Saturday, February 14, 2014
Isaiah 61:10—62:5; Psalm 104; 2 Timothy 4:1-8; Mark 10:46-52
The lectionary reaches back to the psalm portion of chapter 61 that we read yesterday, rejoicing in the Lord’s salvation, and now turns to apply that salvation to Jerusalem. For Zion’s sake, the prophet will not keep silent nor let her rest until her vindication shines out like the dawn. It shall be a vindication that not only she knows, but is known to all the nations and their kings as they see her glory. She will now be called by a new name, consistent with her new status before the lord. She will be a crown of beauty in the hands of the Lord—a royal diadem. Whereas she had been known as “forsaken” and her land named “Desolate,” she shall not be called “My Delight Is in Her,” and her land now “Married.” The Lord’s delight in her is like the delight of a young man for the young woman he seeks to marry. So, the Lord will marry Jerusalem and rejoice over her. Whatever the conditions that lead to their divorce, now the Lord has forgiven all and has restored the relationship with his people and their city.
Psalm 104 is a creation hymn and one of the “load stones” of the psalter. It speaks not only of God’s creative power, but also of God’s saving power and purpose throughout the universe. Though other religions of the day had their own creation psalms, and this one shows some significant influence from the Egyptian hymn to the sun god Rah, what makes Israel’s creation psalmody unique is that God is always at the center as creator and not dependent upon other factors, least of all, human intervention. What makes this psalm even more unique in the collection of creation hymns is that it is not anthropocentric—God does not create the world for human beings to be at the center of it. God fashions each element of the created order for its own distinct and unique purpose: streams to water trees, trees for birds to nest in, caves to shelter wild beasts, grass to feed cattle, etc. It celebrates the Lord as creator, ruler, savior and sustainer of all that is, fashioned, governed and sustained by the Lord’s wisdom. The Lord opens his hand and gives all good things, especially life and breath to all that live. Day is created for humans, night for wild animals. All have their place within the created order parceled out by God’s wisdom that is visible throughout all of creation. Creation reveals the Lord’s glory, which the psalmist sings to and prays will last forever. Everyone and everything has its appointed place—except the sinner. This is one of the most beautiful and comprehensive creation hymns in the entire psalter. In addition, remember, the creation narratives in Genesis are among the last in the Bible to be written and were deeply influenced by psalms such as this one, as well as those that appear in the book of Job.
As this letter draws to its close, Paul charges Timothy to remain true to the gospel and to proclaim its message, being persistent, whether the time is favorable to it or not. Timothy is to “convince, rebuke and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. Notice the emphasis here on teaching in the church rather than preaching to the unconverted. Timothy is warned that the time is coming when people will not put up with “sound doctrine”—a phrase that seems out of place in Paul’s mouth; we would expect “sound faith.” Rather, they will have “itching ears,” accumulating for themselves teachers who suit their own desires, and they will turn from listening to the truth to wander away in myths (as was the case with Gnosticism as it made its way into the church). Still, Timothy is to always be sober, to endure suffering, to do the work of an evangelist, and carry out his ministry fully. With that, the imprisoned Paul turns to words about himself. He realizes that his life is about to be “poured out as a libation” to the Lord, for the time of his “departure” has come. Yet, he has fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith. He knows that there is now reserved for him “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge will give [to him] on that day.” “That day,” is the day of Christ’s return, not the day of Paul’s death. The images used here all pick up themes Paul has used to speak of the life of faith in other places, especially the image of the athlete competing for the prized crown, though here it is a “crown of righteousness.” Completing his race, such a crown awaits not only him, but also all who have longed for Christ’s appearing.
Jesus and his followers have reached Jericho and now prepare to turn west up the Jericho road to Jerusalem. As they are leaving the city, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, is sitting by the roadside. When he hears that it is Jesus who is passing by, he begins to shout out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowd tries to silence Bartimaeus; what he is shouting is seditious. But Bartimaeus will not be silenced and shouts it out again, even more loudly. The irony here is that among all of Jesus’ followers, only the blind Bartimaeus really sees who Jesus is. Jesus stops and says, “Call him here.” When the crowd tells Bartimaeus of this, he throws off his cloak, springs to his feet and comes to Jesus. Jesus asks Bartimaeus what it is he wants of him, and the blind man calls Jesus “Rabbi” and asks to see again. Jesus tells him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately, Bartimaeus regains his sight. But rather than go, Mark tells us he followed Jesus on the way. Once we truly see who Jesus is, how can we not but follow?
