Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sunday 6 September 2015 - 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Healing and deliverance / Who is Jesus? / Mission to the Gentiles / The kingdom of God / Equal love for all / No favourites!

Sentence: You do well if you rally fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." (James 2:8)


God, the strength of all who believe in you,
increase our faith and trust
in your Son Jesus Christ,
that in him we may live victoriously
through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings (related):

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
Mark 7:24-37


Isaiah 35:4-7a

This passage relates to th second healing in the gospel passage below, where further comments are made about Isaiah 35:1-10.

Psalm 146

We can connect this psalm with the concerns of the James reading (e.g. 3, 7-9). But we can also connect it with the healings in the Mark reading (e.g. 7b-9). Although neither kind of healing is explicitly referenced in these verses, both the demon-possessed daughter and the deaf-mute man were 'oppressed' by and 'prisoners' of their respective situations.

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17

Don't read this passage out in any church which (a) rents its pews (b) ushers the better dressed parishioners to the front seats or (c) looks embarrassed when a homeless person turns up!!

James is very focused on good Christian behaviour, but is not restricted to matters deemed 'personal morality.' In several places, James is clearly concerned for the social morality of whole congregations. This passage is one of those places.

Congregations should not show favouritism to the rich nor prejudice against the poor (1-10). It is important to notice that James specifically frames this instruction in terms of 'our glorious Lord Jesus Christ' (1). He asks the question, 'do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?' The implication seems to be that if you do believe in Jesus you won't play favourites and that will be because you understand that Jesus treats each person the same since all are created equally in God's image and in the kingdom of God, all citizens are equal, because Jesus died for all in the same way and loved each in this action the same. Jesus did not die specially for the rich!

Further, verses 8-10: partiality runs against the 'royal law' of 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' Although he does not spell this out, if I love the rich more than the poor, then I am only loving one of those two groups 'as yourself' and that group is not the poor. Thus - noting verse 9 - partiality breaks this royal law and such partial Christians 'commit sin' and are 'transgressors.'

Verse 10 then spells out a point which is especially apt for the subject of verses 1-10, but has implications for other matters of obedience/disobedience (11-13). That point is that we are law-breakers because we break one law, not because we break a majority of them. We cannot keep all the other laws and get a 'Get our of jail' card on showing partiality. If we are partial then we have ruined our law keeping efforts.

With verses 14-17 we return to the question of partiality, but with a different focus. In verses 1-10 the focus was on whether the congregation treated the rich deferentially compared to the poor. In these verses the focus is on how the poor are treated full-stop. When confronted by the poor and their obvious needs for clothing and food, words are not enough. Action is required. We cannot be partial to words and favour them over deeds, for fine words never clothed or fed anyone.

But there is another issue being raised in these verses and that issue continues through the remainder of the chapter (which is not read next Sunday). That issue is the question of 'faith' and 'works'. Scholars seem largely agreed that in the background here is an early church debate in the light of what Paul the Apostle taught about faith and works. In this debate, as known to James, it seems that 'faith' (without works, at least in the sense of good deeds of kindness and mercy) has been exalted  and works deprecated. This is not surprising in a congregation prepared to favour the rich (who need no good deeds shown to them other than where the front seats in the church are).

It would take more space and time than I presently have to work out why a congregation might have drawn this conclusion from the writings of Paul, whether such a conclusion was justified, and, indeed, what Paul's understanding of 'faith' in relation to 'works' actually was. We could, in such a space and time allocation, also consider what various theologians have made of the situation, the most memorable of whom was Martin Luther who dismissed James on the basis that this passage seemed to contradict Luther's newly discovered doctrine of justification by faith in the Pauline epistles.

What we can say, briefly, is that James is absolutely correct to determine that faith is not faith if it is not evidenced by works. He is correct both on the basis that this is something Jesus himself taught in the gospels and on the basis that (whatever we make of 'faith' and 'works' in Paul's writings when he is explicitly discussing both themes) Paul himself always envisages, in the second part of his epistles, the new life of the justified believer in Christ expressing itself in deeds of love.

Mark 7:24-37

We are in a section of Mark's Gospel in which Jesus is ministering in Gentile/Greek dominated territory ('the region of Tyre', 24; 'the region of the Decapolis,' 31). Looking back to last week's reading, remembering that Mark translates some aspect of Jewish life for his (likely) Gentile readers, we therefore note that Mark is bringing stories of Jesus-meeting-Gentiles-and-changing-their-lives to his Gentile readers.

Today we have two healing miracles which we could summarise as 'Jesus heals Gentiles too!' But there is more to the stories than that, and some digging into the detail both yields exegetical rewards as well as raising challenging questions.

Verse 24 rehearses a familiar theme from the gospels, Jesus attempts to be anonymous, to escape the hustle and bustle of his ministry.. Those familiar with Middle Eastern life will not be surprised at the failure of these attempts: everything is noticed and reported around the community!

