Pentecost 16B (16 September 2012)



  • Proverbs 1:20-33 and Psalm 19 [alt. WisSol 7:26-8:1]
  • James 3:1-12
  • Mark 8:27-38



This week’s readings draw on the ancient Wisdom tradition of the Bible and invite us to reflect on the significance of Jesus through the lens of Sophia, Lady Wisdom.

First Reading: Lady Wisdom, the divine Sophia

The passages from Proverbs and WisSol are classic texts from the wisdom tradition of ancient Judaism. In both cases we find wisdom personified as a woman—in Proverbs as a woman prophet, and in WisSol as an eternal spiritual reality that comes to historical expression in the prophets.

For examples of the Sophia tradition in Jewish and Christian sources, see the following pages:

Mark seems already to have bought into the Pauline understanding of Jesus as the powerful Son of God who offers his life as a ransom for others, but there were other ways to think of God present and active in human experience. The early 1C Jewish text, the Wisdom of Solomon, shows us that there were Jewish contemporaries of Jesus and Paul who imagined God coming among us as Lady Sophia, the Divine Wisdom.

For she is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.
Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.
She is more beautiful than the sun,
and excels every constellation of the stars.
Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
for it is succeeded by the night,
but against wisdom evil does not prevail.
She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
and she orders all things well. [WisSol 7:26-8:1]

As this week’s Gospel invites us to ask ourselves the ancient question (“Who is Jesus?”) all over again, we may find that some of the less familiar voices in the biblical tradition offer helpful insights for us today. Even if time makes ancient truth uncouth, as the hymn writer predicted, we may still find that the storehouse of faith has other treasures that have been lying unappreciated for generations.

Sophia Christology may be one of those treasures old and new that the scribe trained for God’s Kingdom will know when to bring out from the storehouse (Matt 13:52).

The song Enemy of Apathy by John Bell and Graham Maule from the Iona Community is one modern expression of this ancient biblical tradition:

She sits like a bird, brooding on the waters,
hovering on the chaos of the world’s first day;
she sighs and she sings, mothering creation,
waiting to give birth to all the Word will say.

She wings over earth, resting where she wishes,
lighting close at hand or soaring through the skies;
she nests in the womb, welcoming each wonder,
nourishing potential hidden to our eyes.

She dances in fire, startling her spectators,
waking tongues of ecstasy where dumbness reigned;
she weans and inspires all whose hearts are open,
nor can she be captured, silenced or restrained,

For she is the Spirit, one with God in essence,
gifted by the Saviour in eternal love;
she is the key opening the scriptures,
enemy of apathy and heavenly dove.


Second Reading: Wisdom beyond doctrine

The reading from James offers an example of the generic spiritual wisdom that characterizes the ancient Wisdom literature.

Typically, biblical Wisdom writings are the least “religious” texts in the Bible. There is little reference to God, no interest in the covenant, and not much time for the arcane traditions of the Temple. The sage looks to nature and to daily life—in the home, in the work place, and in society—for inspiration and insight.

Interestingly, Jesus himself seems rarely to have looked to Scripture and instead to have drawn on his observations of people in everyday life: a man building a tower, a farmer sowing the seed, a woman searching for a lost coin, etc. The episodes that portray Jesus as citing the Scriptures or engaged debate over their meaning are precisely the texts that seem to have been produced by the later Christian tradition, and they often construct a Jesus who is a moralist rather than a radical sage.

A texts such as James 3:1-12 could be used in almost any religious tradition. It is a reminder that the great religions have much in common, even if we mostly define them by their distinctive hallmarks. Anthologies such as Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings (edited by Marcus Borg), or the bestseller Living Buddha, Living Christ (by Thich Nhat Hanh) help us recapture an appreciation of the wisdom all the great religions offer.

None of which excuses us from facing the existential questions posed in this week’s Gospel:

  • Who is Jesus?
  • What do others say about him?
  • What do we say about him?
  • What do I say about him?
  • Who is Jesus for me?
  • Who am I for Jesus?


Gospel: Who is this man?

The Gospel passage for this week is widely seen by scholars as the turning point in Mark’s Gospel. There is much more going on here than the record of a historical memory. Mark has carefully set the scene for this episode, although we miss his literary craft with our lectionary fragments week by week.

Before looking at the immediate context, it is worth noting the larger design of Mark’s Gospel:

Mark has two major divisions: 1:1-8:26 and 8:27-16:8. We find no use of the word “Christ” apart from the title line in 1:1 until we get to the second half of the book. “Christ” then occurs several times, starting at 8:30. The first half has a focus on Jesus and the public, while the second half has a focus on Jesus and the disciples. in the first half of the book we find repeated questions about the identity of this man, while the second half offers repeated instruction on Jesus’ identity. In the first half we have many miracles (15), but just a few (3) in the second half. The earlier section hints at Jesus’ death, but the second section has a sustained focus on Jesus’ death. [see Chapman, The Orphan Gospel. 1993:39]

Mark has set the stage for this disclosure scene with a double set of stories:

There were two sets of miracles –

1a – Jesus rebukes the wind and sea (4:35-42)
2a – Jesus heals the demoniac at Gerasa (5:1-20)
3a – Jesus cures Jairus’ daughter (5:21-24a,35-43)
4a – Jesus heals the woman with the vaginal hemorrhage (5:24b-34)
5a – Feeding of the 5,000 (6:30-44)

1b – Jesus walks on the sea (6:47-52)
2b – Jesus cures a blind man (8:22-26)
3b – Jesus cures the Greek woman’s daughter (7:24b-30)
4b – Jesus cures a deaf-mute (7:31-37)
5b – Feeding of the 4,000 (8:1-9)

There may also be a connection between this week’s episode and two additional healing stories that feature blind people –

  • Mark 8:22-26 – Blind man healed
  • Mark 10:46-52 – Blind Bartimaeus healed

These stories frame an important section on discipleship in Mark’s narrative of Jesus.

The first of the blind persons to be healed can only see clearly after a struggle. Jesus’ initial efforts to heal him were only partly successful. The man had gained fuzzy sight (“I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”) It took a second attempt by Jesus before the man was able to see clearly.

The second blind person, Bartimaeus, regains his sight immediately. Unlike the others who Jesus healed and sent home with instructions to keep silent, Bartimaeus regains his sight and follows Jesus “in the way”—the way of the cross, a story that begins in the very next sentence.

This week’s Gospel comes directly after the healing of the first blind man. It shows the disciples glimpsing—with a rather fuzzy vision—something of the significance of Jesus but not quite getting it. They saw a sacred hero, but were not clear about just what kind of hero this might be. They begin by rubbing their eyes and straining to make sense of what they think they can see.

By the end of the extended reflection on discipleship (8:31-10:52), the disciples seem to have gained a clarity of vision. They are found with Jesus in Jerusalem as his destiny comes to pass.

There may not be much of the historical Jesus in this week’s episode. Jesus seems not to have gone around speaking of himself and requesting feedback from others about how they saw him. But this story does capture the deep historical truth that his living and dying presented people with a demand that they decide what to make of a person who could live and die like this. Jesus may not have asked, “Who do people say that I am?” But his followers certainly found themselves asking, “Who is this?” and “What difference does this man make in my life?”

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 David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.

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