Friday, February 13, 2014
Isaiah 61:1-9; Psalm 51; 2 Timothy 3:1-17; Mark 10:32-45
Today’s lesson from Isaiah has a rich history, both within Judaism and Christianity, and is both an oracle of salvation and a psalm of praise. The prophet announces that the Spirit of the Lord has settled upon him, anointing him. Prophets, priests and kings were routinely anointed into service with the use of oil, but here, it is God’s Spirit resting upon him that anoints him. God is sending him to bring “good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [Year of Jubilee when all debts are forgiven] and the day of God’s vengeance,” while comforting all who mourn, providing for those who mourn in Zion a garland of joy instead of the ashes of penance, and a mantle of praise rather than a faint spirit. These are the words Luke reports Jesus using in his inaugural sermon in his home synagogue in Nazareth. (Luke 4:18-19) The prophet announces that part of the good news is the restoration of Jerusalem, rebuilding the ancient ruins and repairing the destroyed city. The language here causes some to think this was written by Second Isaiah, to the exiles before return raather than to those who have returned, as its current setting within the book suggests. The promises are idyllic: strangers will feed their flocks, foreigners shall do their work, and the entire nation shall now be called “priests of the Lord”—not just the Levites. All will be named “ministers of our God.” The wealth of nations shall be theirs. And whereas their shame had been double, now they will possess a double portion of everlasting joy. And now the Lord speaks to explain: “I love justice and hate robbery and wrong-doing. I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them—recalling God’s covenants with Noah, Abram, Aaron, and David. God’s covenant with them is still intact because of the Lord’s faithfulness to himself and his word. The blessings of this among the people will cause them to be known among the nations as “a people whom the Lord has blessed.” And now the prophet breaks into a psalm of thanksgiving, rejoicing in the Lord with his “whole being.” God has clothed him in the garments of salvation and covered him in a robe of righteousness, decking him out as a bridegroom adorned with a garland or a bride clothed in precious jewels. Just as the world of nature is renewed with fresh shoots, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before the nations.
Psalm 51 is a confession of sin without peer, and as appropriate today as when it was first uttered. Tradition attributes it to David, upon being challenged by his prophet, Nathan, concerning David’s sin with Bathsheba and his subsequent engineering of the military murder of her husband Uriah. However, it shows marks of having been written later than that, after the return from exile, especially the last two verses. The center of the psalm focuses on the human heart, which to the Hebrew mind is not the center of affections, but the center of one’s will. In pleading for a clean heart, the supplicant expresses the conviction that, without the gift of a new and right spirit, it is not possible to remain in obedience. The human heart is prone to pride and stubbornness. And so, he pleads for God’s holy spirit to sustain him—one of the few places in the Old Testament where the phrase “holy spirit” is used. But notice, it is not yet personified, but simply an expression of God’s presence. The point is, even right praise is God’s gift to us, motivated by God’s Spirit. We cannot offer it without God’s prompting. Consequently, the psalmist utters the phrase that has become a classic invitation to prayer, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise.” He then expresses the prophets’ recurring conviction that, rather than sacrifice, what God truly desires in each of us is an obedient heart committed to God and God’s ways. Sacrifices God may or may not accept. After all, God does not need them, and since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, there have been none. Prayer itself has become the new form of sacrifice. And so, a heart in which stubbornness has been broken and self-pride crushed, is a heart God will never despise or reject. The prayer ends with a plea for Zion and the rebuilding of its walls following its sack by Babylon in 587 BCE, and for the restoration of the sacrificial system.
