The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, 2 September 2018
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
St. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Background: The Holiness Code
Although the Holiness Code refers to a specific section of the Book of Leviticus (see Leviticus 17-26) the general tenor of the Law commends this as a good place to understand the purity laws of Judaism, which Laws both Moses and Jesus make comment on. The breadth of the Holiness Code covers a multitude of things: the sacred nature of blood, sexual behaviors, general behavior, punishment for sins, the purity of priests, holy days and Passover, Pentecost, New Year’s Day, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Booths, Aspects of the Tabernacle/Temple, the Sabbatical Year, the Jubilee Year and its customs, and finally what comes with obedience to the Law, and disobedience as well (Blessings and Curses). These provisions have a special interest in the political and religious conversations of our time, but the ones that are especially noted in are time seem limited to the provisions for sexual purity. The code seems to be a product of the compilers of the Priestly strand of the Torah, and owe some influence to the civil codes of the cultures that surrounded Israel. There are other writings in the Bible with which one might compare it, namely the 22nd Chapter of Ezekiel, the Covenant Code (Exodus 20:19 – 23:33), and the Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomony12-26). From the standpoint of the biblical student, the Lay Reader, or from the Deacon or Priest, it might be a good study habit to reacquaint oneself with these codes, their similarities and their differences. Just being a good citizen would demand it.
First Reading: Song of Solomon 2:8-13
The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.”
Broad in terms of its composition (sometime between the fourth and second century BCE), and in its cultural sources (there are many examples of similar literature in Egypt and Mesopotamia), the book must be taken at face value, and each contribution examined for what it proposes to give. Our reading is the so-called “Fifth Poem” (2:8-17). With this pericope we begin to see an example of a fully formed song, not just the fragment of one. The phrase “my beloved” is repeated often (five times) and grants a cohesiveness to the song. We meet characters, the gazelle (the male lover), “my darling, my fair one” (the female lover. It is not only love that is celebrated here, but the season attuned to it – springtime.
Breaking open the Song of Solomon:
- Why do you think this is in the Bible?
- What might this love be a metaphor of?
- Have you ever written a poem about one you loved?
Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10 Eructavit cor meum
My heart is stirring with a noble song;
let me recite what I have fashioned for the king; *
my tongue shall be the pen of a skilled writer.
You are the fairest of men; *
grace flows from your lips,
because God has blessed you for ever.
Your throne, O God, endures for ever and ever, *
a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom;
you love righteousness and hate iniquity.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you *
with the oil of gladness above your fellows.
All your garments are fragrant with myrrh, aloes, and cassia, *
and the music of strings from ivory palaces makes you glad.
Kings' daughters stand among the ladies of the court; *
on your right hand is the queen,
adorned with the gold of Ophir.
The tune to this psalm may be "lilies", if we are take the ascription literally. It accompanies the love song from the Song of Solomon well, for it seems to be a love song performed on the occasion of the king's marriage to a foreign princess. You might want to read the entire psalm to get the drift of its meaning and the beauty of its words. Unusual in this psalm is the praise that the author heaps upon himself, "my tongue shall be the pen of a skilled writer." Verse seven presents us with some difficulty. Is it God's throne, as the BCP translation seems to imply, or might it be the throne royal. Robert Alter translates it as; "Your throne of God is forevermore," which would continue the royal focus of the poem. Some commentators feel that this psalm is actually the work of the royal court, perhaps Solomon’s.
Breaking open Psalm 45:
1. Why is the king glorified in this psalm?
2. What is the relationship of the psalm to God?
3. In whom do you see beauty?
First Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Moses said: So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the LORD your God with which I am charging you.
You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!" For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children's children.
Last Sunday we reviewed the story of Joshua and his urging the people to remain faithful to the covenant with YHWH. This Sunday, we hear Moses’ urging the same thing. What we have is a homily that moves us from the introductory material of Deuteronomy to the main part of the work. The word in our translation, “give heed” is the word Shema, the first verb in the great confession of Israel, “Hear, O Israel…” The verb asks us to listen, or to understand what is to follow. There is purpose to Moses’ instructions, “so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that YHWH, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. There are consequences to this listening and taking heed.
