INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year B - Proper 15
1 KINGS 2:10‑12; 3:3‑14. When Solomon succeeded David as king of Israel, he prayed for the wisdom he needed to rule over God’s chosen people. The story reflects an attitude toward Solomon probably contained in a laudatory biography with a few additional sentences from the point of view of the compilers of the Book of Deuteronomy in the late 7th century BC.
PSALM 111. This classic psalm praises the works and wisdom of God. Words such as precepts, wisdom and understanding represent the point of view of the writers of wisdom literature such as Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
PROVERBS 9:1-6. (Alternate) Always designated as female, Wisdom calls everyone to learn how to live by and benefit from mature standards.
PSALM 34:9-14. (Alternate) This psalm declares an almost absolute trust in God to provide all the answers to life's great questions. The psalmist claims, however, that only the righteous can have such a relationship with God.
EPHESIANS 5:15‑20. The Christian life, wrote the author of this exhortation, is to be one of simplicity, sobriety, spirituality and song. This kind of living will make the best possible thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
JOHN 6:51‑58. The controversy with the Jews continued as they protested Jesus’ claim that they eat his flesh and drink his blood to gain eternal life. John wrote this reflection in story form as if Jesus had said this himself. It actually reflects the convictions of the Christian church regarding the Eucharist (or Holy Communion) at the end of the first century.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.
1 KINGS 2:10‑12; 3:3‑14. Old Testament scholars have given us a lot of data about the literary origins of the so-called historical books of Samuel and Kings. Originally a single volume, it was not until the translation of the Greek OT, the Septuagint, in the 3rd century BCE, that they came to be regarded as four books of “Kingdoms.” Jerome’s 5th century Latin translation followed the same principle and called them “the four books of Kings. They constitute the history of Israel’s monarchy from the false start with Saul to its end in the Babylonian captivity in 587/6 BCE. The compiler of this history belonged to the Deuteronomic school which favoured the centralization of worship in the temple in Jerusalem during Josiah’s reign ca. 621BCE. The sources for this compilation appear to have been a collection of chronicles or annals, some perhaps as early as the reigns of David and Solomon. There were also many oral legends about dominant leaders that had been passed down from generation to generation.
This passage deals with the beginning of Solomon’s reign (ca.962-922 BCE). When Solomon succeeded David as king of Israel, he prayed for the wisdom he needed to rule over God’s chosen people. The story reflects an attitude toward Solomon probably contained in a laudatory biography with a few additional sentences from the point of view of the Deuteronomic compilers in the late 7th century BC. The introductory section (2:10-12) represents formula used by the Deuteronomist throughout the rest of 1 & 2 Kings whenever a succession to the throne occurred.
Similarly, the hand of the compiler can be recognized also in Solomon’s prayer (3:3-14). Since the temple had not yet been built, the story had to be told from the point of view of worship in the decentralized “high places” such as Bethel, Gilgal and Shechem. Most probably, these were sacred sites taken over from the Canaanites by the Yahwist tradition. This process required many centuries to complete, as the Elijah narratives state unequivocally (1 Kings 17-19). In this segment of the reading, the Deuteronomist is setting the stage for the later part of his narrative which served to mandate both Solomon’s construction of the temple in the middle of the 10th century BCE (1 Kings 5) and Josiah’s centralizing reform of the 7th century BCE (2 Kings 22).
Like so many supposedly verbatim accounts of what was said, the words of the prayer came from the imagination of the compiler, not from any court records. Yahweh’s promise to Solomon of discerning wisdom also came from the same imaginative process which shaped the whole of the compiler’s story. The words recall Yahweh’s directive to the Israelites following the Deuteronomic version of the Decalogue (Deut. 5:28-33) and Joshua’s exhortation and renewal of the covenant prior to his death (Josh. 24:1-28). In each instance, the message is clear: This is the way of the Lord; follow it and you will prosper.
