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Introduction To The Scripture For The Sixth Sunday After Epiphany - Year C
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; I Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

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	
The Sixth Sunday After Epiphany - Year C


JEREMIAH 17:5-10         It is likely that in these few verses we have a
separate prophecy and wisdom proverb.  In verse 5-8, Jeremiah may be
condemning the alliance King Zedekiah made with the Egyptians which brought
on the fatal invasion by the Babylonians (589-586 BC).  Note the strong
similarity of this passage with Psalm 1 whose author may well have taken
his inspiration from here.
     
Verse 9-10 is a proverb which could stand alone having no relation to what
precedes or follows it. 


PSALM 1                  More an introduction the Book of Psalms, this
psalm portrays the kind of person who uses the whole collection as a
spiritual handbook.  It may well have been written especially for this
purpose when a pious editor had copied by hand and edited all the psalms
that follow it.


1 CORINTHIANS 15:12-20   Here Paul begins his remarkable proclamation of
what the resurrection of Jesus means for all faithful Christians.
Undoubtedly he was responding to a serious conflict within the Corinthian
community about this basic element of the faith.
     
Since New Testament times, the whole passage has brought much comfort to
those confronting their own death or the death of loved ones.  It needs to
be studied intensively by those who doubt that there is life beyond death.


LUKE 6:17-26             Comparing Luke's version of the Beatitudes, and
the Sermon on the Plain which they introduce, with those found in Matthew 5
can provide an interesting study.  A common source lies behind them, but
each author uses them for his own purposes.  Luke's includes only four and
adds several Woes which have no parallel in Matthew.

----------

JEREMIAH 17:5-10   An analysis of this whole chapter will show a gathering
together of several prophetic oracles having no main theme.  It is likely
that in these few verses we have a separate prophecy in the form of a psalm
and wisdom proverb.  The psalm in vss.5-8 may have as its historical
background Jeremiah's condemnation the alliance King Zedekiah made with the
Egyptians which brought about the fatal invasion by the Babylonians
(589-586 BC). 

The story of Zedekiah is indeed a sad one.  He was the last king of Judah
and a puppet of the Babylonians at that.  A younger son of Josiah, he had
been placed on the throne by Nebuchadrezzar, replacing his uncle,
Jehoiakim.  He dared to exert his independence by negotiating an alliance
with the Egyptians.  That brought on the full fury of his Babylonian
overlords which ended in the siege and fall of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:1-21;
Jer. 39:1-10; 52:1-30).  Zedekiah's sons were slain before his eyes and he
himself was then blinded and taken away in fetters to Babylon.

Note the strong similarity of this passage with Psalm 1 whose author may
well have taken his inspiration from here.  The issue at stake for Jeremiah
was, of course, whether Zedekiah would trust in his human alliances or in
Israel's God.  Chapters 32-43 also give some of the background events which
engulfed the nation and resulted in the Babylonian exile, the imprisonment
of Jeremiah and his abduction to Egypt.

Vs.9 is a proverb which could stand alone having no relation to what
precedes or follows it.  Scholars debate whether it is from Jeremiah
himself or from a later Wisdom writer.  Another scholar has suggested that
vs. 10 is God's response to the proverb and together vss.9-10 introduce the
lament in vss.14-18.  As such, they are true to Jeremiah's predicament as a
prophet dedicated to his divinely appointed, but totally ignored, mission
to his nation in calamitous times.


PSALM 1   More an introduction to the Book of Psalms, this psalm portrays
the kind of person who uses the whole collection as a spiritual handbook.
It may well have been written especially for this purpose after a pious
editor had copied by hand and edited all the psalms that follow it.

The religious environment encapsulated here is that of the time when the
influence of Ezra was manifest in the nation being regarded as a religious
community, "the congregation of the righteous" in v.5.  Best guesses by
most scholars place it in the Greek period toward the end of the 3rd
century BC.

The two sections of the psalm contrast the character and destiny of the
righteous (vss.1-3) and the wicked (vss.4-6).  For the former, blessings
and rewards abound; but for the latter, they are judged and disappear.
Vivid metaphors in vs.3, "trees planted by streams of water," and vs.4,
"chaff that the wind drives away," come straight out of Israel's rural
environment.  Flowing streams are treasured rarities and the wind is used
to winnow grain at harvest time.  The moral of the prose-poem is contained
in vs.6: the destiny of both the righteous and the wicked is under constant
scrutiny by God.


