The proverb belongs to a basic wisdom genre that comes under the heading of the Hebrew term masal, which refers to literary forms such as popular sayings, aphorisms, riddles, allegories, and discourses. It conveys notions of a sort of “ruling word” and makes analogies between items of daily life. The Greek translation of masal is parabole, so you can see the similarity with our “parables. A proverb is a short saying that expresses a complete thought and implies a traditional value or a practical wisdom. This wisdom is not merely to make us better people, but to form a better society. In the Hebrew tradition, Proverbs, along with the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, are attributed to Solomon. While it is doubtful that this is the case, the rabbinical lore says that he wrote the Song of Songs as an amorous youth, Proverbs as a middle-aged man, and Ecclesiastes as a disillusioned older man.
In our passage today, the lectionary includes several noncontinuous verses from Proverbs 22, following a long-standing tradition that the book is an anthology of isolated sayings. The order of them is thought to be random, or at least not theologically connected, so this is one time where it’s probably not even a problem to just “pick and choose” the verses.
These sayings that are listed in this week’s reading are primarily directed toward the formation of persons in regard to their participation in the larger society, especially those who will have considerable influence in public life. In other words, character formation tends to focus on the individual and whether he or she is a “good person” or a “bad person”. This genre of literature is meant, rather, to focus on a sort of practical wisdom and to lead one to the way to live out one’s life in the larger society. This is difficult for us. We tend to look upon faith and virtue as private. This is much, much more than simply moral character. It is more about social order, about society, about the Kingdom of God. It is about fullness of life and that offering to each and every person. It is said that a preacher is called to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Perhaps that is what Proverbs does for us. There is definitely a pastoral assurance that God will take up the case of the poor but there is also a call for those of us who are not poor to be a part of God’s love and God’s reaching out. God does not call us to be moral or good; God calls us to build the Kingdom of God based on God’s vision of what that is.
“Good favor” means good reputation or high esteem here. It is not fame but is rather earned reputation over many years. It implies integrity, honesty, and responsibility. The reading holds out the issue of poverty in the public social arena, and creates a tension between poverty and wealth from which will hopefully come a clearer vision of participation in the Reign of God. The verses assume that YHWH is the one who pleads the case for the poor and that God as “redeemer” of those calls people to advocate for the same thing. Wealth is not addressed here as evil, but its importance is relativized and held out as belonging to all.
It is also interesting that the generous are blessed not in their “giving”, not in their charitable acts, but in “sharing”. When you think about it, sharing is much more connected, more a part of each other than just giving something away and walking off. Sharing is about opening what one has to another, about sitting down together and sharing a meal. (Hmmm! That sounds familiar! J)
- What is your response to this passage?
- What do we miss by taking Proverbs as a tool for character formation rather than to form a better society?
- So what type of person does this string of proverbs call us to be?
- How do these verses speak to our own society?
- What would change if we understood generosity as “sharing” rather than “giving”?
NEW TESTAMENT: James 2: 1-10, (11-13), 14-17
Like Proverbs, the Book of James also offers questions to shape one’s life as a Christian. Where the first chapter of the epistle talked about the wisdom of ensuring that one’s faith was about more than just religion, chapter two challenges the readers to make connections, to make one’s behavior an outcome of one’s faith and not just something that is required or good. Many people want to reduce faith to a series of statements that people profess to believe, but here faith is what is operative in a person’s life.
Social class is the issue that James uses to get at this question (2:1-7). He points out the common human tendency to show deference to those who show visible signs of wealth and disdain for those who seem to be lower class. This illustration implies, then, that this was a commonplace occurrence. Attention to social class was part of the world in which the epistle of James was written. Wealth and influence typically went together, and those who had wealth expected to be welcomed and to receive certain privileges. It was widely understood that lower class people did not deserve the same respect. So James is raising a wisdom that is countercultural to that society, presenting a case that defied the “wealth-good / poor-bad” assumption.
He calls readers back to a familiar teaching: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The writer claims that if you truly live within this tenet, how can someone on a different social scale be anything less? It just wouldn’t make sense. For this writer, if faith is reduced to some simple beliefs and not lived out, then it is too small and does not bring meaning to our lives. Essentially, what does it mean to live as a child of God?
At The Fund for Theological Education, we offer a program for young people who participate through fourteen different faith-based, year-long service programs. At a recent gathering of these young people, one young woman told me a bit of her story, about how she was raised in an upper-middle class home, about how success–while often couched in the language of a meaningful life–always had a strong sense of financial wealth as a part of it, about how living on $100 a month had been a tremendous struggle, about how much she had to “un-learn” about the rich and the poor. She said that after the first few months, she was really angry about all the wealth in this country and the persistence of homelessness, hunger, and poverty. In time, however, she realized she could not have known these things if she didn’t take time to stand in a very different place, to give a year of her life not only to her volunteer program but, more importantly, to those whom the program serves. She realizes that she knows how to move among the rich and the poor now, and that perhaps her call is to bring the two together. She has come to believe that while wealthy folks may have many temptations and that poor people may have many challenges, it is her call to introduce them to one another, for it is through such relationships that true change can occur.
