The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, 6 September 2015

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Psalm 125
Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146

James 2:1-17
St. Mark 7:24-37

Background: Proverbs

What is when something is pronounced to be “proverbial”? John Russell described a proverb as “the wit of one, and the wisdom of many.” Proverbs are ancient and come from a variety of cultural sources. The ones that we are most familiar with are either biblical or come from “Poor Richard’s Almanac”. Some are anonymous and others come from a variety of authors: Confucius, Plato, Jesus, Shakespeare and others. Proverbs don’t need to be a matter of words, either, but can be recorded as a visual device (see the illustration above.) Proverbs can address a variety of human needs with humor and seriousness. Proverbs have been used by religions to express ethical and behavior concerns. When we read the Book of Proverbs in the Bible, we are reading a collection of sayings deeply seated in the culture of every man and woman.

The first reading for today is taken from the Book of Proverbs, in which there are six collections of proverbs: Chapters 1-9 – Concerning instruction in Wisdom, Chapters 10 – 22:16 – Ascribed to the Wisdom of Solomon, Chapter 22:17 – 24:23 – A Word to the Wise, Chapter 24:23 – 34 – These are also Words to the Wise, Chapter 25 – 29 – Proverbs of Solomon. The last section gives some clues as to how the collections were gathered and edited. The final chapters consist of appendices including an acrostic poem on the “ideal wife”. It is a collection of useful pieces of wisdom that flow out of the culture of Israel, and more generally the culture of the Ancient Near East.

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
and favor is better than silver or gold.
The rich and the poor have this in common:
the LORD is the maker of them all.

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed,
for they share their bread with the poor.

Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
or crush the afflicted at the gate;
for the LORD pleads their cause
and despoils of life those who despoil them.

This is a study of what it means to be in the community of God, of how both rich and poor exist in a community of being the created, God being the creator.  The second section, verses 8 and 9, addresses the “wrongdoer”, a type of person that is neither rich nor poor, but can be both – a commonality. The notion of the rod here may remind us not only of punishment, but also the rod that brings us back to our studies, or our contemplation of the world. The final section concerns issues of justice and are properly placed “at the gate.” The gate was where justice was dispensed where the king, his agents, or judges sat to hear cases and to render judgment. This proverbs is redolent with the thought of Amos, namely that justice (and the provisions of daily life) need to be available to both poor and rich, but especially to widows and orphans. Here God is pictured as the Advocate, the one “plead(ing) their cause.” As I often advise, please read the entire chapter, or better yet, the entire collection to get a sense of the wisdom that is being offered by the author.

Breaking open Proverbs
  1. What is your favorite proverb?
  2. What is your “good name” made up of?
  3. Are you rich or are you poor?

Psalm 125, Qui confidunt

Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, *
which cannot be moved, but stands fast for ever.

The hills stand about Jerusalem; *
so does the LORD stand round about his people,
from this time forth for evermore.

The scepter of the wicked shall not hold sway over the land alloted to the just, *
so that the just shall not put their hands to evil.

Show your goodness, O LORD, to those who are good *
and to those who are true of heart.

As for those who turn aside to crooked ways,
the LORD will lead them away with the evildoers; *
but peace be upon Israel.

This is an excellent accompaniment to the first reading above, for it dwells on the issues of justice. Here, however, the wicked are not the generalized evil persons in the world, but more likely the oppressors who came from the east to besiege Israel and Judah and to imprison or deport them. The opening lines are in praise of the hopes for Jerusalem, “which cannot be moved.” However, it was moved, and the remainder of the psalm is a request for Justice. Here again we meet a “rod”, this time the “scepter of the wicked.”  This is probably not the best translation for this word, “rod” indicating better the violence that can be the product of its use. The moral of this psalm/tale is that the righteous, Israel, should not follow the example of the wicked. A better example is God’s justice and mercy, “Show your goodness, O Lord, to those who are good.”

Breaking open Psalm 125:
  1. What does justice mean to you?
  2. Has justice ever been denied you? How?
  3. In what ways has God been just to you?

Isaiah 35:4-7a

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
"Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you."
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water.

