XIII Pentecost, Year B
Song 2:8-13 or * Dt 4:1-2,6-9
Ps 45:1-2,6-9 * Ps 15
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.
* (Deuteronomy 4:1-2)
So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the LORD your God with which I am charging you.
* (Deuteronomy 4:6-9)
You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!" For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today? But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children–
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.
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
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."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
When we hear Christian preachers preach on these texts, we cringe. We have taken our reflections for today from Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree. In this absolutely delightful book, Forrest revisits his childhood when, as a young orphaned Cherokee in the 1930’s, he was sent to the mountains of Tennessee to live with his Native American grandparents. Although most of the book focuses on what and how he learned native skills from his grandparents, still they walk down from the mountains into the town each Sunday and go to church. We would love to just quote the entire chapter, but we’ll give you a little taste before we get to the point.
“Granpa said that preachers got so taken up with theirselves that they got the notion they personal held the door handle on the pearly gates and wouldn’t let nobody in without their say-so. Grandpa figgered the preachers thought God didn’t have nothing atall to do with it.”
“All the Baptists believed in baptizing, that is, getting total sunk under the waters in a creek. They said you could not be saved without it. The Methodists said that was wrong; that sprinkling on the top of the head with water done the trick. They would each one whip out their Bibles there in the churchyard to prove out what they said. It ‘peared like the Bible told it both ways; but each time it told it, it cautioned you had better not do it the other way or you would go to hell. Or that’s what they said it said. I determined that I was not going to have anything atall to do with water around religion.”
“The preacher was a skinny man. He wore the same black suit every Sunday. His hair stuck out on all sides and he had the appearance of being nervous all the time. Which he was.
He never said anything interesting about water, which was disappointin’. I was interested in finding out the way you had better not use it. But he laid it heavy on the Pharisees. He would get to working up on the Pharisees and come down the pulpit and run up the aisle toward us. Sometimes he might near lose his breath, he got so mad at them.
One time he was giving the Pharisees hell and had come down the aisle. He would holler about them and suck in his breath so hard his throat would rattle. He run down close to where we was setting, and pointed his finger at me and Grandpa and said, “You know what they was up to…” It ‘peared like he was accusing me and Grandpa of having something to do with the Pharisees. Willow John looked toward him and Grandma held his arm. The preacher turned off to pointing at someone else.
Grandpa said he had never knowed any Pharisees and was not going to have any son of a bitch accusing him of having knowledge of nothing they had done. Grandpa said the preacher had better commence to point his finger some’eres else. Which after that he did. I reckined he saw the look in Grandpa’s eye. Willow John said the preacher was crazy and would bear close watching. Willow John always carried a long knife.
The preacher also had a total disliking for Philistines. He was continually raking them up one side and down the other. He said they was, more or less, as low-down as Pharisees.
Grandpa got tired of hearing the preacher raking somebody over all the time. He said he didn’t see any earthly reason for gittin’ the Pharisees and the Philistines stirred up; there was enough trouble as it was.”
We hope you have enjoyed this brief edited vignette. Unfortunately, it is going to be far too common when this text is preached this Sunday. We challenge you to do otherwise.
It is a problem as far back as the first missionary movement of the Greek speaking Jewish Christians. It is reflected in Paul’s letters to the Romans and Corinthians. It is layered throughout the Synoptic tradition and is apparently no longer an issue thirty years after the ‘council of Jamnia.’ In short, the problem of kosher was a problem from the get go for the early church and lasted until the separation of Judaism and Christianity in the early second century.
It must also be observed that since the 1970’s scholars have reframed much of their understanding of Ancient Judaism. Judaism is now seen as a much more pluralistic and dynamic faith tradition than was heretofore believed. The influence of Hellenism on Judaism and Judaism’s influence on Greek culture have been more carefully traced. Groups like the Pharisees have undergone rigorous investigation and our perception of the origins, development, practice and belief of the Pharisees has changed. E.P. Sanders and Jacob Neusner have loudly called our attention to the fact that the Pharisees were not a works-righteousness self-justifying bunch.
The early church never did manage to convince all the Jewish Christians to abandon kosher. The tragic split between Judaism and Christianity is also reflected in the split that occurs at the same time between Jewish and non-Jewish Christianity. And the development of Jewish Christianity during this time lays the blame squarely on Paul.
Since then, Paul has been often seen as the bad guy, as the innovator of a new religion, a Hellenized form that is now ‘the Christ myth.’ Paul had been a Pharisee. But he abandoned an essential identity marker, namely kosher. Paul, too, is asking about Jewish identity, but he is asking his question in the light of his reflections on the death and resurrection of Jesus and the giving of the Spirit.
Now, while recognizing that the early church passed on the tradition regarding Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees, we can also recognize something ‘historical’ here. All four Gospels begin with Jesus’ conflict with the group of men who had chosen to be Pharisees (the usual estimate given around 4,000 Pharisees at Jesus’ time). The Jesus tradition is remarkably full of clues that give us an insight into Jesus’ views as he comes into conflict with the Pharisees. First, there are the conflicts themselves over a broad range of issues, kosher, divorce, taxes, etc. Second, there are the parables that explore Jesus’ eating with sinners or other parables that deal with Jesus behavior that was perceived as outside the law by the Pharisees. Third, there is in Jesus’ message the element of jubilation, or the theme of jubilee, forgiveness, shalom. We see this especially in Luke but it is by no means absent from the other gospels. Fourth, Jesus was not a dummy. He would have been aware of the debates and discussions of the rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai. Jesus lack of formal education doesn’t mean he was unaware. Fifth, there is the trans-valuation of societal norms in Jesus prophetic reading of Torah (e.g., cf. the Sermon on the Mount). And there is more.
