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Wrestling with the Word, episode 42: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (October 11, 2009) September 29, 2009

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Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Striving for a high level of personal morality is a very good thing. Keeping oneself pure in terms of God’s commandments and expectations should and can lead to admiration from others. Biblically-speaking, however, those personal goals are not sufficient. The God of the Bible, known in both testaments, pushes us beyond spiritual self-enhancement to responsibility for others, especially for the poor. Even more, that same God frees us from worrying about ourselves to enable us to serve our neighbors near and far, individually and collectively.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 42: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B.

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Psalm 90:12-17
This psalm is a lament much like many other laments in that it seeks the Lord to remedy a problem. Usually, however, the problem is with oppression by enemies; their taunting and isolating accusations leave the psalmist no option but to turn to the Lord for salvation. Sometimes the problem is sickness or the infirmities of old age, and the psalmist pleads for the Lord’s presence and comfort. This lament develops out of a more philosophical base. The influence of wisdom teachers on the worshiping community leads this lament to probe the meaning of life. It contemplates the immortality of God’s life with the numbered days of us mortals. The lament defines what a horrible existence they are leading under the continuing anger of God (vss. 3-11). It alludes to the despair over the “toil” of their work (v. 17). Our section of the psalm begins with a prayer that God give them “a heart of wisdom” to make the most out of their limited life spans. In lament-fashion, they ask the Lord, “How long?” until God comes to express pity on them. God’s “covenant loyalty” provides them the freedom to have mercy. As they lament God’s afflictions on them, so they realize that only the realization of God’s work among them can will enable them to experience rejoicing and gladness. Only then can their own work cease to be toil and become productive.

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Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Through Amos, YHWH implores Israel to live by seeking the Lord and goodness, loving goodness, and establishing justice in the courts.

Context
The earliest of the preaching prophets whose sermons have been preserved, Amos lived in the southern kingdom of Judah. His home was Tekoa, a little village not far from Bethlehem, but his call was to preach primarily to the northern kingdom. According to the superscription in the book (1:1), he prophesied during the reigns of Uzziah of Judah (783-742 B.C.) and Jeroboam II of Israel (786-746 B.C.). Israel’s sins were selling the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes, etc. (2:6-8), arrogance and pride (cf. 6:1ff.), too much stock in their own exodus tradition (9:7), and concern about making profits instead of worshiping YHWH (8:4-6). Above all, their optimism about the Day of YHWH is all wrong, because for them it will be a day of darkness and gloom (5:18-20).

What is missing from our pericope by the exclusion of vss. 8-9 is the second stanza of a three stanza hymn in Amos (4:13; 5:8-9; 5-6) that announces and praises the name of God for making the universe orderly rather than chaotic. Since such understandings of creation include God’s universal work of, and command for, “justice.”

Key Words
V. 6.  diršû ‘et-YHWH wichyû = “seek the Lord and live”:  Compare v. 14: “seek good and not evil, that you may live.” In Deut. life is based on keeping the commandments. Clearly, the Lord wants to provide the means for life to the people.

V. 7.  hahōphekîm lela‘anâ mišpāt ûtsedāqâ lā’āretz hinnîchû = “(You) who overturn justice into wormwood and have thrown righteousness to the ground”:  The word “wormwood” is used only figuratively in the OT, only in a negative sense. At Amos 6:12, a verse similar to this one, “wormwood” is parallel to rō’š = “bitter herb, venom,” and the perversions of justice and righteousness are there also the prophet’s concern. The same pair of “poison and bitter fruit” occurs at Deut. 29:17 (Eng. v. 18) where it results in stubbornness against the law of the Lord. At Jer. 9:14; 23:15, the pair of words describes God’s chastisement of the people against forsaking the Torah. At Lam. 3:19 the pair describes that chastisement as the reason for the lament. Likewise, the expression “throw down to the ground” is used at Isaiah 28:2 for the judgment that comes through the agent of the Lord. In our verse, of course, all this negative activity is descriptive of the people’s dishonoring God by forsaking his Torah.

V. 10.  sāne‘û bašša‘ar môkîach = “they hate the one who reproves in the gate”:  “The gate” is the place where court cases are tried. In the cities of old, the only space large enough for an assembly of persons to gather was the gateway. In rural societies, court was held on the threshing floor. The people show no respect for the judges who try cases in court or for the witnesses who testify to the truth (see v. 12; elsewhere Isa. 3:9).

V. 11. lākēn ya‘an bôšaskem ‘al-dāl = “Therefore, because you trample upon the poor”: The word “therefore” introduces a pronouncement of judgment when what precedes is a description of human activity. When an action of God precedes, the word “therefore” introduces a promise of salvation. Here, the judgment follows the perversion of justice and righteousness and includes the trampling of the poor. What follows immediately is their description of God’s judgment.