Paul turns to addressing the increasing disintegration and corruption—Godlessness!—in the church where people become lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, and lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. A similar list appears in Romans 1:29-31, where Paul is describing the depravation to which God handed over humanity, because it failed to acknowledge him, and instead, worshipped creatures rather than the Creator. Then comes the most damning characterization of the church in any age: “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.” These people, Timothy is to avoid. These are making their way into households, captivating women who are overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desire—in all probability, the reason they are named “silly.” The women long to be instructed by these false and corrupt teachers, but never learn or arrive at the truth. Paul then names two of Pharaoh’s magicians who vied with Moses (Exodus 7:11) as symbols of these false teachers vying with the truth. But Timothy is not to be concerned or engage them, for they will not make much progress, and, finally, it will be revealed to everyone just how false they are. Now, Paul again turns to exhortation, reminding Timothy of what he learned living with Paul: his teaching, his conduct, his aim in life, his faith, his patience, his love and steadfastness, even in persecution and suffering—the beating, other abuse and even stoning that Timothy saw Paul go through in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra (Acts 13-14). Yet, in each case, the Lord rescued him. Still, Paul acknowledges that “all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” for the last thing this world wants is godliness. Again, consistent with Paul’s writings in Romans 1, people will go from bad to worse, not only deceiving others, but being deceived themselves. Consequently, Timothy is to continue in what he has learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom he learned it (his grandmother, mother, Paul and others), and how from childhood, he has been steeped in the “sacred writings”—the scriptures of Israel, for as yet, the New Testament did not exist. These ancient texts are able to instruct for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Why? Because all scripture (again, the Old Testament) is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness. The scriptures are given so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient—equipped for every good work. Notice the emphasis upon behavior rather than doctrine, and the ability of the ancient texts, under God’s inspiration, to instruct us in the way of salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. This will become one of the texts that causes the church to insist on the importance of the Old Testament, and that one cannot understand the New Testament and its gospel, without knowing and understanding the Old Testament.
Jesus and the disciples are on the way to Jerusalem. He has just told them of what is to take place there, but the twelve seem oblivious to what Jesus has said, and they immediately jump to triumphal conclusions, so much so that James and John come forward to inappropriately ask for the seats of greatest honor when Jesus comes in his glory. Jesus must have been beside himself with frustration, if not despair, over this request, but he simply tells them they do not know what they are asking. Are they prepared to go through what he will go through? They don’t have a clue. Are they able to drink the cup that he drinks or be baptized with the baptism of suffering and death that he will undergo? True to form, they answer, “We are able!” Their words turn out to be prophetic, for Jesus tells them that indeed they will drink his cup of suffering and be baptized with his martyr’s death; but it is not Jesus’ to grant either to sit at his right or his left in glory. That is destined for those to whom it has been prepared. When word of James and John’s request gets to the other ten, they are rightfully angry at the two and another argument breaks out among them. Jesus silences all of them reminding them that this is the way the Gentiles behave—their leaders lord it over them so much so that the great ones among them become tyrants over all others. But it is not to be so within Jesus’ community of followers. Among them, whoever wishes to become great must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be a slave of all. Then, pointing to himself as the example he says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many”—the first time Jesus’ death has been spoken of in this gospel in redemptive terms.
