Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost 20 September 2009 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary
Proper 20B/Ordinary 25B/Pentecost 16 Textweek
Proverbs 31:10-31 , James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
There is some simple wisdom in all of today’s readings. Proverbs teaches us about the value of good wives; James teaches us to hold our tongues and be careful of what we say, and the Gospel teaches that we should all be good servants. We can accept that teaching just as it is, and for many centuries that is how scripture has been used for teachings. Quite often the disciples (us) didn’t understand, but equally we were afraid to ask. Women, therefore, have been relegated to the kitchen, our freedom of speech has been curtailed by what is right and proper and expected, and the general “common people of God” have been molded into a subservient society that is subject to their masters.
But is that really the depth of the Holy Scriptures and is that really the purpose behind the revealed word of God? Looking closer we will and can find more. In Proverbs v27 we hear, ‘She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.’ Sure, keep her in the kitchen working away. If only we had learnt Hebrew and Greek at school. “She looks well to” is soph-iy-yah in the Hebrew text – and that might well be a word play on sophia, Greek for wisdom. The text changes completely. It becomes a teaching using allegory on the attributes of wisdom – and so applicable to all; it actually holds something for each and every one. It has got nothing to do with the right and proper control of wives. This is how we should read scripture – not to hold us in the past but to reveal who we are in the present for the future.
Early interpretations of scripture have been, and still are, held almost sacrosanct by the Church, for they have become enshrined in our doctrines and our dogmas and in the very fabric of our culture, and it’s a culture that was designed to be Christendom, but Christendom began to fade when our thinking and exploration moved beyond a fear of a flat earth into the wonder of the planet-filled cosmos. The early interpretations of God’s Word were challenged and it’s a challenge that was resisted by the traditional orthodoxy within the Church. So Christendom began to fade, and as it faded the Bible and its teachings lost value; they were discredited and discounted by the opening and the seeing of new eyes.
Many still want to hold on to the ancient Holy teachings in a way that they were handed down and if those who hold to the teachings of the Church - the orthodox teachings of the Church - if they prevail then the church itself will fade into being an outdated cult. The depth of what awaits in the Holy scriptures will then be left in the hands of some novelist to rediscover it and produce a best-seller as he writes about the hidden secrets that are encoded into the word of scriptures.
It is important for us to acknowledge the teachings of the past, and to acknowledge them as being in the past. It’s equally important for us to look at the Holy Scriptures from the vantage point of today, and with an orientation toward tomorrow. It is a book of life, not a history book. Ancient words that live don’t draw us back to ancient times, but they point to something with tremendous power that can take us from here into the future.
Proverbs is only a handbook for discerning and maintaining a good wife in the hands of the religious conservative, or in the hands of someone who seeks to retain the controlling advantage. Its wordplay on wisdom gives us a new opportunity to contemplate the text and to contemplate the attributes of sophia within our daily life and work. Where in our daily life and work does ancient divine wisdom steer our course and influence our judgement?
Moving on, we might ask again does the reading from James teach us to hold out tongues and be careful of what we say? Yes, at one level it does, but we should be very attentive to the last few verses: 9 With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
For many years we’ve been taught to respond to this reading with a self-righteous acceptance - of course both fresh and brackish water do not pour forth from the same spring, and that has led us to being right and good and “others” being wrong and bad. Of course, we’re here in church, we’re the fresh water, the others out there are the unwashed, the brackish water. Look more closely at the text and contemplate it regard to oneself and then ask what is the truth I find. And surely I’m not alone in acknowledging that YES, both fresh and brackish water do pour forth from the same spring; they certainly both pour forth from me. And go back to Isaiah, they also both, funnily enough, pour forth from God: “I am the Lord (and there is none other); I make the light, I create the darkness; author alike of well-being and woe” (Isaiah 45:6-7).
Yes, clean, fresh spring water and brackish water come forth from the one source, and in the text it says, “this ought not to be so”, and that’s what we need to hear. It ought not to be so, but it is. Because if we hear that we will start exploring what is it that wells up in us?
And that’s the orientation of this week’s gospel, just as it was last week. In v35 Jesus says, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Dead simple, if you think that Jesus was giving a simple throw away line. But it’s not a throw away line, nor is it a call to us to be servants, although somehow that’s how that Church adopted it and that’s how it was fed into our culture - possibly, probably, via a succession of priests who wanted to be masters. It’s a wonderful teaching: you lot have to be servants of all; yes!
This is the central part of Mark’s teaching. It is about changing the ‘world order’, and that is emphasised when you go to the beginning of the narrative we read today: v30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples. Time out from healing, time out from giving sight to the blind, in order to teach the disciples. If it was so simple that you could give it to them in a one-liner in a service on a Sunday morning, it would have been done. It required a time and energy that brought a stop to healing in order that this teaching might be handed on.
“He did NOT want anyone to know it’, because this is not a simple rule of life, it is a change in who we are, in our very being, and the disciples needed to know and to find that change in themselves before it could be shared with others. Earlier in the gospel, Mark presents Jesus as concerned to keep his identity secret. He’s not a spy, he’s not playing games at all, but he cannot be revealed as the Messiah, until the world’s understanding of ‘Messiah’ shifts. He silences the demons when they reveal that identity (1:25, 34), because if his identity is revealed people will look to him to be the Messiah in their image and expectation of what a Messiah is. He tells the man whose leprosy he has healed to “say nothing to anyone” (1:40) – we actually need to work out what this is about. And in last week’s reading Peter is rebuked for not having appreciated the true meaning of Christ’s identity. He could see, he could speak it, he could know, but he had no idea. And the meaning of Christ’s identity, what is revealed when the Divine is enfleshed, is to be found within the heart, because what is revealed is the source of our being, the source of who we are.
In v34 The disciples “were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” Here Mark illustrates the way of the world, and it is still the political climate; it still is the way of our culture. It is the very being of our institutions, our sense of values; it is promoted through almost every socio-political group, from schools to AFL finals. And there’s a revelation in Christ’s response in v35: He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
In Aramaic and Greek the word for “child” is the same as for servant, and both child and servant are completely, utterly and totally without status. They are both powerless and are also unable to draw on any resources to repay any kindness toward them. And so what is revealed is that our Divine nature is counter-cultural, it is not of this world. It is not enough to fit in with everybody around us. If anything, all that will do is to solicit the rebuke, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan’.
Christ is revealed not in accord with our cultural understanding of power and leadership, rather there is a new orientation that Christ is seeking to teach his disciples in this middle part of Mark’s gospel. What he’s seeking to do is to bring them, invite them, reveal to them, an alignment with Christ-likeness, that they become like him. That is our call also.
And the servant of all is the one who gives up one’s self, one selfish orientation to life, one’s ego-driven self. The servant of all is the one who seeks the pure water from the spring that freely brings life and refreshment to all.
The journey through Galilee to Capernaum is the journey of sophia – the getting of wisdom, the cleansing of the brackish water from life’s spring. “I am the Lord; I make the light, I create the darkness; author alike of well-being and woe”. This is our voice as well, for our voice, our tongue, is the author of well-being and woe, and our capacity as revealed in Christ is a capacity for well-being. Let’s enjoy the trip as we go through Galilee to Capernaum and beyond.