PSALM 111. This classic psalm praises the works and wisdom of God. Words such as precepts, wisdom and understanding represent the point of view of the authors of wisdom literature such as Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. In particular, the chief identifier of this type of poetry is the phrase “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (vs.10). The acrostic form of this psalm in Hebrew also exhibits another characteristic of wisdom psalms. Several other psalms adopt this same form. Scholars attribute them all to a school of pious Jews concerned about the decline of their traditions in the late Persian and early Greek periods (5th - 4th century BCE) long after the return from exile in Babylon (539 BCE).
The content of the psalm uses this artificiality extremely well to celebrate the goodness of Yahweh to Israel. It has a liturgical quality which points to its creation for use in public worship. Vs. 1 states as much. Despite the limitations of the acrostic form, it still praises Yahweh as the one who has so richly blessed Israel. It briefly recalls the “mighty works” of Israel’s faith-history (vss. 2-4) recounted throughout the Hebrew scriptures. As we now know, at the time wisdom literature of this type appeared many of those scriptures had already reached manuscript form and undoubtedly were familiar to the psalmist.
The providence of Yahweh for Israel in fulfillment of the covenant comes to the fore in vss. 5-9. Because Yahweh has been faithful and just throughout history, “his precepts are trustworthy” (vs.7). Indeed, they are eternal and requiring a faithful response from everyone (vs.8). Redemption rests on this premise (vs. 9)
PROVERBS 9:1-6. (Alternate) Hebrew tradition attributed King Solomon with great wisdom, as the superscripts of Proverbs 1 and 10 indicate. How much of this was legend cannot be discerned after three millennia. Scholars generally agree that the greater part of the Book of Proverbs is composed of a collection of wise sayings from many sources. In fact, it consists of a five separate collections of which only the first two were attributed to Solomon. This reading is taken from the last chapter of the first collection. It is thought to have reached its final form in the 5th century BCE.
Always designated metaphorically as female, in this brief passage Wisdom calls everyone to learn how to benefit from mature living. She speaks as a woman very much in command of her own life situation and willing to counsel all who would listen. The advice to “lay aside immaturity, and live” remains true today. It is a challenge to grow spiritually. Sadly, however, many Christians remain trapped in a primary school version of religious experience where literalism sets finite boundaries on spiritual truth. As my friend Jim Taylor once wrote, that is like riding a tricycle when one is already a teenager or even an adult.
PSALM 34:9-14. (Alternate) This psalm declares an almost absolute trust in God to provide all the answers to life's great questions. The psalmist claims, however, that only the righteous can have such a relationship with God based on the fear of the Lord. Like Ps. 35 in acrostic form, wisdom style and attribution to David, scholars regard it as a late contribution to the Psalter.
Despite the mood of gratitude in this passage, a sense of self-righteousness could easily develop among those who consider themselves “saints” if vss. 9 and 12 are given a literal interpretation. Faithful people do not always obtain economic security. Indeed, faithfulness often leads to real privation as the Letter to James in the NT points out.
The traditional wisdom phrase, “the fear of the Lord,” may also be considered as reverence due to the deity. As is normal in wisdom psalms, morality plays a significant role in true religious life. This is clearly expressed in vss. 12-14.
EPHESIANS 5:15‑20. The Christian life, wrote the author of this exhortation, is to be one of simplicity, sobriety, spirituality and song. This kind of living will make the best possible thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. As vs. 15 suggests, the passage deals with the overall economy of the Christian life, how one is to live in the real world where clear, wisely chosen ethical standards must govern all our behaviour and relationships.
Vs 16 in the KJV has a wonderful preaching text: “redeeming the time because the days are evil.” The Greek for this text - exagorazomenoi ton kairov - also has much to say to our age. The verb exagorazeiv comes from the marketplace, which Paul knew so well from his tent-making days. It meant to buy up, rescue or ransom something which one considered valuable. Kairos was the special word NT authors used for meaningful time, opportune moments, God’s time. Another word, chronos, distinguished it from measured time. In The United Church of Canada there was a youth group for older teenagers named Kairos. It motivated young people to integrate their lives on basic Christian convictions. We need to think of all life, be it long or short, as kairos.
