- Song of Solomon 2:8-13 and Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9
- James 1:17-27
- Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
In some ways, this week represents a transition in the Sunday lections:
- We begin a series from the ancient Jewish Wisdom writings
- We begin a series from James, a classic Christian “wisdom” text
- We return to Mark, the default Gospel for Year B
First Reading: Song of Solomon
After a lengthy series in the prophetic historical narratives of Samuel and Kings (material known as the “Former Prophets” in the Hebrew Bible), the RCL now begins a series of weeks during which the OT reading is drawn from the wisdom literature of ancient Israel:
- SongSol 2:8-13
- Prov 22:1-2,8-9,22-23
- WisSol 7:26-8:1 (or, Prov 1:20-33)
- Prov 31:10-31
- Esther 7:1-6,9-10; 9:20-22
- Job 1:1; 2:1-10
- Job 23:1-9,16-17
- Job 38:1-7,(34-41)
- Job 42:1-6,10-17
- Ruth 1:1-18
- Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
- 1 Samuel 1:4-20
While Esther, Ruth and the story of Hannah (1Sam 1) are not strictly “wisdom texts,” they do portray women as significant characters and active agents of God’s Wisdom.
The Song of Solomon is one of several wisdom texts attributed to Solomon by later authors.
Within the Hebrew Bible:
- Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth
- Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, or Canticles
In the Greek Bible (LXX):
- Wisdom of Solomon
Among the Old Testament Apocrypha & Pseudepigrapha:
- Odes of Solomon
- Psalms of Solomon
The Song of Solomon is a joyful affirmation of sexual love, and its inclusion in the canon has proved something of an embarrassment to pious readers. As it fails to mention God even once, its place in the canon was challenged in ancient times. Traditional Jewish and Christian exegesis has understood this erotic poem as an allegory of the divine love for Israel or the Church, but more recently commentators have accepted the plain sense of the text.
Michael V. Fox [HarperCollins Bible Commentary] observes:
The present commentary reads the Song of Songs as a secular poem about unmarried, human lovers. Such a song would originally have been sung for entertainment (a use that Rabbi Akiva mentions, and deplores, in the second century A.D.). Only in the course of long use was it reinterpreted as a religious document and included in the biblical canon. The Song of Songs is a celebration of private human experience. It treasures adolescent love and does not seek to infuse a “greater” meaning into this joyous experience. It does not even use the opportunity to extol, or appeal for, the blessings of procreation, family, and prosperity. Love is its own justification. [p. 472]
The excerpt chosen for use this week centers around a night time visit to the woman by her lover. Here, as in other parts of the Song, the lovers are assumed to be equal partners in the relationship:
The couple’s relationship is strikingly egalitarian, as if bracketed out for the moment from the assumptions of a patriarchal society. Though social constraints restrict the girl more than the boy, within the one-to-one relationship their possession is mutual (2:16), their desires indistinguishable, and their description of each other of much the same sort. This is an idealization of love, but not one devoid of roots in private experience. [Fox, 472f]
Those patriarchal assumptions are paraded in the designated psalm portion. Psalm 45 is most likely a royal wedding song, and it celebrates without any sense of shame the militarism, corruption and exploitation that was endemic in such societies. The following verses are excised from the text read in services, but they reveal the dominant social values of the biblical world:
Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one, in your glory and majesty.
In your majesty ride on victoriously for the cause of truth and to defend the right;
let your right hand teach you dread deeds.
Your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; the peoples fall under you.
Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house,
and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him;
the people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts, the richest of the people45:13 with all kinds of wealth.
The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes;
in many-colored robes she is led to the king; behind her the virgins, her companions, follow.
With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king.
Torah as Identity and Mission
The passage from Deuteronomy 4, listed as an alternative in the RCL this week, comes from another of the major deuteronomistic speeches mentioned last week in connection with Joshua 24.
In this case, we have an appeal for Torah observance placed on the lips of Moses.
The faith that is expressed in this literary fiction is one centered around Torah. In this 7C BCE document we can see the emerging self-identity of “Israel” (in fact, more properly “Judah” centered on Jerusalem) as a moral community rather than simply a political entity. At least that is the case being argued by the prophetic reformers whose agenda was being advanced by the production of the Deuteronomic History running from Deuteronomy through Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings.
Here are religious leaders with a vision for a society that builds a reputation for wisdom and discernment, rather than military prowess or mercantile success. Their community identity and also their collective mission derived from this sense of faithfulness to the divine Torah.
In the designated psalm portion (Ps 15), we catch a glimpse of another expression of Torah observance.
