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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 25 - Year B
Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13 - 4:3,7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

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-Five (Proper 20) B


PROVERBS 31:10-31        This is one of the few Old Testament passages
which gives prominence to the role of women in ancient Israel.  As pictured
here, the supremely efficient homemaker receives the praise of her husband
and children.  It is definitely not in keeping with contemporary views
emphasizing equality and the sharing of home and family responsibilities.
Yet there is something very relevant to our time in the last two verses. 

PSALM 1                  This psalm is actually the introduction to the
whole Psalter.  It sets forth the theme of the whole collection of Israel's
religious poetry and hymnody as "a book for the pious."  As one commentator
put it, this psalm speaks to all ages too in saying that we all "must
reckon with the Lord, who is ever mindful of our ways and our deserts."


JAMES 3:13-4:3,7-8a      This little collection of sayings springs straight
from Israel's tradition of moral wisdom.  They may also be a list of
virtues and contrasting vices similar to those found in Greek moral
philosophy of the late centuries BC.  True to Israel's religious heritage,
however, their real source was a spiritual relationship with God, as we
learn in 4:8 "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you."  


MARK 9:30-37             Bound for  Jerusalem, Jesus continued teaching his
disciples that the cross would be his inevitable end.  Now that they knew
he was the Messiah, however, they had another agenda.  Which of them were
to have prominence in the Messiah's kingdom?  It took a child set in their
midst to show them what serving with really meant.  To be with him in his
divinely appointed glory involved humiliation like his.  Naturally they
didn't get it. 

Do we even now?  If that is what is involved, who really wants the cross of
discipleship?  The principle of it all seems so out of touch with our age
with its motifs of selfishness and success.

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

PROVERBS 31:10-31   This is one of the few Old Testament passages which
gives prominence to the role of women in ancient Israel.  As pictured here,
the supremely efficient homemaker receives the praise of her husband and
children.  This view tends to counteract some of the more negative
attitudes found in other passages about women in Proverbs, particularly
those which describe women as luring young men to sexual misadventures.

The poem was written in acrostic form in which the first letter of each
verse follows the order of the Hebrew alphabet.  This is not evident in the
English translation, but had two advantages: the style indicated that the
poet was dealing seriously with the subject; and it aided memorization.

The description of this woman's activities outside her home is not in
keeping with ancient tradition.  A literal reading of vss.16, 18 and 24
depict her as one who plays a significant role in the economic world.  Her
tasks, however, seem related to normal household duties such as weaving
(vs.19) and the making of fine clothes for her family and for sale (vss.19,
21, 22 and 24).  There is one exception: vs16 shows her engaged in a real
estate transaction in order to plant a vineyard.  This would have been her
husband's responsibility, not hers.

The passage is definitely not in keeping with contemporary views
emphasizing gender equality and the sharing of home and family
responsibilities.  Yet there is something very relevant for our time in the
last two verses.  It can be used for a sermon bringing out the essential
necessity of improving the role of women in the social, political and
economic life of every community.  Asked why so many radical feminists
arose within the Jewish community, a Jewish colleague replied
enigmatically, "A woman rules supreme in every Jewish home."  When pressed
to explain, he would not elaborate any further.

This reading has been used as part of a eulogy at a devout Christian
woman's funeral service.  It is questionable whether that is a legitimate
use of scripture for such an occasion.  It ranks with the passage from
Ecclesiasticus 44: "Let us now praise famous men and our father who begat
them."


PSALM 1   This psalm forms the introduction to the whole Psalter.  Although
some scholars prefer to limit it as the introduction to the first
collection (Pss. 1-41),it sets forth the theme of the several collections
as "a book for the pious."  Its Hebrew vocabulary as well as its theme come
from a time when zeal for the study of the law was paramount in Israel.
This would indicate the period of Ezra, (5th - 4th centuries BCE) to whose
influence it shows some indebtedness.  However, it could be as late as the
time when wisdom and the law were equated in the late Greek period about
the end of the 3rd century BCE.

The "blessed" (Heb. = *'esher*) of the opening line conveys more than
happiness, but a sense of being right with God and with the world.  This
gives rise to a certain condescension toward others who do not meditate
constantly on the law.  The image of a tree by a stream and thus well
watered would have been a powerful one in the dry climate of Israel.  The
contrasting image of the wicked who is "like chaff which the wind drives
away" only reinforces its effectiveness.

In vs.5 yet another image depicts the eschatological day of judgment when
Yahweh will separate the righteous from the wicked.  A similar image occurs
frequently in the OT prophets and in NT parables of judgment (cf. Matthew
25).  While having a negative connotation, this still must be considered a
significant element of the Christian as well as the Jewish tradition.  As
one commentator put it, the psalm speaks to all ages too in saying that we
all "must reckon with the Lord, who is ever mindful of our ways and our
deserts."

In different times and for different traditions, such issues assume greater
importance than at other times and for other traditions.  The final image
in vs.5 is more comforting for the religiously devout.  It could have been
drawn from the exclusive temple Court of Israel where only circumcised
males, *b'nai b'rith* ("sons of the covenant"), were admitted after having
purified themselves according to the prescribed holiness code.  Extensive
water works in Jerusalem such as the pools of Bethesda and Siloam made
provision for this ritual necessity.

The current debate about the appropriate trinitarian formula to be used in
baptism could well be regarded as a counterpart to this judgmental process.
As vs.6 of the psalm indicates from a Christian perspective, how a believer
relates to God and neighbour, and shows this in his/her behaviour may be of
greater importance to God than whatever rituals he/she may perform.


