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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 23 - Year B
Proverbs 22:1-2,8-9,22-23; Psalm 25; James 2:1-10,14-17; Mark 7:24-37

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	
Ordinary Twenty-Three (Proper 18) B


PROVERBS 22:1-2,8-9,22-23:   The Book of Proverbs consists of Jewish wisdom
sayings and poems collected and edited by some unknown author(s), probably
in the 5th century BC or later.  It may well have been educational document
intended to guide serious students along paths of righteousness,
intelligence and human fulfilment.  The emphasis on social justice found in
Israel's great prophets, especially Isaiah and Amos, stands out clearly in
these selected doublets. 


PSALM 125:               This is another of the Songs of Ascent, most
likely sung by pilgrims approaching Jerusalem and the temple.  Mountains do
indeed surround Jerusalem as v.2 states.  This provides a fitting symbol
for the protection God provides for Israel.  The rest of the psalm restates
Israel's religious tradition: righteousness that fulfils the nation's
covenant relationship with God.


JAMES 2:1-10,14-17:      A rhetorical question in v.1 states the thesis of
this brief homily: favoring the wealthy creates social injustice.  The next
three verses illustrate the issue.  Vv.5-7 sets out God's will in this
regard in another series of rhetorical questions.  James puts this in a
scriptural context in vv.8-11 and then summarizes his argument in vv.12-13. 
Beginning in vv. 14, James deals with the implications for faith of this
ethical principle.  Faith that does not produce good works is a false
faith.  An intellectual religious commitment without corresponding changes
to one's moral life cannot be a saving faith.


MARK 7:24-37             Two healing miracles, at least one of them on
foreign territory, give rise to instructions from Jesus to keep his
presence and his power secret.  The attempt failed, as v.36 points out. 

************

PROVERBS 22:1-2,8-9,22-23   The Book of Proverbs consists of Jewish wisdom
sayings and poems collected and edited by some unknown author(s), probably
in the 5th century BC or later.  It may well have been educational document
intended to guide serious students along paths of righteousness,
intelligence and human fulfilment.  During the post-exilic Persian, and
especially the Hellenistic, domination of Israel, there was strong pressure
on Jewish young people to adopt syncrenistic religious and cultural
practices.  The ancestral traditions needed to be reinforced more
effectively.  This became the primary purpose of the Book of Proverbs.

As a teaching compendium, the redactors intended students to learn and
recite by rote these doublets and poems in much the same way that we
learned children's nursery rhymes.  Its collection came long after the use
of these sayings had been orally transmitted from generation to generation.
The book contains unsurpassed insights into human affairs of all kinds,
especially in relation to social and religious matters.  Attributed to
Solomon, many of these sayings may well have been common currency in his
time (10th century BCE).  Their enduring moral and spiritual value is
attested by their use in the oral traditions of many religious cultures
until recent times.  Sadly, however, as the knowledge of and reading of
scripture has declined in western civilization, so has the use of this
proverbial wisdom. 

These excerpts actually represent the end of a second collection of
proverbs and the beginning of a third which scholars have identified within
the book.  The break appears at 22:17 as the title phrase, "The words of
the wise..." and the succeeding lines of poetry indicate (vss.17-23). 
There is reason to believe that this third collection is based on a very
similar Egyptian document dated about 1000 BCE.

The emphasis on social justice found in Israel's great prophets, especially
Isaiah and Amos, stands out clearly in these selected doublets.  A strong
element of legalistic righteousness has been blended in to create a sense
of moral justification for good behavior resulting in good fortune.


PSALM 125   As we have seen in previous readings, this is another of the
Songs of Ascent (Pss. 120-134) most likely sung by pilgrims approaching
Jerusalem and the temple.  Mountains do indeed surround Jerusalem as v.2
states.  Mount Zion is only one of several on which Jerusalem is situated.
Originally, it was the location of the fortress which David successfully
captured (2 Samuel 5:6-10).  Solomon's temple stood, not on Mount Zion, but
on Mount Moriah, where the Islamic Dome of the Rock is now situated. 

In later Hebrew prophesy and poetry, Zion became a symbolic name for
Yahweh's holy city in which the temple stood.  This provided a fitting
symbol for Yahweh's protection  of Israel just as the mountains surrounding
Jerusalem served as sentinels for the city's security. 

The rest of the psalm, composed in post-exilic times, restates Israel's
religious tradition: righteousness fulfils the nation's covenant
relationship with Yahweh.  Two distinct groups of people are identified:
those who put their trust in Yahweh and those who have associated with the
godless.  The phrase "the sceptre of wickedness" in vs.3 hints that the
latter group may have included some powerful Israelites who may have
conspired with foreign pagans thereby endangering the nation's
independence. 

Recently, a Jewish rabbi described his tradition as a religion of morality.
Many church folk mistakenly define their religious convictions in similar
terms.  But that is not what the Christian scriptures describe.  Much as we
respect our Jewish neighbors, mere morality doesn't make it.  Our tradition
rests on repentance for moral failure to which all succumb, the gracious
forgiveness of God and the renewal of life acceptable to God through faith
in Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate in human form and a present power in
us through the gift of the Holy Spirit.


JAMES 2:1-10,14-17   A rhetorical question  in v.1 in the NSRV states the
thesis of this brief homily: favoring the wealthy creates social injustice.
Most translations do not render this opening sentence as a question. 
Original Greek manuscripts had no punctuation and used only capital
letters.  Thus it is a moot point whether or not this was a question or a
strong admonition to the recipients of the letter.

The first segment of this reading, however, has the form of a sermon
regarding what undoubtedly was a serious problem in early Christian
communities.  Acts 4:32-5:11 gives a specific instance of the possible
dangers wealthy believers brought to any congregation. 

