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Introduction To The Scripture For The Seventh Sunday After Epiphany - Year B
Isaiah 43:18-25 Psalm 41; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) 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'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Seventh Sunday After Epiphany - Year B


ISAIAH 43:18-25                        This excerpt from one of the many 
prophetic poems contained in Isaiah 40-66 conveys a remarkable message 
from God to the Jews exiled in Babylon.  Despite Israel's sin, especially 
their unwillingness to worship, God was not only going to forgive them, 
but also return them to their homeland.  This message still rings true for 
our time more than 2500 years after it was written by the unknown prophet 
of Israel's exile in Babylon.


PSALM 41.   This trustful prayer by someone who is seriously ill expresses 
the assurance of the psalmist that God will continue to bless him and 
restore his health.  Everyone else expected him to die, but he is 
reassured by his faith that God was pleased with him no matter what may 
have caused his illness.


2 CORINTHIANS 1:18-22                  Scholars believe that over some 
considerable time several difficult pieces of correspondence had been 
melded into what we now know as First and Second Corinthians.  In this 
passage Paul tells the Corinthians that he had always been straightforward 
in sharing the gospel with them.  Proof of this, he claims, is the gift of 
the Holy Spirit which is God's down payment on the life eternal which is 
yet to come because they are "in Christ".
 

MARK 2:1-12                            This delightful incident brings 
together several elements in Mark's story of Jesus' early ministry.  
Crowds followed Jesus everywhere.  Seeing the faith of a paralyzed man's 
friends, Jesus forgave the man's sins.  When the man walked away cured of 
his illness, everyone was amazed.  The scribes, experts in the Jewish law, 
were appalled at what they regarded as blasphemy.  This story confronted a 
critical issue in the Jewish tradition.  Only God can forgive sin.  Mark's 
purpose was to challenge his audience to believe the evidence this 
incident presents.  He told this incident to further his theme that Jesus 
only very gradually revealed who he really was, the Messiah/Christ, the 
Son of God.  


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS

ISAIAH 43:18-25   This excerpt from one of the many prophetic poems 
contained in Isaiah 40-66 conveys a remarkable message from Yahweh to the 
Jews exiled in Babylon.  Despite Israel's sin, especially their 
unwillingness to worship faithfully, Yahweh was not only going to forgive 
them, but also return them to their homeland.

Although it is never mentioned, this startling reversal of fortunes for 
Yahweh's chosen people came about due to the ancient covenant between 
Yahweh and Israel.  Despite Israel's repeated transgressions, Yahweh 
remained faithful.  Yahweh did not overlook Israel's sins.  In fact, vss. 
22-24 reiterates their indictment.  In this poem the prophet does not 
minimize those sins.  Instead he proclaims that the grace of Yahweh 
transcends them.  On this basis he calls on Israel to turn from memory to 
hope.

In ancient times, as in the case today for people, who have been exiled 
from their homelands, there was very little hope of ever returning.  
Indeed, many had become quite comfortable in their new surroundings.  This 
had happened to such an extent that many had turned from Israel's 
traditional mission to worship Yahweh.  Forbidden to offer the sacrifices 
of the temple, they had adopted other religious practices from their 
Babylonians masters.  These were the "iniquities" referred to in vs. 23.  

The prophet's hopes for the future and condemnation for the realities of 
the present stand out in sharp contrast.  Perhaps more surprising is the 
way they are juxtaposed: first the promise, then the censure.  This only 
serves to heighten the emphasis in vs. 25 on the true nature of Yahweh who 
is "blotting out your transgressions for my own sake." The only motivation 
for this dramatic change in the exile's circumstances comes from the 
character of Yahweh whose nature is to forgive.

This message still rings true more than 2500 years after it was written by 
the unknown prophet of Israel's exile in Babylon.  Time and again in 
recent centuries, one so-called Christian nation or another has turned to 
practices totally inimical to the Christian mandate to love God and 
neighbor.  Wars of mass destruction, genocide, racial apartheid, 
exploitive greed, environmental destruction - sins too numerous to mention 
- have carried humanity into distant exile from God.  And still God 
forgives, so that we can always start again on the new path that leads 
through the wilderness and the desert to a providential future.  


