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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 21 - Proper 16 - Year C
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
alt - Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8


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 21 - Proper 16 - Year C


JEREMIAH 1:4-10          Like many who experience such a meeting with God,
Jeremiah at first demurred because of his youth.  That brought forth both 
reaffirmation and reassurances from God.  Such confirmation comes as an
intense inner confidence of being chosen.  Like so many similar calls to
Israel's great prophets, Jeremiah's prophecies reveal a firm grasp of the
election motif founded on the Mosaic covenant.


PSALM 71:1-6             One scholar called this psalm "The tired refuge of
and aged saint."  It appears to be a lament but repeats parts of the
classical form of an appeal, a complaint, a petition and a vow of
thanksgiving in regular sequence.


HEBREWS 12:18-29         By alluding to well-known parts of the Torah, the
Jewish scriptures, this passage stresses the distinction between the
covenant of God with Israel at Mount Sinai and that of Calvary, where 
Jesus Christ was crucified.  While Sinai stressed the majesty,
unapproachability and sheer terror of God, Calvary stressed the glory that
awaits the Christian believer in the assembly of the saints in the heavenly
Jerusalem.  This festive gathering is not only with the angels and the
martyred saints, but brings the believer into the very presence of God and
Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant.


LUKE 13:10-17            The old issue between Jesus and other Jews about
the sabbath surfaced once again.  And again, as he often did, Luke placed a
woman at the centre of the story.  The lay leader of a synagogue challenged
Jesus indignantly.  Was he more concerned about protecting his turf and
buffering against anticipated criticism from his more orthodox fellow Jews? 
Jesus condemned such hypocrisy by drawing a parallel between the compassion
he had just shown for the woman and the perfectly normal care the man would
give his beasts of burden. 


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

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

JEREMIAH 1:4-10   We know who Jeremiah was and approximately when he lived
from the brief introductory note which precedes this passage.  As a member
of a priestly family, possibly  a descendant of Abiathar whom Solomon had
exiled to Anathoth.  (1 Kings 2:26-27), he had a cause to defend.  The
exact date of his call as a prophet is still disputed among scholars, but
certainly it was during the last quarter of the 7th century BCE.  According
to narrative details later in the book, he was still alive in Egypt after
Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE (40:1- 44:30).

Vss. 4-5 suggest that the traditions of his ancestors had a great influence
on him.  It prepared him to be open to such a life-changing spiritual
experience as a call to be a prophet, i.e. a spokesperson for Yahweh,
rather than a predictor of events to come.  That ministry runs in families
is still a common phenomenon.  In my own ancestry, we can identify almost
every generation from the beginning of the 17th century with one or more
members of the clergy or prominent lay leaders of the church.

Like many who experience such a meeting with Yahweh, Jeremiah at first
demurred because of his youth (vs.6).  That brought forth both a
reaffirmation and reassurances from Yahweh (vss.7-8).  Such confirmation
comes as an intense inner confidence of being chosen.  Like Hosea a century
earlier, Jeremiah's prophecies reveal a firm grasp of the election motif
founded on the Mosaic covenant. 

Jeremiah's experience of election included a vision similar to that of
Isaiah.  In this instance, however, the hand of Yahweh, not a live coal
carried by a seraph, touched Jeremiah's mouth giving him the power to speak
in Yahweh's name.  Visual or auditory spiritual experiences may be
interpreted by some as hallucinations of an overly imaginative religious
mind.  Yet a vast company of deeply committed persons have testified that
their vocational experiences come from a deepening faith, not infrequently
after a very traumatic experience in everyday life. 

Julian of Norwich, the unknown female mystic of the 14th century, had 
mystical visions which are  just one example of such "holy hallucinations."
Her "Showings" or "Revelations" have attracted a good deal of attention in
recent years because of their unusually graphic descriptions of Jesus'
sufferings on the cross and the assurance she received from these that "all
will be well." These experiences came to her as she recovered from a nearly
fatal illness, possibly a physical or mental illness related to the Black
Death in which she appears to have lost most of her family.

 The message Jeremiah received had historical characteristics, indicative
of the turbulent times in which he lived.  Like ourselves, Jeremiah
ministered during a period often described as "fin de siŠcle" (in English:
"end of the century").  That French phrase describes the two decades
spanning the turn of a century or a millennium.  During this period some
have seen contemporary events taking on a more intense and critical
significance as society moves toward unknown and uncharted changes
resulting from  technological, social and political developments.  This may
be more of a psychological phenomenon than actuality.  Human relationships,
even on a personal level quite apart from national and international
events, always have causative antecedents which bring about subsequent
results. 

This story of Jeremiah's call tells us that faith interprets whatever
happens as having spiritual significance.  Are there prophets like Jeremiah
or Julian of Norwich who will help us to interpret the signs of our
traumatic times with equal assurance that the Lord of History has not
abandoned the universe to a destructive fate?


