of the Negev desert in southern Israel for agriculture. Even in the inhospitably arid Dead Sea valley, there are fruitful plantations of date palms growing because of careful irrigation from ancient springs. Similarly fruitful farming land is being redeemed from the Negev desert through careful irrigation. At the same time, the limited water resources of the region are not shared equitably between the Israelis and the Palestinians. With environmental disasters multiplying in many parts of the world, our generation must turn our minds and wills to similar reclamation projects from which all people may benefit.
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(Alternate) This brief psalm of praise, one of the five hallelujah psalms that end the Psalter, celebrates the hopes of Israel in God’s desire for freedom and justice.
The outstanding aspect of this psalm is its central theme that only God, not human power and politics, can be trusted to provide hope and help in resolving the basic problems of society. No more succinct definition of this moral and spiritual truth can be found than in vss. 3-4. Even the greatest leaders, despite their best intentions, cannot meet the needs suffering humanity. If ever there was a time in history when this message needs to be shouted from the roof tops, that time in now.
The psalm concludes with a proclamation that Yahweh is the Lord of history, a message to be found throughout the OT. At the same time, in this day of global conflicts pitting powerful religious traditions against one another in apparent struggle for world domination, this may be difficult to imagine. On the other hand, the scriptures give voice to faith and hope, not geopolitical anxieties.
JAMES 2:1-10, 14-17
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A rhetorical question in vs. 1 in the NSRV states the thesis of this brief homily: favoring the wealthy creates social injustice. Most translations do not render this opening sentence as a question. Original Greek manuscripts had no punctuation and used only capital letters. Thus it is a moot point whether or not this was a question or a strong admonition to the recipients of the letter.
The first segment of this reading, however, has the form of a sermon regarding what undoubtedly was a serious problem in early Christian communities. Acts 4:32-5:11 gives a specific instance of the possible dangers wealthy believers brought to any congregation. The great prophets of Israel, Amos, Isaiah and Micah had railed against the same economic inequities and injustices. As the Deuteronomists clearly emphasized in their interpretation of the Mosaic Law, exilic and post-exilic Israel faced similar problems. In this they differed not a whit from modern western civilization which gave rise to the inequities of capitalist economies and socialist class struggles for a more equitable distribution of wealth.
The reality still exists for contemporary Christian churches. In many Ontario towns and cities, different congregations of the same denomination have been identified with wealthier professional and managerial classes or the laboring classes who live in different parts of the same community with different standards of housing.
One young minister and his bride were tracked down at their supposedly secret honeymoon location and invited to appear for an interview for a post in a wealthy church. They were hosted and feasted far above what they could afford. After the interview they were promised that following a suitable period as assistant to the senior minister, they could have any pastorate they chose. They felt that all that was required of them was due deference to the rich and influential members of this particular congregation. The young couple refused the tempting opportunity without regret. In later years, though they called to serve in a much wealthier community than their first pastorate, they never felt completely at home.
Vv. 5-7 sets out God’s will in this regard in another series of rhetorical questions. Christian are called to demonstrate a different set of values. James puts this in a scriptural context in vv. 8-11 and then summarizes his argument in vv. 12-13. Injustice brings judgment, not on the basis of human economic standards, but on God’s sense of equity.
Beginning in vv. 14, James deals with the implications for faith of this ethical principle. Faith that does not produce good works is a false faith. An intellectual commitment without corresponding changes to one’s moral life cannot be a saving faith. Some interpreters have drawn a sharp distinction between Paul’s theology of grace alone and James’ theology of faith plus works. Others have made a similar distinction between Judaism and Christianity. These are both false antitheses. The debate which both Paul and James engage in can be found also in pre-Christian Jewish literature and in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus. All held that both faith and works of righteousness contributed to salvation.
Contrary to what some claim, Paul did not proclaim a doctrine of justification by faith alone without any subsequent response to demonstrate that justification had brought about changed behavior. In fact, Paul clearly rejected such a view as blasphemous (Rom. 3:8 and 6:1-2). Nor did he condemn the “Judaizers” of Galatia, or even Peter, for holding a similar viewpoint. If there is any discrepancy between Paul and James, it is between a false Paulinism and James’ position. A distortion of what Paul taught about the sufficiency of grace that results in moral transformation may well have been evident in the communities for which this letter was written. B.S. Easton presents a detailed exegesis of this issue in The Interpreter’s Bible, 12, 40-42.
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Two healing miracles, at least one of them on foreign territory, gave rise to instructions from Jesus to keep his presence and his power secret. The attempt at secrecy failed, as v. 36 points out.
Tyre was an important Mediterranean seaport in what is we know as Lebanon. Originally an island, it was connected to the mainland by a great mole built by Alexander during his siege of the city in 333 BCE. Early in his ministry, Jesus had preached to people from there (Mark 3:8). Thus, it is fair to speculate that he may have gone there to visit someone he knew. In any small community, gossip would have made his presence known, especially if his host had been particularly impressed with his teaching and honoured by his visit. Jesus, on the other hand, wanted to keep his visit a secret (vs. 24b), but to no avail.
We can also assume that Jesus’ host was a Jew, but his neighbors included many Gentiles, as was the Syrophoenecian woman who came to him pleading for her daughter to be healed. Neither the disease nor the demon which, according to contemporary belief, had caused it, nor the manner of healing interested Mark. He chose to emphasize the conversation between the woman and Jesus. The elements of the pericope may have come from tradition; the actual words were from Mark who had his audience in mind.
The narrative reveals a particular aspect of Jesus’ humanity: his willingness to be convinced, even by a Gentile woman, that God’s saving love extended beyond the covenanted people of Israel. This could well have been a significant issue for Mark’s audience, particularly if they were a mix of Jews and Gentiles.
The second miracle (vss. 31-35) occurred after Jesus had returned from Tyre. It is curious that he “went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of Decapolis.” That was quite a voyage to make on foot. Sidon in north of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast, about 40 miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee. Decapolis lies southeast of the Sea of Galilee across the Jordan valley. He certainly was taking the long road home. Or Mark may not have known the geography of Galilee very well. Another possibility presents itself in this strange route: Mark may be pointing out for the benefit of his audience that it was not unusual for Jesus, a Jew from Galilee, to traverse and minister in Gentile territory.
The central message of the pericope, however, is the miracle itself and the effort Jesus made to keep it secret. It has important links to the motif in Mark’s Gospel which scholars have designated as “the messianic secret.” This interpretation actually deals with the various levels of redaction through which the oral tradition passed in being transmitted and ultimately recorded for reading or hearing by future generations. However explicitly Mark may have described the incident, we have no way of knowing how Jesus healed this deaf and dumb man. Nor does that really matter.
The pericope presents the modern reader with the same question it posed for the original audience for whom Mark wrote: who is this Jesus of Nazareth? The miracles that so amazed people then and still trouble us now, probably for very different reasons, describe transcendent events. These were not merely good deeds by an exceptionally skilled, charismatic and caring healer. They caused everyone then – and they still cause us – to choose either to believe or disbelieve that Jesus is as Mark proclaimed in the very first words of his gospel: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”