PSALM 41   Does anyone ever use the reading from the Psalms as a preaching 
text?  Most of the time these readings are no more than an antiphon to the 
Old Testament lesson.  These two do not often have the same theme at all.  
It would have been better for this psalm to have been associated with last 
week's OT lesson.  This trustful prayer could well have been Naaman's song 
after he had been cured of leprosy.  It is likely, however, that it was 
composed several centuries later in the postexilic period.  

As it stands, the psalm shows distinctive characteristics of wisdom 
literature where sin and sickness were thought to have a direct cause and 
effect relationship.  Indeed, some of its phrases reflect attitudes found 
in Job's antagonists.  For example, the psalmist's confession in vs. 4 
finds a parallel in Elihu's charge in Job 36:7-11.  The mischievous 
visitor in vs. 6 has a counterpart in Job's erstwhile comforters in Job 
2:11.

On the other hand, this prayer by someone who has been seriously ill 
expresses the assurance of the psalmist that God will continue to bless 
him and restore his health.  Everyone else, especially his enemies (vs. 7) 
and even his closest friend (vs. 9), expected him to die (vs. 8).  
Nonetheless he is reassured by his faith that God is pleased with him no 
matter what may have caused his illness (vs. 11).

It is not clear whether "my enemy" in vs. 11b is the illness from which he 
suffered or some opponent who wished for his demise.  At the end of his 
ordeal, he is convinced that his integrity has saved him, not divine 
grace.  The closing benediction probably does not belong to the psalm.  It 
is an editorial conclusion to Book I of the five in the Psalter added for 
liturgical reasons.


2 CORINTHIANS 1:18-22   Scholars believe that over a considerable period 
of time several difficult pieces of correspondence between Paul and the 
Corinthian community had been melded into what we now know as First and 
Second Corinthians.  The sorting out of the various excerpts from the 
different letters is an on-going scholarly problem.  Theories abound as to 
the way in which these excerpts can be fitted together.  On the whole, 
however, the early part of 2 Corinthians (chs. 1-7) appears to deal with 
the resolution of a worsening relationship between Paul and the Corinthian 
community.

It would seem that Paul had made a second visit to Corinth after writing 1 
Corinthians.  This visit is not reported in the version of Paul's journeys 
recorded in Acts.  The reason for the second visit is also unclear, but it 
would appear to have been an unsuccessful attempt at reconciliation with 
those who had questioned his apostolic authority.  

However it may have come about through extensive redaction, the main focus 
of the second letter as it now stands in the canon can be discerned.  The 
main contents of the letter as a whole deal with Paul's opponents, a 
defense of his apostleship and the eschatological hope believers have 
because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Reconciliation between the 
apostle and the Corinthians community dominate the early chapters.  This 
reconciliation reflects the eschatological reconciliation Christ himself 
effected between God and the world and thus gives both shape and purpose 
to the role of Christians as ambassadors for Christ in the world.  Paul's 
apostleship and his relationship with the Corinthians thus acquires its 
authority from the essential relationship of Christ to the world as 
reconciling Savior and Lord.

 In opening words of the letter prior to this passage Paul affirms the 
reconciliation that had ended the conflict he formerly had with the 
Corinthians.  In this brief excerpt he tells them that he had always been 
straightforward in sharing the gospel with them.  Proof of this, he 
claims, is the gift of the Holy Spirit that is God's down payment on the 
life eternal which is yet to come.  The guarantee has been given to them 
because they had been baptized and anointed to symbolize that they are now 
"in Christ".

The key phrases in this passage are in vss. 21-22, "by anointing us, 
putting his seal on us." This may refer to the practice of anointing a 
baptismal candidate with oil after he or she had been baptized.  This 
practice later became a significant part of the sacrament's symbolism, 
especially in the Eastern Orthodox Church.  This anointing confirmed that 
baptized person now belonged to Christ and had received the gift of the 
Holy Spirit through the church.

A seal was also an important instrument in an age when few people could 
read or write.  By means of a seal, usually of wax impressed with an 
embossed signet or ring, a document or other artifact could be 
authenticated.  A deed of property bore a seal, as did an imperial order.  
According to Matthew 27:66, the tomb where Jesus as buried had been 
sealed.  A seal identified the authority of the person who had given the 
order or owned the particular article.  Slaves were often branded with the 
seal of their master.  Baptismal anointing revealed that the Christian now 
belonged to Christ.

