Pentecost 8B (22 July 2012)

Contents

Lectionary

  • 2Samuel 7:1-14a and Psalm 89:20-37
  • Ephesians 2:11-22
  • Mark 6:30-34,53-56

Introduction

This week we see how the three major Western lectionaries differ in their handling of the Gospel materials. The natural process at this point would be to do as the ECUSA lectionary does: take the narrative up to and including the feeding of the 5,000. However, the RC and RCL do not include Mark’s account of this miracle as (beginning next week) they are going to take us to John 6 for an extended reflection on the Bread of Heaven theme. Where the RC lectionary prescribes just Mark 6:30-34, the RCL also includes vss 53-56.

First Reading: A royal House for David

The first reading continues the series on the reign of David. Following the account of his capture of Jerusalem (2 weeks ago) and the installation of the Ark of the Covenant – a traditional cultic focus for the ancient Israelite tribal league – in his new capital (last week), this week we read of David’s plans to build a temple in Jerusalem.

In most societies prior to the Enlightenment (and more specifically the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) there was a close relationship between the ruler and the religous hierarchy. This survives in an attentuated form in the established churches of some European nations (e.g., the Church of England, the Church of Scotland and the various national/State churches of Scandinavia: Denmark, Finland , Norway and Sweden) but is perhaps best attested in nations that recognise Islamic law. The modern nation of Israel also represents a specific example of an intentional link between a religion (Judaism) and the state.

In ancient societies the ruler often held a significant position within the community’s sacred system. It is therefore not surprising to find that the legends about the origins of Judah’s monarchy – the fabled “House of David” – included traditions about the divine selection of David, and also his role in the establishment of the temple and its rituals.

2 Sam 7 is a key biblical text for the davidic theology that was to play such an important role in ancient Israel, in early Christianity, and in subsequent history.

David is portrayed in a positive light here, with his staff prophet (Nathan) immediately endorsing his master’s proposal to erect a temple to Yahweh in the new capital. We might do well to imagine Nathan as the ancient equivalent of a Senior Policy Advisor to a politician. As the story unfolds, God lets Nathan know that his initial enthusiasm for the king’s building plans in misplaced.

David is not to build Yahweh a house (temple), but Yahweh will build a house (dynasty) for David!

At the heart of the Nathan oracle is a word play on the Hebrew word bayit, house. What purports to be a simple story about a new oriental ruler wishing to build a temple in honor of his patron god (as all successful kings did), becomes instead a claim that David’s family has an exclusive, unconditional and permanent contract to govern Israel. No other individual and no other family can ever aspire to that role within the Jewish tradition. What politician would not welcome such a deal?

Historically the situation is rather more complex. As the Bible tells the tale, after the death of David’s immediate successor (Solomon), God changed his mind and imposed a variation on the contract. A rival king was established in Israel, based in Samaria and ruling over the northern (and wealthiest) parts of the country. The davidic dynasty retained power only in the backward and impoverished southern region centered on Jerusalem.

Since the Bible comes to us through the southern community, we tend to consider the northerners as apostates and rebels. In the biblical narrative they become the “Samaritans,” commonly (but erroneously) understood as a mixed race with less authentic claims to Hebrew ancestry. (The implicit racism in such biblical teachings is usually overlooked.)

The later revision of Israel’s sacred history that we find in Chronicles is mostly concerned with Jerusalem as the home of the Temple. As such it largely ignores the majority of Israel found in the northern kingdom. Chronicles celebrates David as the founder of the Temple, the composer of its liturgies, and the patron of its sacred guilds. The parallel version for this week’s reading is found in 1 Chron 17, but the fascinating political reinterpretation comes in 1 Chron 22 as David prepares to die. Knowing that they could not re-write history to the extent of having David build their beloved Temple, the Chroniclers still manage to make David the effective founder:

22:1 Then David said, “Here shall be the house of the LORD God and here the altar of burnt offering for Israel.”22:2 David gave orders to gather together the aliens who were residing in the land of Israel, and he set stonecutters to prepare dressed stones for building the house of God.22:3 David also provided great stores of iron for nails for the doors of the gates and for clamps, as well as bronze in quantities beyond weighing,22:4 and cedar logs without number–for the Sidonians and Tyrians brought great quantities of cedar to David.

David is disqualified, not because God has no need of such a habitation (as in 2 Sam 7) but because David has blood on his hands as a warrior-king;

22:8 But the word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘You have shed much blood and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood in my sight on the earth.22:9 See, a son shall be born to you; he shall be a man of peace. I will give him peace from all his enemies on every side; for his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days.22:10 He shall build a house for my name.

Finally, David commissions Solomon to build the Temple:

22:14 With great pains I have provided for the house of the LORD one hundred thousand talents of gold, one million talents of silver, and bronze and iron beyond weighing, for there is so much of it; timber and stone too I have provided. To these you must add more.22:15 You have an abundance of workers: stonecutters, masons, carpenters, and all kinds of artisans without number, skilled in working22:16 gold, silver, bronze, and iron. Now begin the work, and the LORD be with you.”

The tradition that a descendant of David must always be king was later to influence to Jewish expectations of a messiah, someone chosen by God to deliver the Jews from their oppressors and inaugurate a golden age of prosperity and peace. Such ideas played an important part in the way that some of Jesus’ followers understood his significance, and may have contributed to the rulers’ decision to have him killed.

The significance of “son of David” as a title for Jesus quickly diminished as the Jesus movement became an increasingly Gentile religion with no interest in Jewish hopes for national restoration. For most Christians these days its primary value is as a prophetic legitimation of Jesus, rather than any serious view of Jesus as a Jewish nationalist warrior.