Thursday, February 12, 2014
Isaiah 60:1-22; Psalm 97; 2 Timothy 2:14-26; Mark 10:17-31
After all that has been said about Jerusalem’s corruption and transgression, an oracle of salvation calls on her to “Arise, shine, for [her] light has come”. The glory of the Lord has risen upon her—“glory” is the word that expresses the Lord’s very presence in and among her. The darkness that covers the earth and all people shall be disbursed by the Lord’s presence, and nations and kings will come to her. Not only nations and kings, but also her sons and daughters shall come, returning from far away, the infants carried on nurses’ arms—a text that was powerfully celebrated at the emergence of the modern nation of Israel, as Jews came from all over the world to settle in that new state. The text speaks of all of the symbols of wealth and power: camels, gold and frankincense, flocks of sheep and rams. And the latter shall be acceptable on the altar in God’s house—a house the Lord will glorify. Again and again, themes that emerged in Second Isaiah, are incorporated here, as kings come to do homage, and foreigners arrive to rebuild the city and do the people’s work. This new Jerusalem will be one in which its gates shall always be opened, day and night, for the Lord is in her midst as security. The wealth of nations shall come to her. The riches of other countries and their resources shall come to build a new temple. The descendants of those who had oppressed her will now come bowing in obeisance. Those who despised her shall bow at her feet and shall call her “the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.” Though Jerusalem had been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through her, now the Lord will make her majestic forever—a joy—a place that is nourished “by the milk of nations.” And, as she does, she will know that the Lord is her Savior and Redeemer, the Mighty one of Jacob. Peace will become her overseer and Righteousness her taskmaster. Her walls will be called Salvation and her gates Praise. The Lord’s presence among her shall be her light—the source of the imagery used in the 21st chapter of the Book of Revelation. Jerusalem’s people shall all be righteous and shall possess the land forever, being the shoot that the Lord planted and the work of God’s hands—all so that the Lord may be glorified. Even the least among them shall become a clan and the smallest a mighty nation. The oracle ends with, “I am the Lord; in its time I will accomplish this.”
Psalm 97 celebrates God’s sovereign rule over all the earth—not just Israel!—and utilizes material from other psalms as well as many themes from Second Isaiah (40-55), creating a hymn of praise that recognizes the Lord as not only Israel's King, but sovereign over all creation. References to lighting and storm challenge the notion that those were the works of the Canaanite god Baal. Not simply the earth, but the heavens as well, proclaim God’s glory. Though nothing can fully contain God’s glory, it puts to shame those who bow down before worthless idols. For the Lord is not simply a god, but God of all the gods. This is a conviction that emerged in Israel upon its return from Babylon. The Lord had rescued them from the land of the wicked and now continues to “sow light for the righteous,” leading them in God’s way. “Rejoice then in the Lord, O you righteous. Give thanks to God’s holy name!”
Timothy is to remind those who will listen that they are to quit quarreling over words, for it is of no benefit or value and will simply ruin those who are listening—something it would be well for the church to remember today. How much of our division, cast in the context of seeking a pure church, is really “quarreling over words,” and, in fact, destroying the church? Rather, Timothy is to do his best to present himself to God as a worker who has no need to be ashamed, but rather, is one who rightly handles the word of truth. Doing so he is to avoid the profane chatter of the false teachers, for there is no profit in it. All it does is lead people into more impiety. The profane chatter of Hymenaeus and Philetus, spreads like gangrene, devouring the flesh of the young church. These are actually claiming that the resurrection has already taken place! Is it any wonder that they are upsetting the faith of some? Paul now quotes Old Testament texts to assure the endurance of the church. Its foundation stands firm, bearing the inscription from Numbers 16:5, “The Lord knows those who are his.” Paul follows this with a mixture of two texts, Job 36:10 and Joel 2:32, saying, “Let everyone who calls on the name of the Lord turn away from wickedness. Paul now turns to the image of household utensils—some are made of silver and gold, but others of wood and clay. Some are for special use and others are ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things Paul has mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the Lord, who is the owner of the house—ready for every good work. Therefore, Timothy is to shun youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace along with those others who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Again, he is reminded to have nothing to do with “stupid and senseless controversies” that only breed quarrels. The Lord’s servants must not be quarrelsome, but kind to everyone, an apt teacher, patient and skilled at correcting opponents with gentleness. Who knows; perhaps God will grant them repentance so that they come to know the truth, and escape the snare of the devil, since now they are being held captive to his will. Interestingly enough, Paul exhibits no concern over the devil in any of his uncontested letters. Only in Ephesians and 1 and 2 Timothy—the contested letters—is the devil mentioned, as is the case also of the other letters written in the last several decade of the church’s life in the first century.