Another key word in vs. 22 is the Greek work *arrabon* translated in 
various versions of the NT as "earnest" (KJV), "guarantee" (RSV) or "first 
installment" (NRSV).  Putting those three English words together,*arrabon* 
meant a guarantee by the payment of a first installment that a person was 
in earnest in making a commercial deal such as the purchase of a property 
or a cow.  In this instance, Paul assured the Corinthians that the gift of 
the Holy Spirit to the church was God's guarantee that the full, eternal 
and spiritual life promised in Christ would be available to all who 
believed.  

The metaphor still has considerable power, for our baptism identifies us 
as belonging to Christ and the gift of the Spirit guarantees that we shall 
receive eternal life.  This does not mean, however, that baptism 
automatically assures us of eternal life.  There is no such thing as 
baptismal regeneration.  That is another subject in itself to which this 
passage does not make reference.  The presence of the Holy Spirit, 
however, is the guarantee that this regeneration (sanctification) can take 
place, preparing us here and now for the fully sanctified life to come.


MARK 2:1-12   A childhood memory of a picture in old Sunday church school 
materials came back to me as I read this story.  Time and familiarity with 
the story may have elaborated the scene in my mind.  The artist may also 
have taken considerable liberties in depicting the house and its 
surroundings.

Jesus was seated under the overhanging roof shading the door of a house in 
Capernaum.  The crowd gathered around him was so closely packed that no 
one could approach.  Two of a group of four men had climbed up on the roof 
and were removing the tiles.  Another stood on the ground receiving the 
tiles passed down from above.  The fourth stood beside their friend, rigid 
with paralysis, as he lay on a pallet watching intently.  His face bore a 
look of hope mingled with fear.  

This delightful incident brings together several elements in Mark's story 
of Jesus' early ministry.  Crowds followed Jesus everywhere.  Seeing the 
faith of a paralyzed man's friends, Jesus forgave the man's sins.  When 
the man walked away cured of his illness, everyone was amazed.  The 
scribes, experts in the Jewish law, were appalled at what they regarded as 
blasphemy.  

Vs. 10 contains the significant words of the passage: "But so that you may 
know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins ...."  
This declaration, addressed to the scribes, confronted a critical issue in 
the Jewish tradition.  Only God could forgive sin.  Jesus had claimed the 
divine prerogative.  Mark told this incident to further his theme that 
Jesus only very gradually revealed who he really was, the Messiah/Christ, 
the Son of God.  Mark's purpose was to challenge his audience to believe 
the evidence this incident presents.  

This story ends a whole series of healing miracles which began and ended 
in Capernaum (1:21-2:12).  Without telling us why, Mark shows us that 
Jesus had relocated his ministry to this fishing village on the northwest 
shore of the Sea of Galilee.  It was from there that Jesus called five of 
the disciples.  We might well wonder why.  There were several possible 
reasons.

Through Capernaum ran a major highway, the Via Maris, from the seacoast to 
Damascus and on to the east.  Yet it was far enough away from Tiberias, 
the new, mainly Gentile city to the south where in 25 CE Herod Antipas had 
set up his capital.  Perhaps as a carpenter he had been forced to work on 
the building of that city.  This could have caused Jesus' antipathy toward 
Antipas evident elsewhere in the gospel narrative.  Capernaum also had a 
fairly mixed and stratified population of fishermen, farmers, skilled 
artisans, merchants, tax collectors, etc.  These people struggled to make 
a living from the water and the land, and also from the commerce that the 
trade route yielded.  This location also gave Jesus access to nearby 
villages and to the hill country to the north and west where he could 
carry on his ministry among receptive listeners without too much 
interference from political and religious authorities.  

Mark made it plain that the scribes and Pharisees were never far away.  
They were the antagonists who created the conflict that gave Mark's story 
power.  That is not to say that their opposition to Jesus was fictitious.  
Mark was a good storyteller, however, and the movement of his gospel 
depended on the continual and growing presence of those hostile to what 
Jesus sought to do in proclaiming by word and deed the inauguration of 
God's reign of love.  It was this conflict that led eventually to 
Jerusalem and the cross.  Behind this story lay the prophetic message of 
Second Isaiah and the figure of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13-
53:12.

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



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