Second Reading: A post-ethnic phenomenon

This is the second in our series of readings from Ephesians that commenced last weekend.

Ephesians 2 seems to reflect a Christianity that is now self-consciously Gentile although still aware of its Jewish origins.

We are not yet at the explicitly anti-Semitic prejudice of Marcion in the middle of the 2C, but at a point when the fierce conflicts over the inclusion of gentiles that marked some of Paul’s authentic writings seem to be happily resolved. Jew and Gentile are at peace within the church, and the (ascendent?) Gentiles need to be reminded gently that they should remember that they were once outsiders.

This suggests a time when the question was not how best to include the Gentiles, but rather how best to protect the church’s Jewish members.

The language used suggests that this passage looks back on its foundational period as some considerable time in the past. Most NT scholars find it hard to imagine Paul speaking of his own time in the way we find here:

2:19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,2:20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.2:21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;2:22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

The “apostles and prophets” identified as the foundation of the new spiritual edifice seem to be described in a way that reflects the perspective of a later generation. Could Paul have ever spoken of himself, or Peter and James, in such terms?

Within the RCL set of texts, the thematic interplay with the Temple text in 2 Sam 7 is also interesting. If Ephesians is from the second generation of Pauline thought, then it may reflect a tendency to see Christianity as a spiritual temple replacing the physical edifice destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

Christians had a distinctive answer to question of God’s location. As their Jewish neighbours Christians increasingly focused on the community gathered around Torah in the aftermath of the temple’s destruction, Christians affirmed that Jesus was the embodiment of God, the sacrament of divine presence and the source of those blessings once thought to be the perogatives of the priests.

Early Christians had to establish a new sense of identity that displaced traditional loyalties to tribe, city or empire. Contemporary Christians still find ourselves wrestling with questions of identity and loyalty as we mostly live in societies that affirm secular values yet continue to assert the supremacy of the state over the individual (and over dissident religious communities). One expression of this tension is the dismisssal of religious critics as “meddlesome priests” with the sometimes explicit suggestion that clergy/churches should limit themselves to spiritual questions. Is the time approaching when Christian churches will embrace a more prophetic stand over against their own societies, and finally move away from the faded legacy of cultural privilege for one religion or one church?

Gospel: Glimpses of a Galilean holy man

Mark 6:30-32 – The Disciples Return

This brief passage completes the story of Jesus sending the disciples out in pairs to proclaim the coming of God’s commonwealth, and to celebrate its presence in healings and shared meals (see Mark 6:7-13). Mark interrupts that narrative with the account of John being executed by Herod Antipas (vss. 14-29), but now concludes the mission of the disciples with a brief description of their return.

In this story (and in the preceding story about Antipas and John), there is just the slightest hint of the impact of the primitive Jesus movement in Galilee during the late 20s of the first century. In last week’s passage Antipas hears word of Jesus and his followers, and concludes that John is back from the dead. In this week’s reading, “many were coming and going” (vs. 31). In other words, Jesus was at the center of a network of opposition activists with increasing influence in the villages of Galilee. Antipas had eliminated John, would he now have to get rid of John’s disciple and successor?

We can be sure that Herod Antipas would have been keeping a close eye on Jesus and his growing network of supporters.

With our usual focus on what became of Jesus after Easter we tend to overlook the social and political dynamics of Jesus prior to Easter, yet it is in the actions and wisdom of the historical Jesus that Christians see God’s priorities expressed in human flesh.

For an excellent account of the social impact of Jesus and the government’s likely “interest” in his activities, see Gerd Theissen, The Shadow of the Galilean: The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form.

It is interesting to reflect on the point that “Jesus before Easter” was a political activist, whose fate was to be eliminated by the powers that be. “Jesus after Easter” becomes an otherworldy theological figure who is rarely understood as having political significance. Only when safely removed from human society by his elevation to divinity could the empire of Rome embrace the Holy One of Nazareth.

Some questions to ponder:

  • How do we hold together the social and political implications of Jesus and his message?
  • Would a church that truly embraced the character and mission of Jesus ever win (or accept) the status of a national or state church?
  • If the god of the prophets refused a temple in Jerusalem (preferring the freedom of the nomad’s tent), how can it be that Christians, Jews and Muslims invest so heavily in real estate and political privileges?

For poetic exploration of some related themes, see 191_Leader_as_Servant#Poetry
Mark 6:33-34(35-44) – Feeding of the Multitudes

Mark 6:53-56 – Healings at Gennesaret

Mark’s summary description of Jesus’ power to heal, and the response of the people from that region, is very similar to the description of Apollonius of Tyana in the account by Philostratus:

When it became certain that he had arrived, people flocked to him from all over Greece aglow with anticipation; never had so many gathered for an Olympic festival as on this occasion. People came straight from Elis and Sparta, from as far away as Corinth; even the Athenians came, although they are not from the Peloponnesus. And there were people from Megara who were then lodging at Olympia, together with many from Boeotia, and from Argos, as well as leading citizens of Phocis and Thessaly. Some of these folks had already made Apollonius’ acquaintance, but were anxious to acquire additional knowledge from him. [Life of Apollonius of Tyana 8.15]

The idea that people wished just to touch the passing healer, is also seen in the way Peter and Paul are described in the Acts of the Apostles:

Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured. (Acts 5:12-16 NRSV)

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them. Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit said to them in reply, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded. When this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. Also many of those who became believers confessed and disclosed their practices. A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed. (Acts 19:11-20 NRSV)

The following article may be of interest:

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

 

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean-elect, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. Currently serving as the locum priest at Byron Bay Anglican Parish.
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