Thursday, October 23, 2008

Lectionary Notes

Some Thoughts for the Week of Proper 30 Year A
The XXIV Sunday after Pentecost
October 26, AD 2008
Dear Readers: Last weekend I was somewhat distracted by the joyful celebration of the wedding of my niece, which is why there were no lectionary notes. I hope this was not too inconvenient. Indeed, I wonder if many actually find these notes interesting or useful. Perhaps, if you do, you might let me know. I am happy to provide them if they are of interest.

The Sentence
is adapted from John 14.23, and is also used in the Roman Missal as the Alleluia verse, reminds us that our love of God in Christ issues forth in the keeping of his commandments, just as the love of neighbour is inseparable from the love of God. In meditating on this active love, it is useful to recall words of Fr Huntington, Founder of the Order of the Holy Cross:
Holiness is the brightness of divine love: love must act as light must shine and fire must burn.
~ (A Monastic Breviary, p. 462, 3rd antiphon for the Solemnity of Fr Huntington)

The Collect
reflects the first reading in a vague sort of way, with its reference to the Promised Land, but seems even more apt for Proper 22 (p. 377) when the call of Moses was read. A collect that would seem to fit today’s gospel better might be that for Proper 13 (p. 365).
The Readings
The first reading: Deuteronomy 34.1-12.
In the Roman Missal the reading is Exodus 22.20-26, which more immediately refers to the teachings of the Gospel; our reading continues to follow the general outline of the history of Israel. It is the last chapter not only of Deuteronomy but of the five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch, known as the Torah or Law. This is the first of the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, the Law, Nevi’im, the Prophets, and Ketuvim, the Scriptures (hence the word Tanakh. (Note that different English transliterations of these Hebrew words may be found).
In the Land of Moab to the east of the Jordan, the people of Israel are ready to enter the promised land. God takes Moses aside, however, to give him a sight of the land but to die without entering it, because Moses “broke faith” with him when the people demanded water and God provided it (32:48-52, see also Numbers 20:1-13). From the mountain Moses can see all the land, from Dan in the north to the desert of the south, from the Jordan in the east to the western Sea, the Mediterranean.
After this view, Moses, an old man, dies “at the Lord’s command,” which literally means “at the mouth of the Lord, which gave rise to a tradition that Moses died as a result of a divine kiss. Note that the NRSV “He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab ….” is in error; the text says “He buried him”, clearly signifying that the Lord himself buried Moses. Moses’ burial place is unknown. Many traditions and legends grew up around this subject; see Jude 9. One result of it is that there is no danger of worship being accorded to him at his tomb. Joshua, son of Nun, Moses assistant, succeeded to the leadership: Moses had laid hands on him (Numbers 27.18-23)
The last two verses are in praise of Moses.
The fact that this passage reports the death and burial of Moses, posed problems for the traditional belief that Moses himself had written these five books. This tradition goes back centuries, and was largely unquestioned until the Renaissance and modern times. If you are interested in the authorship of the books of Moses, you might begin with the two Wikipedia articles on the subject, and
A good library will also have several one-volume bible commentaries which will have more information on this point. The commentary of Rashi (which may be found on line at the Judaica Press Complete Tanach) notes two rabbinic treatments of thus passage. One is that Moses had written the Torah up to this poiint, and Joshua carried on. Another is that God dictated the description of Moses’ death, and “Moses wrote it in tears”.
Finally, although I have not seen this noted elsewhere, there may be an interesting parallel between God’s showing the whole land to Moses from Mount Pisgah (verse 1) and the devil’s showing all the kingdoms of the world to the Lord Jesus from “a very high mountain” -- in a sort of infernal parody (Matthew 4.8; Luke 4:5).
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

Our Psalm for today comprises two sections of a prayer for deliverance from national adversity or “group lament”. The opening six verses are in the form of a hymn that declare God’s eternity and the transience of humanity (compare Isaiah 40.6-8); the final section is a more hopeful prayer that the Lord will deliver from its difficulties. The suggested refrain is “Happy are they who fear the Lord”. Apart from the traditional inscription, The prayer of Moses the man of God, it is not quite clear to me why this psalm was chosen for this Sunday. It may be that the pondering of the brevity and transience of our life is an apt reflection on the death of Moses. Be that as it may, meditation on our own mortality is an imperative duty for all Christians. Note verse 3, in which the psalmist sees death as a return to the dust, that is, the reversal of the creation of human beings from the dust (Genesis 2:7).