Of course he was in conflict with the religious authorities. He was drawing crowds and he thought outside the box. That’s a very dangerous combination. Especially when he was teaching people about how to live their faith and that teaching conflicted with those in power. Many clergy and bishops know this experience all too well.
We highly recommend Hamerton Kelly on Mark (The Gospel and the Sacred). We will be following its general theses as we continue to explore Mark this Year B. If you don’t own it you will want to purchase Ched Myers Binding the Strong Man. It is a true model of what a commentary should be.
We know it is difficult for clergy to stay on top of all of the on-going research in the history, literature and life and the ancient world, especially Judaism. But there are conclusions we must draw today that are different from those we drew just 50 years ago. We must be careful in our use of theological tools that may reflect an anti-Semitic bias. We think of Charlotte Klein’’s work on Kittel (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.). If we are not careful, our exegesis will, from the start, be a scapegoating exegesis. We are saying that we must be hermeneutically sensitive always discerning whether or not there are scapegoats in the literature we read. If we are not careful we will make the sad mistake of preaching myth (the covering of the victim) instead of gospel (the uncovering of the victim). The preacher in the story of Little Tree was remything the congregation, he was not proclaiming the gospel. Church going Christians around the world will be remythed this Sunday when preachers bad mouth and castigate the Pharisees. Preachers will think they are announcing the gospel in their sermons because they use the Bible and mention Jesus. Instead they will be preaching an antichrist while the principalities and powers howl with laughter.
Congregations are either ‘evangelized’ or remythed every Sunday, there are no other options. What do we mean by remythed? In the sense that Girard understands myth: as the lie concerning the cover-up of the random (innocent) victim. The Eucharist is the opposite of this. In celebrating the Eucharist, we are ‘evangelized’ (‘gospelized’) precisely in the same place as we would be in myth, viz., we are around a victim.
In celebrating the gospel however, we do not cover up the victim, we do not recreate scapegoats or make new ones. We effectively instead, announce our own complicity in the victimage mechanism and also hear the word of forgiveness. Thanks be to God.
“You can talk the talk but can you walk the walk.” This is the question laid to adherents of religious practice put before us in our lectionary reading today. In an age where there are thousands upon thousands of definitions of what constitutes ‘true religion’ it might seem that we are free to pick and chose. The marketplace of religion is no different than that of a typical shopping aisle in a grocery store. James is a letter that brings to the forefront rather quickly, exactly what makes for the authentic practice of faith.
Sadly the lectionary leaves out of consideration the preceding text with its great moments of the mimetic theory: desire – sin – death (vvs. 13-15; cf 4:1-6). The opening remarks of James are directed toward a community/ies that may find themselves questioning the generosity of God (much like the couple in the garden influenced by the serpent).
James is no utopian dreamer. He knows that life is a struggle and that his readers are undergoing trials. The nature of these trials seems to be focused on the internal struggle of deciding whom we will model. The ‘rich’ are heavily criticized in this letter (1:10, 2:1-7, 5:1-6). Like James ancient readers we too are easily seduced into taking models for ourselves that have all the apparent signs of success in the world: wealth, power and fame. We are also easily seduced into reckoning the poor, scorned and downtrodden as having been rejected by God. The trial that faces us is the kind of person we become by the kind of persons we hang out with.
When we hang out with the rich and powerful we feel validated that they accept us as their friends. We vicariously share in their wealth and power, validating their desires and having our desires validated by them. This mutual admiration society only works because there exists distinctions. These distinctions not only take on socio-economic aspects but also theological ones: for the best scapegoats are the truly defenseless, ‘the widow and the orphan’ (1:27).
Those who appear to be successful are admonished that God is the generous giver (1:5, 1:17), what they have does not come from them but from the bountiful God. Those inclined to keep their fortunes and ignore the poor in their midst are warned (5:1-6) that their end is doom.
This letter of James brings to the forefront the crippling effects of mimetic desire, rivalry and violence. Authentic faith for James, then begins with the generous God, moves to actions that are not grounded in negative mimesis that leads to rivalry and violence, and ends up being the kind of faith that tends and cares for potential scapegoats.
I accept that the Epistle to James was most likely written by James, the brother of Jesus, head of the Jerusalem church. There is deep congruence with the material in James and both the Jesus tradition, as we find it expressed in the Sermon on the Mount as well as Jewish wisdom. It reflects the catechetical teaching one would expect to find in early Christianity. Because its writer and addressees are Jewish-Christians, there are manifestly concerns related to these communities throughout.
James emphasis on the law is not substantially different from that of Paul or Jesus. All three see the law as being fulfilled in the love toward the neighbor/other. In the light of contemporary research I think it no longer necessary to see James’ theology as the backdrop of Paul’s diatribe, e.g., in Romans. In fact, the entire Tubingen hypothesis (James vs Paul, Jewish vs Gentile Christianity) has been brought into question.
If as Luther averred, James is an ‘epistle of straw’, I would note that it is difficult to make brinks without straw.
Commentary on James hardly needs a So What?, inasmuch as it is a very practical down to earth letter. A sermon today on this passage might focus on our tendency to be ‘name droppers.’ I studied with so and so; So and so once told me, etc. Or it might focus on the ways in which we allow our anger to animate our social concerns, and how anger cannot bring about justice. Or even how we might look at the potential victims in our communities and how we might be intentionally hospitable toward them. No matter how we preach this, it is going to be very real, it is going to hurt, and strike home and hopefully will also transform us from fighters to lovers.