The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, 13 September 2015
Psalm 19 or Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1
St. Mark 8:27-38
Background: Caesarea Philippi
Existing as a sacred site prior to the Hellenic period, Paneas was settled as a cult center devoted to the god Pan in the third century BCE. A spring gushes forth from the base of Mt. Hermon, and originally fed the Jordan River as well. The god Pan was the god of wilderness places, although this site is close to the “Way of the Sea” (see Isaiah 9:1) traveled by armies of the ancient near east. Before its association with the Greek Pan, it was holy to a local divinity, and has an ancient tradition of sanctity. Following the Battle of Panium, between Ptolemaic forces from Egypt and Seleucid forces from Syria, the site was thoroughly Hellenized, and celebrated the victory of the Syrian kings. Under the Herods, enlarged with a large temple and became an administrative center. Philip II renamed it in honor of the Roman Emperor, hence Caesarea Philippi. Later in 61 CE, the city was renamed as Neronias, in honor of the Emperor Nero. The Jews viewed the site, fully aware of all its former associations, as idolatrous.
Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
"How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the LORD,
would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.
For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster."
This part of the collection of Proverbs is ascribed to Solomon in a verse that is elided from the liturgical text: “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel.” We are introduced in these verses to Lady Wisdom, an allegorical figure who plays a role in both of the testaments. Some scholars connect this figure with the Greek notion of Sophia, and surmise that it dates from the Hellenistic period. The majority does not, however, make such claims. There are several female figures that represent nations in the Bible, however none of them represent an abstract idea. Robert Alter suggests that the female nature of the character is related to the fact that the word, wisdom, is a feminine noun.
Each of the locations noted in verse 21 would have an association with daily life, and the city gates with the dispensation of justice. It is interesting that the author in describing the reaction of “fools” to true wisdom uses the word “panic”. The word “panic” comes to us from the name of the god Pan, the god of war (see Background above). The verses describe the futile efforts of those who will not learn from wisdom, and a satiated by their own sense of what is and what is to be done. It is deliciously described as “(eating) from the fruit of their way.” To follow wisdom is to live well and secure in ways that are commonly recognized as secure.
Breaking open Proverbs:
1. Where do you find Wisdom today?
2. Is there a common understanding of wisdom?
3. How does this figure operate in the biblical materials?
Psalm 19 Caeli enarrant
The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.
One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.
Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,
Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.
In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.
It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its burning heat.
The law of the LORD is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.
The statutes of the LORD are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the LORD is clear
and gives light to the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.
By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.
Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.
Beginning at verse 8, we begin to see the connection of this psalm to the reading from Proverbs. Our translation reads, as “the law of the Lord is perfect.” Alter, however, translates it, as “The Lord’s teaching is perfect,” making the connection to Wisdom in addition to the holiness code or the law. The fullness of the psalm considers all of God’s works, including God’s wisdom and teaching. The wonderful nature of God’s creation is seen in the cycle of the day, from morning until evening. There are borrowings from Egyptian images and mythology, with the sun making a circuit of the sky, “It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens and runs about to the end of it again.” This may be a borrowing of an image only, and not the theological underpinnings of the image. The psalm quite rightly quickly returns to the perfection of God’s acts – and perhaps there was no better image of that daily perfection than the circuit of the sun. What follows next are other images that argue for the excellence of God’s teaching and wisdom – gold, honey, enlightenment, and reward signal the value of God’s words. The psalm ends with two prayers, one requesting help in dealing with sin, and the other that our own words and thoughts might reflect God’s wisdom and teaching.
Breaking open Psalm 19:
1. What does “God’s teaching” mean to you?
2. What does God’s law teach you?
3. What does the Gospel teach you?
Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1
For wisdom is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.
Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.
She is more beautiful than the sun,
and excels every constellation of the stars.
Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
for it is succeeded by the night,
but against wisdom evil does not prevail.
She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
and she orders all things well.
These verses also connect well with the reading from the Proverbs, as they comment on Wisdom’s All-Embracing Excellence. There is an allusion, perhaps, to the sun (see the Psalm above) in the words, “For wisdom is a reflection of eternal light.” Wisdom basks in the sunlight of God’s teaching and law and reflects it back. Although, if we go to verse 29, the author sees her as “more beautiful than the sun.” Again, wisdom is superior to what is evil in the world, and her light pervades all of creation.
