The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (firstname.lastname@example.org) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'. This week there are no bulletin portions available.
INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Ordinary 23 - Proper 18 - Year A
[NOTE: Throughout the Season after Pentecost the RCL
provides a set of alternate lessons which some
denominations prefer. A summary of these readings is
not included below this week.]
EXODUS 12:1-14 In some respects this is the most important passage in the
Book of Exodus. It gives details about the celebration of the Passover
meal, one of the main festivals of the Jewish tradition. The description
we have here, however, comes from the Priestly document and dates from the
post-exilic period, not from the time of Moses several hundred years
earlier. Accordingly it is considerably colored by the form of the
celebration in the immediate post-exilic period (after 539 BCE).
The standard formula for a cultic observance in style of the P-document
opens the passage (vs. 1). Moses and Aaron receive a revelation of
Yahweh's will on the way the festival is to be celebrated. The designation
of the spring as the time of the festival is significant. Until the
time of the exile (6th century BCE), the beginning of the year occurred in
the autumn, as it does now in the Jewish calendar. Only during and after
the exile did the Israelites conform to the Babylonian custom of marking
the turn of the year in springtime. In all probability, however, the
Passover festival always occurred in spring. Before the Exodus it may have
been associated with the shepherding culture of patriarchal times. Exodus
5:1 indicates a pre-exodus festival had an important place in Israelite
A second feature of the narrative identifies it as a creation of the exilic
period. The ceremony takes places only in the home as a family feast and
has no association with the temple. Although a later interpretation
regarded vs. 6 as a gathering for the priestly slaughter of the paschal
lamb, the festival was never fully transformed into a temple ritual and so
could be celebrated after the temple was lost. By NT times, however, it
had become a pilgrim festival, especially for the Jewish Diaspora. The
ritual slaughter of the Passover lamb on the specified date, the 14th of
the month then called Nisan, became for Christians the central event
associated with the crucifixion of Jesus. This almost certainly had
something to do with the early church's interpretation of Isaiah 53 as a
These instructions for the festival associate it directly with hasty
preparations for the Exodus (vss. 10-11) as the phrase "the passover of the
Lord" indicates. The Hebrew word *pesach* literally means *passing over*
or *sparing*. The origin of that word may have been related to a primitive
dance in which the participants skipped or limped at certain intervals.
That is precisely what Yahweh did in sparing the first-born Israelites
while slaughtering Egyptian children (vs. 12). The sprinkling of the
festive victim's blood on the doorpost may also have had a pre-exilic
animist origin in a custom of slaughtering the animal in the dooryard of
the family home, then sprinkling its blood to ward off evil spirits.
However the various elements of the festival may have originated, the
family ritual associated with its celebration has lasted for thousands of
years. It became the memorial of the historical event which shaped the
self-consciousness of Israel as God's chosen people. Thus, it has become
not merely a religious rite, mandated by scripture and still practiced by
most Jewish families, but a symbol of Jewish identity even more precious
after the Holocaust of the 20th century.
PSALM 149 The strains of fervent nationalism ring through this psalm, one
of five so-called "hallelujah psalms" ending the Psalter. No one can
accurately determine its origins or early uses, other than as part of this
final doxological collection. Whatever the victory it appears to celebrate
(vs. 4), its Hebrew vocabulary points to a late post-exilic date. Some
scholars have speculated that it may even date from the Maccabean period
(ca. 150 BCE) since it contains phrases found in the Books of 1 And 2
Maccabees and Judith.
Other scholars have proposed that the song is essentially eschatological,
pointing to a day of divine victory when all Yahweh's promises to Israel of
deliverance and justice will be fulfilled and all nations which have
oppressed the Chosen People will be judged. This does not preclude the
possibility that some unknown historical event lies behind it.
Whatever its source, it has been part of Christian hymnody since the
mid-16th century when a metrical version appeared in the Book of Common
Prayer and it subsequent editions. A slightly altered 1912 rendition of
that hymn has been set to Sir Hubert Parry's magnificent tune *Laudate
Dominum* and is now found at #872 in *Voices United* published in 1995
by The United Church of Canada. That version certainly lifts up the
eschatological emphasis of the divine purpose to overcome evil, bring
justice to the humble and inaugurate God's dominion over all nations to the
praise of God's glory.
ROMANS 13:8-14 This brief excerpt continues the theme of personal moral
conduct expected of Christians which had been interrupted by what appears
to be an aside about accepting the established imperial government of Rome
(13:1-7). Yet the two segments are closely connected by obligations: taxes
and respect in the one instance; love in the other.
