Lesson: Isaiah 35:4-7a
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’
5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;
7a the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water;
The Book of Isaiah is a composite of writings from three distinct periods in Israel’s history. Chapters 1-39 are called “First Isaiah” and called for Jerusalem to repent in the 20 years before Jerusalem was under siege by the Assyrians in 701 BCE. “Second Isaiah” is Chapters 40 to 55 and brought hope to the Judeans during the Exile in Babylon (587 to 539 BCE) by telling them they had suffered enough and would return to Jerusalem. “Third Isaiah” is Chapters 56 to 66 and, for the most part, gave encouragement to Judeans who returned to Jerusalem (which had been largely destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE) after the Exile.
In spite of these seemingly clear divisions, today’s reading from Chapter 35 was likely written during the Exile and was inserted by the final compiler of the Book of Isaiah to provide a transition from First Isaiah to Second Isaiah.
Today’s reading gives hope that the Exile will end. It says that disabilities would be removed and there will be water in the wilderness. By promising that the wilderness would have water, it suggested that the Judeans would be able to return to Jerusalem by a more direct route than expected. Portions of verses 5 and 6 are paraphrased in today’s reading from Mark.
A minor point of information: the “a” in the description of the reading shows that only the first half of verse 7 is read. The second half of this verse has a number of different translations and reflects the fact that it is often difficult to determine the best text to translate.
The NRSV says: “the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp; the grass shall become reeds and rushes.” A translator’s note says that the Hebrew text is “in the haunt of jackals is her resting place.” The JPS translation of the same verse is: “the home of jackals, a pasture; the abode [of ostriches] reeds and rushes.” The JPS translator noted that 34:13b reads “a home of jackals and an abode of ostriches.”
Epistle: James 2:1-17
1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Although the authorship of this epistle is not known, it has traditionally been attributed to James, the brother of Jesus, who is presented in Acts of the Apostles as the leader of the Jesus Follower community in Jerusalem.
This James (sometimes called “James the Just”) is distinguished from “James the Great” (the apostle, brother of John, and son of Zebedee) and “James the Less” (apostle and son of Alphaeus).
The letter is seen by some scholars as the expansion of a sermon likely delivered by James prior to his martyrdom in 62 CE. The sermon was edited and expanded by someone skilled in Hellenistic rhetoric. It was addressed to Jewish Jesus Followers and emphasized the importance of good works. It mentions Jesus of Nazareth only twice in the letter.
This emphasis on works has been understood by some (including Luther) as being opposed to Paul’s position (particularly in Romans) that one is saved by Faith.
These positions are not opposed and can be reconciled by recognizing that salvation/wholeness (however defined and understood) is the byproduct of the combination of Faith/Trust that leads to good works and Faithfulness in doing good works.
Today’s reading emphasized that good works include caring for the poor, not giving preference to the rich (2-7), obeying the Law to love one’s neighbors as oneself (v.8) and caring for the bodily needs of those in want. The author asserted that while faith is important, if it does not lead to good works, it is dead (v.17).
The “assembly” (v.2) is literally translated as the synagogue, showing that the letter was primarily addressed to Jewish Jesus Followers. The “law of liberty” (v.12) reflected the Jewish understanding that the point of the Law is to free humanity from the domination of evil powers.
Gospel: Mark 7:24-37
24 Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. 27 She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
The Gospel According to Mark was the first Gospel that was written and is usually dated to the time around the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest gospel and forms the core for the Gospels According to Matthew and Luke (both of which were written around 85 CE). Over 50% of the material in those two Gospels is based on Mark. Because these three Gospels follow similar chronologies of Jesus’ life and death, they are called “Synoptic Gospels” for the Greek words meaning “Same Look/View.”
Today’s reading is presented as an “epiphany” for Jesus of Nazareth. Looking for some R&R, Jesus went to Tyre, a city in the Province of Syria, an area near the Mediterranean Sea that is north and west of the Galilee.
The woman who came to Jesus (v.25) was Syrophoenician – a Phoenician from Syria rather than from North Africa. These people were (along with the Canaanites and the Moabites) seen as the original inhabitants of the land before the Israelites arrived and were therefore viewed as inherently wicked and dangerous.
The response of Jesus to her plea on behalf of her daughter was that the “food” (his teaching of the kingdom) was only for the “children” (the people of Israel) and was not for “the dogs” (Gentiles). In the story, her rejoinder caused Jesus to recognize that the teaching of the kingdom was for both Jews and Gentiles, and the woman’s daughter was healed.
This story is contained in Matthew (but not in Luke) with some variations (the woman is described as a “Canaanite” and Jesus refers to the “lost sheep of Israel” rather than “the children.” The theological point made in both Gospels is that Jesus’ message was for Jews and Gentiles.
In the second part of the reading, the deaf man (v.32) would have been considered the equivalent of a minor – a person not responsible for observing the law. His healing brought him into the community.
The exhortations not to tell others of these events is generally called the “Messianic Secret.” This “secret” is ironically contrasted with the paraphrase in verse 37 from Isaiah 35:5-6, though the phrase “he has done everything well” is not part of the text in Isaiah.