Pentecost 17B (23 September 2012)

Contents

Lectionary

  • Proverbs 31:10-31 and Psalm 1 (or WisSol 1:16-2:1,12-22)
  • James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
  • Mark 9:30-37

 

First Reading: Wisdom, the perfect life partner

The classic description of an ideal wife in Prov 31 has often been read simply as a reflection of a male point of view. We cannot get away from the fact that the passage reflects the patriarchal values of ancient Israel, but we may miss a hidden treasure if we too lightly pass this passage by.

Taken at face value the text may act as a mirror for us to recognize the continuing distortions of male-female relationships that arise from uncritical acceptance of traditional patriarchy. So-called “traditional family values” that are so staunchly defended by conservative religious leaders are often a thin disguise for self-serving male domination of women. It is well-attested that men tend to gain most in financial and personal well-being from marriage, while women tend to lose on both counts. At the very least, when a passage such as this is read in church, the Spirit may be whispering in our ears about the desperate need to redress that historic imbalance.

But there may be much more to this passage.

Like the majestic Psalm 119 with its extended theological reflection on the divine Torah, Proverbs 31:10-31 is an acrostic poem. These are not words that have been casually cast alongside one another. Someone with a love for the beauty of well-chosen words has gone to the trouble of composing a poem with each line beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

It may be that what we have in Prov 31 is a thoughtful celebration of Sophia/Wisdom as the soul’s true spouse.

Elsewhere in Proverbs we have many references to Sophia/Wisdom as the ideal woman (both lover and wife):

  • 1:20-33
  • 3:13-20
  • 4:5-13
  • 8:1-36
  • 9:1-6
  • 14:1
  • 24:3-7

In addition, Sophia/Wisdom is explicitly contrasted to the “loose woman” who posed a mortal threat to the young sage:

  • 2:16-19
  • 5:1-14
  • 7:1-27
  • 9:13-18.

There may even be a delightful little “signature” hidden away in verse 12, as the Hebrew word ‏צוֹפִיָּה tsopiyyah translated as “she looks well to” is — possibly a pun on the Greek word, sophia (wisdom):

Proverbs31Acrostic.jpg

 

The Innocent Victim

Many congregations will read from the Wisdom of Solomon this weekend.

The designated passage is a portion of a Jewish text, written around 40 CE and therefore contemporary with both Jesus and Paul, that describes the evil ones plotting against an innocent “righteous one” with the intention of destroying their victim. In this traditional Jewish genre, however, the innocent victim is vindicated by God and his foes find themselves facing someone dispensing God’s judgment on them all.

It is now widely recognized that this traditional Jewish version of the classic Greek hero myth has profoundly influenced the way that early Christians chose to present the story of Jesus. Paul’s tantalizing references to Jesus’ death and resurrection as being “according to the Scriptures” may well have WisSol in mind, a point missed by those who search the OT for prophetic predictions of a suffering Messiah raised to life “on the third day.” The “scriptures” (Gk: graphai, or writings) Paul had in mind may not have been restricted to the Hebrew texts that the Reformers (some 1,500 years after Paul) substituted for the Greek Bible that had served as the Christian Old Testament since the beginning of the church.

 

Second Reading: Wisdom from above

If there was any doubt that the Letter of James is an example of Christian wisdom literature, this week’s passage puts that to rest:

  • Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. (3:13 )
  • Such wisdom does not come down from above, … (3:15 )
  • 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. (3:17 )

The passage begins with questions about the wisdom of the readers, and looks for them to exhibit characteristics that derive from wisdom — literally, “with Sophia’s gentleness.”

The Wisdom in the author’s mind is not a human quality, but something that derives from God. The term “from above” [Gk: anothen] is the same word used in John 3 and variously translated as “from above” or “again” (see John 3:3,7).

This wisdom from above is then described in terms that seem to echo familiar passages from WisSol:

For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. 7:27 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; 7:28 for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom. 7:29 She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, 7:30 for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail. 8:1 She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well. … 8:9 With you is wisdom, she who knows your works and was present when you made the world; she understands what is pleasing in your sight and what is right according to your commandments. 8:10 Send her forth from the holy heavens,and from the throne of your glory send her,that she may labor at my side,and that I may learn what is pleasing to you. 8:11 For she knows and understands all things,and she will guide me wisely in my actions and guard me with her glory. (WisSol 7:26-8:11)

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

 

Gospel: Master class in discipleship

While we tend to think of the Gospel of Mark as a simple story of Jesus’ ministry, it may be better to think of it as a textbook on discipleship. The focus on discipleship is particularly clear in the extended section that runs from 8:22 to 10:52, and is clearly identified by its two “book end” as Jesus heals two blind people.

One of the threads that runs through this section is the nature of discipleship. Time and again Jesus is portrayed as teaching and mentoring the disciples on their own callings as he reflects on his own.

Like the first blind man, who at first only sees with blurred vision, the disciples seem to have trouble with their vision of what Jesus is about and what that all means for them. Mark makes this all the more obvious by his insistence that Jesus was now saying everything openly and plainly. Yet still the disciples do not get it.

Three times Mark has Jesus tell the disciples about his impending death in Jerusalem:

  • Mark 8:31-33
  • Mark 9:30-32
  • Mark 10:32-34

Status in the Kingdom still loomed large in their imaginations. Coming as they did from a society governed by status and privilege, it was not surprising that they could not get their hearts and minds around the idea of a “kingdom of nobodies” (the phrase from comes Crossan, Historical Jesus, 266-68).

Crossan notes that children were not the objects of sentimental affection as they can be in our culture:

But what would ordinary Galilean peasants have thought about children? Would “like a child” have immediately meant being humble, being innocent, being new, being credulous? Go back, if you will, to those papyrus fragments quoted in chapter 1 of this book and think for a moment of the infants, often female but male as well, abandoned at birth by their parents and saved from the rubbish dumps to be reared as slaves. Pagan writers were, according to Menahem Stern, rather surprised that Jewish parents did not practice such potential infanticide (1976-84:1.33, 2.41), but still, to be a child was to be a nobody, with the possibility of becoming a somebody absolutely dependent on parental discretion and parental standing in the community. That, I think, is the heart of the matter with all other allusions or further interpretations clustering around that central and shocking metaphor. A kingdom of the humble, of the celibate, or of the baptized comes later. This comes first: a kingdom of children is a kingdom of nobodies.’ (Historical Jesus, 269)

Jesus seems to have been strangely free of the need to cling to life, power, status. The early Christ Hymn quoted by Paul in Phil 2:5-11 actually identifies that as the essence of his divinity:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness …

The Child of Sophia has prepared the table and issued the invitation: “Come, eat. Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Christ/Sophia is both host and menu at the Table of 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.

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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