Does Paul have only fellow Christians in mind in exhorting the Romans to
fulfilling the law of love or does he include the wider community too? It
would seem to be another case of both/and rather than either/or. Indeed,
his summary of the Mosaic law comes straight from the oral tradition which
during the next two or three decades gave shape to the synoptic gospels
recording Jesus' teaching. (See Mark 12:28-34, Matt. 22:34-40 and Luke
10:25-28.) It is notable how Paul may have received this tradition. In
Galatians 1:18-19, Paul wrote that his first contact with the apostles had
been a meeting with Peter and James, the Lord's brother. In Galatians
4:14, written much earlier in his ministry, he made an identical summary of
the law. James 2:8 records the same tradition.
Paul then turned his attention to another oral tradition also found in the
gospels, the anticipated eschatological crisis at end of time. William
Barclay wrote that "like so many great men, Paul was haunted by the
shortness of time.... But there always was more to Paul's thought than
simply shortness of time. It was the crisis of the world's history which
he expected, the Second Coming of Christ." (*Daily Study Bible: The Letter
to the Romans*. Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1957.) Thus Paul's thought
incorporated both the concept of chronological time (Greek = *chronos*) and
decisive opportunity oriented to the fulfilment of God's purpose (Greek =
Like all New Testament authors, Paul again drew on the remembered tradition
of Jesus' own teachings, but also fully accepted the much longer tradition
of Jewish eschatological thought. Conflict with invisible, supernatural
powers formed an important aspect of Paul's eschatology. As we see in vss.
11-14, this had significant implications for the life of Christians in the
world. Strong metaphors expressed what he meant: light and darkness, on
the one hand, and putting on a new set of garments, on the other (in vs. 12
"armor" and in vs. 14 spiritual clothing in contrast to those of "the
flesh."). Specific, common issues of human conduct made his metaphors
relevant to real, everyday life (vs. 13). Paul knew all too well how easy
it was for the ordinary person to escape into wanton living as a means of
avoiding what he saw as the imminent crisis.
Despite our supposedly enlightened skepticism about eschatological crises
and anxious pre-millennial prophecies, Paul insights still have relevance
for us as we turn toward the future, as unknown to us as it was to him.
Could it not be that the fulfilment of God's purpose is, as Paul said, that
all humanity shall "put on Christ the Lord Jesus Christ?
MATTHEW 18:15-20 How do Christians settle their conflicts? Was this
really a concern of Jesus? Did he really have a fractious set of followers
who engaged in no-holes-barred confrontations that bordered on physical
combat? Or was this little pericope put into Matthew's Gospel because
Matthew needed to say something to the members of his own faith community
who from time to time engaged in open conflict?
Compare this with what Paul said in Romans 12:16 and 13:9-10. Consider,
too, the next little pericope in vss. 21-22. What a pity that the two are
separated by the lectionary. Surely they go together. A teacher of
homiletics once told his class a midrash story about what lay behind this
incident. Peter was actually complaining to Jesus about his kid brother,
Andrew, taking his boat out on Galilee without his permission.
It is most unlikely that Jesus spoke of "the church" as quoted in vs. 16.
The church did not exist before Pentecost and was not a recognizable
institution for many decades after that. In Matthew's time toward the end
of the 1st century CE, it was struggling to survive in scattered
communities separate from the synagogues out of which it grew. By the
ninth decade the Pharisees had successfully banned Jewish Christians from
participating in the synagogue for breaking the sacred laws of the
covenant. Could this quarrel have carried over in to the church now
consisting of both Jews and perhaps a majority of Gentiles?
On the other hand, Peter did exercise the kind of discipline set forth here
(Acts 5:1-11). Paul, the great founder of mixed congregations in Gentile
cities, also wrote of the principle of excommunication (vss. 17-18 cf. 1
Cor. 5:3-5, 9-13; 2 Cor. 13:1-3). It is likely that the condemnation of
the transgressor in vs. 17 came from the later church, as Jesus' own
attitude to similar people was quite different. The church through the
ages, nonetheless, has latched on to the power of excommunication as its
prime means of keeping its members in line. Today, that power is virtually
ineffective in disciplining recalcitrant members. When such church fights
occur, people usually just go away mad. Conflicts still divide the church,
but the only people now banished from exercising their formal functions are
clergy who transgress.
The core of the passage, however, is in vss. 19-20. It is likely that this
tradition can be traced to Jesus himself. In fact, it may have come
originally from an earlier Jewish saying which found its way into the
Mishnah as a commentary on Psalm 1:1. That saying defined the "seat of the
scornful" as two Jews together without the words of Torah between them,
whereas having the Torah between them, they had the *Shekinah* of Yahweh's
presence. This ending to the reading is the better by far as a preaching
copyright - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.