Saturday, August 15, 2009

Proper 19 Year B

Proper 19 Year
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19 OR A Song in Praise of Wisdom (Wisdom 7:26-8:1)


Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-8

James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

The collection of teachings meant to instruct the young opens with "wisdom" personified as a woman who goes out into the street and confronts people at random with the startling question, "How long ... will you love being simple?" She shows little sympathy for those who do not heed her message. She says she will "laugh at your calamity." And when some violent storm scares you or some crisis interrupts your life and brings you to your senses, "then you will call upon me, but I will not answer...." You will endure the consequences of your own folly, "but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease."

The psalmist reminds us that the daily reliability of the universe-- the sun comes up every morning and sets every evening -- "tells us," without using words, that "the Lord's teachings are "perfect/steadfast/upright/unblemished/pure/truth...." Pursue them for their inherent value.

OR Borrowed from Greek philosophy, the writer of book in the Hebrew book of "Wisdom" uses familiar Stoic language and concepts to praise wisdom as a "reflection of eternal light/a flawless mirror of God's activity/ an image of divine goodness." "Wisdom enlightens holy souls/ making them friends of God/making them prophets."


The great prophet Isaiah's powerful message reverberated and was amplified by admirers who came after him and added to his words. This excerpt seems to be the beginning of one of those additions. The writer acknowledges God's gift to Isaiah of the "tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word." Everyday the Lord instructs me. The insults and even violence against me I take in stride. "I have set my face link flint..." and will persevere, because "It is the Lord God who helps me...."

The psalmist has had a brush with death that led him to despair. He confesses that even though "in my rashness I said 'all humankind is false'," I came to my senses and returned to praise and loyalty to the Lord.

After an admonition that teachers should be held to a higher standard, "James" investigates the human tongue, which, although a "small member" of the human body can claim "great exploits." "Unbridled," it can start a conflagration, "fire by hell...." "With it we bless the Lord and Father and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters," it ought not be this way with us.

Following the spectacular, crowd-pleasing, miraculous feeding of 5,000, Jesus' successful rebutting of his religious critics and his well-received first ministry with non-Jews, Mark's narrative interrupts the flow with an interrogation, a taking stock. Jesus begins by asking his disciples for reports, "Who are people saying I am?" They describe how some say he is the great John the Baptist while others say he is the greatest of all Hebrew prophets, Elijah! Jesus changes from a general question to a personal question, "But who do you say I am?" Again, Mark gives to Peter the privilege of speaking the climatic line, "You are the Messiah." Jesus continues by explaining that this declaration means that he must "undergo great suffering, and be rejected... and be killed, and after three days rise again." Peter pulls Jesus aside and scolds him for saying that. Jesus snaps back immediately. He dismisses what Peter has said and growls, "Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." After the confrontation with Peter, Jesus turns and addresses the crowds still lingering around him. He tells them they, too, will need to take up their own cross, "for my sake and for the sake of the gospel."

Ac critical concept in Paul Ricoeur's wide-ranging, lifetime work in hermeneutics is attestation. He makes a sharp break from modernity's prejudice that humans are capable of achieving clear, distinct, certain, objective knowledge that is fixed, foundational and unchangeable. We are, by our very (human) nature individuals who use our imaginations, hopes and fears, personal history and experience as well as our intellect to interpret and live in the world of our experience. On the one hand, this means that we are more humble because we are aware of our always incomplete knowledge of all things and all others. On the other hand-- and this is his vital point-- it means we continually test our interpretations with others and use the conclusions we reach and hold dear because we base our lives on those interpretations. We attest to the conclusions we reach with not only what we say but what we actually do. "Testimony is...the engagement of a pure heart and an engagement to death," Ricoeur writes. (Essays on Biblical Interpretation, p. 122)

A key trait of the genius of Mark's narrative is his abrupt changes and sharp contrasts. In today's appointed excerpt, the followers of Jesus must be feeling more confident in this man for whom they gave up their daily obligations and followed for this short time. (And perhaps they are also quite pleased to be associated as intimates with someone who has been popularly received and who has so deftly handled his critics.) In this mood, Jesus asks his disciples for reports on what people are saying about him. They give him the flattering comparisons to some of God's great heroes of faith from the past. But now he asks about their own personal decision. Peter makes the declaration for the whole group: we have reached the decision that "You are the Messiah." Jesus then describes the future, which will include his public humiliation, execution, and being raised from the dead on the third day. Peter wants Jesus to downplay such discouraging talk. Jesus flashes his impatience, "Get behind me Satan!" He then tells them that they, too, will face conflits of their own if they continue to follow him.

Ricoeur writes, "...[W]hat progressively happens in the Gospel is the
recognition of Jesus as being the Christ. We can say in this regard that the Gospel is not a simple account of the life, teaching, work, death and resurrection of Jesus, but the communicating of an act of confession, a communication by means of which the reader in turn is rendered capable of performing the same recognition that occurs inside the text." (Figuring the Sacred, p. 162)

Once one has heard the whole story-- the four various gospel accounts of what he said and did, what was said and done to him and the ways he responded-- it is clear that Jesus presents a unique perspective on life, including what is worth dying for, what is worth living for, how one should invest whatever time one has between the birth date and the death date in his obituary. This perspective is a continuation and expansion of the Torah and even the Hebrew wisdom books which, in their own way, grasp the reality that God's ways are not our ways, that God's ways promise to lead to a life lived to the fullest and most rewarding while our ways are finally just "folly." The reaction to Jesus, which he described to the dismay of his followers, is not entirely new either. Isaiah knew the cost, including violence, against anyone who raises an alternative to just-going-along-to-get-along.

Jesus expands all this by not only teaching, but also embodying God's ways with perfect pitch. And when the predictable resistance and rejection come, he accepts it with authentic consistency with all he has said and done to this point-- with love.

The disciples must have squirmed that day when Jesus put them on the spot: Enough about what others have said about me, what do you say? But Mark's narrative leads us to believe that for all their bungling and lack of understanding and even their flat out failures, those disciples eked out enough faithfulness to become reliable witnesses-- some even with their own lives-- so that we could have the same opportunities to know and decide who this Jesus and all that he embodies really is and whether following him is worth it or not. As Ricoeur writes, the purpose of these texts is to induce the same response in us. We have all the information we need to reach a decision.

In the current issue of the
Anglican Theological Review, (Summer 2009), in a reappraisal of James Cone's important work in "black theology," Bryan P. Cumming writes, "...[I]t has led him [Cone] to an appraisal of revelation as dual-directional, that is, as revelatory knowledge not only of God but also of humankind. In agreement with Rudolf Bultmann, Cone claims that 'revelation is self-knowledge, a knowledge in which human beings make a decision about their own existence in the world'." (p.405)

When Jesus asks, Who do you say I am?, the repsonse one comes up with defines her or him self at the same time