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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 30 - Proper 25 - Year A
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6,13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
alt - Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18; Psalm 1

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary 30 - Proper 25 - Year A

     [NOTE: Throughout the Season after Pentecost the RCL 
     provides a set of alternate lessons which some 
     denominations prefer.  A summary of these readings is 
     also included below.]


DEUTERONOMY 34:1-12          There are still some who cling to the belief 
that the first five books of the Bible were dictated by God to Moses.  It 
is obvious from this passage that this cannot be so.  He could not have 
described his own death and burial.  In fact, this is an editorial 
appendix to the Book of Deuteronomy written relatively late in Israel's 
history, long after the return from exile Babylon.  Much of Deuteronomy 
itself was most likely written during the reform of King Josiah (621 BC) 
when Israel's religious practices were centralized in the temple in 
Jerusalem.


PSALM 90:1-6,13-17           This psalm is still used to celebrate  the 
transitory nature of nature of human life and the eternal security we have 
in God.  It may originally have existed in two different parts,  verse 1-
12 and 13-17.


LEVITICUS 19:1-2,15-18       (Alternate)  These brief excerpts from the 
Holiness Code (Lev.  17-26) assume that Moses authored the first five 
books of the Old Testament.  In all probability, they were composed over a 
long period of time during the development of Israel's religious rituals 
and social conventions.  The whole Book of Leviticus did not reach its 
final form until after the return from the exile in Babylon.  Its rituals 
were those used in the Second Temple rebuilt circa 520 BCE.  The purpose 
of the Holiness Code was to fulfill the requirements of the formula 
defined in vss. 1-2 presumed to have been dictated by God to Moses.


PSALM 1                      (Alternate)  Some scholars believe that this 
psalm was originally composed if not as an introduction to the whole 
Psalter, or at least to a special collection known as Wisdom Psalms.  It 
presents the striking contrast in the two ways of life which every person 
may choose.  It declares realistically that sooner or later all must 
reckon with the Lord.  


1 THESSALONIANS 2:1-8        Paul expresses his gratitude further for the 
warm reception he received.  In spite of his wariness at being mistreated 
in his previous mission in Philippi, he had boldly preached the gospel in 
Thessalonica and was deeply touched by their hospitality.


MATTHEW 22:34-46             Efforts to entrap Jesus continued, but he 
turned their challenges into teaching opportunities.  He responded to a 
lawyer's question by stating the two great commandments: Love God and love 
your neighbour.  He also turned the Pharisees' opposition against them by 
asking who the Messiah is.  When they gave the typical Jewish answer, "The 
Son of David", he confounded them by quoting a verse from Psalm 110.  To 
the people of that time, the reference was obvious, but not to us.  They 
believed that the Psalms were written by David inspired by the Spirit, 
which is not so.


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYIS

DEUTERONOMY 34:1-12   An old modernist trick trotted out to confound 
literalist interpretations of scriptures often refer to this passage.  It 
is obvious from this lesson that the first five books of the Bible could 
not have been dictated by God to Moses.  This is the narrative of Moses' 
death and burial, and his succession by Joshua.  Moses could not have 
described his own death and burial.  
     
In fact, this is an editorial appendix to the Book of Deuteronomy written 
relatively late in Israel's history, long after the return from exile 
Babylon.  Much of Deuteronomy itself was most likely written during the 
reform of King Josiah (621 BC) when Israel's religious practices were 
centralized in the temple in Jerusalem.  On the other hand, it is possible 
that the work developed over a much longer period of the 7th century BCE 
during the reigns of Manasseh (696-642 BCE) and Josiah (639-609 BCE) when 
the domination of Assyria was ending.  

A frequently disputed scholarly consensus agrees that behind the present 
composite form of the book lay several predecessors including a narrative 
tradition usually assigned to the Jahwist/Yahwist (J) and Elohist (E) 
sources.  The detailed calendar of festivals appears to be an elaboration 
of parts of Exodus 23 and 24.  In some respects, it stands as a national 
constitution in that it includes the three basic elements of nation's 
identity: Israel is one people; it must worship Yahweh alone; the sole 
place of worship where the altar of Yahweh is to be set up and sacrifices 
offered is in Jerusalem.  In other respects, this passage forms an 
introduction to what some scholars have called "the Deuteronomic history 
of Israel" contained in the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 
and 2 Kings.

I have a picture in my photo collection of the scene taken from the 
traditional site where Moses viewed the Promised Land.  A small Christian 
chapel stands there dating from the Byzantine era (3rd - 7th century CE).  
From there it is not possible to see the whole of the land described in 
vss. 1-3.  One does see, however, the southern outlet of the Jordan River 
and a large part of the Dead Sea.  Beyond lie the cliffs of the Judean
Mountains.  Modern irrigation has reduced the outflow of the Jordan to a 
mere trickle, but has created a broad plain of rich agricultural land, 
especially on the eastern (Jordanian) side.  For the most part, the 
western side, shared by Palestinians and Israelis, is parched and barren 
except for widely scattered oases and the small city of Jericho.  