As Jesus and his disciples prepare to leave Capernaum, one of the wealthy young men of the community comes to him, kneels and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Notice that though other religious figures have referred to Jesus as “Teacher,” this man adds “Good.” Clearly, he is among the privileged, genuinely striving to live a faithful religious life, and this is quickly demonstrated in his response to Jesus’ question. But first, Jesus asks, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments ….” Interestingly enough, Jesus only cites the second table of the law—that dealing with relationships between people—and substitutes “do not defraud” for “do not covet.” Regardless, the young man openly, and innocently, claims that he has kept all of these from his youth—from the day he became responsible before the law. Jesus looks on the young man, and Mark tells us, “loved him”—the only place in this gospel where that is said of Jesus and another human. Jesus tells him that he lacks one thing: he is to go, sell what he owns, give the money to the poor, thereby he will discover treasure in heaven; then he is to come and follow Jesus. The answer is more than the young man can bear. Hearing this he is filled with sorrow, for he has many possessions. The young man goes away grieving and in distress, and, as he does, Jesus looks around at his disciples and says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples are amazed and perplexed, because in their world wealth is the means that enables one the privilege of study and devotion to Torah—how can this be so? Jesus repeats what he has said, calling the disciples “Children,” and then to further make the point, adds a parable expressing the impossibility of doing so: it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples are even more astonished and begin to ask one another, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looks at them and says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter still does not get it and says to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” And, indeed they have, to which Jesus adds, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers and children, and fields”—what happened to the fathers?—but adds “with persecutions!” Clearly, Mark is directing Jesus’ words not only to the disciples gathered about Jesus, but those gathered about him in the reading of Jesus’ words in the churches where this gospel circulates. And then Jesus adds, “and in the age to come, eternal life.” Mark then concludes this incident with the proverb of reversal, again making the point that God’s ways are of an entirely different order than our own. Yet, the truth of Jesus’ words continues to be demonstrated day in and day out as possessions possess rather than serve us, convince us they have the capacity to give life, and thereby distract us from living more fully into the world where God, and God alone, is the source of life. No wonder Andrew Carnegie spent his later years trying to divest himself of his fortune.
Wednesday, February 11, 2014
Isaiah 59:1-21; Psalm 89:1-18; 2 Timothy 1:15-2:13; Mark 10:1-16
The situation in Jerusalem to which the exiles have returned is so bad and the evil so perverse that even those who turn from it become prey. The people blame the Lord for their hardships who they think too weak to act and who is deaf to their pleas. God responds with rhetorical questions. Is the Lord’s arm too short to act or save, and his ear so dull that he cannot hear? It is the people’s own sin and transgression that has cut them off and obscured God’s face so that the Lord does not listen and respond. No one seeks justice or righteousness, but rather, trust in lies. No one goes to court honestly, but instead, corrupt it, relying on falsehood. People run after evil. The lament continues, as it describes the result: there is no peace, no justice, but only paths that are crooked. But suddenly, the lament turns to confession, and it is no longer “they,” but “we” who hope for light, but behold darkness! We who grope along the wall as blind people. We who stumble midday as though it were night. All of these, their transgressions, have multiplied before the Lord so that he knows. Justice is pushed aside, righteousness stands afar, and truth has stumbled in the public square, so much so that honesty cannot enter it. The Lord saw it and was not only displeased, but astonished that there was no one to intercede. Consequently, the Lord stretched out his arm, putting on righteousness like a breastplate, salvation as a helmet, and garments of vengeance. Wrapping himself in zeal, the Lord will act to repay them for their deeds and bring wrath and recompense to all of his enemies across the land to the sea. So the people will again fear the Lord from the west to the east, and his glory will be like the rising of the sun. And now the Lord speaks: A redeemer will come to Zion, to those who turn from their evil ways. God’s spirit which he places upon them, and God’s word, which he places in their mouths, shall not depart from them, from their children, or their children’s children. This is the covenant the Lord makes with them.
