The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, 23 September 2018

Proverbs 31:10-31
Psalm 1


Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, or Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
St. Mark 9:30-37

Background: The Feminine in the Ancient Near East

The frequency of readings from Proverbs, especially the reading from the 31stchapter in the First Reading for Track One tempted me to do some hunting for resources on the feminine in the ancient near east. Of special interest is Julia M. Asher-Creve’s article, “Feminist Research and Ancient Mesopotamia: Problems and Prospects” in Athalya Brenner and Carole Fontaine’s book A Feminist Companion to Reading the Bible, Approaches, Methods and Strategies.[1]We often assume that it is fatherhood that is at the root of words that describe kingship and power. That, however, was not true in Sumer or Aggade. Strength on the battle field or other heroic deeds seem to be the foundational idea of royal power in these cultures. The word “father” is not ascribed to those in power – more commonly it was the notion of shepherd or guardianship – feminine qualities. The author poses the question about assigning gender to either individuals or institutions, is there perhaps a third option other than the feminine or masculine? Might gender ambiguity be an option? She notes that in Uruk (3100-2900 BCE) it was not necessarily important to assign gender to tasks. Often women took on men’s roles, such as herding, or overseeing groups of workers. When we start our study of women in biblical materials we need to set aside whole levels of assumptions and begin to study again what these models, roles, and assignments really meant in ancient times.

Track One:

First Reading: Proverbs 31:10-31

A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from far away.
She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.
She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength,
and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
for all her household are clothed in crimson.
She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the city gates,
taking his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them;
she supplies the merchant with sashes.
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her happy;
her husband too, and he praises her:
“Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lordis to be praised.
Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.

Like some of the psalms, this is an acrostic poem that explores “the woman of worth”. It was likely written in the postexilic period and is an example of wisdom literature. There are no references to the Davidic monarchy, although the woman depicted in the text has certain royal attributes (see verses 25, 17, and 20). The context of this “capable woman” is the household and not the larger community. There is no looking to the capitol, but rather a focus on the society of the home. Thus, the values here are rural and agrarian. Such households were economic units that provided for shelter, food, clothing, and pottery. This built up a community of interdependence that demanded certain social values. The text will deal largely with production and consumption, along with parenting, educating, and nurturing. The woman depicted here is a woman of wealth, but there are values worthy of being emulated by women in poorer households, or who lived on the edges of society. She is someone who “fears YHWH,” and her faith provides for her spiritually and practically. And like the God she honors, she provides for others.

Breaking open the Proverbs:
1.    How does this compare to your vision of a woman?
2.    What would you add to the description?
3.    What might you take away?

Psalm 1 Beatus vir qui non abiit

     Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
     Their delight is in the law of the Lord, *
and they meditate on his law day and night.
     They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *
everything they do shall prosper.
     It is not so with the wicked; *
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
     Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, *
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
     For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, *
but the way of the wicked is doomed.

Although our text has been made more inclusive, “Happy are they,” the Hebrew text focuses on the happy man – a turnabout from the text in the first reading. Like the first reading it is a wisdom text that lifts up the universal values of doing good and honoring others. The psalm depicts life as a journey, with the central character walking through difficult choices. Robert Alter translates the second verse as: “But the Lord’s teaching is his desire, and (God’s) teaching he murmurs day and night.” The Hebrew has the sense of meditation, but the word murmur gives us a clue as to his meditation as he repeats the words of God in a low voice.

A tree in this world was rarity – it needed to be planted by a water source in order to grow and bear fruit. So, the central character needs to be close to the resources (God’s law) that are offered. Finally, there is a contrast to the righteous person in the habits of the wicked. The righteous one, seen in the initial verses of the psalm, is known by God (the intimacy of that phrase needs to be acknowledged). The wicked one, however “is doomed.”

Breaking open Psalm 1:
1.       How might you describe a righteous man?
2.       How do you compare to this description?
3.       How do you compare to your own description?


Track Two:

First Reading: Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22

The ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death;
considering him a friend, they pined away
and made a covenant with him,
because they are fit to belong to his company.
For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,
“Short and sorrowful is our life,

and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades
“Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,

and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray,
for their wickedness blinded them,
and they did not know the secret purposes of God,
nor hoped for the wages of holiness,
nor discerned the prize for blameless souls.

This book gives evidence of the Hellenization of the Jewish world following the conquests of Alexander the Great, and the rule of the Seleucids at the end of the millennium. It was probably written by a Jew sometime in the first century BCE or even later in the early first century CE. There is a fondness of Greek culture, and a stated antipathy to Egyptian religion, specifically animal worship, which may place the text in Alexandria in the Jewish diaspora.

Our particular pericope has been titled by some as “The Deluded Reasoning of the Unrighteous”. In this it seems to emulate the Hellenistic diatribe. We begin with an anticovenant, one made with death itself. This contract leads to an unholy life that has three aspects: sensual pleasures (2:6-9), exploitation of the weak (2:10-11, and the persecution of the righteous (2:12-20). This places them outside of God’s word and revelation, “and they did not know the secret purposes of God.” For a contrasting point of view you might want to read the psalm in the Track One readings.

Breaking open Wisdom:
1.       In your mind who are the truly wicked?
2.       What makes them wicked?
3.       How can you obviate their misdeeds?


First Reading: Jeremiah 11:18-20

It was the Lord who made it known to me, and I knew;
then you showed me their evil deeds.
But I was like a gentle lamb
led to the slaughter.
And I did not know it was against me
that they devised schemes, saying,
"Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,
let us cut him off from the land of the living,
so that his name will no longer be remembered!"
But you, O Lord of hosts, who judge righteously,
who try the heart and the mind,
let me see your retribution upon them,
for to you I have committed my cause.

