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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 16 - Proper 11 - Year C
Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42
alt - Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 15


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 16 - Proper 11 - Year C


AMOS 8:1 12              In another vituperative outburst against social
injustices of his time in the 8th century BC, Amos vividly describes the
fate that is about to befall his people.  In an amazing series of images
beginning with a basket of over-ripe summer fruit and ending with a famine,
he depicts God's unrelenting judgment against the economic, political and
religious chicanery of the rich toward the poor.


PSALM 52                 Again echoing the words of Amos, this psalm
reiterates God's judgment for social injustice and false piety.  The
reference to Zion in vs.6 indicates that these charges may have been
directed against the religious leaders.


COLOSSIANS 1:15-28       Modern versions of this passage divide it into
three paragraphs.  The first speaks of the pre-existent, human, crucified
and resurrected Christ.  The second speaks of the reconciliation God
effected through Christ.  The third presents the vision of what God is
doing in creating this new humanity and the cosmic universe in which we
live and serve as did Paul.  Few statements of the whole gospel Paul
proclaimed have the sweep of this one.  The most puzzling part of the
passage is Paul's claim to be "completing what is lacking in Christ's
afflictions for the sake of his body, that, is the church."  Does he really
mean that the suffering of Christ on the cross was lacking some way?  More
likely, the phrase emphasizes that the Passion of Christ was the central
focus of Paul's faith and the church's reason for being.


LUKE 10:38 42            The lovely story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha
never ceases to raise romantic views of their relationship now featured in
a modern novel.  Jesus felt welcome in their home in Bethany and made his
headquarters there when in Jerusalem.  It lay only a short two kilometres
east of the city on the Mount of Olives.


          NOTE: There are two alternative lessons from the OT and
          Psalms. The summaries and analysis of these passages
          follow those of the regular RCL lessons. 


GENESIS 18:1-10a         This odd little story tells of God appearing to
Abraham in the guise of three travellers to promise that they would have a
son in their later years.  However incredible, its intent was to lead
Abraham and his descendants to an ever deeper trust.


PSALM 15                 The similarity of this psalm with the teachings of
Deuteronomy and Leviticus points to a time after Israel's return from exile
when religious leader sought to instruct the populace in the ancient
tradition of the covenant law.

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

AMOS 8:1-12   Amos in his most vituperative outcry condemns the injustice
of his society.  The passage contains some vivid metaphors.  The basket of
summer fruit catches the eye immediately.  In Canada, summer fruit is soft
because its water content is very high, so it spoils very quickly.  Most
summer fruit seasons are very short, a couple of weeks at most.  In the
heat of a summer in Israel, that would take no more than a few hours.
Scholars suspect, however, that the metaphor is more of a play on words as
footnotes in the NSRV indicate.  The Hebrew for "summer fruit" is "qayits;"
but in vs.2 "the end" is "qets." 
     
If that is not enough to attract attention, the image in vs.3 of the songs
of the temple turned into wailing and "dead bodies... cast out in every
place" leaves nothing to the imagination.  The most secure place in
Jerusalem or any other city was the temple, the site of sanctuary.  It
usually was the last place of resistance against an invader.  In my home
town, an armed rebellion by French Canadians against the British colonial
government in 1837 was fought to its bloody end in the local parish church.
Marks of the cannon balls used to flush out "les Patriotes" are still
visible in the church's stone walls.  The end of the battle brought a
merciless search of the village by the victorious troops for any would-be
escapees.  The legend of the rebel patriots heroic defense has grown with
time.  I clearly recall how it was portrayed in the colorful floats a great
parade on the 100th anniversary of the battle.  Histories written for
subsequent anniversaries are replete with legends as well as facts.

Amos prophesies an inevitable and immediate catastrophe in response to the
corruption he sees everywhere about him.  His oracle makes explicit the
reasons for this catastrophe in vss.4-6.  It depicts the economic
injustices of Amos' own time and place.  Now, his words have become
universal as the globalization of business and industry has seized economic
advantages everywhere.  The wealthy people and the developed industrial
nations reap profits and expand their power at the expense of the poor in
rest of the world.  Many of the most vulnerable people in our own
communities are sinking rapidly into poverty as they are forced to the
margins of a money-driven society.

A threat of earthquakes, floods, darkness in broad daylight, and public
mourning like that for an only son draw a devastating picture of how great
the coming catastrophe would be (vss.7-10).  This is followed by a searing
description of famine throughout the land (vss.11-14).  Famine was not
uncommon in Israel because water sources are so scarce and rainfall
relatively light.  If the fall and spring rains did not come as expected,
crop failure was all but inevitable.  One of the core issues in the current
Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the availability of water. 

The prophesy rises to its climax in a brilliant clarification of what has
really gone wrong.  As severe as they are, it is not the natural disasters
which will cause such an incredible catastrophe, but the spiritual vacuum
throughout the nation.  The real famine is "not a famine of bread, or a
thirst for water, but of a hearing of the words of the Lord" (vs. 11b).

How elegantly contemporary is this word of the Lord of History.  Are there
any prophets like Amos willing to speak such words to our world?


PSALM 52   Echoing the words of Amos, this psalm reiterates God's judgment
against social injustice and false piety.  The reference to Zion in vs.6
indicates that these charges may have been directed against the religious
leaders.  It also points to a later period than that of King David.

The righteous are like a spreading olive tree, says the psalmist at the end
of a most vengeful condemnation of the rich and powerful.  A note of self-
righteousness has crept into the self-awareness of vss.6-8.  But does the
grateful devotion of vss.9-10 overcome the viciousness of vss.1-5? 

One aspect of the work by the editors of the Psalter was their search for a
time in ancient stories of David's life when such an attitude could be
attributed to the hero-king.  This editorial practice dates from the post-
exilic period long after David's time (ca. 1000 BCE) when the praises of
Israel's religious tradition were being collected and new psalms written to
create a composite set of scrolls for use in the reconstructed temple in
Jerusalem, possibly in 5th century BCE.

In "The Interpreter's Bible," vol. 4, p.273, W. Stewart McCullough wrote
that like Ps. 58 this psalm recalled invectives of the great prophets (cf.
Isa.22:15-19).  Yet the psalmist also wished to express trust and
confidence in a time when men were debating the problem of the comparative
values of good and evil from a utilitarian standpoint of what was
profitable for life in their own time (Cf. Pss. 1; 37; 49) 

While having the form of a lament, the psalm denounced wickedness and
assured the righteous of vindication.  Like other psalms and writings in
which the relation of piety to success, happiness, and long life is
vehemently discussed, this was an attitude of the reconstruction era.  We
can find this ideology prevalent in much of the Old Testament, based in
large part on the theological concept of Israel as Yahweh's chosen and
covenanted people.  The books of Job and Ecclesiastes show that this
attitude was not universally accepted.  Righteousness and wealth do not
necessarily follow each other in human behavior. 
     

COLOSSIANS 1:15-28   Christ is the image of the invisible God (vs.15) is
only one of many preachable texts in this passage.  Perhaps nowhere else in
the whole of the Pauline corpus do we find a clearer description of what
Paul meant by his metaphor of "the new creation" in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. 
     
By dividing the passage into three paragraphs as does the NRSV, we can see
that the first speaks of the pre-existent, human, crucified and resurrected
Christ.  The second speaks of the reconciliation God effected through
Christ.  The third presents the vision of what God is doing in creating
this new humanity and the cosmic universe in which we live and serve as did
Paul.
     
If there is a tendency in our preaching to limit reconciliation to the
human part of the created universe, this passage should dispel that less
than complete understanding of God's purpose.  Just as creation came into
being through Christ, Paul claims in vs.16, so also all creation and not
just the human race will be recreated through being reconciled to God
through Christ's life, death and resurrection. (vs. 20)  That includes all
of us who like the Colossians were once estranged from God. (vss. 21-22) 

Yet the promise comes with the responsibility of maintaining this new
relationship of faith (vs.23).  Prevenient grace takes effect when it meets
faithful response.  The grace that reconciles us to God does not change.
Its effectiveness in our lives and through us in the world is inhibited
when we no longer respond in faith, hope and love.  So Paul goes on to show
what this has meant in his own life as an apostle proclaiming this good
news (vss. 24-26).  He could do no other than link his ministry as an
apostle to his experience of conversion and reconciliation.
     
The most puzzling part of this passage is Paul's claim to be "completing
what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that, is
the church."  Does he really mean that the suffering of Christ on the cross
was lacking some way?  William Barclay says that this is no more than
another way of building up and extending the church.  "Anyone who serves
the Church by widening her borders, establishing her faith, saving her from
errors, is doing the work of Christ.  And if such service involves
suffering and pain and sacrifice, that affliction is filling up and sharing
the very suffering of Christ Himself." ("Daily Bible Readings: Philippians,
Colossians and Philemon." Edinburgh: The Church of Scotland, 1957.) 
     
