The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 27, 10 November 2013
Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21 or Psalm 98
II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
St. Luke 20:27-38
Background: Mosaic Marriage Laws
It is important to remember that law in the Old Testament was not without influence from the earlier cultures that had surrounded the Israelites, or the cultures from which they came. The Sumerian Code dates from 2100 BCE, and the code of Hammurabi from 1760 BCE. Most of these laws really concern contract law, rather than ordinary social law. Thus, marriage under the Mosaic system is really a consideration of the contract between two families or tribes. Thus the considerations of dowry and other property (including the wife) were paramount. The restrictions of monogamy are unknown in the early part of this era and only devolve in later times as the culture becomes more urban. The ability to have and raise children was a primary consideration, for the heir was the key to the family’s future and fortune. Following the exile the arbiters of the Law were the Rabbis who interpreted the Law and the social situation that enfolded the Law. It is in this function that Jesus makes his comments in the Gospel for today.
What Jesus comments on is a situation that would obtain should a woman loose her husband to death. Mosaic law demanded that the next of kin was required to have intercourse with the woman so that she might give birth to an heir. Such were the requirements of the Levirate Law. We see such situations in the Book of Ruth, where Ruth asserts such rights. The law is described in Deuteronomy 25:5-6, and again in Genesis 38:8. Such provisions were not unique to Judaism, but were found in other ancient near eastern patriarchal societies, and are found today in certain Asian and African societies.
In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.
We know a great deal about this book, especially the time of it’s writing, and the situation to which it addresses itself. Haggai is represented to us as a prophet of YHWH, whose words fall from the prophet’s lips. The agenda of Haggai is such that the book of Zechariah seems to carry its concepts to the next phase. Haggai writes to a community that wishes to rebuild the temple, and the governor, sent by Darius, the king of the Persians, sends a Davidid, Zerubbabel, to serve as a governor to not only oversee the work of reestablishment, but to stabilize the region as well. The rebuilding of the Temple was not just a matter of religious niceties, but rather reestablished an important part of the Temple-City economy and social structure. Haggai writes to reassure both leaders and people that YHWH will dwell in the temple and fill it with glory. It is interesting that Haggai rehearses YHWH’s credentials: “the promise that I made with you when you came out of Egypt.” And later, a rehearsal of the creation myth: “I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea.” For those who were worried whether their temple would compare to the Solomonic glory of the former, God assures them, “this house shall be greater.” More importantly to this community that was struggling to reassert itself, God promises prosperity as well.
Breaking open Haggai:
- What does your physical church building mean to you? Why?
- Can you understand the emotions around rebuilding the Temple in Haggai’s time?
- How does your church enfold and house God?
Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21, Exaltabo te, Deus
I will exalt you, O God my King, *
and bless your Name for ever and ever.
Every day will I bless you *
and praise your Name for ever and ever.
Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; *
there is no end to his greatness.
One generation shall praise your works to another *
and shall declare your power.
I will ponder the glorious splendor of your majesty *
and all your marvelous works.
The LORD is righteous in all his ways *
and loving in all his works.
The LORD is near to those who call upon him, *
to all who call upon him faithfully.
He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; *
he hears their cry and helps them.
The LORD preserves all those who love him, *
but he destroys all the wicked.
This psalm describes itself to be a “psalm of praise”. It is also an alphabetic acrostic, with each verse begun with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The psalm is a treasure trove of verbs describing praise: exalt, bless, and praise are among the many references to this act of worship. Its choice as a reading for this set of propers seems to follow on the Temple-filled-with-glory theme in Haggai.
Breaking open Psalm 145:
- How do you praise God?
- How do you see other people praising God?
- Why do you praise God?
Psalm 98, Cantate Domino
Sing to the LORD a new song, *
For he has done marvelous things.
With his right hand and his holy arm *
has he won for himself the victory.
The LORD has made known his victory; *
his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.
He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel, *
and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
Shout with joy to the LORD, all you lands; *
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.
Sing to the LORD with the harp, *
with the harp and the voice of song.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn *
shout with joy before the King, the LORD.
Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, *
the lands and those who dwell therein.
Let the rivers clap their hands, *
and let the hills ring out with joy before the LORD,
when he comes to judge the earth.
In righteousness shall he judge the world *
and the peoples with equity.
In this psalm of praise we see God pictured in the guise of the warrior, and much of the language specifically underscores that description. There is a global dimension to the psalm as well with references to “the nations” or “all you lands.” This scope is limited, however, in verse 4, where God remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel. The other scene that is pictured here, and unfortunately cannot be heard, is that of an orchestra or a collection of various instruments providing a fanfare to the God of Israel. This orchestra of human instruments, however, is augmented by nature’s own fanfare from sea, and land, rivers and hills. The last verse describes the transaction of righteousness and equity, which are the cause of the people’s gift of praise.
Breaking open Psalm 98:
- What do you think of the strange mix of God as warrior serenaded by a heavenly orchestra?
