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Introduction To The Scripture For Ash Wednesday - Years A, B, and C
Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; II Corinthians 5:20(b)- 6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
alt - Isaiah 58:1-12

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured 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'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ash Wednesday - Years A, B, and C


JOEL 2:1-2,12-17.             Joel's prophecies reflect a time when the
priesthood of the Second Temple late in the Persian period about 400 BCE. 
A plague of locusts, either actual or a metaphor for an invading army,
appeared as a warning of a day of judgment coming to Judah and Jerusalem. 
The second part of the reading proclaim a call to repentance ending with a
promise of forgiveness if the appropriate liturgical practices were
followed.


ISAIAH 58:1-12                (Alternate) A prophet among Second Isaiah's
disciples defines the contrast between appropriate and false fasting as a
valid expression of repentance.  


PSALM 51:1-17                 Contrary to its superscript this psalm has
nothing to do with David's adulterous relationship with Bathsheba.  Nor
does it validate the doctrine of original sin.  Yet it does express  an
exceptionally well the humility that must accompany a true confession of
the sin of which we are all guilty.


2 CORINTHIANS 5:20b-6:10      So why are we recipients of the grace that
recreates us a new beings in Christ? We have been redeemed so that in every
situation we face, we may witness to what Christ has done for us and will
do for all who put their trust in him.  More than that, we are to help
others come into the same living relationship with God that we now enjoy. 
Here Paul states how he saw his role - and ours - as an ambassador for
Christ in all situations.  


MATTHEW 6:1-6,16-21           Jesus sarcastically condemns the ostentatious
piety of almsgiving and fasting as utter hypocrisy.  He balances this
sarcasm by telling how private religious practices produce a more effective
way to express a sincere relationship with God.


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:


JOEL 2:1-2,12-17   This virtually unknown prophet is often associated with
the 8th century prophet Amos because of the similarity between Joel 3:16-18
and Amos 1:2, 9:13.  Most scholars regard Joel as a representative of a
much later time.  His prophecies relate largely to the Second Temple and
the dominant role of the priesthood in the leadership of the nation, a
characteristic of the late Persian period c. 400 BCE.  
     
As it now stands, the book has been said to be the work of several authors. 
The first part, 1:1-2:17 appears to be the work of the prophet whose name
the whole work bears.  A plague of locusts had dealt a devastating blow to
the land's productivity.  Whether the plague is an actual natural disaster
or a  metaphorical reference to an invasion has never been entirely clear. 
Either way, such calamities could only be interpreted in moral terms.  In
this passage Joel issues a dire warning that the Day of the Lord is at hand
(2:1-2).  As elsewhere in OT prophetic oracles, this image of "the Day of
the Lord" can only be interpreted as Yahweh's judgment in all its severity.

Vss. 12-17 proclaims a call to repentance.  Appropriately, it is the
epistle for Ash Wednesday in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. 
Mendelssohn set this appeal to magnificent music in his oratorio *Elijah.*
But the call to repentance is not without hope, although how Yahweh will
respond is uncertain (vs. 14).  As might be expected in an era of priestly
dominance, the prophet calls for special sacrificial offerings, community
worship, fasting and priestly intercessions.  These liturgical acts imply
that Yahweh's mercy will be extended to all who hold to the traditional
faith and religious practices of Israel.  

 
ISAIAH 58:1-12   (Alternate) Usually attributed to the group of prophets
(or possibly a single person) known as Third Isaiah, this passage defines
the contrast between appropriate and false fasting as an expression of
repentance.  

As the spokesperson for Yahweh, the prophet first challenges the people
concerning their transgressions.  Obviously, they see their behaviour
differently from the prophet.  They think of themselves as righteous and
approach Yahweh totally unaware of how Yahweh sees them.  They have fasted
and wonder why Yahweh has not taken account of their worship (vss. 2-3). 
Echoing the justice earlier prophetic voices demanded of true penitents,
the prophet castigates the people for their false humility (vss. 4-6). 
This cry for social justice and concern for the poor foreshadows Jesus'
parable of judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.  

As in the parable, the prophet offers glowing promises of divine favour and
providence following appropriate evidence of compassion for those in need.

The final verse of the passage contains what some scholars have interpreted
as evidence of the conditions prevailing in Jerusalem and Judah at the time
the prophecy was uttered.  The land would be restored and the ruins caused
by the Babylonian invasion (c. 587-586 BCE) rebuilt.  However, this claim
of physical reconstruction appears to be countered by the preceding verses
calling for moral and spiritual regeneration.  


PSALM 51:1-17   Contrary to the superscript at the beginning of this psalm,
there is no reason to assume that the psalm dates from the time of David
(c. 1000 BCE) or this is that king's repentant prayer after his adulterous
assignation with Bathsheba.  Scholars now believe that those words came
form the pious attempt of later generations to attach as much of the
psalter to their legendary tribal hero as a way of increasing his stature
as nation builder at the zenith of his glory.  

Note also that the reading does not include the last two verses of the
psalm, now believed to be a priestly addendum favouring the sacrifices of
the temple as the appropriate form of repentance.  Nonetheless, the psalm
does express in the simplest words what true repentance involves.  First
comes the appeal to God trusting God's infinite mercy and steadfast love. 
Only God's grace can absolve the sinner from whatever transgressions have
been committed.  A prime moral insight is not only to acknowledge one's
sin, but to be aware that even when one commits an offense against one's
fellow humans, one sins against God.  Thus whatever penalty must be paid is
fully justified.  The acceptance of one's sinful nature follows naturally
(vs. 5)

Generations of faithful Jews and Christians have found these words
troubling, to say the least.  Assuming that he was male, what exactly does
the psalmist mean by saying that he was born guilty and was a sinner when
his mother conceived him?  These words differ from the KJV, which seems to
place some of the blame on one's mother: "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity;
in sin did my mother conceive me."  Nothing could be further from the
psalmist's intent than to impugn his mother's moral integrity.  Rather, he
is making the humblest of confessions by accepting what later generations
of Jews thought of as "an evil inclination."  Modern theologians might well
put it as an admission that because we belong to the mammalian species in a
physical sense, we are inherently selfish and driven by uncontrolable
drives to satisfy only the most fundamental biological urges.

The psalmist's lament turns from self-abasement to a recognition of and
appeal for what God can do to restore him to a morally acceptable life.  He
needs to be cleansed, first of all.  There may well be an element of ritual
cleansing in his appeal (vss. 6-9).  Hyssop was used in ritual cleansing of
lepers.  It is conceivable that this confession originated in a time of
sickness when illness was interpreted as having moral implications.  The
prime virtue of the restored penitent, of course, is a pure heart and a
righteous spirit.  The lament ends typically with a vow to make a
thanksgiving offering in the presence of a congregation of fellow
worshippers.  

This is about as far as Jewish prophetic thought could go toward what Paul
defined as justification.  The last two verses of the psalm deliberately
contradict the earlier plea of the repentant soul that the only sacrifice
acceptable to God is a broken spirit and a contrite heart.  Perhaps a later
editor sought to qualify this revolutionary spirituality to make it less
influential within the priestly tradition of the post-exilic period.


2 CORINTHIANS 5:20b-6:10   So why are we recipients of the grace that
recreates us a new beings in Christ?  We have been redeemed so that in
every situation we face, we may witness to what Christ has done for us and
will do for all who put their trust in him.  More than that, we are to help
others come into the same living relationship with God that we now enjoy.

Behind this ambassadorial mission lay the gospel story of Jesus' own life
so closely related to God that he called God "Father" and so fully obeyed
God's will that he accepted death as a criminal rather than deny this
relationship.  Paul saw his mission and that of all Christians as sharing
in the life and ministry of Christ, making known through all of our
relationships with others in every circumstance of life, the full quality
and character of the love of God for sinners like himself.  So in 6:1 "we
work together with him."

Much can be made of the term "ambassador." (5:20)  The Greek verb
*presbeuo* ("to act as an ambassador") could be translated as one who
functioned as a messenger or interpreter of the will of the person he/she
represents.  That certainly describes what Paul sought to do as the apostle
to the Gentiles.  Yet he only used the word twice: here and in Ephesians
6:20.  

Like a modern ambassador writing his memoirs after many missions during
critical times, Paul goes on to recite the various circumstances in which
he had carried out his mission.  His use of the first person plural, "we,"
is inclusive because he was commending the performance of his duties to the
Corinthians  with whom he had contended so long and so bitterly.  He saw
them as his fellow workers in Christ's mission to make known the redeeming
love of God to all the world.  It is the forgiven sinner acutely aware of
the grace she/he has received who makes the best evangelist.


MATTHEW 6:1-6,16-21   How do we practice the faith that we have
experienced in coming to know and put our trust in God?  This passage about
how to worship and live as God requires of us presents us with a continual
challenge every worshipper cannot avoid.

If there is any charge against church folk that really sticks, it is
hypocrisy.  Our actions do not always conform to our claims to be Christ's
people.  An old adage condemns us: "Our actions speak so loud that folks
cannot hear what we say."

Encouraging Christian faith depends entirely on trust.  A young student on
a prairie mission field heard from an elder of the church about a popular
preacher who had gone through the neighbourhood attracting many followers
away from other congregations.  "But I wouldn't buy a horse from him," the
elder said.

There was biting sarcasm in Jesus' words about those who ostentatiously
gave alms, said loud prayers in public, or fasted with great fanfare.  God
sees what is in each human heart; and God forgives the humble penitent. 
True faith and spirituality comes from setting one's priorities in keeping
with God's loving will and quietly pursuing them without regard to how
others react.  That was the secret of Jesus' spiritual life.  Ours can be
no less, whatever that may bring.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004-2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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