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Bible Study: Proper 18 (B) – 2012

September 09, 2012

Proverbs 22:1-2,8-9,22-23

Social justice and the proper use of wealth is a common theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The author of Proverbs begins this section by putting a commonly held truism of the time in the context of riches: the only thing that survives after your death is your good name, not your wealth. (Recall that this text precedes the belief in an afterlife.) Additionally, no matter whom we think we are, no matter what status we perceive that we have achieved, we share a common bond with all – we are creatures of God.

Verses 8 and 9 illustrate much of the theology of the book of Proverbs – there is a deeds/consequence matrix to life (i.e., good is generally rewarded, and evil punished). While we know that this is not always the case, we can see that the authors of Proverbs are trying to impart skill in living. Their goal is the “good life,” and their lessons here are exercises in character formation. For these sages, social justice was constitutive of a life well lived.

Finally, verses 22 and 23 underscore Israel’s preferential option for the poor. If one is to be wise and live a life suffused with wisdom, one will be attentive in one’s dealings with the marginalized. God is watching such transactions, and we should beware that God’s wrath is stirred when the poor are defrauded.

  • Who are the poor? Are they only those who are economically disadvantaged?
  • Why do you think the wisdom teachers felt compelled to unite the themes of social justice with wisdom?

Psalm 146

Like the reading from Proverbs, this psalm also links the themes of wisdom and justice. While the psalm is initiated and concluded with praise (the last words of verse 10 transliterally read “hallelu yah”), the listener is invited to ponder the one power that is true and eternal – the Lord. The psalmist apparently has timeless perceptivity. How often do people of our own age “live for” ephemeral things: their jobs, entertainment idols or what other people think of them?

Once again, the theme of justice for the poor is underscored. It is striking to note how often this topic reappears – in the Torah, prophets, writings, the teachings of Jesus and the other biblical texts. Verses 6 and 7 literally refer to God as the “maker” of heaven and earth, and the “maker” of justice. A recent trip to the Galapagos Islands and the jungles of Costa Rica brought these realities into stark relief for me. I was awestruck by the sheer power and creative genius of God, the one who “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them,” as seen in the vast oceans and diverse animal life of those wonderful places. Such a power is unfathomable and frighteningly mysterious. And according to this psalm, that awesome power has a long memory (God “keeps faith forever”) and chooses to act on behalf of those who are oppressed. An awareness of this reality is what the wisdom tradition refers to as “fear of the Lord” (i.e., recognizing that there is a God, and it’s not us!). Simply calling to mind and living one’s life according to the wisdom and ethics of this psalm is itself a form of praise in the eyes of the psalmist.

  • Where have you experienced the creative power of God, who “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever”?
  • How do you interpret the psalmist’s linking of God’s majestic power with the theme of social justice?

James 2:1-17

The epistle of James is primarily concerned with faith being implemented in action. This text contains the oft-quoted line “So faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Many commentators have referred to this epistle as “wisdom literature,” so it is fitting in light of the themes of our previous two readings. Once again, the theme of social justice and proper treatment of the poor are paramount. James presents a scenario in verses 1-6 to illustrate his point. He suggests that we are inclined to treat a stranger with great honor who appears to be wealthy. But a stranger who appears to be poor, we dishonor. In light of the way we often initially react to those we encounter in our everyday life, it’s hard to believe that James was writing for a first-century Near Eastern Israelite-Christian community, not 21st century America!

Following an exhortation about the importance of free dedication to the law, meaning that one follows the law out of love for God and respect for God’s will, not fear of punishment, James states that compassion is a constitutive element of true wisdom. It is not zealous legalism that the Lord desires, but mercy for the weak. This echoes the teaching of Jesus, as well as that of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Finally, James addresses the necessity of faith manifesting itself through action. Luther found this passage troubling, especially in light of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone, but in sagely fashion James is saying that truth faith is transformative. Orthopraxis (right action) is just as important as orthodoxy (right thinking). If the transformative power of Christian discipleship does not lead to a radical change in one’s living – to a way of mercy, compassion and an ardent desire to live God’s will for love of neighbor – then one’s claim to be a faithful follower of Jesus is diminished in authenticity.

  • What are signs of a faith that is “transformative”?
  • How might we as sagely Christians resolve tensions between the letter of the law (be it biblical or ecclesiastical) and the biblical injunction to mercy and compassion?

Mark 7:24-37

Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman is the only instance where we see him lose an argument! But it is also an episode where Jesus appears to change his mind. At first, Jesus responds to this woman with disdain. Dogs were not domestic pets in his culture, but rather we seen as unclean scavengers. The woman’s persistence, despite the insult, indicates her trust in Jesus as a holy man. Jesus is often recognized as a master of language, in that he always has a response for his interlocutors. (Recall that in this culture no one every publicly asked a question of another to gain information. Rather, the hope was to inflict shame by catching one’s opponent unable to answer.) In this instance, we can almost sense a pregnant pause as Jesus is stumped by this woman, considers her plea, which involves expanding his healing ministry to non-Israelites, then affecting the cure of her daughter.

It has been suggested that prior to this, Jesus saw his mission as exclusively to the house of Israel, but he matured into the sense that this good news was for all nations. If this is the case, Jesus’ actions here are a clear challenge to the closed religious mind that is unable to evolve.

After the healing of the woman’s daughter, Jesus takes a circuitous route through “gentile” territory. Perhaps this is Mark’s way of presaging the church’s mission to the wider world, as well as Jesus’ apparent shift in perspective. The story of the healing of the deaf man highlights a number of notable elements. Let’s briefly consider two.

First, Jesus utilizes a ritual in his healing of this man. The use of spittle, the touching of the ears, looking to heaven, and the ritual words, all speak to the importance of ritual actions. Such gestures impact us on a very soulful level, and have the ability to open our hearts in singular ways to the grace of God.

Second, note the reaction of the crowd in verse 37. Their words allude to Isaiah 35:5-6. In that text, Israel was looking forward to a glorious future under God’s reign. The implication is that in Jesus’ ministry that glory has been inaugurated. It is especially important to realize that physical wholeness was to be one of the blessings of the coming kingdom of God. Unfortunately, throughout much of Christian history the body has been subjugated to the soul. But for Jesus and the Israelites, the body was an essential part of what it means to be a human person, and God is deeply concerned about physical well being.

  • What are the implications for contemporary believers of Jesus “changing his mind”? How might this challenge us?
  • How does Jesus’ attention to and compassion for people’s physical maladies tie into the themes of the other readings we have today?

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Christopher Sikkema


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