Reading Ramblings – September 6, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 6, 2015

Texts: Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10, 14-18; Mark 7:(24-30)31-37

Context: We continue in Ordinary Time, working our way through New Testament Epistles independently while continuing to look at the Old Testament and Gospel lessons together. There is a theme of proclamation that runs through the Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel lesson. In each reading the actions of God should result in God’s praise. Those of faith in Jesus Christ should not be ashamed of their faith, and should be ready to speak it plainly when the opportunity arises.

Isaiah 35:4-7a – The past few chapters of Isaiah look towards the coming of the Lord, towards his vengeance against the enemies of his people, his deliverance of his people. What will that day look like? It will look like transformation. Not simply an improvement of existing conditions. Not simply a few touchups here and there. Complete renovation, complete restoration. The fearful will be encouraged to strength. The blind will see, the deaf shall hear, the lame shall leap, the mute will sing. Nature will be transformed as well, with deserts filled with running water and pools of water. Everything will be as it should be, a literal return to the pre-Fall reality of the Garden of Eden. The salvation that God has worked through human history and through his incarnate Son, Jesus, aims at nothing less than the total redemption of all creation, not just human beings.

Psalm 146 – The psalmist exhorts us to praise God, but then warns us about where we place our trust. How easy is it to praise God Sunday morning but place our practical trust any number of other places the rest of the week? It is easy to have our loyalties and expectations conditioned by the world rather than by praise of God. The psalmist then recounts with us the reasons why we should trust God rather than human beings and institutions. First off, the efforts of man are limited because man is finite. We die and disappear from the earth and our efforts likely come to little. But not God. God is the same forever. He is the same God who revealed himself to Jacob, who created the universe, who provides for our needs. And He is ultimately the God who will restore creation to the way it was before the Fall, and here the psalmist uses language very similar to Isaiah. We praise God because He alone has all power and is capable of doing what He intends to do.

James 2:1-10, 14-18 – We continue the lectio continua this season from Ephesians to James, a book that has challenged theologians for centuries. Particularly sections like 2:14-18 that appear to call into question the efficacy of faith without corresponding works. Is James is claiming that faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who died and rose again to forgive our sins is insufficient for salvation – we need to perform works as well?

The issue becomes one of precedence. Once we have been brought to faith in Jesus, works are a natural by-product of that faith. If we claim that Jesus is our Lord, we can’t refuse his command of our lives. On the other hand, we are incapable of measuring the Holy Spirit’s work in other people’s lives very accurately, and are always in danger of deciding that someone hasn’t shown enough spiritual progress,  therefore determining that their faith is not real. This is dangerous and damaging on all counts. God the Holy Spirit is at work through faith in Jesus Christ. This passage drives us not to evaluate others but ourselves. As we do, we will always find ourselves lacking, always in need of throwing ourselves on the mercy and forgiveness of Christ rather than taking pride in our own accomplisments.

Mark 7:(24-30)31-37 – The beginning of this passage (the optional verses 24-30) is often shocking to people. How can Jesus be so callous? He has left the region of Capernaum and traveled north to non-Jewish territory. He has been to Gentile lands earlier in his ministry, but He seems to be looking for a break, an escape for a bit. He’s had some very heated exchanges with the religious leaders and perhaps realizes it would be good to lay low for a while rather than risk bringing his ministry to a premature end.

Yet even in this distant, Gentile region word of him has come so that a woman hears of his arrival and immediately seeks him out. She is not Jewish, or even Hebrew. Yet she is willing to hope that Jesus can heal her daughter by casting out an evil demon. Jesus has cast demons out of Gentiles already – the demoniac in Mark 5. Yet here Jesus is focused on the scope of his mission, perhaps realizing that tensions are building and it won’t be long before his enemies act. As such, Jesus understands that his ministry is to God’s chosen people the Jews. He does not have enough time to minister to everyone. He must focus his efforts with the people who have been prepared to recognize and interpret his words and actions as the fulfillment of Israelite prophecy.

So He puts the woman off. He doesn’t deny her request, but shows her the prioritization – his work to God’s chosen people is of first importance. But in time, all will be offered mercy and grace and healing. Amazingly enough, the woman has no difficulty accepting this, but also expresses faith that Jesus has more than enough healing power – here and now – to go around. Mark depicts in his Gospel another minor character who displays greater clarity of faith than the people who should understand Jesus best. Once again an outsider, like the centurion at the end of Mark’s gospel, demonstrates the appropriate response to encountering Jesus – acknowledging him for who and what He is.

For the second half of the reading Jesus goes back towards the area where he cast out the demons in Mark 5, in Gentile territory on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. Once again someone is brought to Jesus even though his ministry has not been primarily in this area. Perhaps the former demoniac has indeed been sharing his story, so that now Jesus is known even here. Regardless, Jesus heals the deaf man, who probably was not Jewish. Once again the response is faith and proclamation of Jesus’ works, despite his efforts to keep things discrete.

Could you keep quiet, if your life were transformed as radically as this deaf man’s? But wait – your life has been transformed just as radically, perhaps more so! You have been brought from death to life in your baptism, bound to the death and resurrection of the Son of God and now an inheritor of eternal blessings. Perhaps we should be equally reticent to keep quiet!

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