Friday, September 25, 2009

Lectionary Notes

Some Notes for the Sunday between 25 September and 1 October
(Proper 26, Year B)
Sunday, 27 November, 2009
As everyone knows, Anglicans around the world are keeping “Back to Church Sunday”. I can’t see much in the readings that is particularly helpful for this event. Nor do the proper prayers seem to resonate with the readings appointed for Year B. So with all that in mind, let’s plunge right into the readings.

The First reading: Esther 7.1-6, 9-10, 9.20-22
The Book of Esther, which is the last of the historical books of the Christian Old Testament, is in the Hebrew Scriptures one of the books of the third division, “the Writings”. which came after the five books of the Law and the books of the Prophets. It is not history, but a legend (some have called it a novella and others, historical fiction). According to introduction in the NOAB, “it seems to have been written as propaganda for the observance in Palestine of a festival, brought home by Jews from the Diaspora, which they called Purim and celebrated on the 14th or 15th of Adar (in February-March)”. The book makes no mention of the Jewish religion nor indeed does it mention the name of God. In the Greek translation (The Septuagint) more religious additions were made to it; these may be found among the books called Apocrypha in a complete English Bible under the title “The Additions to the Book of Esther”.
The book tells the story of how Esther, a beautiful young Jewish girl who became Queen of Persia, saved her people from the wicked plot of Haman, the king’s vizier, to destroy them because he was offended by Mordecai, Esther’s uncle. Our reading today is from the end of the book, and relates how Esther won the day and Haman was foiled. Theere are few points that need special comment here. We might note that in 7.2 Ahasuerus the king promises to grant any request of Esther up to half his kingdom, a usual extravagance in folk tales. Note the similar promise of Herod Antipas in Mark 6.23. Again, the words in 7.4, We have been sold refers to 3.9, where Haman offers a bribe to convince the king to approve his wicked scheme.
Psalm 124
This is a psalm of national thanksgiving and is an fitting response to the reading from Esther It is also one of the songs of Ascents, which we sung by pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem (I believe we commented on this in general some weeks ago) The first five verses of this psalm speak of a time of great danger for the people, and the last three are a thanksgiving for God’s favour. There is little need for specific comment. We might note that the last verse has passed into Christian liturgy to become a versicle and response before solemn blessings.
James 5.13-20
In the course of the lectionary we now reach the end of the general Epistle of James. The notes in NOAB give 5.7-20 th ecaption “Concluding encouragement”. It begins with an encouragement to constant prayer (5.13) and to seeking the prayers of the church in sickness (5.14-15). These two verses are impirtant for the practice of anointing with oil for healing. Olive oil, which was commonly used as a medicine in ancient times, is here “invested with a spoecial significance through connection with the divine name” (note in NOAB). It si tempting to fancy that the Greek words ἐλαίών (olive oil) and ἒλεος (mercy) are related. Pastorally one might want to put a little more stress on the statement that the sick person should “call for the elders”.
Elder was the name of an office in the early Church: in Acts we read of the “apostles and elders” in Jerusalem (Acts 14.23, 15.2, 4, 6, 22-23, 16.4, 20.17; see also 1 Timothy 4.14, 5.17, 19 and Titus 1.5-6). The Greek for elder is presbuteros, in which we recognize the English ‘presbyter’; by the wear of centuries of use, it has also given us the word “priest” (so Milton: “New presbyter is but old priest writ large”, On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament, 1646).
The healing of illness is closely linked to the forgiveness of sins, which leads to the remaining exhortations of this passage. The reference to Elijah is to 1 Kings 17.1 and 18.1 and to Luke 4.25. In the RCL notes here is a comment on the possible apocalyptic significance of “three years and six months” (5.17). On verse 20, compare 1 Peter 4.8, Proverbs 10.12, Luke 7.47.

The Holy Gospel according to St Mark, 9.48-50.
This passage follows immediately upon last week’s reading. It is a collection of sayings that are associated by the phrase “in the name”.
Some have suggested that the first three verses, concerning the strange exorcist reflects the experience of the early church rather than the time of Jesus. They point in particular to the expression “he was not following us”. Further, they wonder whether others would have begun using Jesus’ name in such a way already in the time of his ministry . even mre, they suggest that had Jesus given the tolerant response here reported, the church would not have so quickly lapsed into intolerance (see Acts 19.13-20). But see Numbers 11.26-29.
Matthew 12.30 and Luke 11.23 (He who is not with me is against me) apparently contradict verse 41, but it should be pointed out that the context of the verses is quite different. In Matthew and Luke, the comment is made about critics of Jesus who call his exorcisms the work of the devil.
Verse 41 appears in a different context in Matthew 10.42.
With its reference to the “little ones who believe”, verse 42 harkens back to the end of last week’s reading (verse 37), although some suggest it refers to the strange exorcist. The following verses are joined to it because they also speak of counting life against anything we have. The “great millstone” is literally “a donkey stone”; the size of the upper millstone was such that a donkey was needed to turn it. The sheer hyperbole of this verse makes abundantly clear the importance of doing no harm at all, let alone causing any to stumble or sin. In a similar way the next verses decalre that anything we are or have is expendable in comparison with the life Christ offers us.
At some point in the history of the Gospel text, verse 48 “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” has, by a kind of attraction, been added after he mention of hell in verses 45 and 47. “Hell” here translates the word Gehenna, which refers to the Valley of Hinnon outside Jersualem. In the days of the kings, this valley had been the site of the worship of Moloch, a deity to whom children were burnt in sacrifice. King Josiah desecrated the valley, after which it was used for the burning of rubbish. See 2 Kings 23.10, Jeremiah 7.31, 19.5-6. This explains the reference to the unquenched fire. It seems to have been poularly supposed that in this valley was a gateway to the underworld. Since the concept of the underworld as the place of the dead (Hades, Sheol) and as a place where the wicked are punished is comles, we can make no firther comment here. For further information on Gehenna, see
The final two verses seem to have been attracted to this place by the word ‘fire’; note the similar verse in a different context at Matthew 5.13. On the words “Have salt in yourselves ….” NOAB suggests “Maintain peacefully your own distinct character and service”. Perhaps it would be useful to think of salt’s various uses (flavouring, preservative, cleanser) and meaning (salty wit).

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