Proper 20, Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 23, 2012

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:Alternate Reading 1:Alternate Reading 2:
Proverbs 31:10-31Jeremiah 11:18-20James 3:13-4:3, 7-8aMark 9:30-37Psalm 1Psalm 24

By David Grant Smith

Proverbs 31 with Psalm 1

At first glance, this poetic ode on the virtuous wife is both dated and sexist. It speaks of both time-bound and culture-bound paradigms and understandings of family life in ancient Israel. However, if we take a closer look at not what the text says, but what it is about, it provides some insights which are startling to our modern understandings of what life was like for our ancient female forebears in faith. The author of the text writes about this “capable wife” as being someone who manages business affairs, makes agricultural decisions, and is given to creativity. The author is, perhaps, suggesting that this “capable wife” is someone who stands outside the status quo of her time and society.

The ancient Hebrew Wisdom literature tradition often uses the role of a woman to portray and depict the Wisdom of God – one who is creative and who participates in God and God’s purposes. And this passage is suggesting that perhaps there are women in that ancient society who embody these same qualities and characteristics. Indeed, this passage even shows that the “capable wife” is one who is given to theological and justice-making considerations (and it is important to remember that in ancient Israel there were little-to-no distinctions between theology and justice – living a life of justice was living a life that was in keeping with the theological understandings of the time).

This reading may make for a good sermon or homily on an expanded idea of what a spousal relationship is capable of being. After all, implicit in the way the text is worded is the idea that the men of the day would be those who would uphold and support and offer respect to women who were business-minded, equals in agricultural/horticultural decisions, worthy conversationalists in theology, creative in home and society, and given toward the vision of distributive justice as prescribed in Torah. The other side of the “capable wife” coin is the “capable husband” – one who would value being in relationship with a woman who is given to so much creative expression!

Near the end of this passage is the assertion that “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” It should be noted that the expression “fear the Lord” isn’t about being scared. It is, to some degree, about having a sense of awe and wonder. But it is also about having a sense of right relationships. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, that phrase refers to living in right relationship – with God, with self, with family, with friends, with neighbors, with strangers, and even with the cosmos/earth itself. The “capable spouse” – whether wife or husband – is one who is intentional in the way that s/he lives in relationship with others. The “capable spouse” – whether wife or husband – is one who is given to the understanding of equality and responsibility in all her/his relationships.

Another approach which a process preacher may want to take with a text like this would be to hermeneutically consider the issue of marriage equality. There are countless couples which cannot enjoy the benefits – either publicly or privately – of having their relationships solemnized, legally recognized, or celebrated by others. What might this text have to say for those who have found partners/spouses who embody these honorable qualities – be they male or female – but their relationship doesn’t fit inside the husband/wife paradigm? Ought not all relationships which embody these qualities be recognized as honorable?

The psalm response to this reading from Proverbs is, like the reading itself, cut from the cloth of the ancient Hebrew Wisdom tradition. Psalm 1 compares and contrasts the two paths of life – the blessed/wise people take the path that is righteousness (living in right/healthy relationships with God/self/others, and the wicked/doomed people who take a more self-serving path through life. Many scholars believe that this ancient poem was placed at the beginning of the ancient hymn collection we now know as the book of Psalms because it so succinctly (and beautifully!) sets before the reader the contrasting paths of righteousness and wickedness. Because this psalm (and, indeed, most-if-not-all Wisdom literature) speaks about the contrasting paths and possibilities of life, it could provide an excellent playground for the process preacher. Psalm 1 can easily be made into a helpful tool for sharing with congregations about how God is present with us in each moment, luring us toward the best possible response to each moment of each day. If we become more and more mindful of God’s presence with us in each moment, we become more likely to hear, see, feel, intuit, and know how to respond to each moment for the greatest measure of creativity.

One of the slippery slopes of this psalm is the implicit “prosperity gospel” found in the last few lines of it. It is our experience that not all “good” people prosper, and that not all “wicked” people fail to prosper. However, the psalmist isn’t writing so much about external realities as internal mindset. Over and again – whether in scripture or in the example of faithful peoples’ lives – we see evidence of how those who embrace God’s lure toward gratitude and creative transformation are able to embody a perspective which is grounded in joy and empowerment, even in the most difficult of human circumstances.

The final assertion of the psalm – that “the way of the wicked is doomed” – is related to this notion of an internal mindset, more than it is to a final judgment scenario. However, this might be a process preacher’s opportunity to explore with a congregation the process understanding of eschatology – that all things (for good or ill) are absorbed into God’s consequent nature, and that as our lives are ultimately absorbed into God, we share in that consequent nature and experience for ourselves all that has been absorbed into God (perhaps most directly all the good/evil which we have done in our own lives). But the Wisdom literature tradition of the psalms invites us to not wait for an eschatological judgment opportunity to experience the blessings of righteousness versus the “doom” of unrighteousness: we can choose for ourselves whether we will live our lives in a posture of blessedness or negativity in the here-and-now decision-making processes of our daily lives.

Wisdom 1-2 or Jeremiah 11 with Psalm 54

Whether a congregation chooses to use the reading from Wisdom or Jeremiah for a first reading (for those churches using the “thematic” course in the Revised Common Lectionary), the theme and variations being presented are summed up in one simple word: mortality. In either option, the personal lens through which the author is writing could be perceived as one of paranoia; however, in both cases, the passage’s ultimate outcome is framed not by those who are wishing death upon the so-called “righteous,” but by the confidence that the faithful soul has in God’s abiding presence, and the belief that even when faced with death God is still capable of (and faithful to) bringing about creative transformation. The lectionary offers Psalm 54 as a response to either of these readings, most likely because it frames the issue of mortality – even in the face of those who may wish to do us harm – with confidence in the omnipresent, ever-creative ministrations of a loving God.