The issue addressed here is also addressed in the psalm for Track 1 (Psalm 125).  Isaiah wishes for recompense for Israel who know lives under the tyranny of (take your pick) Babylon, Edom, or Persia. The visual here (pun intended) is that the situation is actual blindness. The life in exile has blinded the people to a vision of God, gracious and forgiving. Isaiah looks forward to a time when this sensory deprivation is relieved and, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” There will be a radical reordering of things – such as Jesus will talk about when describing by acts the Kingdom of Heaven. So Isaiah reverses the sorrow, desolation, and thirst for joy, abundant water, and a quenching draught – so is God, and so might the joy of return be.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. From what have you been set free?
  2. In what ways has God set you free?
  3. Is there someone whom  you need to set free? How?

Psalm 146 Lauda, anima mea

Praise the LORD, O my soul! *
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them.

When they breathe their last, they return to earth, *
and in that day their thoughts perish.

Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!*
whose hope is in the LORD their God;

Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; *
who keeps his promise for ever;

Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; *
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;

The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.

The LORD shall reign for ever, *
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.

This psalm gives voice to the hoped for joy of the Isaiah reading. It is a thanksgiving, and in conjunction with the Isaiah reading it is an anticipated thanksgiving. All of this goodness from God comes not in some future action, but now, “while I have my being.” The focus of this psalm is clearly on the help and relief that God can give; it is not possible to receive it from others. Any “child of earth” is described with indications of frailty and mortality. This is contrasted with the joy that accompanies those who have the God of Jacob as a helpmeet. The psalm goes on to describe God’s actions, creation, covenant, provider of justice and food. The recipients anticipate the recipients of Jesus’ kingdom, the oppressed, the prisoners, the blind, the bent, the stranger, the orphan and widow. It is interesting that the psalmist mentions “the bent”, those who cannot stand upright. It becomes a foil to the crocked wicked, “the way of the wicked contorts.”

Breaking open Psalm 146:
  1. What thanksgivings do you need to make today?
  2. What do you expect from others that you do not receive?
  3. What have you received from God?

James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. [For the one who said, "You shall not commit adultery," also said, "You shall not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.]

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

A member complained to me after the reading from James. “It’s hard to hear”, she said. Yes indeed, but it follows in the path drawn by Isaiah and the psalter in this mornings lessons. The poor become a focus for the prophets and for James. How any Christian community treats the poor becomes an indication of how closely they see the Kingdom of Heaven in their midst. These are the “uncomfortable words” because they compare our mercy with God’s mercy. It is a lesson that many in our country need to be aware of – that judgment does not come with the consideration of “moral” issues but really with how we treat our fellow humans. James reminds us of the Law – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Such an attitude on the part of James made Martin Luther very nervous. He described it as a strawy epistle, absent of a saving Christ. We however, need to take it in, and be challenged by it as we are challenged in Matthew as to what we do for the naked, the prisoner, and the hungry.

Breaking open James:
  1. How does James upset you?
  2. Is it good to be upset by the Bible? Why?
  3. How do you love your neighbor?

St. Mark 7:24-37

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go-- the demon has left your daughter." So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."

We are entering terra incognita – unknown territory. This is the land of the Gentile, and Jesus prepared his disciples and us in the previous pericopes by putting aside the “human laws” that did not allow for mercy for any who would follow God. And so we meet two individuals, the Syro-Phoenician woman who pleads for her daughter, and the Deaf-Mute Man. As with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus does not enter easily into the interaction with the woman from Tyre. There is controversy and argument, but her faith makes the best of it, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s’ crumbs.” It is her faith that makes the difference, and the result – either a healing or an exorcism – prove that God wishes to be present with more than Israel. As if to intensify the personal and intimate nature of this healing/dialogue, Jesus is alone with the woman - a risky proposition in this and even in our own society.

The story of the deaf/mute is unique to Mark. Here, what others (Isaiah) have described as symptomatic of a forgetfulness or God, or an inability to see God, becomes the opportunity for Jesus to demonstrate the Kingdom. All of the actions acutely direct our attention to the troubled man.  Jesus puts his fingers into the man’s ears, and touches his tongue indicating the locus of the miracle and healing. This is where it is going to happen – in the land of the Gentile. The Kingdom will come even here! Jesus requests secrecy because the entirety of the revelation of the Kingdom is not yet ready. It will take a sojourn in Jerusalem to complete that pattern.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How does the woman exhibit her faith?
  2. What do you think of Jesus remarks?
  3. How does Jesus use the sense of touch?

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

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; 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


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