V. 11.  “houses … but you shall not dwell in them; vineyards … but you shall not drink their wine”:  This imagery for God’s judgment, like that of Deut. 28:30, indicates that all the work that the people do will be unproductive (“toil” in Gen. 3:17).  For the picture of the opposites in and through God’s salvation, see Josh. 24:13; Deut. 8:11-12; Isa. 65:21-23.

V. 12. Israel’s sins and transgressions take the form of oppressing the poor: afflict the righteous, take bribes, and push aside the needy in courts of law. See the parallel at Isa. 3:13-15. The context indicates that the opposite of “justice” and “righteousness” is sin.

Vss.14-15. In contrast to their prevailing behavior, God calls the people to opposites: pursue and love good (tôb) by establishing justice mišpāt in the court system,

V. 15. ’ûlay yechenan YHWH ’elōhê-tsebā’ôt še’ērît yôsēp = “Perhaps YHWH God of hosts will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph”: The use of “perhaps” merely allows the possibility that God will show grace to what is left of the northern kingdom if they reverse their ways toward life and justice.

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Hebrews 4:12-16
Having encouraged the readers to persevere toward God’s promise of eschatological rest, the author warns of the Word’s ability to penetrate thoughts and simultaneously encourages them to hold firm to the confession in Jesus Christ through whom they can be confident of God’s mercy.

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Mark 10:17-31
Having demonstrated the difficulty of faith through the wealthy man who walked away from Jesus’ instruction to give all his possessions to the poor, Jesus teaches the disciples that the only way one can enter the kingdom of God is through the miraculous work of God.

Context
At 10:1 Jesus is in the region of Judea. At v. 32 he is headed toward Jerusalem, and so this teaching must be seen in terms of the movement toward his death.  Perhaps key to understanding this pericope is the previous paragraph, vv. 13-16, in which Jesus teaches that in order to enter the kingdom of God, one must be “as a little child” (v. 15).

Key Words
V. 17.  ti poiēsō hina zōēn aiōnion klēronomēsō = “What must I do in order that I might inherit eternal life”:  The issue of what we must do is the key to the passage. In Amos 5, the answer is “seek the Lord” and “seek life” by doing “justice and righteousness.” In Deuteronomy, life is acquired by keeping the Torah of YHWH (what is the way of “justice”). At the same time, the question itself is interesting, because in the OT, “inherit” usually refers to the land of Canaan or life in the land (Deut. 30:15ff.). In the NT, what Jesus bestows as inheritance is the kingdom of God. Note that Paul speaks of the gospel in terms of a “last will and testament” (Gal. 3:15).

V. 21. ho de Iēsous emblepsas autō ēgapēsan auton = “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him”: The report of Jesus loving the man is not because he kept the commandments but because he came seeking the answer to his question. It was in love that Jesus provided the answer. Keeping the commandments does not suffice. Giving all his possessions to the poor (see Amos 5:6-15) will indicate he throws his eternal existence on the love of God and becomes a disciple of Jesus. The focus on attaining one’s own salvation must give way to trusting in God and to focus on serving others, especially the poor. At Luke 19:1-10 Jesus commends Zacchaeus for giving half his possessions to the poor; even more striking is the tax-collector’s practice of giving back fourfold the amount he might have defrauded from anyone.

V. 21. kai deuro akolouthei moi = “And come, follow me”: The call to discipleship is the key to Jesus’ instruction to sell all and give it to the poor. He will explain this connection in v. 29 when he explains to the disciples the cost of their discipleship along with its eternal blessing. The instruction sounds much like the call of Amos to “seek the Lord and live” and to “seek good that you may live” (Amos 5:6, 14). Yet, Mark has already given us Jesus’ description of the cost of discipleship and its promise at 8:34-35.

V. 23. eis tēn basileian tou theou eiseleusontai =”to enter the kingdom of God”: Jesus uses here kingdom terminology in place of the man’s request for the way to “inherit eternal life” (v. 17).

V. 27.  para anthropois adynaton, all’ ou para theō = “not possible for humans, but not for God”:  This is the answer to the disciples’ question “Who can be saved?”  Recall the Lord’s statement at Gen. 18:14 where God indicates to Sara that while she is not physically capable of having the promised baby, God will make it happen.

V. 31. “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”:  The response is to Peter’s concern that since he and the others sacrificed so much, they should have no trouble entering the kingdom. It would appear that the primary problem here is Peter’s thinking that their own actions should qualify them for the kingdom. However, Jesus has already laid down different values in vs. 15: children who claim nothing to offer are the most qualified.

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Next week:
Psalm 91:9-16
Isaiah 53:4-12
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45