Saturday, September 18, 2021

Sunday 26 September 2021 - Ordinary 26

Theme(s): Who is for the Lord? / Don't be a stumbling block / Get rid of stumbling blocks to Christian maturity / Discipleship / The urgent importance of obedience / Healing / Practical steps in pastoral care / Delegation

Sentence: 'The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective' (James 5:16b)


God of all authority,
enable us to hear your call and do what you ask of us.
Forgive us for judging others,
help us to embrace the outcast and the downtrodden.
Transform our lives so that everything we do may proclaim your generous love.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God now and for ever. Amen

Readings (related):

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50


Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

At first sight it is not clear why and how this reading as a related reading connects to the gospel reading but perseverance has a reward because we find in the last verses of the reading (26-29) something akin to Mark 9:38-40. 

Eldad and Medad prophesy when, theoretically, they are not supposed to. A cry goes up to Moses to stop them and Moses refuses to do so. 'Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!' is a memorable sentence which can be aptly used in the life of the church when we wish more of the congregation would do good things.

A fascinating aspect of the Numbers story represented in these passages is that it begins with a grizzle about food - essentially that eating manna everyday was boring (4-6, also 10-15) - and moves on to the load Moses is bearing as Complaints Officer for Israel (10-15). The solution which the Lord gives is that he should delegate responsibility by appointing seventy elders (16). Yet what we then find is that the spirit of Moses which the Lord takes 'some' of (25) leads the seventy to 'prophesy'. It is only one occasion (25) but it sets up an expectation that they are prophesying elders and only these elders will prophesy.

Thus when Eldad and Medad begin prophesying 'out of turn' yet another complaint goes to Moses (27).

Psalm 19:7-14

These verses are part of one of the loveliest of psalms, a paeon of praise to God for that which communicates the glory of God: the heavens (1-6) and, this passage, the law of the Lord (7-14).

Why this psalm in connection with the gospel. I have had to think about it, it is not immediately obvious to my eyes. I think it is this: Jesus in the gospel gives some searching directions in regard to things which cause disciples to stumble. When it may even be, metaphorically, our hand or foot or eye, then it may be something we are so used to that it is a 'hidden fault' (Psalm 19:12).

The psalm is read today in order to include a prayer, verse 12, 'Clear me from my hidden faults.'

James 5:13-20

These verses, we could even say, with verse 13, these 'cheerful' verses are full of practical instructions for church life. All are brief. A kind of "Quick Guide to Pastoral Ministry."

13: are you suffering ... cheerful, then you should pray ... sing songs of praise.
14: are you sick? call the elders. What should they do? Pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord.
15: see below
16: 'Therefore' (what is this 'Therefore' there for?) confess your sins to one another ... so that you may be healed.
16b: a note about the prayer of the righteous
17-18: an illustrative story about the prayer of the righteous
19-20: the importance of bringing a wandering brother or sister back to the truth and away from sin and its deathly consequences.

Verse 15 is challenging because of its certainty: 'the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.' Is this a certainty that the sick will be healed as in restored in this life to physical health (so that 'raise them up' means 'raise them up off their sick beds')?

Or is this a certainty that the sick will be 'saved' through the Lord 'raising them up' with the precise nature of the saving and the raising being left in the Lord's hands, who has discretion to save the sick even through death and to raise them to new life in God's presence?

Our experience as pray-ers of 'prayers of faith' tells us that it is the latter and not the former which is in view here.

Mark 9:38-50

This is a difficult passage if we are looking for a single theme or thread running through it.

Verses 38-41 begin with a report from the disciples about an exorcism by a non-disciple which Jesus counteracts by affirming the relevance and importance of people being committed doing things in his 'name.' That leads to a general conclusion, 'Whoever is not against us is for us.' But we lack clarity as to what precisely Jesus means. Was he making a simple observation about life, that when people are not against you they are effectively for you; that in some circumstances lack of prohibition is permission? Was  he making a claim about the inclusiveness of salvation so that (to put it a little bit provocatively) atheists-who-are-not-against-Jesus are counted as followers of Jesus but atheists-who-are-against-Jesus are not so counted? Verse 41 then offers a commentary on 'the name' of Christ and its importance: those who are not Christians but recognise Christians and honour them for their service in Christ's name will receive some kind of divine recognition for that, 'will by no means lose their reward.'

Verses 42-48 connect with verse 41 by thinking in a different direction: there will be those who do not give a cup of water to Christians, 'these little ones who believe in me,' but instead put some kind of stumbling block in front of them. For these ones a punishment awaits (42b).

Verses 43-48 then work from the word 'stumbling' and are - on the basis of the parallel in Matthew 5:29 - addressed to the disciples themselves. If something about their lives, represented by hand (43), foot (45), or eye (47) causes them to stumble, they should cut it off or tear it out. We should not get stuck on what the hand or foot or eye means but rather think about things in our lives - such as attachments, continuing habits of sin, embedded bad attitudes - which form stumbling blocks to our obedience to the demands of the kingdom of God. Decisive action may be required because Jesus associates the direction to cut or tear bodily parts with avoiding being 'thrown into hell.'

Most readers will find that verses 44 and 46 are missing from this passage. Where have they gone?! You may find, as I find in my NRSV, that these verses are (a) identical with verse 48, (b) 'lacking in the best ancient authorities.' That means that textual scholars deem that verses 44 and 46 are later additions to the earliest manuscripts of Mark. (In turn this means that they do not think the omission of 44 and 46 are late deletions of otherwise early verses). It is not difficult to imagine that a conscientious scribe, copying this passage, thought it should have the same words as we find in verse 48 after each mention of 'hell' at the end of verses 43 and 45.

Finally, verses 49-50 begin with a segue from 'the fire' of verse 48 to a different kind of 'fire', one in which 'everyone will be salted with fire.' Then there is a segue from 'salted' to 'salt' in verse 50. A look at the commentaries suggests many explanations of the enigmatic statement and thus an inherent difficulty if we wish to be sure what this means. One plausible explanation is given by Weston W. Fields (here). He argues that if we translate from the Greek into Hebrew then the word for 'salt' in Hebrew is also associated with destruction, e.g. Judges 9:45, and thus the sense of what Jesus is saying would be, ''"everyone [who is sent to hell] will be completely destroyed (i.e. destroyed by fire)."

Whether we agree with that explanation or not, it does alert us to the importance of the statement as a record in Greek of something Jesus said in Hebrew (or Aramaic). Mark is unlikely to have invented such a difficult saying. Nor did it make much sense in ancient times - some early copyists of the Markan manuscripts attempted to improve on what they read.

The use of 'salt' in verse 49, however difficult to understand, then leads to a further reference to 'salt' in verse 50. This is more readily understood as a reference to the importance of discipleship being kept alive, with zing and zest.

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