Breaking open the Wisdom of Solomon:
1. What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
2. Who gave it to you?
3. Was it consistent with the will of God?
The Lord GOD has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord GOD helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord GOD who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
Again we come up against the notion of teaching and instruction, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher.” But the teacher is in a position to learn how to serve, for the verse continues, “that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” The weary are those who are in exile, who tire under the oppression of being left behind in Jerusalem, or taken away to Babylon. The temptation is to see God as absent in these circumstances, and yet the prophet continues to find God’s presence even in these dire conditions. He asks those who listen to his words to “listen as those who are taught.” God’s presence is known in God’s ability to make us open to what needs to be said and heard. The words of disgrace that come upon the people in bondage are not as powerful as those words from God that defend God’s people. Thus, “I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me.” So it is with disciples, who may have to endure associations that are measured out to the prophet or to the teacher. If we have endured the hateful words of our adversaries, then we will have the words with which to describe God’s mercy and faithfulness.
Breaking open Isaiah:
1. How do you use words?
2. Are you careful with your words?
3. What is the most important thing you’ve ever taught?
Psalm 116:1-8 Dilexi, quoniam
I love the LORD, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, *
because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.
The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.
Then I called upon the Name of the LORD: *
"O LORD, I pray you, save my life."
Gracious is the LORD and righteous; *
our God is full of compassion.
The LORD watches over the innocent; *
I was brought very low, and he helped me.
Turn again to your rest, O my soul, *
for the LORD has treated you well.
For you have rescued my life from death, *
my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.
I will walk in the presence of the LORD *
in the land of the living.
In the words of this psalm we hear thanksgiving for the answers that God has given. The author recounts the situation for us, and delights in the answer received, “Gracious is the Lord and righteous; our God is full of compassion.” This is no ordinary day-to-day situation, for the indications are that it is life threatening, “the cords of death entangled me.” In some sense this is a conversation of the soul, an interior interview reviewing the situation, “Turn again to your rest, O my soul.” The self-advice is based on a trust of God’s presence and action.
Breaking open Psalm 116:
1. Have you ever been entangled in the cords of death? When?
2. What did you do to survive?
3. How has God saved you from death?
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue-- a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
This reading is from a section that one commentator calls, “An Essay on the Wisdom of ‘Slow Speaking.’” Again we are met with teaching; here with those who would be teachers, “Not many of you should become teachers.” Why not, we might ask? Teachers are looked at with a greater depth and purpose. Can we survive the scrutiny? The image of the horse and bridle is used to great effect. Do we know what it is that we wish to proclaim? Have we chosen the words properly? Do the words direct the hearer to God, or do they turn us onto a careless and useless path? Both are possibilities. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing!” James then treats us to conflicting images, brackish and fresh water, figs and olives, salt and fresh water. There is an implicit question at the end of the reading – what shall our mouths render?
Breaking open James:
1. Do you choose your words carefully?
3. How do you talk about your faith?
St. Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
Jesus’ ministry amongst the Gentiles is interrupted in the following chapters by questions from those who doubt his ministry and his word. There is another healing at Bethsaida, and then we begin our slow journey to Jerusalem. Before that can happen, however, there needs to be a theological understanding out the journey, and the costs that might obtain for any who would follow. We are back in the midst of a non-Jewish site, Caesarea Philippi (see Background above). Here at the cult center of Pan, Jesus questions the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and again, “who do you say that I am?” What we will witness now is a concoction of disparate things. Peter will confess Jesus as messiah, and Jesus will advise silence. Peter will be rebuked by Jesus for not understanding the fullness of his confession, namely that, the Son of Man must undergo great suffering.” Jesus wants his own to follow him to Jerusalem, but he also wants those who would follow to understand both the purpose of the journey, and the cost of the journey. This fits in well with the days that begin to shorten, and the tension that builds within the liturgical year as we come to days of judgment and endings. It is in this cycle of things that we need to understand Jesus and what he asks of us.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. Who do you say that Jesus is?
2. How do you talk about his crucifixion?
3. What is your own cross?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller