Reading Ramblings – October 18, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – October 18, 2015

Texts: Ecclesiastes 5:10-20; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 4:1-16; Mark 10:23-31

Context: We live in the grace of God through Jesus Christ. As such, our lives should be content and trusting in him. He has already given us all that we need through his death and resurrection. The days of our lives are free to be spent in meaningful work, but we should never confuse our work with our identity in Christ. Nor should we make the mistake of assuming that our identity in Christ is in any way affected by the good works we strive to do. Our good works are worthless in God’s eyes for the purposes of earning his love. They are useful only as we are shaped into the image of Christ by God the Holy Spirit.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-20 – The Hebrew title for this book is Qoheleth, taken from the first verse of Chapter 1. The word appears to be both a title for the book, as well as the nom de plume of the author. It is not used elsewhere in the Old Testament. Tradition attributes this book to Solomon, but there is by no means unanimity (either in Hebrew or Christian traditions) on that matter. It has been common since Luther’s time to assume a later, post-exilic author. However no compelling identification of author, time, or place has ever been posited. Along with Song of Solomon and Proverbs, it follows the Psalms as deference to the potential authorship of Solomon (who follows David both as son and king). Each book traditionally is relegated to a period of Solomon’s life – Song of Solomon in his youth, Proverbs in middle age as he becomes a ruler concerned with wisdom, and Ecclesiastes towards the end of his life.

The verses for today’s reading emphasize – as does much of the book – that we are to carry out our divinely allotted responsibilities in life without allowing ourselves to be distracted and misled. We must work to survive, but money is not itself the purpose for which we work. We work because that is what God created us for (Genesis 2:15). Our focus is to be on God as the source of all our blessings as well as our consolation during times of loss and lack. Failure to keep this focus leads us to great unhappiness (v.17).

Hebrews 4:1-16 – Chapter 3 concludes with a strong warning not to fall away from the grace of God through negligence of sin. Allowing sin to remain unchallenged in our lives is a threat to us – not because the sin is not forgiven, but because we might eventually become numb to it, so that it leads us away from the grace of God. He utilizes the Israelites who were brought out of slavery in Egypt only to die in the wilderness because of their unwillingness to heed God and trust him.

Paul continues this metaphor in chapter 4. We as followers of Christ must be diligent in faith and restless against the sin in our lives so that we might enter the rest promised to us in Christ, unlike the Israelites who did not receive the Promised Land. God’s Word is described as the sharp, two-edged blade that cuts through everything including our pretensions and masks to lay bare the heart. This might terrify us, but for the fact that Jesus is our great High Priest. He intercedes for us who understands the grip of temptation and the pervasiveness of sin in our lives. He is empathetic and sypathetic to our plight, and therefore we can trust him as a source or mercy in our supplications and forgiveness for our sins.

Mark 10:23-31 – I’m not very happy with the geniuses who divided the Gospel lesson up from last week’s. This section is intricately bound up with Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man, following on that encounter and explicating it. Much like today, popular opinion in Jesus’ day was that the rich were blessed – their wealth was both evidence of God’s blessing and a means to increasing that blessing because they could give generously to those in need. It was assumed that rich followers of God endeared themselves further to him through their acts of generosity. As such, the disciples and we might be inclined to surprise at Jesus’ teaching.

Frequently we try to mitigate what Jesus says, just as we want to mitigate his command to the rich young man. We want to find a way whereby we can fulfill Jesus’ expectations. So it is that explanations abound as to why this passage isn’t as terrifying as it sounds. The eye of the needle, some say, is a smaller door in a city wall that would only permit an unmounted person to enter, so that a camel needing to enter would need to be unloaded, commanded to kneel, and then led through on it’s knees. This makes Jesus’ teaching bearable. There is a way to accomplish it.

But Jesus’ disciples clearly do not interpret his words that way. They respond with incredulity and fear – who can be saved? They clearly recognize that Jesus isn’t just saying it’s difficult but possible for the person who works really hard. Rather, it’s impossible, no matter how hard a person works at it. If our aim is, like the rich young man, to determine what we must do to merit eternal life, the news is bad – there is nothing in our power to do this. It is impossible for us. All of us.

But it is not impossible with God, Jesus continues. What we cannot do on our own, God can and must do for us. This is Jesus’ point. Twice He has revealed his destiny in betrayal and death and resurrection to his disciples. Twice they have completely misunderstood his teaching. He is about to bring up the topic for the third and final time in Mark. Will they hear and understand this time? It is pointless for them to argue about who is greatest (9:34). It is pointless for them to be jealous of others who accomplish things in the name of Jesus (9:38-41). It is pointless for them to point to their own holiness (9:42ff). It is pointless for them to seek to keep Jesus to themselves (10:13-16). And it is pointless to emphasize their own efforts, as the rich young man tried to do. They cannot do it. God must do it for them. God will do it for them through the death and resurrection of Jesus, his Son. They must receive this as the wholly unmerited and undeserved gift that it is, just as the children earlier received Jesus’ blessings and attention (10:13-16).

You and I are prone to spiritual pride, comparing ourselves against one another in hopes of showing more favorably. We do this even as we say with our lips that we cannot earn the love of God and eternal life. Still we spend much of our time defending our alleged piety and holiness, at least in comparison to those who believe differently than we do. All of this is pointless. We are either in Christ or we are not. If we are, then we already have all that we need. If we are not, there is nothing that we do that can better our situation.

Jesus is dealing strictly with justification in these last two chapters – how are we made right with God the Father, how do we inherit eternal life. There is much else to be said about sanctification – our gradually being shaped more and more into the image of Christ through our lifetime – but we dare not confuse this with our justification in Christ!

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