Saturday, February 14, 2009

Lectionary Notes

Some Thoughts on the Readings for Proper 6, Year B
The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
15 February, AD 2009

Owing to a glitch in the internet service, there were no lectionary notes last week. I am sorry for the inconvenience. Readers may be interested to know that two of my Lenten Sermons are available on the Reflections page at the Anglican Diocese of Toronto website.

Both the first reading, 2 Kings 5.1-14, and the Gospel, Mark 1.40-45, tell of the cleansing of a person suffering from leprosy. As all the commentaries tell us, the words translated as “leprosy” do not necessarily mean the disease now known as leprosy, that is, Hanson’s disease, but several repulsive skin diseases, and the precise meaning is uncertain. Indeed, the laws concerning “leprosy” in Leviticus 13-14 also cover blemishes affecting garments and buildings.
The horror and fear of this disease meant that the sufferer was quarantined, at least in its later stages. In Israel it involved ritual uncleanness and complete exclusion fro community and religious life. “According to the rabbis, the healing of leprosy was ‘as difficult as the raising of the dead’” (D. E. Nineham). Apparently, whatever malady Naaman suffered was not so far advanced that he had to be quarantined.
There is a striking difference between the two stories in the manner of the healer. When Naaman comes to Elijah’s doorway, the prophet sends a message telling him to wash in the Jordan and be cleansed; he does not deign to come out to him, let alone heal him with some impressive gesture. The Lord Jesus, on the other hand, is moved with pity and reaches out to touch the leper who has fallen on his knees before him, with no regard for contagion or ritual uncleanness.

The other synoptic Gospels tell this story in different contexts. In Matthew 8.2-4 it comes just after the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, while in Luke 5:12-16 it comes just after the account of the unexpected catch of fish (5.1-11). This suggests that this story of a leper cleansed originally circulated as an isolated unit of tradition, and that each evangelist has used it for his own, presumably theological, reasons. Indeed, as it stands in Marks Gospel, where it follows a summary of Jesus’ preaching in Galilee (1.39) and no further indication of where or when it happened.. Perhaps Mark intended it to be “a sort of appendix to the specimen day, showing that Christ ‘s power was able to deal even with leprosy—a claim that would certainly have seemed something of a climax to the contemporary reader.” What the Old Testament religion could not do, Jesus did readily. (D. E. Nineham). According to Luke 7.22, the cleaning of lepers was an expected sign of the Messiah’s coming. On all this see Romans 8.3.

Everyone knows that the Olympic games were meant to be a revival of the games that were celebrated at ancient Olympia every four years, but are less familiar with the other Greek games that were celebrated regularly in ancient times, the Nemean games, the Pythian games at Delphi, and the Isthmian Games which were held near Corinth every two years. So it is not surprising that St Paul would think of using athletic metaphors in his letter to the Corinthian Christians. This metaphor extends the comments in the preceding passage about the discipline he has taken on “for the sake of the gospel”. Like all metaphors, this one should not be pushed too far. St Pau; uses the fact that on the track, all the contestants run, but only one wins, to remind the Corinthians of the possibility that they may fail to persevere in the faith. The RCL notes are helpful here:
It seems that by being believers and joining in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church some Christians at Corinth thought themselves sure of eternal life – but the Christian way requires more than this. While we all set out on the Way in our baptism, not all persevere as we should. In athletics, one person wins; in Christian life, not all persevere beyond baptism so Paul says “run in such a way that you may win it” (v. 24).
This calls to mind the verse of the Psalm, “While I felt secure, I said, I shall never be disturbed”. In Christian life it is necessary to know the difference between a sure and certain trust in God’s love and a feeling of security. We can speak of a certain and sure trust in God because it is founded on the steadfast love promised in scripture, but security is founded on a complacent trust in one’s own constancy. Lancelot Andrewes once had occasion to note that:

The Holy Scriptures nowhere recommend Security, but rather seem to to take offence at the Word: We ought to avoid it, since such are reproved by the Apostle, who would trust to it: For when Men shall say, Peace and Safety, then sudden Destruction cometh upon them, 1 Thess. 5.3. Wherefore I think it ought to be avoided as a thing of an ill Omen. [A Review of the Censure passed upon Dr Barrett’s Opinion concerning Certainty of Salvation]

A little later in the same work, Andrewes adds:

For he that is secure, does not only banish all doubtfulness, but even care too: For Security is directly opposed to care. But we are commanded by the Holy Ghost to make use of all our care and watchfulness: And the Apostle, Heb. 6.11. desires, That every one should shew the same diligence, even unto the end.

St Paul also writes “Therefore let any one who stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10.12). It is this which underlies the teaching on self-control of today’s passage.

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