The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (email@example.com) 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
Ordinary Twenty-Two (Proper 17) B
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 Biblical scholars still debate what this beautiful
collection of poems with vividly erotic metaphors really is. Is it dramatic
dialogue? Is it a manual for love within the marriage relationship? Is it
an allegory of God's love for Israel or Christ's love for the church? Or is
it a celebration of God's gift to us of human sexuality? Attributed to
Solomon, it actually comes from Hebrew Wisdom literature of a much later
Psalm 45:1-2,6-9 This unusual psalm takes the form of an ode by a
court poet for a royal marriage. More secular than religious, it appears to
refer to a princess of a foreign country wedding an unnamed king of Israel.
James 1:17-27 Because it makes few references to Jesus Christ
and the identity of its author is suspect, the Letter of James was one of
the very last to be included in the Christian scriptures. It has more of
the flavour of a moral essay attributed to James, the brother of Jesus. It
may well be a collection of his sayings compiled after his martyrdom or a
formal letter encouraging its recipients to live in a strictly ethical and
deliberately spiritual way at a time of threatened persecution.
Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23 In this biting rebuke of the Pharisees for their
excessive attention to purification rituals, Jesus defined what true piety
is: commitment from the heart dedicated to loving service of God and for
others. Quoting from Isaiah 29:13, he condemns their hypocrisy.
The explicit details of Jewish purification rites in vss. 3-5 tell us that
Mark had a Gentile audience in mind. The Pharisees and the Christian
community were in conflict in the latter decades of the 1st century when
Christians no longer mainly Jewish.
SONG OF SOLOMON 2:8-13: Biblical scholars still debate what this
beautiful collection of poems with vividly erotic metaphors really is. Is
it dramatic dialogue? Is it a manual for love within the marriage
relationship? Is it an allegory of God's love for Israel or Christ's love
for the church? Or is it a celebration of God's gift to us of human
*The Oxford Companion to the Bible* identifies five different ways it which
it has been interpreted through the centuries: A popular Jewish view
regarded it as an allegory of the relationship between Yahweh and Israel.
Christians reinterpreted this as the relationship between Christ and the
Church. The mediaeval monk, Bernard of Clairvaux, wrote eighty-six sermons
most of which were based on an allegorical interpretation of only the first
Some early Greek versions copied it as a drama with various sections
assigned to specific speakers. This theory was popular in the 19th
century. Others saw it merely as a collection of lyrical love poetry for
which there was ample precedent in other cultures, especially similar
collections in Egyptian and Palestinian literature. Still others believed
it had liturgical origins, while a few felt that due to the absence of any
mention of God, it could be understood as a parable about theological
themes such as Israel's covenant with Yahweh.
Attributed to Solomon, it actually comes from Hebrew Wisdom literature of a
much later date, perhaps from the 5th or 4th centuries BCE. It contains
words derived from both Persian and Aramaic, leading to a similar
conclusion. Its subject matter and vivid imagery made it a popular
teaching tool. At the end of the 1st century CE when the Hebrew canon was
being finalized, some rabbis objected to its inclusion. One of the great
rabbinical leaders of the time is said to have made a persuasive and
memorable speech likening it to the Holy of Holies. Another rabbi was
quoted as saying that anyone sang it as a secular piece fit only for
banquet halls or taverns, that person had no place in the world to come.
It has been used in the celebration of Passover in some Jewish traditions.
The passage selected for the lectionary contains some of the most
imaginative lyrics of the whole book. It depicts youthful, passionate
romance in full flower. Two voices lend credibility to the dramatic
interpretation. Vss. 8-9 are in the voice of the young woman hearing the
approach of her lover. Vss. 10-13 are composed as if she was hearing him
plead with her to escape with him to the countryside vibrant with the
sounds and smells of spring. Because the poet had such sensitivity to how
the young woman in love might feel and respond, one has to wonder if the
author was a woman.