The author/editor of this tradition has Moses warn the people to neither add nor subtract anything from these laws. Since this was most likely written later in the seventh century BCE, the laws that are reported here have been refurbished and edited for the present situation; therefore it is logical to request that no further changes be made. There is another interesting argument that is made and that is the one that appeals to the wisdom of these laws. Israel did not exist in the midst of other cultures that had no such codified law – to the contrary, they existed in the midst of a magnificent tradition of law making. Here the argument is that the people should be proud of their own legal tradition and writing, the gift of YHWH.
Breaking open Deuteronomy
1. How did you learn what was “right” and what was “wrong”?
2. What role does the Ten Commandments play in your life?
3. What is the wisdom of the Law?
Psalm 15 Domine, quis habitabit?
LORD, who may dwell in your tabernacle? *
who may abide upon your holy hill?
Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, *
who speaks the truth from his heart.
There is no guile upon his tongue;
he does no evil to his friend; *
he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor.
In his sight the wicked is rejected, *
but he honors those who fear the LORD.
He has sworn to do no wrong *
and does not take back his word.
He does not give his money in hope of gain, *
nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things *
shall never be overthrown.
Some have seen in these verses a qualifying set of questions given to those would “abide upon your holy hill.” This seems unlikely, however. It seems to be a concise rehearsal of God’s law – a summary if you will recount that makes for righteousness. The author describes to the hearer “the blameless life.” First there is concern for the neighbor, either speaking badly of him or her, or doing no evil nor insulting them. This seems to be the main focus of the psalm, this righteousness that is bestowed upon a fellow human being. Bribery is proscribed, and usury is condemned. Such behaviors are described as giving the righteous man or woman a stature honored by God.
Breaking open Psalm 15:
1. What does righteousness mean to you?
2. How are you righteous?
3. How do you honor your neighbor?
Second Reading; James 1:17-27
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
How wonderful to have a series of readings from the Book of James, which Martin Luther condemned as “that strawy epistle.” Very little is known about the date of the book, but there seems to be some consensus that James is likely the author. Some see the book as predating Paul, while others see Pauline influence in the writing. The final opinion is divided. The theme of the book is “Wisdom” and it is shown in a variety of “essays” devoted to aspects of wisdom. The magnificence of the initial scene of our pericope is stunning, “coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” These thoughts frame the wisdom that is to be granted to the reader. The language that follows almost mirrors Moses’ Shema, “be quick to listen” and before that “you must understand.” The author contrasts hearing with doing, and advocates for the doing – namely “to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” It is not all altruism, however, for the reader is cautioned to “keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Breaking open James:
1. How do you do Christianity?
2. How do you understand Christianity?
3. How do you care for others as a Christian?
The Gospel: St. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
'This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.'
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
In a way, this pericope (and I advise you to read it in its entirety, rather than just relying on the snippets that the lectionary provides – see here) sits on the cusp of the great healing journeys in Galilee, and what follows in Jesus’ experience with Gentiles. We begin with the critical attitudes of the Pharisees who condemn what they see as a lax observance of the Mosaic Law. Jesus sees it as an opportunity to make commentary on the Law and its place in human life. He quotes Isaiah 29:13 as a comeback to their assertion that all of Israel, priest and people, needed to follow the precepts of the Holiness Code. Jesus wants his audience to understand that it is not external things or forces that make people impure, and Mark then provides a list of those things, which actually do provide for an unclean life. It is a perfect example how early Christianity adopted certain Stoic means of instruction. This use of Hellenistic devices prepares the reader for the next pericope, which is the story of the Syrophoenician Woman.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. What do you think makes you clean?
2. What defiles you?
3. How do you guard yourself against what makes you unclean?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller
Alter, R. (2009), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Location 3947.