Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on November 1, 2009

Here are the passages for November 1st, 2009, All Saints Day.  Because All Saints Day happens to fall on a Sunday this year, at least some churches will probably use these instead of the readings for the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B).  In order to try to cover all the options, I'll include those readings below (this will be a long entry!). All lectionary links are to the NRSV via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead.  (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)

Isaiah 25:6-9
  • OK, I actually feel stupid for asking this question, but when the text says "on this mountain," what mountain is it talking about?  The immediate context of the passage doesn't help me any, and although I'm sure I could consult a commentary (and probably will for my own benefit), I prefer not to do so too much for these reflections.  I'd rather encourage discussion....
  • Quite a lot of this passage reads like heavenly promises to me.  How would the original audience of this passage have heard it?  Pretty much the same, or would they have understood differences or nuances that might be enlightening to us?
Psalm 24:1-10

Revelation 21:1-6a
  • So much of our heavenly hope is beyond our imagining, that I find it difficult to properly probe for more information, even while wanting to know more.  What would it be like living in the holy city?  What would we do with all that "time" (that doesn't seem like the right word to describe eternity)?  I know some people have expressed concern about boredom, and while I'm quick to mentally assert that this will not be so, I find I have little evidence to counter such a concern.  What can we expect from this "new heaven and new earth" that we should want to spend eternity there?
John 11:32-44
  • This is arguably one of Jesus' most famous miracles: raising Lazarus from the dead (although we're really only getting the tail end of it all.  Here's a more complete accounting).  Why does Jesus demonstrate so much grief at Lazarus' passing?  Surely he knew what he was about to do, or at the very least, that he could do it!  What do you think?  Did Jesus arrive expecting to raise Lazarus?  If so, why all the grief?  If not, why did he tell the disciples that he was going to wake him up (even while knowing--and telling the disciples--that Lazarus was dead).
  • Martha famously complains that there would be a stench because Lazarus has been dead for so long.  Do you think that the stench was still present after the stone was moved and Lazarus walked out?  After all, either Lazarus was dead for all that time, or he's been alive and conscious for that whole period (four days!) in a dark cave with no food or water.
  • What is the significance of Jesus' prayer?  Do you think he usually prayed silently (since he's making such a show here of praying for the benefit of others)?  Do you wonder if he perhaps prayed additional words that were not recorded here for us, but may now be lost to history? 
  • What kind of life do you think Lazarus lived after this story?  Was there any "recovery" period that he had to go through after being dead?  Any signs that he had previously been dead?  Did Lazarus become a celebrity in Jesus' circles?  Or was he perhaps persecuted by others because of the stories that inevitably surrounded him?

And now, here are the readings for the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B).

Ruth 1:1-18
  • There’s a lot of talk in this story about the women needing to go find husbands to remarry.  While this may sound a bit unusual, or even offensive to some of our more independent sensibilities of today, it should be remembered that, until relatively recently in human history, unmarried women had virtually no way of surviving economically in the world.  This is one reason why, when telling believers to take care of the poor, widows are so often singled out.  
  • Speaking of the need for Orpah and Ruth to remarry, I have to admit that I found Naomi’s speech in the middle of this passage rather odd.  This is where Naomi disputes the possibility that she might have sons who could grow up to become husbands for her existing daughters-in-law. Even granting that women tended to marry at a very young age (by our standards) back in Naomi’s time, but assuming that they were married for at least some time before their husbands died, these women would still be a couple of decades older than any son Naomi could have, and while growing up, they’d essentially be living as siblings within the same family.  Is there any culture today where it would be considered okay to marry your much younger step-brother?  I mean, if this did happen, they’d be roughly in their forties by the time these hypothetical sons were of marrying age!  Certainly old enough to have been these boys mother themselves!  I know it's likely some of my own cultural conditioning that makes me feel somewhat repelled by this notion, so I'm really curious if this actually considered acceptable elsewhere.
  • A lot of people have talked about Ruth’s amazing devotion to Naomi, and her words to Naomi in verse 16 have been quoted often.  But I’d like to take a step back and recognize the other widow, Orpah, who at the beginning of this story, is initially just as eager as Ruth to stay with Naomi.  Although the story quickly focuses on Ruth as the protagonist, no condemnation is ever given against Orpah for finally acceding to Naomi’s wishes and returning to her own people.  In fact, Orpah does what any widowed young woman would be expected to do in her time if she wanted any chance of future economic security by going to be with her birth family and probably to look for another husband while she was still young enough to have children.  Do we give enough attention to Orpah's situation when we think about this story?
  • By any rational standard, Ruth acts impulsively and foolishly in her devotion to Naomi.  It is only because Ruth’s story is recorded here in the Bible (admittedly, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, since we haven't read the end of that story yet), and we have some idea of the positive outcome, that we have any business saying that Ruth made the correct choice.  Is it appropriate to encourage "Christian risk-taking" on the basis of a story like this?  Is there some kind of "proper" attention we should be paying to the potential downsides of taking risks?
Psalm 146:1-10

Hebrews 9:11-14
  • This is one of those short passages that I can’t say too much about without getting into a sermon of my own, and I’d rather leave that for readers to work out.  But it’s worth nothing that yet again the author of Hebrews is talking about how Christ’s sacrifice of his own self is superior to the animal sacrifices that had been common at the time.  We are so far removed from the concept of animal sacrifices today that such a concept seems abhorrent and disgusting to us, and it's difficult to fully appreciate the author’s argument of how much better Christ’s sacrifice was because we are pretty much ready to agree that almost anything would be better than killing animals to compensate for our sinful behaviors, but understanding the importance of animal sacrifice to the people of the first century (or, perhaps more importantly, to Jewish believers throughout pre-Christian history) is clearly central to understanding the book of Hebrews.
Mark 12:28-34
  • It's perhaps worth noting, since the reading itself fails to spell this out, that this conversation takes place just after Jesus had been having a debate with the Sadducees.
  • I've commented before that the people who put together the lectionary often look for passages that can reinforce common themes found in the Bible (although this doesn't happen as often, nor as obviously, as I myself would like).  I'm sure it's no accident that this brief passage of Mark mentions the inadequacy of animal sacrifices in the same week we're given the reading from Hebrews.
  • Jesus' answer to the question of the greatest commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5.  These verses are what the Jewish people call the shema, a word which comes from the first Hebrew word of the Deuteronomy passage.  The shema is the central passage of Judaism, and is used daily as part of a devout Jewish believer's worship.  The shema proclaims Judiasm's difference from all the other religions of the world by proclaiming that God is one God.  This was especially important in a context where most of the other religions of the world were polytheistic.   The shema also proclaims the importance of devotion to the one true God.  By citing this passage as the greatest commandment, Jesus proclaims his solidarity with Judaism.  He then adds another clause, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  This is also found in the original Hebrew Scriptures, in Leviticus 19:18.
  • When the teacher of the law affirms Jesus' answer, Jesus affirms the teacher right back.  Although the text doesn't make this explicit, I can't help but think that there's more going on here than at first glance.  Why would no one dare to ask him any more questions after this?  What is it about this interchange that creates this sense of finality?

1 comment:

B-W said...

FYI, Goldingay's commentary on Isaiah points me to Isaiah 24:23, which cites Mount Zion as the mountain in question in the lectionary reading. Pretty consistent with what I would have guessed, although it argues for a greater unity between the end of Chapter 24 and this section of Chapter 25 than I had supposed (and also a useful reminder that chapter breaks are not divinely inspired!).