This is James’ call to us–not to simply critique the rich. Not to simply empathize with the poor. We are called to stand in what Parker Parmer calls “the tragic gap,” the space between what is and what should be, the place between rich and poor, the place between the privileged few and the alien masses. It is the place where we are called to stand, for it is the place of the cross…James calls us not to choose between rich and poor, not to choose between black and white, not to choose between young and old, first world and third world, free and imprisoned, sick and healthy, naked and clothed, hungry and fed. In the end, these are all false dichotomies, for we are all children of God. James calls us to stand with the cross of Jesus Christ–to take up residence in the tragic gap between what is and what should be. To profess a faith that stands anywhere else is to profess death. (From “Standing in the Tragic Gap”, a sermon by Rev. Dr. Trace Haythorn, available at http://day1.org/1433-standing_in_the_tragic_gap, accessed 1 September, 2009.)
- How does this passage speak to you?
- Why is it that social class still gets in the way of our living out our faith?
- What does the writer’s claim of the meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself” mean for you?
- So what does this passage call us to do? How does it call us to live?
- What is it about your faith that shapes your life?
- What DOES it mean to live a child of God in the context of the society in which we live?
GOSPEL: Mark 7: 24-37
In the next three week’s of Lectionary readings, we’ll read texts that depict a person or a group coming to Jesus with a request or a demand. In the first healing story in this week’s passage, the Syro-Phoenician woman wants her daughter to be healed. She not only breaks into Jesus’ retreat in the house but also breaks a number of Jewish conventions, including (and perhaps especially) when she touches him. That would have been a problem for the Jewish male who was touched by an “unclean” Gentile woman. So we have borders and boundaries of more than one kind being crossed here, and the audience, already a little ill at ease with all of the conventions that Jesus is overturning, must be even more uncomfortable with this conversation between their teacher and a foreign woman.
The comment about the dogs is always bothersome to us. (Many commentators characterize it as inauthentic.) We want Jesus to always be the compassionate, loving person that we know and, yet, in spite of what we dog lovers would like to think, this was NOT a nice thing to say.
You know, I think that this story depicts the broadening even of Jesus’ understanding. After all, Jesus had thought he was here for the Jews and then all of a sudden, the walls built by centuries of rules and “right” behavior came crashing down just because this woman had the audacity to dare to have faith in Christ. What do we do with that? Does that mean we just let anyone in just because they WANT to come in??? Well, yeah, I THINK that may be the point. So either this was transformative for the mission as well as for Jesus OR he saw it as the impetus to push the well-meaning morality police known as his Disciples into another realm, into transformation into the Kingdom of God. Either way, Jesus’ power was not diminished but was expanded. Jesus’ power is not diminished but is rather expanded. God is no longer seen as unchanging or unresponsive but compassionate and merciful. This poor, foreign, nameless immigrant (yes, that was on purpose) gives voice to all poor, foreign, nameless ones who come after her. She dared to claim her crumb at the table. So, what do we do with that?
The story illustrates the new inclusiveness of the gospel. Faced with human need Jesus is persuaded that people matter most. No one can be excluded. All must be given food. None can be treated like dogs. The story celebrates this reality. There are many ‘dogs’ in our community who know what it is like to be shut out, told to wait, given second best. (Maynard, the black lab, is not one of those, I will tell you. He is very clear that he is in charge.) But, back to the story…Calling them cute puppies or ‘the blessed poor’ does not address the issue, as long as they are treated like dogs. They have been treated as dogs so much so that it had become natural to treat them that way and to ignore their plight and our often naive prejudice – until the Syro-Phoenician woman gives them a voice. Jesus listened to that voice. Those voices are still to be heard, for those with ears to hear.
The second healing account takes this whole idea of hearing a bit further, implying that speaking and hearing are indeed connected. The healing is done in private, using saliva. First, Jesus told the man to be quiet, but he did just the opposite. For the writer of Mark, there is more a concern of pointing to this as evidence of how the news of Jesus spread through the Gentile community. The use of saliva was a common healing agent. Jesus utilizes it in this story and the healing of the blind man in the next chapter of Mark. Both of these stories belong to the portrayal of what was to come—the blind shall see and the deaf shall hear. Once again, Jesus has taken the “cultural norm” and turned it around—the door is open, the table is set, and all are invited. Stanley Hauerwas said that “Christianity is not a set of beliefs or doctrines one believes in order to be Christian, but rather it is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined, in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable.”
A clergy friend of mine sent me an illustrative link to a video. It shows what happens if you google the words “Why are Christians so…” I tried it. I put in the search “why are Christians so…” to see what the top searches were. In this order, the top searches are judgmental, mean, stupid, ignorant, annoying, hateful, hypocritical, fake, and illogical. (Look at http://www.crosswalk.com/video/unlike-christ-video.html. ) What does that say about who we are? What does that say about who we invite to the table? “Christianity is not a set of beliefs or doctrines one believes in order to be Christian, but rather it is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined, in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable.”
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- How does the inclusiveness of these stories speak to you?
- In what ways do we still react in the way that most people reacted to these acts in Jesus’ time?
- How do you think the world sees us?
- In what ways are we called to be shaped by these stories?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
If thy heart were right, then every creature would be a mirror of life and a book of holy doctrine. There is no creature so small and abject, but it reflects the goodness of God. (Thomas a’ Kempis)
To belong to a community is to begin to be about more than myself. (Joan Chittister)
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s within everyone. And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. (Nelson Mandela)
Flame-dancing Spirit, Come sweep us off our feet and dance us through our days. Surprise us with Your rhythms; dare us to try new steps, explore new patterns and new partnerships. Release us from old routines to swing in abandoned joy and fearful adventure. And in the intervals, rest us in Your Still Centre. Amen. (Esther de Waal, Lost in Wonder, 161)