INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year B - ASH WEDNESDAY
JOEL 2:1-2, 12-17. Joel’s prophecies reflect a time when the priesthood of the Second Temple late in the Persian period about 400 BCE. A plague of locusts, either actual or a metaphor for an invading army, appeared as a warning of a day of judgment coming to Judah and Jerusalem. The second part of the reading proclaims a call to repentance ending with a promise of forgiveness if the appropriate liturgical practices were followed.
ISAIAH 58:1-12. (Alternate) A prophet among Second Isaiah’s disciples defines the contrast between appropriate and false fasting as a valid expression of repentance.
PSALM 51:1-17. Contrary to its superscript this psalm has nothing to do with David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. Nor does it validate the doctrine of original sin. Yet it does express exceptionally well the humility that must accompany a true repentance and confession of the sin of which we are all guilty.
2 CORINTHIANS 5:20b-6:10. So why are we recipients of the grace that recreates us as new beings in Christ? We have been redeemed so that in every situation we face, we may witness to what Christ has done for us and will do for all who put their trust in him. More than that, we are to help others come into the same living relationship with God that we now enjoy. Here Paul states how he saw his role - and ours - as an ambassador for Christ in all situations.
MATTHEW 6:1-6, 16-21. Jesus sarcastically condemns the ostentatious piety of almsgiving and fasting as utter hypocrisy. He balances this sarcasm by telling how private religious practices produce a more effective way to express a sincere relationship with God.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:
JOEL 2:1-2, 12-17. This virtually unknown prophet is often associated with the 8th century prophet Amos because of the similarity between Joel 3:16-18 and Amos 1:2, 9:13. Most scholars regard Joel as a representative of a much later time. His prophecies relate largely to the Second Temple and the dominant role of the priesthood in the leadership of the nation, a characteristic of the late Persian period c. 400 BCE.
As it now stands, the book has been said to be the work of several authors. The first part, 1:1-2:17 appears to be the work of the prophet whose name the whole work bears. A plague of locusts had dealt a devastating blow to the land’s productivity. Whether the plague is an actual natural disaster or a metaphorical reference to an invasion has never been entirely clear. Either way, such calamities could only be interpreted in moral terms. In this passage Joel issues a dire warning that the Day of the Lord is at hand (2:1-2). As elsewhere in OT prophetic oracles, this image of “the Day of the Lord” can only be interpreted as Yahweh’s judgment in all its severity.
Vss. 12-17 proclaims a call to repentance. Appropriately, it is the epistle for Ash Wednesday in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Mendelssohn set this appeal to magnificent music in his oratorio Elijah.
Joel’s call to repentance is not without hope, although how Yahweh will respond is uncertain (vs. 14). As might be expected in an era of priestly dominance, the prophet calls for special sacrificial offerings, community worship, fasting and priestly intercessions. These liturgical acts imply that Yahweh’s mercy will be extended to all who hold to the traditional faith and religious practices of Israel.
ISAIAH 58:1-12. (Alternate) Usually attributed to the group of prophets (or possibly a single person) known as Third Isaiah, this passage defines the contrast between appropriate and false fasting as an expression of repentance.
As the spokesperson for Yahweh, the prophet first challenges the people concerning their transgressions. Obviously, they see their behaviour differently from the prophet. They think of themselves as righteous and approach Yahweh totally unaware of how Yahweh sees them. They have fasted and wonder why Yahweh has not taken account of their worship (vss. 2-3). Echoing the justice earlier prophetic voices demanded of true penitents, the prophet castigates the people for their false humility (vss. 4-6). This cry for social justice and concern for the poor foreshadows Jesus’ parable of judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.
As in the parable, the prophet offers glowing promises of divine favour and providence following appropriate evidence of compassion for those in need.
The final verse of the passage contains what some scholars have interpreted as evidence of the conditions prevailing in Jerusalem and Judah at the time the prophecy was uttered. The land would be restored and the ruins caused by the Babylonian invasion (c. 587-586 BCE) rebuilt. However, this claim of physical reconstruction appears to be countered by the preceding verses calling for moral and spiritual regeneration.
PSALM 51:1-17. Contrary to the superscript at the beginning of this psalm, there is no reason to assume that the psalm dates from the time of David (c. 1000 BCE) or this is that king’s repentant prayer after his adulterous assignation with Bathsheba. Scholars now believe that those words came from the pious attempt of later generations to attach as much of the Psalter to their legendary tribal hero as a way of increasing his stature as a poet and nation builder at the zenith of his glory.
