Friday, March 20, 2009

Lent IV (Part II): Lectionary Notes

Some Thoughts for Lent IV, Year B

The Collect
The Collect for Lent IV in Years B and C seems to allude to the miraculous feeding and the Brad Discourses of the Fourth Gospel, although neither of these themes are mentioned in the Gospels or the other readings appointed. May we take it that this is a remaining allusion to the old “Refreshment Sunday”. It is interesting to note in this context that in the modern Roman rite the Entrance Antiphon for today in all three years is Rejoice, Jersualem!

The Readings
Both the First Reading (Numbers 21.4-9) and the Holy Gospel (John 3.14-21) were read on Holy Cross Day: some comments on these readings may be found in the posting for that feast on this blog (see September 12 2008).
The First Reading.
The people of Israel are now in the desert probably near the northeaster edge of the Sinai peninsula (southwest of the Dead Sea.) They had set out from Kadesh and attempted to pass into Canaan through Edom, whose king refused them passage and came out against them with an army. So they set out to go to Mount Hor, where Aaron died, after which they began a long to the Red Sea (the Gulf of Aquaba) and around Edom. The imaptience of the people is explained as arising from hunger and dissatisfaction with the manna, but repulsion by Edom and the death of Aaron surely made things worse. A plague of serpents was seen as God’s punishment for their grumbling. The serpents are described as “fiery”. This has been interpreted to refer to their venom, hence the translation “venomous”. Another suggestion is that it refers to their colour.
There is no suggestion in this readingthat any divine honours were paid to the serpent of bronze (Nehushtan). However, it was kept and became an object of popular worship during the Israelite monarchy, and the people offered incense to it (the serpent was one of the symbols of the worship of Baal). It was smashed to bits during the reforms of Hezekiah (about 701 BC) because it was thought that rendering homage to it was incompatible with faith in Yahweh. (2 Kings 18.4):
He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.
The Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22.
An exhortation to groups of pilgrims to “give thanks to the Lord”. Verses 1-3 are a general call to thanksgiving; particular groups are addressed ion the rest of the psalm. Verses 17-22 are the thanksgiving of those healed from sickness. As we read this section today we are reminded of the events of the first reading. A particular resonance is found in v. 18, “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.” The setting of this psalm is probably the Temple in Jerusalem, but nothing more is known of its occasion.The reference to those saved fromn the four corners of the earth (v. 3) has been taken to suggest that the psalm was composed after the Exile. The RCL notes on this Psalm are not very useful.

The Epistle: Ephesians 2.1-10.
Scholarly opinion is divided about whether the letter to the Ephesians is the work of St Paul; this soes not affect the letter’s status as Scripture, and so need not detain us now. There si a comment on the question in the RCL notes for this Sunday. Tos save space I will add nothing to Mr Haslam’s comments on this passage [].

The Holy Gospel: John 3.14-21
It was my great joy this week to find a good and inexpensive copy of Readings in St John’s Gospel: First and Second Series, written by William Temple when he was Archbishop of York. This is one of the most valuable resources for a meditative study of the fourth Gospel. I do not believe it would be going to far to say that it deserves a place in the library of every thinking Christian.
Temple’s comments prompt me to suggest that today’s Gospel should be read in tandem with that for next Sunday, John 12:20-33, since in both our Lord speaks of his “being lifted up”. We should remember that the original word means both “lift up” and “exalt” (the same play on words is found in a different sense in Genesis 40). I also think that the RCL comment that “the reading should probably include v. 13” is quite correct.
Referring to v. 13 and the opening of today’s Gospel, Temple wrote:
It is not enough that the Son of Man should come down out of heaven; He must be lifted up. The necessity—must—is grounded in the nature of God. Because God is what He is, this ‘lifting up’ is inevitable. But as yet its meaning is undisclosed. In itself the word suggests triumph; and that is part of its meaning. But the reference to the serpent in the wilderness makes it clear that something more specific is in view. What that is becomes plain when He says ‘I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me’ (xii.32, 33). But here that reference to the Cross is not yet so clear as to obscure the thought of triumph: so we are prepared to have the thought of triumph in our minds as we approach the Cross, and to enter into the great Johannine apprehension that the Passion is the divine Glory.
The Passion could not be this if it were barren of results; but its purpose is known —that everyone that believeth on him may have eternal Life.
With that statement we come to what Luther called “the Gospel in miniature,” and Temple “the central declaration, more central for Christian faith than even The Word became flesh”. If this is true it is surely vain and foolish to think of making any brief comment on this verse. Yet one point I found in my reading might usefully be repeated. In one old commentary I found on The Internet Archive it is noted that God did not send but gave his only Son: ”gave” implies much more than sent; it expresses entire surrender —the gift carried to the utmost limits of sacrifice, if needs be, so that not only is the sacrifice offered in death, but that the Sacrificial Body should be partaken of. “My Father giveth you the true bread which is from heaven.” It goes on to quote the Prayer Book Exhortation : “Almighty God our heavenly Father … hath given his only Son … not only to die for us, but also to be our spiritual food and sustenance in that holy Sacrament.”
We will end on a lighter note. Some decades ago a Roman Catholic scholar in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, noted the difficulties experienced by those who translate the Scriptures into the languages of East Asia. An interesting, if extreme example of this involved John 3:16.
This verse was translated by a Thai scholar and then given to an ordinary Thai reader. His understanding of the translation was this: “For God lusted after the world so much that he gave his Son, so that those who are gullible to accept him may have the misfortune of not dying but living forever.” In the cultural context of the reader the rendering was quite understandable. Words like ‘love’ and ‘believe’ had simply been translated in a way that was ambiguous to that ordinary person. Moreover … for the Buddhist, life and living are miserable realities as they know them, and their continuation is hardly something to be desired.
The point he was making was that someone besides the scholar must be involved in the work of translation. The ‘man in the street’ must be consulted, at least in some capacity.
From The Bible Today, ca 1970

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