The narrative of the death and burial of Moses (vss. 5-8) has the 
appearance a standard formula found in the later historical books.  So 
also does the hyperbole of vss. 10-12 which concludes the narrative.  No 
amount of scholarly exegesis can diminish the significance of Moses in the 
history of Israel and of the faith of Jews throughout the more than three 
millennia since his death.  


PSALM 90:1-6,13-17   This psalm may originally have existed in two 
different parts, vss. 1-12 and 13-17, but scholars who adopt that view are 
not too sure just where to separate the two.  The most natural break would 
seem to come at the end of vs. 12, thus making this reading an excerpt 
from both parts.  Its title in the Hebrew scriptures, "A prayer of Moses, 
the man of God," gave it a supreme distinction rather than definitive 
authorship.  Hence it was placed at the beginning of the fourth collection 
of the Psalter.  Of all the psalms this one may have greater familiarity 
for most church people because of its frequent use in the service of 
Christian burial.

The theme of the poem is the eternity of God in contrast to the transitory 
nature of human life.  This presentation of the theme appears "to skirt 
the very edge of pessimism, and might well lead the poet down into the 
abyss where men say, 'All is vanity'....  But the native Hebrew is saved 
from the final descent by a deep understanding and a fierce moral 
earnestness....  The Psalmist ...  may have had his doubts at times, but 
in the light of his initial certainty, which he never lets go, all doubts 
are resolved.  The Everlasting Nay is finally overcome by the Everlasting 
Yes."  (John Paterson. *The Praises of Israel*, New York: Charles 
Scribner's Sons, 1950. 126-7.) 

One is reminded of similar beautiful passages of the unnamed prophet of 
the Babylonian exile (cf. Isa. 40; 55) which also expressed the same 
prophetic message.  Can the similarity of Isaiah 40:6-8 and Psalm 90:5-6 
be accidental?  Beginning with the affirmation of the permanence of God in 
vss. 1-2, the psalmist delved deeply into the fragile and ephemeral 
quality of human life.  In vs. 12 he drew the natural conclusion that 
wisdom brings to every reflective person of faith.  The shortness of life 
compels one to make wise use of our brief span of years.  In the latter 
part of the poem, the psalmist returns to the original theme and 
acknowledges how dependent we are on the compassion and steadfast love of 
God (vss. 13-15).  

Many senior women of The United Church of Canada may recall that the 
Women's Association used vss. 16-17 as their motto in the years prior to 
amalgamation with the Women's Missionary Society to form the United Church 
Women.  


LEVITICUS 19:1-2,15-18   (Alternate)  These brief excerpts from the heart 
of the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26) assume that Moses authored the first 
five books of the Old Testament.  In all probability, they were composed 
over a long period of time during the development of Israel's religious 
rituals and social conventions.  Moses in thought to have lived no later 
than the 13th century BCE.  The whole Book of Leviticus did not reach its 
final form until after the return from the exile in Babylon.  Its rituals 
were those used in the Second Temple rebuilt circa 520 BCE.  Ezra 6:1-21 
gives some of the details which may have historical validity.  Many of 
these same rituals would have been in use during the time of Jesus.
	
The purpose of the Holiness Code was to fulfill the requirements of the 
formula defined in vss. 1-2 presumed to have been dictated by God to 
Moses.  This attribution gave the document greater authenticity in the 
same way that quoted words of Jesus in the four Gospels also do.  

The essential message of vss. 15-18 recalls both the Decalogue of Exodus 
20 and the strong emphasis on social justice found in Amos, Isaiah, Micah 
et al.  In particular, loving one's neighbour as mandated by vs. 18 is the 
core of both Jewish and Christian holiness.  It was this passage which 
Jesus linked with Deuteronomy 6:4 to frame his summary of the whole Law of 
Moses as in the Gospel lesson below.


PSALM 1   (Alternate)  Some scholars believe that this psalm was 
originally composed if not as an introduction to the whole Psalter, or at 
least to a special collection known as Wisdom Psalms.  It presents the 
striking contrast in the two ways of life which every person may choose.  
It declares realistically that sooner or later all must reckon with the 
Lord.  

It is surprising that the psalmist's description happiness of the holy 
begins with a negative.  At first glance it seems to describe a "holier 
than thou" attitude.  Yet this approach is frequently found in other books 
of the group known as Wisdom literature.  For instance, Job 10:3 speaks of 
schemes of the wicked while Proverbs 13:1; 21:24; 22:10; 29:8 all make 
specific references to scoffers.  Teachers of wisdom used this device to 
warn their students of the dangers they would have to confront.  

The psalmist described the contrasting way of life in a metaphor that 
could not be misinterpreted.  In Israel wherever a stream of water is 
found invariably has trees growing near it.  Elsewhere in this dry 
climate, vegetation is very sparse and usually low to the ground.  
Irrigation accounts for almost all productive agriculture except close to 
the Mediterranean Sea.  