Jacob Neusner cites a much later example of Judaism’s ongoing reflection on the meaning of Torah:
Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses, three hundred and sixty-five negative ones, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and two hundred forty-eight positive commandments, corresponding to the parts of man’s body…
David came and reduced them to eleven: A Psalm of David [Psalm 15] Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tabernacle, and who shall dwell in thy holy mountain? (i) He who walks uprightly and (ii) works righteousness and (iii) speaks truth in his heart and (iv) has no slander on his tongue and (v) does no evil to his fellow and (vi) does not take up a reproach against his neighbour, (vii) in whose eyes a vile person is despised but (viii) honors those who fear the Lord. (ix) He swears to his own hurt and changes not. (x) He does not lend on interest. (xi) He does not take a bribe against the innocent, …
Isaiah came and reduced them to six [Isaiah 33:25–26]: (i) He who walks righteously and (ii) speaks uprightly, (iii) he who despises the gain of oppressions, (iv) shakes his hand from holding bribes, (v) stops his ear from hearing of blood (vi) and shuts his eyes from looking on evil, he shall dwell on high.
Micah came and reduced them to three [Micah 6:8]: It has been told you, man, what is good and what the Lord demands from you, (i) only to do justly, and (ii) to love mercy, and (iii) to walk humbly before God …
Isaiah came again and reduced them to two [Isaiah 56:1]: Thus says the Lord, (i) keep justice and (ii) do righteousness.
Amos came and reduced them to a single one, as it is said, For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel, Seek Me and live.
Habakkuk further came and based them on one, as it is said [Habakkuk 2:4], But the righteous shall live by his faith.
— Talmud, b. Makkot, 24(a) [cited in Jacob Neusner, The Way of Torah, 22]
Second Reading: Christian wisdom
The letter of James is a distinctive voice from the first generation of Christianity. It claims to have been written by the brother of Jesus. At the very least, James represents a way of being Christian that is less driven by the emerging christologies of the Cross (as in Paul) or Divine Wisdom (John). Here is a 1C Christian community that understands its link to Jesus as being through the family of Jesus and which preserves a particularly practical expression of faith in which right action takes precedence over correct doctrine.
Luke T. Johnson, author of a recent commentary on James (Anchor Bible, Volume 37a. 1995), characterizes the book as follows:
The teaching of James is general rather than particular, traditional rather than novel, moral rather than theological. The goal of the writing is not so much right thinking as right acting. The fundamental contrast is between verbal profession and action; when James contrasts “faith” and “works” (2:14), he sets empty belief in opposition to lived practice. [HarperCollins Commentary, 1162]
Given the current RCL focus on texts from ancient Israel’s wisdom tradition, James’ affinities with the tradition are also noteworthy:
James is remarkable for its positive appropriation of Torah, whose separate aspects it mediates to the messianic community. The short exhortations concerned with practical behavior resemble and incorporate elements of the wisdom tradition, reaching from Hellenistic moral philosophy to the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. … James also affirms the law, calling it the “law of liberty” (2:12), which is summarized by the Decalogue and the “law of love” (Lev 19:18. cf. 2:8-11). James elaborates this commandment in the light of Lev. 19:11-19 and Jesus’ words. [Johnson, ibid]
James might be expected to serve as a window into the earliest Jesus traditions, even if it is not actually the work of Jesus’ own brother. There do seem to be a number of ways in which this work reflects some knowledge of the sayings and practices of Jesus.
- Ask for what is needed, since God is generous and ungrudging. (Matt 7:7-11) [Jas 1:5-6]
- The lowly raised up, and the rich brought low (Matt 20:16) [Jas 1:9-10]
- Criticism of the rich [Jas 1:10-11; 5:1-6]
- Use of Beatitudes [Jas 1:12]
- Deliverance from temptation (Matt 6:13a) [Jas 1:12-16]
- Use of Parables [Jas 1:22-26; 3:2-6]
- Blessed for Doing (John 13:17) [Jas 1:25]
- Blessed are the poor (Matt 5:3) [Jas 2:2-7]
- Keeping the commandments (Mark 12:28-34) [Jas 2:8-12]
- Unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35) [Jas 2:13]
- Practical charity (Matt 25:31-46) [Jas 2:14-17]
- By their fruit (Matt 7:16-20) [Jas 3:11-12]
- On Judging (Matt 7:1-2a) [Jas 4:11-12]
- On Anxieties (Matt 6:25-34) [Jas 4:13-15]
- On Oaths (Matt 5:33-370 [Jas 5:12]
- Healing and Forgiveness (Matt 10:1,7-8) [Jas 5:13-18]
- Scold and Forgive (Matt 18:15) [Jas 5:19-20]
Even if some of these items derive from the post-Easter community, this list indicates a significant focus on traditions associated with Jesus.
Gospel: Jesus and the purity codes
The Gospel for all three major lectionaries deals with excerpts from Mark 7:1-23, a complex tradition that preserves a memory of Jesus as someone who intentionally contravened the purity requirements of his own society and advocated a radical reinterpretation of purity to apply to internal dispositions rather than external observance.