A light note

Ambrose Bierce was perhaps not being pointlessly cynical when he suggested in The Devil's Dictionary that RIP (Rest in Peace, Requiescat in pace) really stands for Reductus in pulverem, reduced to dust. [Bierce seems to have given the phrase incorrectly, his definition of RIP is: “A careless abbreviation of requiescat in pace, attesting to indolent goodwill to the dead. According to the learned Dr. Drigge, however, the letters originally meant nothing more than reductus in pulvis.”]

The Epistle: 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8.

We began to read selections from St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians last Sunday and will continue for the rest of the Church year. This is probably the earliest of Paul’s surviving letters, and the earliest portion of the New Testament. On his second missionary journey (Acts 15.40-18.22), after he was driven out of Philippi in Macedonia (not Caesarea Philippi), Paul went to Thessalonica, the capital of the province along with Silas and Timothy, where he preached for three Sabbaths and gained converts (Acts 17), but had to leave. In his concern for the new congregation, which faced persecution, Paul sent Timothy to strengthen them. On Timothy’s return with a good report of their faithfulness and loyalty, Paul wrote to declare his gratitude and to exhort the Thessalonians to Christian conduct. He also addressed two questions about Christ’s second advent in glory. These questions are dealt with in 4.13-18 (read this year on November 9) and 5.1-11 (read this year on November 16).
The opening verses of Chapter 2 are variously interpreted: see both the comments at the RCL site and the clippings: . These notes are also helfpul for the rest of the passage.

The Gospel: St Matthew 22.34-46

This passage includes two incidents which conclude the series of tests to which Jesus was put by his opponents (Matthew 22.15-46). These were: the question about the tribute money, posed by the Pharisees and the Herodians (15-22), the question about the resurrection, posed by the Sadducees (23-33) and the lawyer’s question about the greatest commandment (34-40, the first part of today’s reading). Then Jesus himself asks a question of his opponents (41-46), taking the offensive to end these attacks.
The lawyer — but we must first be clear: this is not a lawyer as we would understand the word but a student and teacher of the Torah, the Law of Moses; the older translations were certainly more accurate and maybe more clear to say “doctor of the law” — asks a question that was often debated in those days. There were 613 laws; some considered ‘heavy’, others ‘light’; it would seem that to keep the law faithfully required one to know which had priority. But to ask which is the ‘greatest’ is to ask where the centre and core of the law is to be found. It is only in this way that we can be sure to avoid a legalism that makes of the law a killing letter rather than a life-giving spirit.
Jesus’s answer would not have been surprising to the lawyer; he quoted two passages from the law, Deuteronomy 6.5 and Leviticus 19.18. What was surprising was the fact that he joined them so that one could not be considered without the other.
The comments on this passage at the RCL site are good: see -- and remember to check the “clippings” page as well.
As a companion to the first part of the Gospel passage I would recommend the Homily on Christian Love and Charity from the first Book of Homilies which was published in 1547 in the reign of Edward VI. It may be found at
The RCL notes are also useful for the second part of the passage, the question about the Messiah as David’s son and David’s Lord. I will only note here that this passage depends on a traditional ascription of authorship, this time of Psalm 110 to David. It would seem that there is no real difficulty in this: even though modern scholarship questions this ascription, it was universally believed at the time of our Lord. To some, however, the possibility that Christ could have been in error about a particular fact (such as the authorship of Psalm 110) raises difficulties for belief in his divinity (how can he be in error?). The true doctrine of the Incarnation should ease this difficulty: if our Lord truly took on a human nature, then he truly had a human mind, and a mind of people of his time. As man he was not omniscient: “he increased in wisdom” (Luke 2. 52). The real difficulty, if there is one, is that we cannot understand how the divine and human natures can be united in one person and perhaps that we have no idea what that experience would have been. But that is a different question.


Felicity Pickup said...

Q. Finding the notes interesting or useful?
A. When I read your query, I didn't have an answer. While listening to the readings this Sunday morning I found myself correlating your notes with what I was hearing. Seems that I was hearing more. Which answered a question that's been in my mind, "Why does anyone look at the Sunday readings in advance, if they are not required to?"

William Craig said...

Thanks again, Felicity.

That is just the effect I hope these notes will have. Another reason I produce them is that the sermon is not a very effective way of giving instruction on three separate (and often disparate) readings! I can always do a better job, of course!