The woman introduced in verse 25 becomes, in verse 26, someone whom Mark goes out of his way to tell us about. He doubles up on her Gentility: 'a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.'But that definitiveness about her status relative to the Jewish Jesus heightens the exegetical challenge in verse 27.

First, the ever loving and compassionate Jesus seems a somewhat off-handed Jesus, disinterested in helping her daughter. Secondly,  what are we to make of Jesus describing the woman (and, by extension, all Gentiles) as 'dogs'? (Indeed, is there something chauvinist in this ascription being directed to a Gentile woman?) Thirdly, the ever inclusive, globally focused missional Jesus seems focused on mission to Israel and no one else. What is going on?

One explanation is that Jesus is not disinterested in her plight and is not exclusive in his mission but is teasing her or challenging her to move beyond 'begging' (26) to demonstrating (mature?) faith in Jesus. Further, in his teasing or challenging riposte in verse 27, Jesus is not, according to this explanation, deprecatingly describing her as a 'dog' but ironically picking up the everyday language of Jews in relation to Gentiles. That is, effectively Jesus is saying, "So, tell me, given the priority of my mission to Israel, to the Jews, why should I offer to one whom Jews put down with the term 'dog' a blessing reserved, at this time, for them and not ordinarily available to Gentiles?"

Another explanation is that Mark is presenting the church - perhaps unwittingly - with an unvarnished portrait of Jesus which does not fit with a number of christological conclusions we have reached about Jesus (that he loves everyone, that his mission was to the world, to both Israel and to the Gentile nations, that he was gracious and well-mannered to all people). The real or historical Jesus was a man of his context: he was a Jew and shared the Jewish view of Gentiles as second-class citizens (and may have been chauvinist), he was - as a self-conscious prophetic and rabbinic figure within Israel, exclusively focused on the problems of Israel.

Further, and shockingly for our christological assumption that Jesus the Son of God knows everything, on this unvarnished view of Jesus, the Syrophoenician woman taught Jesus something: Gentiles had worth too. They may be viewed as 'dogs' in relation to Israel as the 'children' of God, but dogs get to eat the same food of God.

I am not going to attempt to resolve these opposing views save to note that Jesus himself, according to verse 24, seems determined to head into Gentile territory. So he knowingly placed himself where he would encounter Gentiles. That observation may lean our assessment towards the first rather than the second explanation.

What is Mark doing in this story? Surely, by presenting this story, and in particular the exchange in verses 27 and 28, Mark is warning Jewish readers against viewing Gentiles as second class citizens of the world or kingdom of God. The kingdom of God - whatever Jesus was doing and thinking when the conversation took place - is now the kingdom of Jew and Gentile. All eat the same food at the table of God.

The deaf man with a speech impediment perhaps poses less challenges but raises some questions nevertheless. There is a parallel with the first healing story in this passage. Thus we notice that 'They' brought the man and 'they begged him to lay his hand on them' (32). We recall the woman came on behalf of her daughter, and she too 'begged' Jesus to help her daughter.

When we go on to read that Jesus 'took him aside in private, away from the crowd' (33), we wonder why he did that. We also wonder how Mark knows what Jesus said (34) because reporting the word 'Ephphatha' to us almost certainly means that someone heard Jesus speak in Aramaic and this word in particular was remembered, treasured and handed on from one story-teller to another.

That stories were told and re-told about this miraculous event logically flows from verse 36. The point in verse 36 is that Jesus wants to downplay his significance, almost certainly because he was concerned at that significance being misunderstood (i.e. that is misunderstood in terms of the politics of the day). But - typically for humanity - the more one tries to suppress speech, the more the gossip flows around a community.

The motif of (attempted) secrecy is called by scholars, The Messianic Secret.

Finally, in verse 37, continuing another theme in Mark's Gospel, the crowd around Jesus are 'astounded beyond measure' and praise Jesus. In this case, their saying 'he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak' is multi-layered in its significance.

Layer one: literally, the deaf and the mute hear and speak.

Layer two: prophecy is being fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus (see Isaiah 35:5) and thus visions such as Isaiah 35:1-10 which look ahead to a great and glorious day of restoration for Israel are coming into being in the reality of the kingdom of God which Jesus proclaims with words and inaugurates with deeds according to Mark's Gospel.*

Layer three: (this is a bit complicated, and reading Isaiah 6:9-10 with Isaiah 35:1-10 will assist). Already in Mark's Gospel we have encountered Jesus explaining parables and why he uses them in terms which invoke Isaiah 6:9-10 and the resistance of hearers of God's messengers to really hearing what God is saying through prophecies/parables. But the kingdom of God comes about because some people do receive the message and receiving it, they pass it on: their ears are not stopped and their tongues are not constrained. Thus this healing is a further sign of the coming of the kingdom.

(*For those interested in the proposals of Bishop Tom (N.T.) Wright, and, in this case, his proposal that the gospels are best understood in terms of Jesus bringing about the ending of Israel's exile, then the relationship between Isaiah 35:1-10 and this story is intriguing, because Isaiah 35:1-10 is about more than a general restoration for Israel, it is about the return from exile).

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