The following comments come from Marcus Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus. (Trinity Press International, 1998):
… one of the consequences of the Pharisaic extension of priestly regulations to nonpriests was the insistence that hands be washed before even ordinary meals. At issue here, of course, was not hygiene but holiness. According to both Mark and Q (or Luke), Jesus and his disciples were charged with eating with unwashed hands. Both sources indicate deliberate nonobservance and give no reason to suggest that the behavior was necessitated by special circumstances.
To determine the response of Jesus to this accusation, the complexities of Mark 7:1-23 must serve as a point of departure. As it stands in Mark, it begins with the accusation regarding washing of hands and climaxes with v. 15:
There is nothing outside of a person which by going into that person can defile;
but the things which come out of a person are what defile.
There is virtual unanimity among all schools of criticism that this saying is authentic. The major issue is the meaning of the saying. To what did it refer when Jesus spoke it? Since it was spoken to some concrete situation involving controversy with opponents, its primary thrust is to be determined by that controversy rather than in isolation.
In Mark, it has two different thrusts to two different audiences. in public (v. 14), it answered the Pharisaic charge that Jesus’ disciples ate with unwashed hands. In private (vv. 17-23), to the disciples, it nullified the Mosaic laws on clean and unclean foods (Deut. 14:3-20; Lev. 11), most explicitly in v. 19b: “Thus he declared all foods clean.”
That the second thrust is authentic is unlikely for several reasons. First, there is no indication elsewhere that this was an issue during the ministry. Indeed, had Jesus rejected the food laws of the Pentateuch, most likely an accusation to that effect would have been made and preserved, but no such accusation is reported. Though this is an argument from silence, it has some force since accusations about sabbath observance, washing of hands, eating with tax collectors and sinners, etc., do appear. Of greater weight is a second reason: the indecision of the early Jesus movement after Jesus’ death over the continued validity of the Mosaic laws on forbidden foods is virtually inexplicable if Jesus had unambiguously rejected the distinction between clean and unclean foods. Moreover, v. 19b, which is responsible for directing the saying to the question of forbidden foods is in a section (vv. 17-23) commonly viewed as secondary …
Two possibilities remain: it was addressed to a conflict which can no longer with certainty be identified, or it was directed to the issue of ritual purity of hands at meals. The first is certainly possible, though the second is more probable for two reasons. Concern about ritual purity of hands is a known controversy; and Luke independently of Mark reports a Q saying with similar content as a reply to the same accusation:
Luke 11:38-41: The Pharisee noticed with surprise that Jesus had not begun by washing before the meal. But the Lord said to him, “You Pharisees! You clean the outside of the cup and plate; but inside you there is nothing but greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside too? But cleanse those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you.”
… Taken together, the accusations and replies reported by Mark and Luke lead to very important conclusions. First, the behavior against which the accusations were directed contravened an important aspect of the extension of priestly regulations to daily life: it denied the validity of one of the main requirements for membership in a Pharisaic havurah. Second, the warrant given for the contravention called into question and indeed negated the whole notion of how holiness was to be achieved. The equation between holiness and separation, qadosh and parush, was denied, for holiness had nothing to do with separation from the external sources of defilement … Denying the equation of qadosh and parush constituted an eminently clear opposition to the main thrust of Pharisaic polity and indeed to much of the postexilic development of Judaism.
The historic meaning of the challenge can be refined by comparing it to two modern ways of stating the significance of Mark 7:15, both of which blunt the cultural and political edge of the controversy. Perrin and Kasemann, both of whom appreciate the radical nature of the saying, argue that here Jesus established the distinction between the sacred and the secular. Though this may finally be quite similar to what is argued above, putting the issue in the form, “Jesus denied the equation of holiness and separation,” has the advantage of being cast in the form of a cultural question of the day. Its historical bite as a challenge to the Pharisaic program for Israel can be better appreciated. Its controversial setting is more seriously obscured by a second modern way of stating the point: Jesus replaces the concern about external rectitude with a concern about the inner spiritual health of the individual. Though this is a valid insight, it both generalizes and individualizes what was originally a specific challenge to a collective model of behavior for a society.
Here, then, in the behavior of Jesus and his disciples, we have a specific contravention of a necessary prerequisite for table fellowship as understood by the Pharisees, and of a major element in the program to make Israel a kingdom of priests. Moreover, the warrant which Jesus articulated for such nonobservance denied not only the necessity of ritual washing of hands, but also undercut the understanding of holiness as a separation upon which hinged Israel’s course in the present and anticipation of the future. [pp. 111-13]
- 234 Unwashed Hands – Mark 7:1-5
- 235 Commandment and Tradition – Mark 7:8-13
- 019 What Goes In – Mark 7:14-16
- 236 What Comes Out – Mark 7:17-23
- 024 Blessed the Womb – Jas 1:25b
- 043 Blessed the Poor – Jas 2:5
- 212 Blessed for Doing – Jas 1:25
- 372 Against Oaths – Jas 5:12
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.