- Is the image of a warrior benign or malignant to you?
- Why might you want to sing God’s praises?
"O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another."
Last week we read from Habakkuk, where God asks the prophet to: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” Here, Job entertains a similar notion, with words written down in a book, and inscribed with chisel and lead into a rock. Such inscriptions in the ancient world were darkened with lead so that they were more easily read. Those both Job and Habakkuk have the same notion of clarity. The next verse will pull a Christian scrim over our eyes, and we will hear the hymn serenading us in the background. It is best, however, to understand this verse from the perspective of the author of Job. The book is written in the context of a rib (trial), and here the defendant is Job – the accuser is Satan who appears in the first verses of the book. The redeemer is a family member of the defendant’s family who stands up as a character witness to redeem the accused. Thus the “at last he will stand on the earth,” can be understood as this witness in which the heavens and the earth listen to the testimony of the redeemer. Job has been the victim of such tragedy, which is described for the reader as “after my skin has been thus destroyed” – the injuries of the loss of family and possessions are described as physical wounds. Robert Alter sees them as the physical writing that is referred to in verse 23. The reality at the end, however, when the trial is done, Job, as a righteous man, will see God face to face - reality facing reality.
Breaking open Job:
- Has your ever been like that of Job?
- What did your friends advise you to do when you were in adversity?
- Who was your redeemer (character witness)?
Psalm 17:1-9, Exaudi, Domine
Hear my plea of innocence, O LORD;
give heed to my cry; *
listen to my prayer, which does not come from lying lips.
Let my vindication come forth from your presence; *
let your eyes be fixed on justice.
Weigh my heart, summon me by night, *
melt me down; you will find no impurity in me.
I give no offense with my mouth as others do; *
I have heeded the words of your lips.
My footsteps hold fast to the ways of your law; *
in your paths my feet shall not stumble.
I call upon you, O God, for you will answer me; *
incline your ear to me and hear my words.
Show me your marvelous loving-kindness, *
O Savior of those who take refuge at your right hand
from those who rise up against them.
Keep me as the apple of your eye; *
hide me under the shadow of your wings,
From the wicked who assault me, *
from my deadly enemies who surround me.
This psalm, described in the text as a “David prayer”, mirrors Job’s comments from the first reading in Track 2 – “Hearken to my guileless prayer.” In verse three we see the words, “come upon me by night”, and perhaps may recall Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, an elegant symbol of our own, and the psalmist’s, wrestling with the difficulties and enemies that we face. Like Jacob, the psalmist asks for a blessing, or at least an answer to distress. The key verb in the poem is that of listening, and so the psalmist asks God to incline your ear. More images are pressed upon us, with God sheltering the psalmist as a mother hen protects her young from predators.
Breaking open Psalm 17:
- With what do you wrestle in the night?
- What kind of blessing would you like to demand of God?
- In what ways has God protected you?
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?
But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.
And now we can begin to discuss the agenda that is on the mind of the author of I and II Thessalonians, the Great Day of the Lord. There is an order to these things, and the author makes it clear that a “rebellion” needs to happen first. That rebellion is seen in the teaching of the deceivers and “false prophets” who are proclaiming a different Gospel. The confrontation and exposure of Evil is required before the vision of God redeeming the world. Like Habakkuk, who argued for a Holy Waiting, so the author here recommends patience and steadfastness. “Stand firm,” he says. One wonders what it was that faced these Thessalonians that such advice should be given. One is false teaching – teaching that is at some remove from the Gospel told by Paul. The other is the agony of waiting for God to act – patiently waiting, which is a theme for this season. These are the recommended behaviors that the author offers. The reading closes with a blessing that asks for comfort and strength for the reader.
Breaking open II Thessalonians:
- Who would you describe as the “false teachers” of our time?
- Who is telling truth in our time?
- What are your thoughts about God as judge?
St. Luke 20:27-38
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."
Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."
We get a glimpse of the theological discussions of the day as the Sadducees confront Jesus over the belief in resurrection (hence the reading from Job as the Track 2 first reading). The resurrection, which seems to have been championed by the Pharisees, was tacitly denied by the Sadducees who look to a strict interpretation of the Torah, and not to rabbinic interpretations that were promoted by the Pharisees. The situation is one of seeing where it is that Jesus actually stands on this issue. Jesus leaves them in the lurch by describing the scene differently. He describes two “ages”, one of which is the present age with its concerns about prosperity, family, and continuance, and the next age with a more heavenly and spiritual agenda. The scene that is constructed by the Sadducees revolves around the notion of levirate marriage (see Background, above) and a woman who legally has several husbands. Jesus refocuses the argument on the Kingdom of Heaven and its values. The real issue is Life, for the Living God is a God of the living. What obtains in this life, may not obtain in the next – and it is that for which we must both prepare and to wait.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. What do you believe about the resurrection? What does it mean to you?
2. How is God a God of the living?
3. Will there be an “age to come?”
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller
All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller