Bible Study: Proper 16 (A) – 2011
August 21, 2011
This Sunday’s Old Testament reading comes from Second Isaiah, and in it the prophet seeks to comfort the Judean exiles by appealing to YHWH’s past saving actions. The story of Abraham and Sarah’s difficulty in bearing and child is specifically in view. Blenkinsopp notes two interesting aspects of this appeal to tradition: in Second Isaiah, references to Abraham signify “aspirations toward nationhood;” and this is the only reference to Sarah outside of Genesis (Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55, “Anchor Bible, 19A,” Doubleday, 1964, pp. 326-327). This appeal to the past serves as a promise that YHWH will again intervene in history to restore the exiles’ fortunes. Just as YHWH made the barren Sarah fertile, YHWH will make the devastated country of Judea fertile once more, an act which has profound ecological implications for us today.
What is miraculous here is that YHWH’s saving acts are gracious; they do not arrive because of the exiles’ worthiness, but so that YHWH’s teaching might go out to become a light for the peoples of the world (verse 4).
- What are the saving acts of God in your own life? In your community’s life? How do these relate to God’s actions in Scripture?
- How can we work to restore fertility to the people and world around us?
This psalm is difficult to date. Some scholars suggest a post-exilic date (Richard A. Puckett, “Psalm 138: Exegetical Perspective,” in “Feasting on the Word: Year A: Pentecost and the Season after Pentecost 1, Propers 3-16,” ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor; Knox, 2011, pp. 369-373), while others suggest a pre-exilic one (Mitchell Dahood,Psalms III: 101-150,“Anchor Bible, 17A,” Doubleday, 1970, pp. 275-276). However, the psalm’s theme of thanksgiving is universal. The psalmist rejoices that God has heard his prayer, and, through this praise, describes who God is. This psalm shares a theme of God’s universal purpose with our reading from Isaiah. Just as YHWH’s teaching will go forth from Judea to all the people of the earth, the psalmist proclaims: “All the kings of the earth with praise you O LORD, when they have heard the words of your mouth” (verse 4). And just as the reading from Isaiah invites us to recall God’s unfolding work of salvation in our own lives, Psalm 138 invites us to move from this remembrance to praise.
- What has God’s salvation looked like in your life?
- How do we, through our praise of God, participate in the working out of God’s salvation in the world? Is praise ever evangelistic?
Romans 12 marks a shift from the previous eleven chapters’ theological discussion to a discourse on moral exhortation. The following chapters are filled with apocalyptic ideology, something we see in our lectionary reading in St. Paul’s appeal to “no longer be conformed to this world” (verse 2) (Christopher R. Hutson, “Romans 12:1-8: Exegetical Perspective,” in“Feasting on the Word: Year A: Pentecost and the Season after Pentecost 1, Propers 3-16,” ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor; Knox, 2011, pp. 375-379).
However, it is worth noting that St. Paul’s apocalyptic framework is embodied. That is, while the Apostle does see a fundamental division this age and the future age, which has already begun in Jesus Christ, this division is not marked by the body itself. Misinterpretations of Paul have resulted in Christian theology with a negative body image, something which we should work to correct.
This epistle reading is fundamentally body-positive. Our bodies are to be presented to God as living sacrifices, and the community of the church is compared to one body with many members. Body-positive readings of this passage might focus on our individual giftedness and the grace which we need as a community to promote the flourishing of diverse gifts in the body of Christ.
- What might a body-positive Christian theology look like?
- An unintended consequence of a focus on the body in Christian theology might be the creation of an “ideal body.” How might we maintain the tension between our diversity as individual bodies and our unity as one body?
In our gospel lesson, Jesus confronts us with one of the central questions of Christian life: “Who do you say that I am?” Much exegesis on the passage has focused on the Protestant-Catholic debate over the rock upon which Jesus promises to build his church: is it Peter himself or Peter’s confession of faith? However, verses 21-23 (conveniently left out of the lectionary reading) suggest that neither is all that firm a foundation, since Peter still fails to understand what his confession means and is rebuked by Jesus.
In this, we see the paradox of our Christian faith demonstrated. None of us, not even St. Peter, ever manages a perfect confession of faith. At our best, we offer Jesus imperfect, fragile rocks upon which to build the church. The miracle of this passage and of our own faith is that Jesus accepts these poor building materials and transforms them into a foundation over which not even the “gates of Hades” can triumph.
- Where is the “rock” in this story? In your own life?
- Who do you say that Jesus is?
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