The process preacher might find that utilizing either reading (and/or the psalm response) could be an opportunity to explore in depth the fragility of human (or indeed all) life. Life is frail, and we humans have evolved to become aware of that frailty, and have developed a healthy fear of our own demise. But these readings also work to call us away from a posture of fear, and into a posture of quiet confidence. In the present tenor of current events and public awareness, we find many invitations into fear – whether it be from political candidates trying to scare would-be voters by “revealing” something about other candidates, or the way the news coverage crafts reports of the ongoing and escalating tensions in North Africa and the Middle East. The present cultural fixation on fear and fear-mongering is not unrelated to what lies at the core of this set of scriptures. The authors (or poets, more accurately) were rhetorically depicting the fears which people had in that particular point in human evolution: that someone, or some group of someones, might be lying in wait to do us in. We can give thanks (and revel in the fact) that societies have evolved in such a way that these kinds of primal fears – no doubt leftover from our prehistoric collective memory – are not as grounded in probability as they once were. Our evolution has brought us to a place where we still experience fears, but we have developed an expectation that these fears, to some degree, can be set aside by the various mores of our social contract with one another – not the least of which is a nearly universal abhorrence of murder.

Yet, we live in this context of fear and fear-mongering! From a process theology perspective, a preacher might be able to employ the rhetorical devices of these three texts to point out the irrational foundations of many of the fear-mongering aspects of present-day society. To do so, it may be most useful to hold up the process assertion that God is forever luring us toward the most creative transformation that might be possible for any given moment or circumstance; and that God’s primordial nature is to reach out to us (and to encourage us to reach out to each other) in beauty, adventure, truth, peace, zest, and love. To commit our daily living to being grounded in God’s primordial nature (and by incorporating into our lives such spiritual practices which help us to be so grounded), is how we can overcome unfounded fear of the Other. By living our lives in this kind of quiet confidence we learn to live our lives more firmly mindful of the present moment, thereby leaving us free enough to be agents of God’s beauty, adventure, truth, peace, zest, and love.

James 3-4 

The author of James is continuing to offer practical advice on how to apply Wisdom to faith. In this passage, the admonition to be pure, peaceable, gentle, yielding, merciful, fruitful, and non-partial is offered as a list of those noble qualities which are “wisdom from above.” These noble qualities are held before the early Christian community (and us!) as an invitation to live in a moment-by-moment discernment process that will yield “a harvest of righteousness” that is “sown in peace for those who make peace.”

The author of James speaks of the “conflicts and disputes among” the congregation to whom the Letter was written. However, it can just as easily be reframed to suppose that these verses are also about our inner conflicts and disputes. In each and every moment of each and every day, we are faced with the choice of either making that moment into something for our own personal (selfish) agenda, or for the benefit of the common good. In a process world, our interrelatedness reminds us that all we do (for good or ill) has an impact on all others. The author’s diatribe about having, asking, and receiving is not meant to be a consideration of which physical objects we might be able to own as property; rather, it is a spelling out of the spiritual process whereby we have, ask, and receive within the context of those noble qualities with which we harvest righteousness “sown in peace.” Our process of discernment is strengthened, the author suggests, as we “submit” and “draw near to God.” The idea that God will draw near to us is, of course, foreign to process theology; God is already and always present with all life. However, the perception that God is drawing nearer to us comes about as we we intentionally work to draw ourselves closer to God. The more we open ourselves to God, the more readily we are equipped to recognize God’s presence in each moment, and our moment-by moment discernment process of how to respond to each moment, and to engage in creative transformation, grows and becomes stronger and more like a second nature to us.

Mark 9 

This Gospel reading follows in the footsteps of today’s reading from James, as well as the Gospel reading from last week. Jesus is speaking with the disciples about his anticipated arrest, death, burial, and the transformation of that experience that we have come to call resurrection. To say that the disciples “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” is a bit of an understatement. As explained in the comments on Mark 8:27-38 (see last week’s commentary), Jesus was inviting the disciples to think of all things as varying layers of interrelating with one another. The fact that they didn’t get it is demonstrated by their argument about who is greatest among them.

Whereas last week in Mark 8, Jesus uses the example of denying one’s self as the ultimate model for being in relationship with God and others, here in Mark 9 he urges them to put themselves last, and to be a servant to others. He then goes on to say that to welcome a child (to welcome the ultimate in vulnerability) is to welcome him. The act of welcoming vulnerability seems to be counterintuitive to human self-preservation. Our primal instincts want us to put ourselves into positions of power. However, Jesus is inviting us to evolve beyond our primal instincts, and to become vulnerable to one another, in order for us to enter into our various interrelationships in a posture of service and vulnerability.

The kind of creative transformation that comes about by this kind of living, and the kind of impact it can have on the life of any sort of community, is demonstrated in a short story called “The Rabbi’s Gift” (by an anonymous author, but contemporary versions of it are alternately attributed to M. Scott Peck and Francis Dorff). In the story, a rabbi shares with the abbott of a failing monastery that one of them is the Messiah. After the abbott shares this news with his brothers, they all begin to treat each other differently, and the community becomes vital, vibrant, and alive with both physical and spiritual growth. By each member of the community supposing that any one of the others might be the Messiah, they all begin to treat each other with respect, and they all strive to serve each other with great humility, and the whole community is transformed.

Looking back at the Wisdom/Jeremiah readings (above) through the lens Jesus is providing in the first half of this passage might provide another opportunity for the preacher to engage the issue of human mortality in the context of creative transformation. Jesus mentioning that he will “rise again” is an affirmation that mortality need not have the last word, nor have any power over us. To live our lives in the quiet confidence that we are (and always will be) in God’s loving embrace is certainly Good News writ large.