F.W. Beare gives a more extensive exegesis in "The Interpreter's Bible."
(Vol. 11, p.177. Nashville: Abingdon, 1955.).  He states that this was the
basis for the doctrine of a "treasury of merits" (formally called
"supererogation") first authorized in the papal bull by Clement VI in 1343.
This doctrine made the sale of indulgences possible and ultimately led to
the strong reaction of Protestant theologians and exegetes two centuries
later. 
     
Beare points out, however, that Paul in no way suggests that his sufferings
he create a store of merits which are available for the account of the
church at large.  He never regarded his sufferings as an atonement for the
sins of other Christians.  The issues of atonement for sin did not enter
into Paul's consideration.  His sufferings may have been vicarious, but not
punishment for sin.  He endured them in the interest of others.  They were
not in any sense a recompense for the sins of others.  Paul was saying
simply that suffering is part of the Christian vocation.  As Jesus had
said, "the servant is not greater than his Lord."  The world will treat
Christians with hostility as it treated Christ.  Nor does the phrase 'the
deficiencies of Christ's afflictions' imply that the sufferings of Christ
were insufficient in some way to accomplish their purpose of redemption.
Paul was not putting the economy of redemption under review.  His
underlying belief was that the afflictions of the church are also "Christ's
afflictions."  Thus the sufferings of Christians as Christians would
continually supplement the sufferings of their Master.  The experience of
suffering would become an experience common to Master and servants."
     
Eduard Schweizer believes that Colossians is a  heavily edited, but
authentic Pauline letter.  He also asserts that Paul or his editor was
exaggerating in this statement.  It goes further than anything we can find
elsewhere in Paul.  It would have been alien to him to say anything about
suffering being endured for the sake of the church. (*The Letter to The
Colossians: A Commentary.* Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976.,
p.99ff.)  Schweizer concludes that the expression 'Christ's afflictions' is
never used in the New Testament for the Passion, nor for Jesus' experience
of suffering in general.  Nor does the church take on and continue the
sufferings of Christ which in themselves effected redemption of the world. 

The death of Christ brought about the redemptive reconciliation with God
once and for all.  The apostle's 'affliction' or 'being afflicted' can be
regarded as that which comes from participating in the anticipating
proclaiming the gospel, thus making it "effective in such a way as to let
faith attain its fulness among the Colossians and among other communities
throughout the world."  The sufferings of which Paul speaks are those
endured in the community for the sake of Christ, or "in Christ."  What the
community experiences, Paul also experiences and vice versa.  This allows
his message to become more credible.  He and they, and we too, represent
Christ in the world.  We are to live to bring Christ's work as the redeemer
of the Christian community and the whole cosmos to its fulfilment.  Our
place of ministry is right where we are now, wherever that may be.  And
that may well involve us in a discomforting degree of suffering. 


LUKE 10:38-42   Martha frets; Mary listens.  Or is that an over
simplification of the story?  Jesus does seem to rebuke Martha for her
task-driven anxiety and to praise Mary for sitting as his feet listening to
what he said.  This has been the traditional interpretation which some
people have pushed to the extreme by claiming that faith and contemplative
spirituality are better than works and active service.  It is unlikely that
Jesus meant to draw such a distinction.  Life for Jesus had a much greater
balance of both prayer and action, worship and work.  He spent his days
teaching and healing, but also frequently withdrew to a quiet place for
prayer and contemplation of the presence of God in stillness and silence.
     
Contemplative spirituality is certainly an important facet of the Christian
life.  The modern Protestant tradition has left it mostly to Catholicism -
Anglican, Roman and Orthodox - where it is practiced as a significant means
of spiritual formation and daily devotion.  Wesley eschewed it, especially
in its monastic form, though he urged his converts to follow his own daily
practice of the presence of God and the reading of devotional classics such
as Thomas … Kempis.  Wesley also adopted the love feast and established the
class meeting as a means of spiritual support for their continued
development.  In recent years, some Protestants have turned to Roman
Catholic spiritual directors in search of a more effective spiritual life.

