The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17 - 2 September 2012

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
St. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Background:  The Deuteronomist
It is probably not correct to speak of this movement in the singular, for there were probably several individuals, if not a school that functioned as the Deuteronomist.  In the Documentary Hypothesis, in its earliest form, scholars identified four strands in the Pentateuch (the Books of Moses): J for the Yahwist, E for the Elohist, D for the Deuteronomist, and P for the Priestly source.  All of these sources seemed to have operated with older materials and traditions, editing them to support a particular view or theology.  The Deuteronomic materials include the Book of Deuteronomy, which is essentially a book of the Law, and parts of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Jeremiah.  This school operated at several points during the development of the Hebrew Scriptures, notably during the reign of Josiah, ca. 641-609 BCE, and in the case of the Deuteronomic History a post-Exilic author/editor that flourished in the sixth century.  The theology of the Deuteronomist centered on the Law, a covenant piece patterned after the suzerain treaties of the Ancient Near East, and on a strong monotheistic model with YHWH as the God of Israel.  The school was influenced by refugees pouring out of the Northern Kingdom of Israel when it was conquered by Assyria in the eighth century.  Their ideas form the basic foundations of the theology of this school.

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.

The section from which our reading is taken serves as an introduction to a repetition of the Mosaic Law.  Note the prohibition (common in the treaties after which these laws are patterned) to not change the provisions of the covenant (the agreement, or the treaty).  Of interest is the opening notion in verse six, “for this will show your wisdom”.  The Hebrew word here is normally indicated “prudence”, but here the intent is really “wisdom”, which reflects not only the theology of the Deuteronomist but also the slow identification of the Law with Wisdom.  Also of note is the phrase, “has a god so near to it as the Lord”, which points to the presence of the Ark of the Covenant, which occupies a great place in the Deuteronomic History.  The fiction here is that this speech by Moses takes place after the Sinai/Horeb event, and Moses sharply recalls it to the collective memory and tradition of the tribes.  The role that this oracular memory and tradition plays in the transmission of the people’s common history is quite stunning, and it is underlined by the injunctions that Moses gives to the parents of Israel.

Breaking open Joshua:
  1. How do you see “wisdom” and “law” as being related?
  2. Do you have Bible passages committed to memory?  How are they useful to you?
  3. How have you transmitted the message to succeeding generations?

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.

In the first verse of the psalm we are projected across time, from the “tent – the tabernacle” to the “holy hill”, thus Zion, Jerusalem and the Temple.  The verse represents the history of the people from their nomadic days to their urban days.  What follows is a set of virtues that accrue to those who are faithful, and whose lives are acceptable so that they might enter the place where God dwells.  It is a list worthy of Paul: just, honest, a protector of his/her family but not to the point of dishonesty, ready to point out evil, good for his/her word, and generous without expecting profit. 

Breaking open Psalm 15
  1. Where is a place for God that you observe in your life?
  2. What virtues do you think that your church teaches you?
  3. What virtues do you encourage in others?

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.

The author may have, in the first verse of this ready, quoted a proverb of the day, “Every gift is good, and every present is perfect.”  However, the thought is not left there, as the author goes on to add the source of every “perfect gift”,  “the Father of lights.”  Here God is pictured as the Creator, and thus creation becomes the “perfect gift”.  Indeed it is our own created nature and not just “the lights” that is called to mind here.  God is our father, and thus like Christ is the “first fruits” (Paul) so we are to be a first fruits.  The gifts that we are to give are then suggested to us.  The author contrasts behaviors – doing and not just hearing, observing and not forgetting, speculating on the law rather than enacting the law (caring for orphans and widows).  These concrete actions then become doable gifts such as have come down from God.

Breaking open James:
  1. What is God’s perfect gift to you?
  2. How is creation a gift to you?
  3. How do give a perfect gift to others?

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."

The juxtaposition of all the readings for today becomes the question that is engaged – “how do we follow the Law”?  For the Deuteronomist it was the tradition of the elders, and for the psalmist it was a common-sense list of everyday virtues.  For James it was a generosity that is modeled on the God who is a profligate giver of all good things.  For Jesus and the Pharisees it is another conundrum.  What do such goodly behaviors indicate?  The Pharisees call to Jesus’ mind the traditions of the elders, and the rules about food and cleansing.  There is nothing overtly wrong here, excepting that Jesus thinks that they have gotten the wrong idea.  He latches onto the idea of uncleanness, and quickly identifies the source – not what has been eaten, or eaten with defilement (not cleansed) but rather what proceeds from our hearts or minds, our lusting, or our pride.  All are on a correct path; Jesus just corrects the point of view.

Breaking open the Gospel:

  1. What is Jesus’ point in this saying?
  2. How do you follow the Law?
  3. What is the Gospel in this reading?

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.


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