PSALM 71:1-6   W. Stewart McCullough, the exegete in "The Interpreter's
Bible"  (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1955, vol. 4, 372) assigns this psalm a
unique title, "The tired refuge of and aged saint." There are references to
old age in vss. 9 and 18.  Though the psalm appears to be a lament, it does
not adopt the typical classical form of such a psalm with an appeal, a
complaint, a petition and a vow of thanksgiving in regular sequence. 
Instead, it repeats some aspects of this formula more than once.
     
In this introductory excerpt vss. 1-3 almost exactly repeat the words of
Psalm 31:1-3 with a second appeal immediately following (vss. 4-6).  One
can speculate that a copyist added the opening lines to the original
beginning.  If vs.4 is the opening line, it throws us right into the
psalmist's reason for calling out for divine intervention.  He/she is beset
by enemies, a theme continued throughout the rest of the lament.  Lifelong
experience drives the petitioner to seek refuge from God while at the same
time offering God due praise.  (vss. 5-6) Seeking closer contact with God
in troubled times is the natural fruit of a life of faith.  

Vs. 6 presents an excellent opportunity to address one of the critical
moral issues of our time, the debate on scientific research into and
cloning of embyronic cells.  Of course, the psalmist was totally ignorant
of such a sophisticated scientific issues that confront us today.  Life in
his mother's womb was about as much as he knew.  How he got there had some
relation to sexuality and human reproduction, but apart from that, the
process of conception and embryonic development was a mystery.  It is most
likely that the Hebrews shared the general view of most ancient cultures
that the male sperm was the vessel in which life was transported from
generation to generation and women no more than the receptacle in which the
child grew before birth.

On the other hand, the life of a child in the womb, whether male or female,
was also considered as a sacred gift of Yahweh to the Israelites.  Israel's
covenant with Yahweh as a specially chosen people added a further element
of holiness to sexuality, conception and childbirth.  Religious controls
over sexual practices and marriage also sprang from this sense that human
sexuality is holy.  It is this element of holiness which religious
traditions have added to the debate about embryonic research and cloning. 

The question for all religious people to struggle with in when "human" life
begins in the spiritual as well as the physical sense.  A further issue is
whether a clump of cells less than a two weeks old with the potential for
growing into a child in a mother's womb has eternal as well as temporal
value.  This has to be set over against the value of the medical benefits
scientific research may derive from to other living humans with a deficient
genetic structure or diseases which may be healed through the introduction
of new embryonic stem cells. 

We may well have something to contribute to the debate among puzzled
members of our congregations.  After all, we proclaim the gospel of eternal
divine love incarnate in a child born in a mother's womb.  Put it this way:
When did Jesus become a living, human being? 


HEBREWS 12:18-29   The author of the so-called "Letter to the Hebrews" knew
the Torah thoroughly and may have had a copy of the Greek Septuagint (LXX)
close at hand while composing this extended theological essay.  In this
passage there are several references to the covenanting of Israel at Mount
Sinai.  We can detect allusions to Exodus 19:12-13, Deuteronomy 4:11, 5:23-
27 and 9:19.  The real focus of these allusions, however, is the contrast
between the covenant of Sinai and that of Calvary, between Moses and Jesus
Christ.  The very first words of this passage tell us where the author
comes down.  Here too Mount Zion and Jerusalem stand as symbols for the
heavenly city and the presence of God.  (Note: Our English word "Calvary"
derives from the Latin word *calvaria* meaning "skull" translated from the
Aramaic *Golgotha.*)

While Sinai stressed the majesty, unapproachability and sheer terror of
being confronted by Yahweh (vss.18-21), Calvary stressed the glory that
awaits the Christian believer in the assembly of the saints in the heavenly
Jerusalem (vss. 21-24).  This festive gathering is not only with the angels
and the martyred saints, but brings believers into the very presence of God
and Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant.

These contrasting scenes lead to a warning which is in itself a further
contrast (vss. 25-29).  The voices of Moses and of Jesus uttered
distinctive messages, but they spoke with totally different authority. 
Jesus delivered the perfect message of the Gospel, not the imperfect
message of the Torah.  By recalling several references to various psalms
(Pss. 114:7; 68:8; 77:18), the writer drives home his point that we are
obligated to worship and serve God with due reverence so that we may indeed
find
ourselves embraced by the sovereignty of divine love which shall not pass
away.
     
While the multiple references to Israel's history and the covenant of Sinai
may be entirely scriptural, it is also probable that the author intended
them to be read against the background of the actual events of the last two
or three decades of the first century of the Christian era.  Jerusalem and
its temple had been all but destroyed by the Romans in 69-70 CE.  Orthodox
Jews and Jewish Christians alike had been widely dispersed throughout the
empire.  Both struggled to survive and maintain their traditions in a
social and political environment increasingly inhospitable to moral
monotheism, let alone a new eschatological messianism.  The final shaping
of the Hebrew canon progressed rapidly at this time, reaching its
culmination at the rabbinical synod of Jamnia ca. 90 CE.  It is generally
agreed that this distinctive Christian apologia was composed about this
same time.  It would be accepted as part of the unique Christian canon in
the next century. 

