25 October 2011

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 26 - 30 October 2011

Joshua 3:7-17
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
Micah 3:5-12
Psalm 43

I Thessalonians 2:9-13
St. Matthew 23:1-12

The Pharisees in Passolini's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew

Background: The Sadducees and the Pharisees
If you are like I am, you only think about these two parties as being present and relevant during the period of Jesus, having given little thought as to where they came from, what influenced them, or for what they stood.  Both are products of the catastrophic events that enveloped Jewish culture with the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.  The exile of Israelite nobility, religious elite, and intellectuals placed them in a more direct influence by Mesopotamian culture (although Jewish religious life always had such an influence from its very beginnings).  These along with the destruction of the temple form the realities that gave meaning to both groups.  The Pharisees, quick to adapt some Persian influences, such as the resurrection of the dead, and a more charismatic approach to doctrine (the oral Torah, for example), were in contrast to the Sadducees.  The Sadducees formed the old religious elite (read priestly cast) and as such represented a sense of conservatism and traditional belief largely centered on the written Torah, the temple and those who served there.  Other influences, in time, came to shape both groups: their stance on Hellenization, the Maccabean Revolt, and the final conquest by the Romans.  The Sadducees fade away after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE by the Romans, while the Pharisees become the seedbed from which develops the Rabbinic Judaism with which we are all familiar.  There were other groups who attempted to influence the Judaism of the inter-testamental period, such as the Essenes.  It is Jesus, and those who follow him, who will draw from each of these groups, restating and reinterpreting their positions. 

Joshua 3:7-17

The LORD said to Joshua, "This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the Ark of the Covenant, `When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.'" Joshua then said to the Israelites, "Draw near and hear the words of the LORD your God." Joshua said, "By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap."

When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

Often biblical authors would take events and use them as a model for a later event, thus endowing the newer event with the sanctity of the older event.  Here, in this reading, two events are called to mind.  In verse 5, which is not included in this pericope, Joshua asks the people to “sanctify yourselves for tomorrow the Lord will perform wonders among you.”  This sets the stage for what is about to happen and calls to mind the preparations that Moses has the people make as they sit at the foot of Sinai, awaiting the giving of the Law.  The other event that is referenced here is the crossing of the Red Sea, only this time it is the Jordan River that is being crossed and it is the priests and the Ark of the Covenant who will serve as the actors (read Moses) in causing the waters to back up so that Israel can cross into Palestine on dry land.  The associations of the ancient events grant a sense of importance to the current event. 

In mentioning the various peoples that will need to be “driven out” so that Israel might take possession of the land are some with which we are familiar: the Hittites (Asia Minor), the Canaanites and the Perizzites (Palestine), and the Jebusites (the inhabitants of pre-Davidic Jerusalem).  The others are unfamiliar.  All of them, like the Egyptians before them, are to give place to the people of YHWH as they cross into the new land. 

Breaking open Joshua:
  1. How do you prepare for significant or holy events?
  2. Why did the author what to duplicate earlier stories?
  3. Have you ever told a story in the style of an earlier story?

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 Confitemini Domino

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, *
and his mercy endures for ever.

Let all those whom the LORD has redeemed proclaim *
that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe.

He gathered them out of the lands; *
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.

Some wandered in desert wastes; *
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.

They were hungry and thirsty; *
their spirits languished within them.

Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, *
and he delivered them from their distress.

He put their feet on a straight path *
to go to a city where they might dwell.

The LORD changed rivers into deserts, *
and water-springs into thirsty ground,

A fruitful land into salt flats, *
because of the wickedness of those who dwell there.

He changed deserts into pools of water *
and dry land into water-springs.

He settled the hungry there, *
and they founded a city to dwell in.

They sowed fields, and planted vineyards, *
and brought in a fruitful harvest.

Psalm 107 is a collective thanksgiving psalm, and seems to have been written for liturgical use.  Verse 6 “And they cried to the Lord from their straits, and from their distress he saved them,” (Alter) is repeated two other times, as if the verse served as a refrain in the psalm.  The psalm gives thanks for the deliverance of Israel, and uses the word “redeemed” to describe this.  The term, however, should not be understood as a theological reference, but rather recognition of the political reality from which they have been saved. 

The psalm’s use, here on this Sunday, is meant to comment on the First Reading, in which the deliverance of the people, and the 33rd verse, “he turns rivers into wilderness, and springs of water into thirsty ground” (Alter) are meant to turn the hearer or speaker’s attention to the crossing of the Jordan.  Later verses indicate that God is capable of doing the opposite, that God is master of the earth.  In its liturgical use for this Sunday, the last verses refer to the fruitfulness of the Promised Land – a bright future for God’s people.

Breaking open Psalm 107
  1. What thanksgivings do you have in your life?
  2. What thanksgivings do you share with your family, or another larger group?
  3. What kinds of promises has God made to you?