Another unique aspect of Wisdom literature appears in the reference to 
judgment in vs. 5.  Generally, teachers of wisdom did not think in terms 
of a single eschatological day of judgment.  They thought in terms of 
divine judgment as an on-going process.  The image of divine judgment as 
wind blowing chaff away from grain at the threshing floor seems 
particularly appropriate.  During the harvest season this would be a 
continuing process until all the grain had been separated and stored for 
winter use and future planting.  The psalmist was not only a good teacher 
but a keen observer of everyday life in almost every community.


1 THESSALONIANS 2:1-8   Paul expresses his gratitude further for the warm
reception he had received.  Despite wariness at being mistreated in his 
previous mission in Philippi, he had boldly preached the gospel in 
Thessalonica and was deeply touched by their hospitality.  Yet his message 
had also received considerable opposition there too.  

Apparently his opponents had sought to undercut his ministry by making 
false accusations as to his purpose; so Paul felt it necessary to clarify 
his true motives.  His only aim had been to proclaim he true gospel as God 
had given it to him, not the deceit, trickery or indulgent self-promotion 
of which he had been accused.  He had carefully avoided the flattery and 
greed so common among other teachers of his time.

The background of these comments bears some expansion.  Thessalonica had 
notable centres for the worship of two pagan sects, the Dionysiacs and the 
Cabeiri.  These were Greek and Near Eastern mystery cults respectively.  
Both were known by their extended festivals with much drunkenness and 
phallic symbols expressive of sexual promiscuity.  The leaders of these 
cults appear to have functioned in much the same way as modern television 
evangelists who bring shame on themselves and cause others to despise the 
Christian gospel through their unethical, Elmer Gantry style of preaching 
and their sexual misconduct.

In contrast, Paul's style had been rigorously ethical.  Though he and his 
companions could have claimed support from the Thessalonians, they had 
not.  Their behavior had been as gentle as a nurse "tenderly caring for 
her own children" (vs. 7).  In fact, they had shared not only the gospel 
but themselves, which probably implies that they had been willing to 
participate in the life of the community to the extent of sharing their 
humble poverty.  

The extended biographical section of the letter (2:1-3:10), of which this 
is only a brief introduction, had a very real purpose: to remind the 
Thessalonians of Paul's recent visit as a substitute for his personal 
presence and to lay the groundwork for his subsequent exhortation (4:1-
5:22).  He was using their own experience of his ministry among them as 
the basis for calling them to a higher standard of behavior and than their 
opponents as they await the return of Christ.


MATTHEW 22:34-46   Two pericopes have been grouped together for this 
reading about continuing efforts to entrap Jesus.  Both deal with the 
opposition to Jesus' ministry, but in the first (vss. 34-40), a lawyer is 
the initiator of the challenge, while in the second, Jesus takes the 
initiative himself.  

Lawyers do not appear extensively in the NT, and mostly in Luke.  The 
Letter to Titus has make reference to one Zenas, a lawyer (Titus 3: 13), 
without clarification of who he is other than a companion of Apollos.  
Here in Matthew the word stands in lieu of "scribes." (Matt. 22:35).  The 
six references in Luke always have a negative connotation.  It would seem 
that in this passage, the lawyer was a Pharisee and likely had special 
training in the interpretation of the law of Moses.  While returning from 
a visit to Israel in 1998, my son and I had as a seat mate a man who said 
he was "a lawyer." For most of the journey he studied the Hebrew 
scriptures.  We concluded that he was one of the same type of lawyer as 
Jesus' challenger.

The question put to Jesus had only one intention: "to test him." Jesus 
responded to the question by stating the two great commandments: Love God 
and love your neighbour.  Matthew gave relatively short shrift to this 
statement in contrast to Luke's lengthy parable of the Good Samaritan.  
Undoubtedly the different audiences of the two gospels had much to do with 
these contrasting styles.

It would seem that these two incidents occurred in close sequence or 
whether Matthew used the transitional device to show that Jesus had taken 
a vigorous initiative against his opponents.  He turned the Pharisees' 
opposition against them by asking what they thought of the Messiah, whose 
son he is.  When they gave the typical Jewish answer, "The Son of David," 
he confounded them by quoting a verse from Psalm 110.  

To the people of that time, the reference was obvious, but not to us.  
They believed that the Psalms were written by David inspired by the 
Spirit, which is most scholars no longer accept for a variety of critical  
reasons.  The conundrum Jesus posed as a result of this quotation, 
however, shows how clever he was in making use of the Hebrew scriptures as 
they were then known.  This approach, however, should not be used as proof 
of the Davidic authorship of the Psalter.  Nor can it be used as an 
argument that Jesus, the Son of God, was either omniscient or not.  

The point of telling the story was to show how Jesus confronted his 
opponents and used their own skill at interpreting the Hebrew scriptures 
to silence them.  One of the more consistent aspects of Jesus' character 
reported in the four gospels was his understanding of the meaning of the 
Hebrew scriptures.  So many centuries later, we cannot tell whether this 
is "the Jesus of history" or the Jesus in which the apostolic church so 
profoundly believed after his resurrection.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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