Note also that the reading does not include the last two verses of the psalm. These are now believed to be a priestly addendum favouring the sacrifices of the temple as the appropriate form of repentance. Nonetheless, the psalm does express in the simplest words what true repentance involves. First comes the appeal to God trusting God’s infinite mercy and steadfast love. Only God’s grace can absolve the sinner from whatever transgressions have been committed. A prime moral insight is not only to acknowledge one’s sin, but to be aware that even when one commits an offence against one’s fellow humans, one sins against God. Thus whatever penalty must be paid is fully justified. The acceptance of one’s sinful nature follows naturally (vs. 5)
Generations of faithful Jews and Christians have found these words troubling, to say the least. Assuming that he was male, what exactly does the psalmist mean by saying that he was born guilty and was a sinner when his mother conceived him? These words differ from the KJV, which seems to place some of the blame on one’s mother: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; in sin did my mother conceive me.” Nothing could be further from the psalmist’s intent than to impugn his mother’s moral integrity. Rather, he is making the humblest of confessions by accepting what later generations of Jews thought of as “an evil inclination.” Modern theologians might well put it as an admission that because we belong to the mammalian species in a physical sense, we are inherently selfish and driven by uncontrolable drives to satisfy only the most fundamental biological urges.
The psalmist’s lament turns from self-abasement to recognition of and appeal for what God can do to restore him to a morally acceptable life. He needs to be cleansed, first of all. There may well be an element of ritual cleansing in his appeal (vss. 6-9). Hyssop was used in ritual cleansing of lepers. It is conceivable that this confession originated in a time of sickness when illness was interpreted as having moral implications. The prime virtue of the restored penitent, of course, is a pure heart and a righteous spirit. The lament ends typically with a vow to make a thanksgiving offering in the presence of a congregation of fellow worshippers.
This is about as far as Jewish prophetic thought could go toward what Paul defined as justification. The last two verses of the psalm deliberately contradict the earlier plea of the repentant soul that the only sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit and a contrite heart. Perhaps a later editor sought to qualify this revolutionary spirituality to make it more compatible with the priestly tradition of the post-exilic period when sacrificial worship had become paramount.
2 CORINTHIANS 5:20b-6:10. So why are we recipients of the grace that recreates us as new beings in Christ? We have been redeemed so that in every situation we face, we may witness to what Christ has done for us and will do for all who put their trust in him. More than that, we are to help others come into the same living relationship with God that we now enjoy.
Behind this ambassadorial mission lay the gospel story of Jesus’ own life so closely related to God that he called God “Father” and so fully obeyed God’s will that he accepted death as a criminal rather than deny this relationship. Paul saw his mission and that of all Christians as sharing in the life and ministry of Christ, making known through all of our relationships with others in every circumstance of life, the full quality and character of the love of God for sinners like himself. So in 6:1 “we work together with him.”
Much can be made of the term “ambassador.” (5:20) The Greek verb presbeuo (“to act as an ambassador”) could be translated as one who functioned as a messenger or interpreter of the will of the person he/she represents. That certainly describes what Paul sought to do as the apostle to the Gentiles. Yet he only used the word twice: here and in Ephesians 6:20.
Like a modern ambassador writing his memoirs after many missions during critical times, Paul went on to recite the various circumstances in which he had carried out his mission. His use of the first person plural, “we,” was inclusive because he was commending the performance of his duties to the Corinthians with whom he had contended so long and so bitterly. He saw them as his fellow workers in Christ’s mission to make known the redeeming love of God to all the world. It is the forgiven sinner acutely aware of the grace she/he has received who makes the best evangelist.
MATTHEW 6:1-6, 16-21. How do we practice the faith that we have experienced in coming to know and put our trust in God? This passage about how to worship and live as God requires presents us with a continual challenge no worshipper can avoid.
If there is any charge against church folk that really sticks, it is hypocrisy. Our actions do not always conform to our claims to be Christ’s people. An old adage condemns us: “Our actions speak so loud that folks cannot hear what we say.”
Encouraging Christian faith depends entirely on trust. A young student on a prairie mission field heard from an elder of the church about a popular preacher who had gone through the neighbourhood attracting many followers away from other congregations. “But I wouldn’t buy a horse from him,” the elder said.
There was biting sarcasm in Jesus’ words about those who ostentatiously gave alms, said loud prayers in public, or fasted with great fanfare. God sees what is in each human heart; and God forgives the humble penitent. True faith and spirituality comes from setting one’s priorities in keeping with God’s loving will and quietly pursuing them without regard to how others react. That was the secret of Jesus’ spiritual life. Ours can be no less, whatever that may bring.