Bible Study

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Bible Study: Proper 21 (B) – 2012

September 30, 2012

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Today’s reading from the book of Numbers interweaves three themes – the peoples’ frustration with their situation of wandering in the desert with little to eat, Moses’ frustration with the heavy responsibilities he has been given, and the independence of the prophetic office from priestly control. The vacillation of both the Israelites and Moses in their trust in God’s guidance and protection is a matter that has received a great deal of reflection. In much preaching and catechesis, both Moses and the people are held up as negative examples, portraits of divided hearts, lacking in trust. (Jesus, in turn, is characterized as the model of faithfulness, as opposed to the unfaithful Israel.) But it might be helpful to allow ourselves to identify for a moment with both the people and Moses. Are there not times when we shake our fists at God, asking, “Why have you done this?” or “Why have you placed this burden upon me?” One who is spiritually mature inevitably passes through such times. Like Moses, we might bring these feelings of grievance to God, admitting our hurt, and allowing for the possibility that God will respond.

The final section of this reading deals with the gift of prophecy. The “elders” represent institutional leadership. Some of these leaders are given the gift of prophecy, but not all. Two other men, Eldad and Medad, were also given the gift of prophecy and were exercising it outside the leadership’s control. Moses, in an act of great wisdom, approves, wishing that all of God’s people might be so blessed with this gift. This passage is a warning to all who occupy positions of leadership in institutional churches – the Spirit will blow where she wills; the Spirit cannot and will not be confined to institutions and their leaders. Don’t try to obstruct her!

  • Have you had an experience analogous to the ancient Israelites,  a time that compelled you to complain to God, questioning God’s ways and plans? How did you navigate this spiritual crisis?
  • Do you see modern examples of the gift of prophecy being exercised beyond the confines of institutional religion? Conversely, do you see examples of institutions trying to muzzle prophets?

Psalm 19:7-14

The Law, the themes of these verses of Psalm 19, was seen by the Israelites as a gift of God. Because God loved them so, God taught them how to live harmonious and holy lives through the giving of the Law. But God’s Law was more than the 613 precepts of the Torah. It also included the wisdom of God. The books of the Wisdom canon, which include Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, the Canticle, Wisdom, and Sirach, were reflections upon God’s teaching revealed in the everyday ebb and flow of life. When discerned, these “laws” led to the “good life” – peace, justice, genuine neighborliness.

The psalmist extols the Law in a way that implies more than literal observance of its precepts. The gaining of wisdom is also underscored (verse 7), and the happiness one gains through living the spirit of the Law is sweet (verse 10). Verse 11 speaks of a great reward. Contemporary Christians might be inclined to view this in a simplistic, reward/punishment matrix: the reward will come in the form of admission to heaven. But at this point in Israelite religion, belief in an afterlife was not a part of the religious imagination. If reward were to come at all, it would be in this life. And the prize for following the laws of Wisdom would be fullness of life here and now.

  • How do you understand the concept of God’s Law? Is it more than written decrees? Does it include the teaching of Wisdom discerned through everyday living? How might we integrate those two conceptions of law – written decrees and Wisdom teaching?
  • How do you interpret verse 11 – “in keeping them there is great reward”? Do you view the reward as a deferred dividend we receive in heaven, or as the fullness of life here and now? What implications, good and bad, might these two different interpretations have as we seek to live as disciples today?

James 5:13-20

These are the closing verses of the letter of James, a text attributed to Jesus’ brother, written possibly as early as 60 CE. James exhorts his readers to integrate their faith into every aspect of their lives, and resist faith being reduced to the acceptance of theory and ideas.

The author’s final thoughts deal with prayer and ritual. Notice James’ instruction to call for the elders to pray over the sick, using oil in the name of the Lord. This ritual most certainly was a forerunner of the sacrament of anointing. We also note James’ teaching that we should confess our sins to one another – a possible prototype of sacramental confession. What is most significant is that James commends prayer and ritual. One could easily argue that the ill should pray directly, and only to the Lord for healing, and confess sins only to God. James recognizes the need for human contact through ritualized gestures/actions, things that are rapidly disappearing from our contemporary western culture.

James concludes by underscoring his major theme – faith in action. Christians, in James’ teaching, must do more than hear the word. They must act. The author’s reference to death in verse 20 does not refer to physical death or damnation in the afterlife, but rather separation from the community. Faith in action, then, is faith that works for the building up and preservation of the community. Although individual members of a community might be sinners, the good work to maintain the unity of the group serves to counteract, to “cover a multitude of sins” (v. 20).

  • Why are ritual prayers and gestures important in the practice of Christian faith?
  • When have such rituals been especially significant in your experience?

Mark 9:38-50

This gospel text has the potential to raise serious questions for our Christian communities; questions that most likely will not have clear answers. After echoing the teaching and example of Moses as we studied earlier (i.e., that the work of God/the Spirit will not always be under institutional control – or not under the immediate control of Jesus and his disciples, in this context), Jesus employs a common ancient literary device to teach another point: the body metaphor. The body was often used to symbolize the community. (See also 1 Cor. 12.) Jesus is here addressing the issue of scandal – if a member of the community is leading others astray, that member should be removed, before the whole body is damaged. Jesus’ language here is strong. His concluding proverb about salt is not innocuous. Salt was used in the ancient Near East as a catalyst to start fires. He is telling his audience to be confrontational at times. Verse 50 could be interpreted to mean that troublemakers should be confronted so that the community can have peace. In the context of our modern church communities, we struggle to find a balance between protecting the integrity of the community and being compassionate toward the wayward, and we must also be aware of those who would abuse Jesus teaching about dealing with scandalous members.

  • How are we to address the issue of “scandal” in our church communities?
  • How might we be “salt,” as Jesus instructs, but still be compassionate toward others?

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Christopher Sikkema


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