Psalm 89:1-18 celebrates not only God’s sovereignty over all, it remembers God’s covenant with David and prays that God will continue to preserve and protect David and his reign forever and re-establish David’s royal line. In all probability, this psalm was written while Israel was in exile in Babylon (587-538 BCE). It is filled with longing for the restoration of Israel’s sovereignty and return to its land. The first eighteen verses begin with words of praise for God’s faithfulness and steadfast love. It then remembers the covenant God made with David, focusing on the Lord as the One who created all that is, and who is still sovereign over all. The clear implication is that God, who is a mighty warrior, and whose reign is based on righteousness and justice, must now act to keep his word. “Rahab” in verse 10 is not a reference to the prostitute in Jericho, but rather to the sea dragon who was the Canaanite God of chaos. The Lord is sovereign over chaos as well as all creation, even sovereign over Babylon who has them in subjection. Happy are those who know (and remember) the “festal shout” that accompanied worship in the temple, now gone. Still, they exalt in God’s name, for the Lord is the glory of their strength. It is the Lord who gives them strength (horn). He is their shield and king—the Holy One of Israel.
Paul interrupts his encouragement and exhortation to complain that all in Asia have abandoned him in his imprisonment, even Phygelus and Hermogenes. Only the household of Onesiphorus has stood by him, being unashamed of Paul’s chains. When in Rome, he sought Paul out to support and refresh him, just as he had helped Paul in similar circumstances in Ephesus. And so, Paul invokes a blessing upon him before returning to his encouragement of Timothy. Timothy is to remain strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and to pass on to reliable teachers the things he has heard Paul say to others about the gospel. Employing the metaphors of soldier, athlete and farmer, Paul speaks of Timothy as a soldier of Christ, reminding him that soldiers do not get caught up in the affairs of civilians, but only seek to please their commanding officer. So too, athletes, if they are to receive a prize, they must compete according to the rules. It is the hardworking farmer who should receive the first portion of the crops. Timothy should think on these things and the Lord will give him insight. Paul now incorporates a “trustworthy” saying—evidently a creed or hymn fragment well known in the church of the day: “If we die with him, we will live with him. If we endure with him, we will reign with him. If we deny him, he will deny us.” And then the pattern shifts. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot be untrue to himself.” Remind the others of this, and tell them to quit quarreling over words, for it is of no benefit or value—something it would be well for the church to remember today. How much of our division, cast in the context of seeking a pure church, is really “quarreling over words?” Rather, Timothy is to do his best to present himself to God as a worker who has no need to be ashamed, but rather, is one who rightly handles the word of truth.
Jesus moves more deeply into Judea and the crowds continue to gather around him. As was his custom, he teaches them. The Pharisees arrive once again to test Jesus, this time asking him if it is permitted (lawful) for a man to divorce his wife. Irritated by their motivation and assumption that he does not know what they are up to, Jesus answers with a question: “What did Moses command you?” They respond that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal against his wife and divorce her (Deut 24:1-4). Notice, only the man could divorce his wife; there were no grounds for a woman to seek divorce from her husband, not even adultery. Further, the law also prohibits taking a previously divorced wife, who subsequently remarried, back if she is again divorced, or if her second husband has died. Jesus’ response gives them what they want—he refutes Moses! Moses gave them this commandment because of the hardness of human hearts. Jesus goes on to remind the Pharisees that, from the beginning, again quoting Moses, “God made them male and female,” and it is for this reason that a man leaves his father and mother to be joined to his wife, and the two become one flesh. “So, they are no longer two but one.” Jesus now steps even further, superseding Moses with this command: “What God has joined together let no one separate.” This is so startling to the disciples that, when they are alone with Jesus, they ask him about this. Jesus then adds the new dimension to the marriage code, saying, “whoever divorces his wife and remarries commits adultery against her.” And, expanding the circle further still, revealing the Roman-Greco audience for which this is written, where a woman could divorce her husband for appropriate grounds such as adultery, Jesus says, “If a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” This second answer has led ecclesiastical nitpickers to conclude that Jesus was not speaking so much against divorce itself, as he was against remarriage after divorce, once again demonstrating the perversity that creeps in when we try to parse Jesus’ words to avoid their hard edge. Mark interrupts the scene with the entrance of people bringing their children to Jesus so that he might touch them, and the disciples sternly object. At this, Jesus becomes indignant with them saying, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Then elaborating further on what he means, he says, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child—without warrant, right or claim—will never enter it.” Remember, children were powerless in that culture. At this, Jesus takes the children up in his arms, lays hands on them and blesses them.