In this decade the Internet offers open access to a wide variety of
contemplative practices in both Western Christian and Oriental traditions
of Buddhist, Hindu and other origins.  An unusual combination of several of
these traditions can also be seen in some of these web sites.  Our
Protestant tradition has been rightly criticized for being too activist and
task-oriented.  Yet this does not obviate the need for action as a vital
expression of faith and commitment.  Spreading the Good News of God's
redeeming love in Christ does require effective action.
     
The actual text of what Jesus said to Martha may have come down to us in
somewhat garbled form, since various readings of vss.41-42 survive.
Whatever may have been Jesus' original words, it would appear that he may
well have urged Martha to seek first the Reign of God and let other things
assume their proper place within that spiritual context, as Matthew 6:33
states.  That leaves plenty of room for exegetical and homiletical
interpretation.

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

GENESIS 18:1-10a   This odd little story tells of God appearing to Abraham
in the guise of three travellers to promise that they would have a son in
their later years.  Since this anecdote came from J, the earliest of the
four documents which compose the Pentateuch, it presents a relatively
primitive description of a theophany.  The motif of deity appearing in the
guise of three men has much in common with other ancient religious
literature.  The legend could well have existed in the pre-Israelite
settlement in the region of Hebron.  Abraham's hospitality also follows the
traditional custom of tribal societies.  Such hospitality usually resulted
in a blessing.  For this reason alone, the story would have been remembered
with great favour in the long oral tradition preceding its documentation. 

Specific clues imbedded in the narrative define the incident as a
theophany.  It occurred "by the oaks of Mamre" very near modern Hebron,
Israel.  Regarded to this day as a holy place, with the Arabic name of
Ramet el-Khalil ("the height of the friend of the merciful One"), it lies
not far from the tomb of Abraham and Sarah, sacred for both Moslems and
Jews.  Archeologists have found a 9th century BCE pavement marking the spot
where once the oak of Mamre may have stood.  It also marked the place where
Jews captured during the revolt of Bar Kocheba (135 CE) were sold as
slaves.  Byzantine Christians partially rebuilt a basilica there after its
destruction by Moslems in 614 CE.

Other clues to the sanctity of the location also exist in the narrative:
the length of Abraham's speech and the generosity of the feast he prepared
for the guests.  "Three measures of meal" amount to about four pecks, a dry
measure equal to 2 imperial gallons, 9.9 litres or 8 US quarts.  This would
have been used to bake flat breads.  A young calf would provide an ample
meal for four men with plenty left over for the women, children and
servants.  Vineyards in the region still yield plentiful grapes, so most
likely wine would also have quenched the thirst of the three guests.

However incredible, the intent of the story was to lead Abraham and his
descendants to an ever deeper trust in Yahweh.


PSALM 15   The similarity of this didactic psalm with the teachings of
Deuteronomy and Leviticus points to a time after Israel's return from exile
when religious leader sought to instruct the populace in the ancient
tradition of the covenant law. 

Behind it may lie a more ancient tradition: the practice of approaching a
place of worship to obtain an oracle from a priest.  This would guide the
supplicant in making a decision or throw light on the meaning of some
calamity. Or the supplicant might ask for an interpretation of a sacred law
as to his/her duty in a new situation.  It cannot be considered a
liturgical psalm, but one used in preparation for worship,  Psalm 24
contains a liturgical rendition of a similar religious attitude.

The phrase "your holy hill" represents the reality of all ancient Israel's
sacred sites.  More than likely it stands as a generic term for the
specific name "Zion."  Not only Israelites, but all ancient people built
their simplest sanctuaries and greatest temples on heights so that they
could be seen from afar.  Archeologists still see the evidence of such
"holy hills" on every tell or mound they investigate.

The ethical measure of the prospective worshiper leaves little to the
imagination.  Even in recent times, some Protestant denominations of the
Calvinist and Presbyterian tradition, held "preparation services" during
the week before a quarterly celebration of the sacrament of the Lord's
Supper.  The purpose of these services was for the assembled congregation
to examine their moral conduct and seek forgiveness in much the same way
that the Roman Catholic Church practices the sacrament of Confession, now
called Reconciliation.

Of special note too, this moral process banned such financial transactions
as lending money at interest and taking bribes.  False oaths also had no
place in the strict discipline invoked by this psalmist.  Steadfast ethical
behaviour alone mattered to this understanding of Yahweh's will. 

                         
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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