1 CORINTHIANS 15:12-20   Here Paul begins his remarkable proclamation of
what the resurrection of Jesus means for him as he proclaimed it, not only
in Corinth, but on all on his missionary journeys.  Several important
points need to be made in discussing the passage:

1) The resurrection of Jesus came about due to God's action on the dead
body of Jesus.  Contrary to the KJV and other English versions, the Greek
verb *‚geiro* (= to raise) is used in the perfect tense six times in nine
verses.  It is an active verb, not passive.  Paul did not believe that
Jesus "rose" from the dead, but that God "had raised" him.  As one
expositor put it, "Nothing depends on the nature of man; all depends on the
nature of God."  (*The Interpreter's Bible,* vol.10, p.233)

2) For Paul, this was the heart of the gospel.  If the resurrection did not
happen, then all else fails: the apostolic preaching, Jesus' divine
messiahship, the forgiveness of sin and a new life, the promise of God's
final victory over human sin and death.  In short, the dead are dead, Jesus
Christ included - "dust to dust, ashes to ashes;" hoping for something
more, perhaps; but without any assurance whatsoever.

3) Paul was responding to yet another serious conflict within the
Corinthian community about this basic element of the faith.  A faction did
exist which denied the resurrection (v.12)  We can only speculate who they
were.  Some Jews and some Gentiles had serious doubts about life beyond
death, let alone resurrection of the dead.  Having been a Pharisee prior to
his conversion, Paul undoubtedly did believe in resurrection.  This may
explain some of the vigour with which Paul counters the disbelief he
encountered in Corinth.  Was Paul making a special point for the benefit of
Jews in the last sentence of this passage?

4) Paul's triumphant cry in v.20, "But in fact Christ has been raised from
the dead, the first fruits of those who have died," comes out of the depths
of his Jewish heritage.  He used the word *apark‚* which technically meant
the beginning of a sacrifice, referring to the ancient Festival of Weeks
when the first fruits of the annual barley harvest were offered as a
sacrifice.  But by Paul's time and especially among the Hellenistic Jews of
the Diaspora, this festival was also known by its Greek name, Pentecost.
For the apostolic church, that was the occasion for the gift of the Spirit.
On that day, the full meaning and power of Jesus' resurrection as an
absolutely unprecedented spiritual event became clear to the gathered
community of disciples and their mission to proclaim the good news of
Christ's resurrection began. 

5) Since New Testament times, the whole passage has brought much comfort to
those confronting their own death or the death of loved ones.  It needs to
be studied intensively by those who doubt that there is life beyond death.

On the other hand, there are many today who find it quite impossible to
hold to any view of the physical resurrection of Jesus.  In recent months,
a lively debate has been going on the Internet between retired Bishop John
Selby Spong and several other scholars (*Search for Jesus: A Provocative
Look at Who He Was and What He Did*).  Spong has written strongly worded
arguments contradicting the traditional doctrine of a bodily resurrection.
Naturally this has caused strong reaction from a number of others, more
conservative voices.

Spong claims that the traditional view - especially its "legendary aspects
are no longer viewed as literally true in the academic world of biblical
scholarship."  He further argues that we cannot make sense out of the
meaning of Easter if we have to defend a literal interpretation of the
event.

He bases this claim on the passage of time between the Easter event itself
and the writing of the three major descriptions of it in the first, third
and fourth Gospels.  "They are not original to the story and therefore
should not be thought of as either literally true or as descriptively
accurate." 

He goes onto asset that there was "something powerful and life-changing
about the Easter experience that the earliest Christians could not deny.
"Whatever Easter was originally, it appears to have broken open the human
sense of being bound by finitude and death.  It seems to have captured
people inside a sense of transcendence that was not bound by time.  It
removed the barriers impeding human consciousness, and it emerged in the
startling realization that a life-changing power was connected in an
intimate way with Jesus.  That is the reality that cries out to be
explored."

