Friday, August 28, 2009

Lectionary Notes

Some Notes for the Sunday between 28 August and 3 September
Proper 22, Year B
30 August 2009: the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The title of this post should probably “A Few Notes”, or “Some Scattered Thoughts”. Not only were there problems in getting the post ready, my computer is causeing difficulties which have limited my ability to format the post as I should like. I trust you will look past that, kind reader, and mnake what use you can of the content.

First Reading: Song of Songs 2.8-13
The course of our readings from the Old Testament moves from following the hstory of Israel to selections from the poetry and wisdom of Israel, beginning with a short passage from the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon. This is the only passage from this book in the Sunday lectionary, but it occurs twice: now and as a Canticle which may be read for Proper 14 in Year A. For the rest of Year B the first readings are taken from Proverbs, Esther, Job, and Ruth, before returnng to Samuel on the last two Sundays.
The Song of Songs takes its title from the first verse, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s”. Although this is sometimes taken to mean the book if made of many songs, the expression song of songs, like Holy of holies, is in Hebrew idiom a superlative: this is the highest and best of songs, or, perhaps, “:the best song in the world”. “Which is Solomon’s” most naturally suggests that he was the author, though this is not widely accepted by scholars today; it might on the other hand, simply derive from the reference to Solomon in Chapter 3. These questions need not concern us too much when we hear the passage read in Church: more important is understanding how a book that simply contains the songs of a woman and her lover, the Bride and the Bridegroom, conveys the word of God. As the New Oxford Annotated Bible puts it, “The Song has no overt religious content corresponding to the other books of the Bible, and can be so interpreted only by assuming that a mystical symbolism is involved in its highly figurative language.” Here we can only mention briefly that in Jewish tradition in the Midrash and the Targum, it is read as an allegory of God's love for the Children of Israel, while in Christian tradition that began with Origen, it is regarded as an allegory of the relationship of Christ and the Church, or else Christ and the individual believer. The western tradition the greatest commentary on this book is found in the sermons of St Bernard of Clairvaux. His sermons are available on line at several sites, which are easily found by googling “Bernard of Clairvaux Song of Songs”. one is :
Some readers may remember being amused by the translation of verse 12 in the Authorized (King James) Version, which says “the voice of the turtle is heard in the land”. Modern versions now say “turtledove”, but it is perhaps interesting to note that the word turtle originally meant the bird and not the reptile. “Turtle” is from the Latin “turtur”, dove. Apparently, English sailors of the seventeenth century found it hard to pronounce the French “tortue” and called the sea-tortoise a “turtle”.

Psalm 45.1-2, 7-10
An ode for a royal wedding. The passage was obviously chosen as a reflection on the reading from the Song of Songs.

The Epistle: James 1.17-27
Having finished with Ephesians, we turn to the Letter of James for the next several weeks. This as been desribed as a sermon in the form of a letter. The author, of whom nothing is known, is concerned that his readers know how a Christian ought to live. For questions of authorship and date, and a general introduction to the letter, you might want to see Other general points about this letter will come up over the course of the selections in the lectionary.
The passage we read today immediately follows the statement , “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren,” which concludes a denial that anyone can say, “I am tempted by God”; it is our own desires that tempt us [1.13-15] and bring forth sin. What come from God is not temptation or evil but good and perfect gifts Note that all of 1.2-18 is headed ‘De tentatione” in the Latin edition of the New Testament. We ought perhaps to keep in mind the contrast with temptation as we read this. passage.
The exhortation to be doers of the word and not merely hearers is founded in the teaching of the Lord Jesus. See Mt 7.21 and. 24-27. As the NOAB introduction to James puts it, “the letter is a remarkably pure specimen of the ethical teaching found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Note the comparison of one who is a hearer but not a doer with a person examining his face in a mirror (v. 23-24)

The Holy Gospel: Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I regret parochial obligations have made it impossible to prepare any comments on this passage in time to include them here. If I had time, I would prepare something on the statement that “from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts ….” (verses 21 to 23) to point out how this goes against the common and mistaken idea that our problems come from a pure soul in an impure body. C. S. Lewis somehwere wrote a dialogue between the soul and body in which the soul complains of the body’s bad habits, to which the body rejoins, “Well, you taught me to like these things”. We come here to a clear idea of the goodness of the body (and of the physical world in general) which is of course grounded in the doctrine of creation. This train of thought becomes very complicated, however.
It may be noted, however, the parallels to this passage are Matthew 15.1-20 and Luke 11.38-9. t is also usefi to compare Matthew 23, especially verses 13-28.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Lectionary Notes

Some Notes on Proper 19 Year B

As you will have noticed, dear Readers, this week'es notes are late and incomplete. The reasons were technical, tedious, and beyond my control. However, since I wrote this much, I think I should make it available,
For the next couple of weeks these notes will be on hiatus, as they say in the TV biz, while I take a little vacation. I’ll be back before the end of the month.