PSALM 45:1-2,6-9: It is a pity that this psalm selection is so truncated.
It is unusual in that it takes the form of an ode by a court poet for a
royal marriage. Vs. 1 makes it evident that this was the poet's intent.
The superscription indicates that it was created by or for the Korahites,
one of the families of Levitical priests from the Hebron area. In post-
exilic times, they became one of the two great guilds of temple singers.
Pss. 42, 44-49, 84-85 and 87-88 may have come from their hymn book.
Despite frequent references to Yahweh, the content of the psalm are more
secular than religious. They refer specifically to a princess of a foreign
country wedding the king of Israel. It may even have been the queen or a
princess from Ophir, possibly in Arabia or East Africa (vs. 9). The first
few verses sing the praises of the king. Then the poet turns attention to
the beautiful princess who is leaving her father's house (vs. 10) for a new
lord (vs. 1l). The wedding procession has already begun to make it s way
to the king's palace (vs. 12b-15). For its final paean, the poet returns
to the king whose marriage to this princess is for one purpose alone: to
beget more heirs so that his dynasty will continue. As we have seen from
the Davidic narratives in 2 Samuel, the times required the birthing of many
While we may react rather negatively to the traditional patriarchal
attitudes of this psalm, we should not completely disregard its
significance to the Hebrew tradition. Its inclusion in the Psalter may
well have resulted from an allegorized interpretation. The Targum of this
psalm, an Aramaic interpretative paraphrase in late pre-Christian times,
treated it as an allegory of the marriage of the Messiah to his bride
Israel. Early Christian interpreters also followed this approach as
Revelation 22:17 appears to suggest, except that the bride in this latter
instance is the Church.
JAMES 1:17-27 The Letter of James is one of the anomalies of the New
Testament. Because it makes few references to Jesus Christ and the
identity of its author is suspect, it was one of the very last to be
included in the Christian scriptures. It has more of the flavour of a
moral essay attributed to James, the brother of Jesus. Of course, this
claim has been disputed almost from the time the church set about the task
of defining the NT canon. As recently as the 1960s scholars argued that
the excellence of its Greek and its lack of interest in issues with James
was concerned made it unlikely to have been written by James or before 130-
150 CE. On the other hand, more recent studies by several scholars and the
discovery of an ossuary bearing the name "James, son of Joseph, brother of
Jesus" has reopened a vigorous debate. It may well be a collection of the
sayings of James compiled after his martyrdom (ca 62 CE) as a letter
encouraging its recipients to live in a strictly ethical and deliberately
spiritual way at a time of threatened persecution.
Despite certain inconsistencies, its language is fairly good Greek with a
few Semitic phrases here and there. It also has the form of a literary
letter typical of the 1st century introducing and developing specific
themes. In 5:12 it appears to repeat one saying which Matthew 5:34-37
attributes to Jesus himself. There are also several other indirect
references to well-known teachings of Jesus. However, the letter lacks any
knowledge of the teaching of Paul, but does include some references to
Palestinian culture. Scholarly estimates of its origin and date place it
in Judea in the 60s CE immediately preceding the Jewish revolt against Rome
that ended in the fall of Jerusalem.
This passage contains several good isolated preaching texts or themes: vss.
17-18; 19-21; 22-25; 26-27. On the whole, it presents the view that those
who belong to the believing community must avoid adopting the ethics of its
oppressors. It reflects a dependence on God and strict adherence to
Judaeo-Christian morality. Like so much other counsel of the NT in the
gospels and in the Pauline corpus, it encourages the practice of ethical
standards which separate Christians from their easy-going cultural milieu.
No permissive "everybody does it" attitude can be found throughout the
letter. This high moral standard is most clearly defined in the very last
clause in vs. 27.