The great prophets of Israel, Amos, Isaiah and Micah had railed against the
same economic inequities and injustices.  As the Deuteronomists clearly
emphasized in their interpretation of the Mosaic Law, exilic and post-
exilic Israel faced similar problems.  In this they differed not a whit
from modern western civilization which gave rise to the inequities of
capitalist economists and socialist class struggles for a more equitable
distribution of wealth.

The reality still exists for contemporary Christian churches.  In many
Ontario towns and cities, different congregations of the same denomination
have been identified with wealthier professional and managerial classes or
the laboring classes who live in different parts of the same community with
different standards of housing. 

One young minister and his bride were tracked down at their supposedly
secret honeymoon location and invited to appear for an interview for a post
in a wealthy church.  They were hosted and feasted far above what they
could afford.  After the interview they were promised that following a
suitable period as assistant to the senior minister, they could have any
pastorate they chose.  They felt that all that was required of them was due
deference to the rich and influential members of this particular
congregation.  The young couple refused the opportunity without regret.

Vv.5-7 sets out God's will in this regard in another series of rhetorical
questions.  Christian are called to demonstrate a different set of values.
James puts this in a scriptural context in vv.8-11 and then summarizes his
argument in vv.12-13.  Injustice brings judgment, not on the basis of human
economic standards, but on God's sense of equity. 
     
Beginning in vv.14, James deals with the implications for faith of this
ethical principle.  Faith that does not produce good works is a false
faith.  An intellectual religious commitment without corresponding changes
to one's moral life cannot be a saving faith.

Some interpreters have drawn a sharp distinction between Paul's theology of
grace alone and James' theology of faith plus works.  Others have made a
similar distinction between Judaism and Christianity.  These are both false
antitheses.  The debate which both Paul and James engage in can be found
also in pre-Christian Jewish literature and in the writings of Philo of
Alexandria.  All held that both faith and works of righteousness
contributed to salvation.

Contrary to what some claim, Paul did not proclaim a doctrine of
justification by faith alone without any subsequent response to demonstrate
that justification had brought about changed behavior.  In fact, Paul
clearly rejected such a view as blasphemous (Rom. 3:8 and 6:1-2).  Nor did
he condemn the "Juadaizers" of Galatia, or even Peter, for holding a
similar viewpoint.  If there is any discrepancy between Paul and James, it
is between a false Paulinism and James' position.  A distortion of what
Paul taught about the sufficiency of grace that results in moral
transformation may well have been evident in the communities for which this
letter was written.  B.S. Easton presents a detailed exegesis of this issue
in "The Interpreter's Bible", vol.12, 40-42.


MARK 7:24-37   Two healing miracles, at least one of them on foreign
territory, gave rise to instructions from Jesus to keep his presence and
his power secret. The attempt failed, as v. 36 points out. 

Tyre was an important Mediterranean seaport in what is we know as Lebanon.
Originally an island, it was connected to the mainland by a great mole
built by Alexander during his siege of the city in 333 BCE.  Early in his
ministry, Jesus had preached to people from there (Mark 3:8).  Thus, it is
fair to speculate that he may have gone there to visit someone he knew.  
In any small community, gossip would have made his presence known,
especially if his host had been particularly impressed with his teaching
and honoured by his visit.  Jesus, on the other hand, wanted to keep his
visit a secret (vs.24b), but to no avail.

We can also assume that Jesus' host was a Jew, but his neighbors included
many Gentiles, as was the Syrophoenecian woman who came to him pleading for
her daughter to be healed.  Neither the disease nor the demon which,
according to contemporary belief, had caused it, nor the manner of healing
interested Mark.  He chose to emphasize the conversation between the woman
and Jesus.  The elements of the pericope may have come from tradition; the
actual words were from Mark who had his audience in mind.

The narrative reveals a particular aspect of Jesus' humanity: his
willingness to be convinced, even by a Gentile woman, that God's saving
love extended beyond the covenanted people of Israel.  This could well have
been a significant issue for Mark's audience, particularly if it was a mix
of Jews and Gentiles. 

The second miracle (vss. 31-35) occurred after Jesus had returned from
Tyre.  It is curious that he "went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of
Galilee, in the region of Decapolis."  That was quite a voyage to make on
foot. Sidon in north of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast, about 40 miles
northwest of the Sea of Galilee.. Decapolis lies southeast of the Sea of
Galilee across the Jordan valley. He certainly was taking the long road
home.  Or Mark may not have known the geography of Galilee very well. 
Another possibility presents itself in this strange route: Mark may be
pointing out for the benefit of his audience that it was not unusual for
Jesus, a Jew from Galilee, to traverse and minister in Gentile territory.

The central message of the pericope, however, is the miracle itself and the
effort Jesus made to keep it secret.  This has important links to the motif
in Mark's Gospel which scholars have designated as "the messianic secret."
This interpretation actually deals with the various levels of redaction
through which the oral tradition passed in being transmitted and ultimately
recorded for reading or hearing by future generations.  However explicitly
Mark may have described the incident, we have no way of knowing how Jesus
healed this deaf and dumb man.  Nor does that really matter. 

The pericope presents the modern reader with the same question it posed for
the original audience for whom Mark wrote: who is this Jesus of Nazareth?
The miracles which so amazed people then and still trouble us now, probably
for very different reasons, describe transcendent events.  These were not
merely good deeds by an exceptionally skilled, charismatic and caring
healer.  They caused everyone then - and they still cause us - to choose
either to believe or disbelieve that Jesus is as Mark proclaimed in the
very first words of his gospel: "Jesus Christ, the Son of God."
      
                         
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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