The second Greek phrase is just as powerful: hoti ai hémerai pornai eison - “because the days are evil.” Our English word “pornography” is derived from the adjective pornos. And how that speaks to us these days when so much in so many areas of life is measured by whatever aspect of human sexuality we favour or disfavour. Vss. 17-18 elaborate the particular evil Paul had in mind, especially the foolishness of debauchery. F.W. Beare added this to his exegesis of the phrase: “Conditions (are) often unfavourable for Christian witness. The debasement of contemporary society is not an excuse for relaxation on our part, or for acquiescence in lower standards; it is a motive for added earnestness in maintaining the Christian ideal unsullied.” (The Interpreter’s Bible, 10: 713)
William Barclay has pointed out that these few verses contrast a pagan gathering and a Christian gathering. He says that the Greek word for a drinking party was symposium. We use the same word transliterated into English in quite a different sense. To the Greeks, the word had all the well-known aspects so frequently advertised as “having a good time” without any moralistic restraints. Christians, on the other hand, had the Spirit to fill them and needed no such artificial means of being joyful. The only sound basis for all our living is the unforgettable gift of God to us in Jesus Christ.
JOHN 6:51‑58. The controversy with the Jews continued as they protested Jesus’ claim that they eat his flesh and drink his blood to gain eternal life. John wrote this reflection in story form as if Jesus had said this himself. It actually reflects the convictions of the Christian church at the end of the first century. Nonetheless, John told the story as an eyewitness, as virtual reality. From his narrative, one can see the Jews arguing among themselves (vs. 52). Jesus stood aside from the fray letting them have their dispute. Television news clips from Israel today give us some idea of the intensity of their debate.
By saying that Jesus’ flesh and blood are true food and drink, John referred to that frequent and by then formalized sacramental remembrance of the death and resurrection of Christ and his continuing presence in the church. The practice of celebrating the sacrament of the Lord Supper long since had become normal whenever Christians gathered to worship and hear the gospel preached. Eduard Schweizer pointed out that while not necessarily the climax to every gathering for worship, the Lord’s Supper was at once a proclamation of Jesus’ death for each person present, the event through which the church presented itself as the body of Christ, and everyone’s exultant anticipation of the table-fellowship of the eschaton with the risen Lord. (Church Order in the New Testament. SCM Press, 1961.)
This long discourse not only revealed how opposition to Jesus developed during his ministry in Galilee, but also showed that he challenged their traditional ways of thinking about how God is revealed. When John composed his gospel, the church had recognized both its continuity and discontinuity with the Jewish tradition.
Once again, the reader of this passage has to understand the difference between a literal and a metaphorical interpretation of Jesus’ words. Throughout the centuries, and especially since the Reformation in the 16th century, the church has struggled with this problem. The various doctrines about the sacrament - transubstantiation, consubstantiation, representation and memorial - all find support for their particular viewpoint in this passage.
In his Daily Bible Readings on this passage, William Barclay proposed a solution to the dilemma by explaining what lay behind John’s reflection. In those times everyone, Jew or Gentile, would have been familiar with the offering of burnt sacrifices on an altar. This occurred in both Jewish and in other contemporary traditions. Only a token of the sacrificial animal would be burned. A portion was reserved for the priests and the remainder would be shared by guests at a feast. The host at the feast was believed to be the god to whom the sacrifice has been offered, not the person making the offering. The god was believed to have entered into the flesh, so that by eating it, the guests would be taking the god into himself or herself. Thus when the feast was over, the guests left the table convinced that they were now god-filled.
However, strange that may seem to us, John was telling his audience that Jesus had given himself as a sacrifice for them in the same manner. His body broken and his blood shed on the cross were now symbolized in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. He was not only with them, he was in them. Because they had shared in this feast of his body and blood at which he was the host, they would be with him, they in him and he in them eternally. However little we may understand it, the sacrament still may have this meaning for us today.