Tuesday, February 10, 2014
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 42; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Mark 9:42-50
The community had returned from Babylonian exile with a new sense of scrupulosity concerning matters of worship, fasting, and the like. But, like many overtly religious people over the centuries, they were meticulous about the form but missing the point of it all, overlooking the more fundamental issues in life: care for those about them in need. The newly-returned exiles have experienced more hardship than 2 Isaiah had foretold, and are now complaining to the Lord, saying, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why do we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” What’s the use of being religious if it does not pay off good dividends? Consequently, this oracle from the Lord is leveled against the people to call them to judgment and, in the process, distinguish between worship that is authentic and worship that is merely an attempted quid pro quo—a means of getting what one wants from the Lord. The charges against the people are direct: they serve their own interests on fast days, not unlike the Christian whose Lenten Fast is designed more to lose weight than draw the person into a more intimate and dependent relationship with God. More, they continue to oppress their workers. And, when they fast, it is not long before they are quarreling and fighting with one another. None of this will make their voice heard by the Lord. And now, true fasting and penance is defined. It is not deprivation of this or that form of food or drink, or covering oneself in sackcloth and ashes. The fast acceptable to the Lord is for them to loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free and break every yoke that binds and weighs people down. But it is even more basic than that. It has to do with feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and responding to the needs of one’s extended family, rather than looking the other way. This is the worship the Lord seeks: attending to the needs of the afflicted and doing something about them beyond criticism or blaming them for their own circumstances, as too often happens in our culture. God promises that when they begin to care for those among them in need, God will guide them continually, satisfy their needs, and make them strong, like a watered garden. The ancient ruins of Jerusalem shall be rebuilt, raising up the foundations of the city laid by many generations, repairing the breeches in the city’s walls and restoring its streets. The oracle ends, pressing the issue of sabbath observance. This seems not to have been an issue in Babylon, but has become one in the returned community. The sabbath is not a day for work or for pursuing one’s own interests or personal affairs, not to mention hobbies! It is a day holy to the Lord, to be kept holy and to be used to honor the Lord. When they do that and take delight in the day and its purposes, the Lord will see to it that they “ride upon the heights of the earth.” God will feed them with the heritage of their ancestor Jacob.
Psalm 42 opens the second of five sections of the Psalter that scholars generally view as a collection of psalms to instruct the community on how to live, as it faces exile in Babylon after 587 BC. Its plaintive longing for contact with God (note, the divine name “the Lord” is absent here, and instead the Hebrew word for God, Elohim, and variations of it are used throughout). God’s presence is sought and remembered, and God’s absence lamented. Has God forgotten the psalmist? Has God forgotten the people in Babylon? Why do his enemies persist with their taunts: “Where is your God?” What is the psalmist to say? Throughout the prayer, the persistent question is asked, “Why are you cast down, O my soul,” as if to keep himself from falling into despair, “and why are you disquieted within me?” In answer to his own question, the psalmist offers this refrain: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Troubles come and go, and within them, God may seem distant. But remembering God’s acts and support in the past, and hoping in God for the future, draws us near to God in the present through the conversation of prayer, and reveals that God is not only present, but a rock who is unchanging and worthy of our trust and praise.