Nor is this strict emphasis on moral behaviour isolated from the ultimate
divine purpose. The idea of the Christian community as "the first fruits"
of a new creation comes out in vs. 18 and reverberates though the whole
passage. Yet this does not inhibit a life of gracious freedom. Rather,
those who live in obedience to this strict moral standard find that it
liberates and blesses (vs. 25). One might well compare this passage with
the opening declarations of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. Was this
the "word" and "law" to which James referred in vss. 22-25?
While Luther, immersed as he was in Pauline theology, condemned the Letter
of James as "that wretched book," a thousand years earlier Augustine had
given a more balanced view: "That which is called the Christian Religion
existed among the ancients, and never did not exist. From the beginning of
the human race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time the true
religion, which already existed, began to be called Christianity." These
few excerpts from the religious environment of Judean Christianity in the
60s CE reflect its close identity with Judaism. This was also the
religious environment in which Jesus and his brother had been raised. At
the time this letter was composed Christianity may have been regarded as a
Jewish sect. The high Christology found in Paul and the later Christian
scriptures had not yet filtered down to the birthplace of the new tradition
where James was clearly the leader of the community of Jesus' disciples.
MARK 7:1-8,14-15,21-23 If James represents a Judaic Christian
perspective, this confrontation with the Pharisees represents a tradition
emanating from a very different milieu. In this biting rebuke of the
Pharisees for their excessive attention to purification rituals, Jesus
defined what true piety is. Apparently this tradition was sufficiently
well known that Matthew used it in his gospel (Matt. 15:1-20).
We can tell from the explicit details of Jewish purification rites in vss.
3-5 that Mark had a Gentile audience in mind. Most probably, the gospel
was written for a Christian community made up primarily of Gentile
believers who knew little about the strict Levitical Code which the
Pharisees strove so hard to impose on 1st century Judaism and the new sect
of Jesus' disciples. A note in *The Complete Gospels* (Polebridge Press,
1992) suggests that in this passage the Pharisees are stock characters
acting as Jesus' main antagonists while the disciples act as surrogates for
Mark's audience. In vss. 3-5, he addressing his audience directly on the
assumption that they will not comprehend the Jewish rules of food
The incident took place in Galilee where Jews wrestled with strong Roman
and Hellenist cultural influences. Not far from Nazareth in the Galilean
hills, Herod Antipas had his capital at Sepphoris until he constructed a
new capital city at Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. The ancient trade and
military route from Damascus to the Mediterranean passed through the heart
of this same region. The Pharisees had reason to fear these foreign
threats to Jewish religious traditions. Raised in this cosmopolitan
milieu, Jesus was bound to have more open attitudes than the stricter
Judaism that the Pharisees and their Judean followers represented.
Not only that, but the Pharisees were expert at interpreting the law to
suit their own comforts. Quoting from Isaiah 29:13, Jesus condemned their
hypocrisy (vss. 6-7). Mark probably knew the Greek version, for that is
what he quoted, although not exactly. Isaiah's prophetic outburst must
have been well know in the Christian community because Paul quoted Isa.
13:14 in 1 Cor. 1:19.
Piety that is self-serving and corrupting still exists in every religious
tradition, Christians not excepted. In both Canada and the United States,
this appears to be returning as a particularly prominent characteristic of
pious persons bent on achieving and retaining political power. In the
1950s, every corporate executive on the rise made his religious
affiliations as well known as his service and country club associations.
One widely used church fund raising method sought out the wealthiest or
most prominent person in a congregation, regardless of his participation in
the life of the church, and used him to influence others to give more
generously than they might have done without his leadership.
True piety, Jesus said, means commitment from the heart totally dedicated
to loving service of God and for others (vss. 20-23). This attitude more
accurately represented the sense of communal justice and mutual well-being
so characteristic of the great prophets of Israel. Neither they nor Jesus
had any desire to abrogate the covenant law. On the other hand, they did
not regard legalistic minutiae as the be all and end all of faithfulness.
Theirs was a more generous, more compassionate morality which found its
strength in a committed relationship to God expressed in thankful worship
and service. This should be our moral standard too.
copyright - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.