JAMES 3:13 - 4:3,7-8a   In his excellent study, *The Way of Wisdom,* the
late Professor R.B.Y. Scott described the international context of wisdom
literature found in many ancient Middle Eastern cultures.  He noted that OT
Wisdom bore little that was distinctively drawn from the background of the
Law and the Prophets.  This little collection of sayings springs straight
from Israel's tradition of moral wisdom within the broad spectrum of
humanistic insights.  Behind these lay a long history of lay folk wisdom
about human experience and relationships. Others have seen in this passage
a list of virtues and contrasting vices similar to those found in Greek
moral philosophy of the late centuries BCE.  Whatever their source and true
to Israel's religious heritage, they had been filtered through a spiritual
relationship with God, as we learn in 4:8a "Draw near to God, and he will
draw near to you."  

The closest parallel to James' moral guidance for everyday living may be
found in the ethical teachings of the apocryphal book *Testaments of the
Twelve Patriarchs.*  As H.C. Key proposed in his introduction to this
document (*The Old Testament Pseudepigraphia, Vol. 1: Apocalytpic
Literature and Testaments.* James H. Charlesworth, editor. London: Dartman,
Longman & Todd, 1983), it was probably written in Greek from Syria during
the Ptolemaic period in the early 2nd century BCE.  Rather than stress
obedience to the Law as did the Essenes and the Pharisees, it presented a
more universal humanist ethic similar to that of the Stoics.  One of the
highest virtues of this book is brotherly love which emphasized the
negative and harmful consequences of hatred to one's brother.  Key also
shows how *The Testaments* regarded the  Law as "a virtual synonym for
wisdom."

If this analysis is accurate, this reading from James shows very great
similarity to that late Jewish document, *The Testament of the Twelve
Patriarchs.*  Wisdom, not the Law, receives primacy of place in this
passage.  Human motivation and relationships receive similar emphasis.
Moral conflict exists, James scolds, between the ways of the world and the
way of God (4:4).  He reaffirmed this distinction with an appeal to
scripture (vs.5), but the text has yet to be found in either the OT, the
Apocrypha or any other known Jewish writing.  He follows this with another
quotation from Proverbs 3:34 as it is found in the LXX.  Vs.7 is very close
to three different quotations from *The Testament of the Twelve
Patriarchs.* (Cf. Naphtali 8:4; Simeon 3:5; Benjamin 5:2).

Nonetheless, this least Christological of NT passages does recognize that
God's grace is the source of moral victory in the struggles of every day
life.  This he summarizes in what may be the one preachable text of the
whole passage in vs.8.  It expresses the same deep piety characteristic of
earlier Wisdom literature.  The devotions of Christians and Jews alike
would be the poorer if this text and counterparts in the Psalms did not
exist.


MARK 9:30-37   Bound for  Jerusalem, Jesus continued teaching his disciples
that the cross would be his inevitable end.  Now that they knew he was the
Messiah, however, they had another agenda.  Which of them were to have
prominence in the Messiah's kingdom?  It took a child set in their midst to
show them what serving with really meant.  To be with him in his divinely
appointed glory involved humiliation like his.  Naturally they didn't get
it. 

Do we even now?  If that is what is involved, who really wants the cross of
discipleship?  The principle of it all seems so out of touch with our age
with its motifs of selfishness and success.

As this analysis is bring composed, a lively discussion is being carried on
in the public media and on the Internet.  One of the communications I
received came from the moderator of a contemplative faith-sharing forum who
had been a teacher in Roman Catholic schools and colleges.  He began a
discussion on the recent Declaration by the Congregation For The Doctrine
of The Faith of the Roman Catholic Church, *"Dominus Iesus" on the Unicity
and Salvific Universality Of Jesus Christ and the Church*.  He said:

     "By now, I'm sure most of you have heard that the Vatican has
     come out with a statement to the effect that the Roman Catholic
     Church is the one true Church established by Christ, and the only
     one capable of guaranteeing the fullness of salvation.  This is
     not a new teaching.  The Vatican II documents said the same, as
     did the new Catechism, only Vatican II was much more affirming of
     the work of the Spirit in other Christian and non-Christian
     traditions.  The Council also had a gentler, more inviting and
     dialogical tone to it.

     "One reason for the document was that Catholic leadership was
     upset with some bishops referring to Protestant Churches as
     Sister Churches, and wanted to make it clear that the Catholic
     Church was the Mother Church and they the Daughters.  Ugghh!

     "I deeply regret this move by my Church!  I'm not sure what good
     will come from it except to give the Catholic "Right" more fuel
     for their arrogance and triumphalism.  It will also create
     hardships in ecumenical dialogue, and that is lamentable."

Anyone who would counter the Roman Catholic Church's statement by making a
similar claim for our own faith tradition would so well to read again the
words Mark attributed to Jesus in this lectionary passage.  Faith is not
about doctrine or power or privilege in God's sight, this passage quoted
Jesus as saying.  It is about service to the point of sacrifice in his
example.  This can be equally effectively expressed in individual
experience and action as in denominational attitudes, actions and public
declarations.  Most of us will never have the opportunity to formulate our
denomination's stance on any given issue.  Each one of us every day will
have the chance to show our neighbours how the sacrificial love of God in
Christ can bring reconciliation to this strife-torn world.  We can do this
clearly only with the greatest of humility, as Jesus did with the little
child he set among the disciples. 
      
                         
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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