We begin a continuous reading of the second letter to Timothy. Though scholars argue over whether this is an authentic letter from Paul while in prison, written to his younger colleague Timothy, or a letter written after Paul’s death, published in Paul’s name, to address the issue of false teachers in the church, for our purposes this is inconsequential. The letter is filled with challenges, exhortations and encouragements that are typical of a mentor addressing an assistant. Paul identifies himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God, for the purpose of life that is in Christ Jesus. Timothy is addressed as “my beloved child,” which is what we should expect, given what we know of their relationship and work together from the Book of Acts. The triadic blessing of “Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord,” is exactly what we would expect from Paul. Then he breaks into thanksgiving over the gift of Timothy, who he remembers constantly in his prayers. He tells Timothy how much he longs to see him. Remember, Paul is in prison. He gives thanks for Timothy’s sincere faith, which Timothy learned watching it be lived out in his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice, and that Paul is sure is being lived out in Timothy. Consequently, Paul charges Timothy to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.” Is Paul concerned that Timothy may be growing weak or fearful in the face of great odds, like those that faced the church with its internal divisions? He reminds him that God does not give us a spirit of cowardice, but one of power, love and self-discipline. Timothy is not to be ashamed of the testimony about Jesus, or about Paul, who Paul names as Jesus’ prisoner—not Rome’s! Timothy is called to join with Paul “in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God.” God has saved them and called them to this holy calling, not according to Paul or Timothy’s works, but according to God’s own purposes. Paul reminds Timothy that this grace was given in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but has now been revealed through the appearing of “our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”. This sentence is a theological mouthful, and shows a development of thought that suggests this may be penned well after Paul’s death, at the end of the first century, or by a Paul whose theology has further developed. It was for this gospel that Paul was appointed “a herald and an apostle and a teacher.” Again, Paul’s undisputed letter simply names him an apostle. But now, the issue is false teachers, and certainly, Paul would include himself as a teacher. More, Paul is not ashamed of his teaching, for he knows the one in whom he has put his trust, and he is convinced that Christ will guard what Paul has entrusted to him—his very life—until that day of fulfillment. Notice your footnote; the text can also be translated, “he will guard what has been entrusted to me”—the gospel to the Gentiles. And now, the issue of sound teaching is expanded—a concern of the church as it moved through the end of the first century. Timothy (or the churches being written to through this letter in Timothy’s name), is to hold to “the sound teaching” received from Paul, the “faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” And, he is to guard this good treasure entrusted to him, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in them. Again, the intimacy and affection framed in this letter suggests it is from Paul to Timothy. The expanded theology and concerns about “sound teaching” suggest it is written at a date later than Paul’s time in prison, either in Ephesus or in Rome. Others argue that this is simply the final development of Paul’s theology as he is imprisoned in Rome. Whatever, these words are as powerful today, and as important for us in living lives of faith, as when they were first written.
Within these short, eight verses, Mark has packed what most scholars think were originally separate sayings of Jesus, linked here by various word associations. They follow on the rewards for caring for Jesus’ “little ones”—not just children, but all of his followers who do not rank among the “great” of the community. It is, in all probability, a warning to church leaders about their vested responsibility for the members of the community. It would be better to have a huge grinding wheel tied about one’s neck and then be cast into the sea than to be the cause of a member stumbling into sin. Jesus then addresses the various things that cause us to stumble—hand, foot and eye—offering radical cures if we are unable to control such impulses. The cures are radical because of what is at stake—our participation in the Kingdom of God. It is better to go through life maimed, yet a member of the kingdom, than full-bodied yet excluded from that realm and ultimately thrown into the hell-fire of Gehenna. Gehenna was the site in the Valley of Hinnom, just southwest of Jerusalem’s wall, where the pagan cults of the 6th century BCE had practiced child sacrifice. By the time of Jesus, it was a smoldering trash-heap and a metaphor for the place the unrighteous would be sent on judgment day to experience eternal punishment, a place where the fire was eternal and the flesh-consuming worm never dies. This is followed by an enigmatic saying about being “salted with fire,” and is found only in Mark. Salt was both seasoning and preservative in Jesus’ world. Is he saying that his followers are to be preserved through the various fires of life that are burning out our dross? Is he saying that followers should expect such fire in a world that rejects him, and that, in enduring the fire, we will be seasoned and preserved? The phrase, “salted with fire” also leads to the association of believers maintaining their zest and disciplined fire for the gospel. Salt, after all, does not lose its “saltiness” but, rather, becomes polluted with other things, and is therefore no longer of any use, save throwing on the road to keep the weeds down. Do not let the salt and fire for the gospel become polluted and diluted with other cares or concerns. “Have salt in yourself”—preserve and persevere in seasoning life—but in doing so, be at peace with one another. With this final saying, we are brought back to the argument among the disciples that set off this entire conversation.
Author: The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Created: June 21, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, offers thoughts on today’s lectionary readings.