2 Samuel 18.5-9, 15, 30-33. More than any of the sections of the story of King David which we have read so far, this one requires work on the part of those who hear it read in church or have the task of explaining it, because we enter the story at the end, as David sends his troops out against his son Absalom.
Absalom was David’s third son, by Maacah, daughter of Talmai the king of Geshur [2 Sam 3.3, 1 Chron 3.2]. The story of Absalom’s rebellion and downfall is told in 2 Samuel from Chapter 13 to Chapter 18. Very briefly, it goes like this. Absalom’s half-brother Amnon, Davids eldest son, raped Tamar, who was full-sister of Absalom. David was angry, but apparently did not punish Amnon. Absalom nursed his anger for two years, and then orchestrated the murder of Amnon and fled to his grandfather’s kingdom. David’s heart went out to him [2 Sam 13]. Joab, David’s general, realized what his king wanted and contrived Absolom’s return to Jerusalem. though David refused to see his son for a further two years. The New Oxford Annotated Bible suggests that it was at this time that Absalom began to plot revolt. At last, by another stratagem, Absalom got Joab to act for him again, and was returned to his father’s good will [2 Sam 14]. Absalom began to put himself in the public eye and court popular favour, and at least assure his own succession. He went on a pretext to Hebron, where he had himself proclaimed king [2 Sam 15.1-12]; When David heard the news of this, and that Absalom has marched on Jerusalem, he fled the city, and escaped across the Jordan with his standing army and begins a military comeback. In Jerusalem Absalom was advised, to “go in to your father’s concubines” which he did “in the sight of all Israel”, thus fulfilling the word of the Lord by the prophet Nathan wich we read last week [2 Sam 16-17, see 12.10-11]. David gathers his army and planned a campaign against his son. His officers politely explained why he should not go out with the troops, probably in order that he stay away from involvement in Absalom’s fate. At this point the passage for today begins.
David’s love for his son is shown first in his order, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” and then in his mourning on the news of Absalom’s death, a cry that conveys his agony across the centuries.
The fight with Absalom took place in the forest of Ephraim. On the detail that “the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword,” an old rabbinic comment was that this meant “the wild beasts of the forest. So did Jonathan translate it” [Rashi]. Some commentators describe this forest as a “region of thickets”, but one must presume that there were at least trees with enough larger branches for a rider to be caught by his head. The tradition that Absalom was caught by his luxuriant hair is based on the description of the young man in 2 Samuel 14.25-26
Now in all Israel there was no one so much to be praised for his beauty as Absalom; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish on him. And when he cut the hair of his head (for at the end of every year he used to cut it; when it was heavy on him he cut it), he weighted the heair of his head, two hundred shekels by the king’s weight. (According to the note in NOAB, two hundred shekels would have been roughly five pounds.)
The mule on which Absalom rode [v. 9] was the usual mount for royalty.
By omitting verses 10-14, the lectionary has avoided a possible question of interpretation, since it seems that there are conflicting accounts of the killing of Absalom. It also removes the blame from Joab, though I cannot see why that shold concern us particularly today.
On the level of dynastic and family politics, Absalom’s rebellion should not be seen as something too extraordinary. When kings had many sons and there was no fixed law of succession, the temptation to force the event, as Absalom has done, must be great. At the end of his life, when another son, Adonijah, sought to make himself king, David arranged in a sort of counter-coup that Solomon should be crowned king, so that he could succeed him [1 Kings 1].

Psalm 130 De profundis, Domine, is one of the great penitential Psalms. It is one of the fifteen psalms [120-134] described as “A Song of Ascents” The word is also translates “degrees” or “steps”; the term “Gradual Psalms” is also used: it simply means “pertaining to steps” (from the Latin gradus, a step). The name may come from the use of these psalms by the people on the ascents or goings up to Jerusalem to attend the three pilgrim festivals (from which they are also known as “pilgrim songs”) or because they were sung by the priests as they ascended the steps to minister at the Temple in Jerusalem. In the case of this Psalm the ascent is clear in another way: the Psalm begins in depths like the depths of the sea (Isaiah 51.10, Psalm 69.2, 14) and rises to trust in the forgiveness and salvation of the Lord.

The Epistle, Ephesians 4.25-5.2, speaks of our duty as Christians towards our neighbours. Last week the reading ended at 4:16. In the verses omitted from the lectionary St Paul reminds his reader that they “must no longer live as the Gentiles do”; the passage we do read puts it all in a series of positive injunctions. Nonetheless it would be helpful to read the whole of 4.17-5.2 for a more complete sense of his teaching. For us the practical meaning is that we are not to model our lives on the ways of the world. It is not that everything not if the church is bad, rather that we cannot simply assume that the normal way of life is the Christian way of life. Fortunately, concentrating on the positive teaching of 4.25-5.2 is more than enough to be going on with!
It would also be useful to read 5.3-14. since these verses are also omitted from the lectionary: next week we pick up at 5.15. When you have read this passage you might ask yourself why it was omitted. The obvious reason is length: the Sunday readings have to be selective; but might there be other reasons?
The teachings in this passage are fairly straightforward. On 4.26 the NOAB comments: If angry, let it neither be in a sinful spirit nor prolonged and refers to Psalm 4.4 and James 1.19-20. Not all anger is sinful, though, like fire, we must be very careful how we play with it.