Micah 3:5-12

Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets
who lead my people astray,
who cry "Peace"
when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
who put nothing into their mouths.
Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
and darkness to you, without revelation.
The sun shall go down upon the prophets,
and the day shall be black over them;
the seers shall be disgraced,
and the diviners put to shame;
they shall all cover their lips,
for there is no answer from God.
But as for me, I am filled with power,
with the spirit of the LORD,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression
and to Israel his sin.
Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
and chiefs of the house of Israel,
who abhor justice
and pervert all equity,
who build Zion with blood
and Jerusalem with wrong!
Its rulers give judgment for a bribe,
its priests teach for a price,
its prophets give oracles for money;
yet they lean upon the LORD and say,
"Surely the LORD is with us!
No harm shall come upon us."
Therefore because of you
Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

Like the prophet Amos, Micah lived at a time and a place that was significant to the history of Israel.  During the period, the Kingdom of Judah is beset by the crush of greater empires to the northeast and to the southwest. Both were peasants, and both made extensive comment on the economic injustice of their time, and on the bankruptcy of the temple ritual.  In today’s reading we have two pericopes: the first an oracle against false prophets (verses 5 – 8), and the second an oracle against the leaders (verses 9-12).  In the former, the prophet compares these “pseudo prophets” with his own prophetic call and empowerment “I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord”.  The others, he derides as hacks, diviners who provide a reading if they are fed, and a condemnation if they are not.

In his discourse against the “rulers of the house of Jacob” he cites their abandonment of justice.  Each of the rulers (elders, priests, and prophets) seems to have dispensed justice only with a bribe, or some kind of compensation.  For this reason, Micah says, Jerusalem “shall become a heap of ruins.”  His prophecy against Jerusalem is so powerful that Jeremiah quotes Micah some 100 years later (Jeremiah 26:18-19) and this reference to an ancient prophet saves Jeremiah from a sentence of punishment.  Like Amos, Micah stands up for the poor and the lowly, and decries that lack of justice, that will bring down God’s wrath upon Jerusalem.

Breaking open Micah:
1.    Are there any false prophets in our time?  Who, and what do they teach?
2.    Are there any prophets today who lift up the life of the poor?
3.    What do they teach and what do you think about their teaching?

Psalm 43 Judica me, Deus

Give judgment for me, O God,
and defend my cause against an ungodly people; *
deliver me from the deceitful and the wicked.

For you are the God of my strength;
why have you put me from you? *
and why do I go so heavily while the enemy oppresses me?

Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, *
and bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling;

That I may go to the altar of God,
to the God of my joy and gladness; *
and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God my God.

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? *
and why are you so disquieted within me?

Put your trust in God; *
for I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

Perhaps the lectionary would like us to put this psalm into the mouth of Micah.  In it, the psalmist longs for Jerusalem and the altar of God.  Psalm 43 is though to have been originally the completion of Psalm 42, both sharing thematic material, and a responsorial verset.  The content, however, does well to comment on the first lesson, and Micah’s attempt to correct the leaders of Israel.  The questions are important.  What is God’s truth?  What is God’s strength?  The psalmist feels a sense of separation from these learnings, and longs to return to the Temple.  The query is important in our understanding of the Gospel for today, where Jesus poses similar questions, wondering about how the Sadducee and Pharisee are really teachers of God’s truth. 

Breaking open Psalm 43
1.     How is this psalm reminiscent of Micah’s thought?
2.     Have you ever longed to be in God’s presence?
3.     How does your religious life make you anxious?  Why?

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers.

Paul continues to comment on his selflessness, as he labors amidst them.  The vocabulary is that of a family.  He calls them brothers and sisters.  In 2:7, he compares his teaching with maternal duties “rather we were gentle among you as a nursing mother cares for her children”, and in our reading “like a father with his children.”  Paul is certain that what he is doing is God’s doing, and that the word that he uses to teach and to instruct is God’s word.  He is thankful that his hearers have accepted this as such, and that it is a powerful word “at work in you believers.”

Breaking open I Thessalonians:
  1. How family like is your church?
  2. If it were more like a family would that be either good or bad?
  3. Should clergy be parental?

Matthew 23:1-12

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-- the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted."

This reading in many ways is distinct to Matthew in spite of certain shared materials.  It serves as a bridge from the controversies that we have read over the past couple of Sundays to the Eschatological Discourse (Talk about the End of Time) that will follow.  In this reading, Jesus comments on the Pharisees and the Sadducees as “teachers of Israel”.  Jesus begins by describing the authority given to both parties as “the chair of Moses.”  Jesus has no trouble with the authority, but rather has trouble with the practice and conduct of their lives.  Like Micah, Jesus is troubled by the Law that is taught for its own sake.  It is not taught to influence lives toward justice and the common good.  The exalted position that both parties takes does not take into account the lives of those who are to be instructed.  Jesus points out that they indeed are not instructors – God is the one who teachers.  A sense of humility must then follow.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Who are the big religious teachers of our time?
  2. How are they abiding by what Jesus taught about the teaching authority?
  3. How are they missing the mark?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.