Is it not entirely feasible that the whole motive behind the composition of
"The Letter to the Hebrews" was the appearance of the Hebrew canon as the
authoritative scriptures of the Jewish people? Would not this hypothesis be
strongly reinforced by the extensive quotations from the Hebrew canon,
especially if the purpose of the document was, as the classical view of the
book held, to prevent Jewish Christians from falling back into Judaism? 


LUKE 13:10-17   The old issue of how to mark the sabbath surfaces once
again in this pericope.  And again as he often does, Luke places a woman at
the centre of the story.  One has to wonder if  "Luke" was, in fact, a
well-educated woman like Lydia or Priscilla who concealed her identity
behind an obviously male name and that of an obscure fellow traveler of
Paul. 

The healing of the woman crippled for eighteen years caused yet another
confrontation between Jesus and the religious authorities.  In this case
the leader of the synagogue, a layman, challenged Jesus indignantly.  Was
his a genuine religious concern rooted in the Torah or was he just
protecting his turf and attempting to buffer anticipated criticism he would
face from his more orthodox fellow Jews?  

Jesus lashed out in condemnation of such hypocrisy.  He drew a parallel
between the compassion he had just shown for the woman and the perfectly
normal care the man would give his beasts of burden, sabbath day or not. 
One senses the bitter sarcasm in Jesus' voice, designed to silence the
man's protest and show him up as a fool in front of the assembled
community, his dominant male peers in particular.  The cutting edge of
Jesus' rebuke put him to shame.  Gathered around the three, the whole crowd
rejoiced.  One can almost hear them clapping with glee, especially the
women.

Point, set and match to Jesus of Nazareth.  The woman left triumphantly to
celebrate her new freedom from pain and disability with a coterie of her
friends.  Jesus smiled with pleasure as he watched them go.
     
How do we decide what to do on our sabbath day? Isn't the best way to
determine whether our plans are caring and compassionate; or selfishly
focused?

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

ISAIAH 58:9b-14   Scholars tell us that not all the poetry of Isaiah 40-66
can be attributed to the unnamed prophet of the Exile.  Those in chs. 56-66
may actually be from a later school, sometimes called Third Isaiah.  They
modelled their poems after his style.  This is one of four strophes of a
poem that extends through the whole of ch. 58 dealing with the kind service
that pleases Yahweh.  The prophet seeks to inspire the exiles returning
from Babylon to a deeper faithfulness to the covenant tradition. 

While dating the poem may have its difficulties, at least one commentator
believes that it stands somewhere between the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah
and Zechariah.  Vss. 11-12 give fairly clear clues that it reflects the
actual circumstances in Jerusalem and Judah when the exiles returned home. 
No prophet stands alone and this is particularly noticeable in this poem. 
Vss. 9-10 reflect the definitive influence of the earlier prophets of
social justice.  Echoes of the Deuteronomic Code in admonitions about
keeping the Sabbath also resound through vs. 13. 

Vs. 14 wraps the whole poem in the traditional promise made long before to
Jacob that the land of Palestine would belong his descendants.  However
mythical and unhistorical that event may have been, it inspired the
national dream of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century.  It also
motivated the Balfour Declaration of 1917 adopted by the British government
in 1917: "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in
Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best
endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly
understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and
religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the
rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country." In 1948,
the United Nations created the modern state of Israel base on this
declaration.  In the half century since, the struggle between Israelis and
Palestinians has had its roots in this biblical promise and its political
implications.
 

PSALM 103:1-8   This psalm, or at least this selection of it, has been
committed to memory and has comforted countless generations.  It captures
the breadth and depth of human experience, but places utter dependence of
the believer on the grace and mercy of God.

As one commentator put it, "Scarcely any other part of the OT lets us
perceive the truth that God is love so intimately." One wonders if Paul had
this psalm in mind as he wrote to the Ephesians: "I pray that you may have
the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and
depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you
may be filled with all the fullness of God." (Eph. 3: 18-19." 

"The Pit" referred to in vs. 3 stood as a synonym for Sheol, the shadowy
existence beyond death from which there could be no hope for resurrection. 
The vivid image in vs. 4 of "youth being renewed like the eagle's" brings
to mind the longevity, strength and size of that majestic bird, but it may
also refer to either the annual molting of every bird during which they
cannot fly well.  Or it may also recall the legend of the phoenix rising
out of the ashes.  The poet of Job also spoke of that legend (Job 29:18). 
Deutero-Isaiah also used a similar image (Isa. 40:31).

The prophetic tradition of justice and Yahweh's covenant with Moses  also
stood out in the poet's mind.  Rooted in grace and mercy these remained the
hallmarks of Israelite theology and could never be hidden in the liturgical
hymnody of Israel.  While no date can ever be proved and there is no sign
of an acrostic, the existence of 22 verses in the psalm corresponds to the
number of letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  This may point to a relatively
late origin when liturgists and the teachers of Wisdom  sought to bring the
ancient traditions to view for fresh consideration by a new generation.

                         
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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