With this reading we begin a series of passages, “The Lamentations of Jeremiah”. They are known for their candid nature and their intimacy. His words, often biting, were not only directed to Israel, but to God as well – examples of a frank and honest prayer life. If this reading sounds like a psalm it is because Jeremiah has used the conventions of liturgical psalmody in his writing. Here Jeremiah’s complaint seems to not have a specific actor, “then you showed me their evil deeds.” Who are they? In verse 21 we discover that they are the “men of Anathoth,” the village from which Jeremiah came. Perhaps these men were put off by Jeremiah’s complaints against Israel and the political status quo. Thus, Jeremiah makes his request, that “your retribution (be) upon them.” Now Jeremiah reveals why he has made such a request. It is more than revenge, but rather that he stands by God, “for to you I have committed my cause.” The prophet speaks God’s word to the here and now – and sometimes that is a task of difficult purpose.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.       Who are your enemies?
2.       Why?
3.       What is your complaint to God?

Psalm 54 Deus, in nominee

     Save me, O God, by your Name; *
in your might, defend my cause.
     Hear my prayer, O God; *
give ear to the words of my mouth.
     For the arrogant have risen up against me,
and the ruthless have sought my life, *
those who have no regard for God.
     Behold, God is my helper; *
it is the Lord who sustains my life.
     Render evil to those who spy on me; *
in your faithfulness, destroy them.
     I will offer you a freewill sacrifice *
and praise your Name, O Lord, for it is good.
     For you have rescued me from every trouble, *
and my eye has seen the ruin of my foes.

The superscription of this psalm is: “For the lead player on stringed instruments, a David maskil,when the Ziphites came and said to Sul, ‘Is not David hiding out among us?’” The reference is to I Samuel 23:19f. It is a plea for God’s intervention and help for David, and we can see it in a different light in Jeremiah’s situation. The enemy is characterized as having no relationship with God, being arrogant and ruthless. The second half, beginning with verse 4, focuses on God as helper and rescue for David. In this psalm we are in the middle of the action requested. It has not happened yet, it is an anticipated rescue, and the author promises “a freewill sacrifice” should that salvation happen. 

Breaking open Psalm 54:
1.       When have you needed rescue?
2.       When have your rescued?
3.       Whom do you know who needs rescue?

Second Reading: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

We move in this pericope from the values of “slow speech” to the values of “slow anger.” There are concluding comments on slow speech, “done with a gentleness born of wisdom.” Quickly the topic changes: “(There are) conflicts and disputes among you.”All kinds of unrighteous acts and behaviors are tallied up: murder, covetousness, disputes, asking wrongly, spending on pleasures. The author asks his hearers to examine where these unrighteous behaviors come from – and seems to align them with the greed that infects the soul. A suitable reading for our own time, infected with the greed of consumerism and xenophobia. What is the solution – submission to God, and resistance to evil. The final verse mirrors repentance, “Draw near to God, and (God) will draw near to you.”

Breaking open James:
1.       How do you manage your anger?
2.       What is the cause of your anger?
3.       How do you resist the causes of anger in your life?

The Gospel: St. Mark 9:30-37

Jesus and his disciples passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

In this reading we have two pericopes – the first is a foretelling of the Passion, a second time (9:30-32), and the second is a discussion on the meaning of discipleship, a second version (9:33-50).In the first of these pericopes, there is a bit of word play between “the Son of Man” who is put into the “hands of men.” The scene is set in private – an intimate time between rabbi and disciples. What this instruction is about is Jesus’ coming passion (the second of three passion predictions). In the readings that have preceded this one, we have seen the “handing over” of both Jeremiah and David. The notion of being “handed over”, like being “lifted up,” which we discussed last Sunday, is common in the Scriptures. We know it especially in Isaiah were the Suffering Servant is “handed over” or “delivered up”. In the Gospels it will not only be Jesus, but the disciples and John the Baptist as well who will be “handed over.”

Now we move to the second of our pericopes in which Jesus continues his instruction of the disciples. It is they who have set the agenda in their argument about “who would be first.” His reply is simple, and it kicks against the social conventions of this time and the importance of status in Hellenistic society. Such discussions about rank and status were common in rabbinic intercourse and were considered a part of authentic piety. Here Jesus is the consummate teacher. He sits down. He invites a child into the group and uses the child as an example. “Become like this child” is his answer. Again, Jesus connects the act of kindness with anyone with an act that connects him with the actor. “Whoever did unto the least of these…” My father often referred to all Christians as Tekna Christou – a helpful reference to the intent of this reading.

Breaking open the Gospel: 
1.       How do you attempt to be last?
2.       In what ways are you like a child?
3.       How do you lift up others?

Central Idea:               That Christ and we are handed over and taken up.

First Action:                We are sometimes “handed over” to the worst parts of our culture and society (First Readings, Track Two)
Second Action:           That we are “taken up” into a greed of things (Second Reading)
Third Action:              Jesus is handed over to the worst, in order to make the best of it (Gospel 1)
Fourth Action:            Jesus takes up the child and sees it as a contrast to our own being taken up by self-interest and greed (Gospel 2)

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

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; 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

[1]        Brenner, A. and Fontaine, C. ed. (1997), A Feminist Companion to Reading the Bible: Approaches, Methods and Strategies, Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, page 231.


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