THE BIBLE THIS WEEK AT ALDERSGATE
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Readings for September 2, 2012 Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Song of Solomon 2:8-13. Context. The Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, is one of three books, along with Proverbs and Koheleth or The Preacher, attributed to King Solomon in the Hebrew Bible. The latter were associated with Solomon on account of his reputation for wisdom, and the Song of Songs, on account of his reputation for being a great lover. The Song of Songs is a love poem, told largely from a woman’s point of view. The poem leaves behind the usual themes of the Hebrew Bible – tribal conflict, political disputes, royal intrigue, religious reforms, and divine judgment – and explores the private world of domestic relations. It is a love poem celebrating the sensuality and goodness of human love.
The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away."
Reflection. In the Song of Solomon, the lovers yearn for each other and long for a physical intimacy, the consummation of which always seems maddeningly just beyond their grasp. From a spiritual perspective, the relationship of lover and beloved, with all of its yearning and unfulfilled desires, has been used to describe our relationship with God, both in the Bible (think: the prophet Hosea; Jesus’ description of himself as “the bridegroom” and the church as the “bride”). Try to imagine wanting to be with God in a way that is like wanting to be with that special one.
Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9. Context. This psalm is a prayer for the king. It holds up the ideal of kingship, even when the king himself, including Solomon whose career is echoed here, falls short of the ideal. When Israel lost its monarchy, this prayer for a kingdom of justice and peace was directed to God (notice the apparent insertion at the beginning of verse 6 of the phrase O God after Your throne, which breaks the focus of the text on the earthly king described both before and after this verse).
My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe. You are the most handsome of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you forever…. Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity; you love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions; your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad; daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor; at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.
Reflection. The kingdom described here sets a standard for all worldly kingdoms, and its characteristics are justice and peace. All of our political rulers should be judged by the justice and peace that they bring to the land. What would be some of the criteria used? Crime in the streets and in the boardrooms? Health care for all? Incarceration rates? Military spending? Education spending? Keeping the trains running on time? These questions raise the real issues of what should government do, what could government do?
James 1:17-27. Context. The letter of James is an exhortation to Christians to live up to the faith they profess. Although it was written in an elegant Greek style, it was likely composed (perhaps in Aramaic) by James (as the letter itself claims), the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem after the resurrection. James gives clear and unambiguous counsel regarding how we are to behave towards one another. He insists that our religion is pure only when our deeds match our words, and that there is no room in a Christian life for the ways of the world – grasping, lying, and ignoring the needy.
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act--they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Reflection. For James, deeds are more important than words. If we say we love our neighbors, but do not help them when they need it, then our “religion is worthless,” as James writes. Can you think of times when a friend or neighbor needed some help, and you chose not to give it, even when you had the opportunity?
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23. Context. Jesus tangles again with his opponents, the Pharisees and the scribes. They challenged him about the observance of traditions that had become an important part of everyday Jewish life and Jewish identity. Jesus retorts that observing human traditions is meaningless if it becomes more important than observing God’s commandments. He concludes with his teaching that it is not what goes into a person that defiles, but what comes out—especially deeds that spring from evil intentions.
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
Reflection. Sometimes our customs seem more important to us than what God requires of us, and we are critical of others who don’t follow the same customs and habits as we do. What are some of the religious habits that you follow that don’t have anything to do with God’s will for us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves? Like his brother James, Jesus wants us to live our lives from the inside out, starting from the centerpoint of the experience of God’s love for us.