Those who experienced whatever did happen were unable to "describe
something ultimately beyond the limits of their humanity, but which had,
they believed, embraced their humanity."  They came to realize that life
was more powerful than death, that love was more powerful than hatred, and
that being was more powerful than non-being."  The secret to understanding
this discovery is  to examine the effects that occurred in the lives of
those who claimed this experience. 

"Something happened that caused Jewish disciples, taught their whole lives
that God was wholly other and that this God could never be captured in
finite words or symbols, to claim that Jesus was part of what they believed
God to be.  From that moment on, the way these people thought of either God
or human life would never be the same. 

"That Easter experience caused people to say that Jesus must now be seen as
part of who or what God is.  God had, in effect, left the sky and was now
found in the self-giving love of Jesus, in whom a new depth to human life
was also revealed.  That was a profound revolution in human thinking.  From
that moment on, they were convinced God could be encountered in human form
as life, love, and being.  So they said that Jesus had entered the fullness
of life and love whose source is God, and that Jesus had touched the ground
of being whose depth is God. 

"That was the experience that caused them to say, 'Jesus lives.'  That is
what created Christianity.  It was not apparitions, empty tombs, or
resuscitated bodies.  It was rather an ecstatic, eye opening, mind
expanding experience - a pivotal moment when the cloud of unknowing parted
and human beings were invited to see, to enter, and to participate in the
ultimate reality of life."

Spong's radical re-interpretation of the resurrection of Jesus may or may
not be helpful to those who are struggling with their own faith.  He would
claim that his view is closer to what Paul actually believed, but expressed
differently in highly metaphorical language that defines a spiritual rather
than a physical resurrection.  Whatever position one chooses, one can find
lots of spiritual company.


LUKE 6:17-26   Comparing Luke's version of the Beatitudes, and the "Sermon
on the Plain" which they introduce, with those found in Matthew 5 can
provide an interesting study.  A common source, known to scholars as the "Q
document," lies behind them; but each author uses them for his own
purposes.  Luke's includes only four Beatitudes and adds several "Woes"
which have no parallel in Matthew.  Note too that this sermon was
supposedly delivered not to the disciples alone, but to a very mixed
audience of Jews and Gentiles, presumably drawn from different economic and
social classes of Judean, Galilean and Syrian society (vs.17).

The late Professor George Caird said this about Luke's sermon: "(It) is a
description of the life in the new Israel, which is also life in the
kingdom of God.  In its fullness the kingdom belongs to the End, when God's
purposes are complete, and so throughout the Beatitudes there runs a
contrast between the conditions of the present and the conditions of the
future.  But the good news which Jesus proclaimed was that the kingdom was
already breaking in upon the present, so that men could here and now begin
to enter into the ultimate blessedness.  Thus the Beatitudes were not
merely a promise but an invitation." (*The Pelican New Testament
Commentaries: St. Luke* Penguin Books, 1963.)

Caird, generally a more conservative exegete, also doubts that the "Woes"
came from Jesus himself, but may have been added as an "inverted form of
the Beatitudes... by the early church by way of commentary."

The recent work of the Jesus Scholars group, *The Complete Gospels,*
(edited by Robert J. Miller, Polebridge Press, 1992), gives a different
slant to both the Beatitudes and the Woes.  The word "Blessed" (Greek =
*makarios*) becomes "Congratulations,"because it "better expresses the
performative language of the Beatitudes, which grant the recipient
recognition of good fortune."  Similarly, "Woe to you..." becomes "Damn
you...", giving a more forceful if colloquial meaning to what is
essentially a total condemnation of those who seek riches, pleasures and
public prestige for their own sake.  This change brings the sense of
prophetic judgement more effectively to our modern ear. 

Such a contrast, however, has to be seen in the light of the "already-not
yet" setting of the passage.  The subsequent segment of the "Sermon on the
Plain" has much to say about how Christians are to deal with earthly
possessions and economic circumstances.  Reinhold Niebuhr in his prime as a
20th century prophet of social justice felt that during the tragic period
of the 1920s and 1930s, and even into the post-World War II era in the
1950s, the dominant preachers of the USA ignored Jesus' re-iteration of
this prophetic theme.

This is good package for preaching in the greed-obsessed time in which we
are now living.  But the preacher who would be prophetic must also be aware
of the price to be paid for such boldness.

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



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