Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Who Do You Say That I Am?"

Thursday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
1 Kings 11:4-13

When Solomon was old his wives had turned his heart to strange gods,
and his heart was not entirely with the LORD, his God,
as the heart of his father David had been.
By adoring Astarte, the goddess of the Sidonians,
and Milcom, the idol of the Ammonites,
Solomon did evil in the sight of the LORD;
he did not follow him unreservedly as his father David had done.
Solomon then built a high place to Chemosh, the idol of Moab,
and to Molech, the idol of the Ammonites,
on the hill opposite Jerusalem.
He did the same for all his foreign wives
who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods.

The LORD, therefore, became angry with Solomon,
because his heart was turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel,
who had appeared to him twice
(for though the LORD had forbidden him
this very act of following strange gods,
Solomon had not obeyed him).

So the LORD said to Solomon: “Since this is what you want,
and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes
which I enjoined on you,
I will deprive you of the kingdom and give it to your servant.
I will not do this during your lifetime, however,
for the sake of your father David;
it is your son whom I will deprive.
Nor will I take away the whole kingdom.
I will leave your son one tribe for the sake of my servant David
and of Jerusalem, which I have chosen.”
As his life progressed, Solomon moved steadily downhill. The sacred writer implies that women were the cause of his downfall,especially foreign women. Apart from the daughter of Egypt’s Pharaoh, he took many foreign women as his wives. Among these were many from ethnic groups with which the Israelites were forbidden to marry. The reason for this prohibition was the danger that one would be tempted to worship their gods. As is the case here.

Solomon fell in love with many such women and, towards the end of his life, he had 700 wives and 300 concubines (presumably something of a literary exaggeration). The problem was not so much the number of women in his life – for even David had a number of wives. But these women turned him away from Yahweh as his God. Unlike his father, David, “his heart was no longer entirely with the Lord”.

Among the gods Solomon began to worship under the influence of his wives were Astarte (Asthtoreth), the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom (Molech), the idol of the Ammonites. Worship of Molech not only severely jeopardised the recognition of the absolute kingship of the Lord over his people but also involved (on rare occasions) the practice of child sacrifice.

To appease his wives, Solomon built shrines to Chemosh, the god of the Moabites, and to Molech on a hill facing Jerusalem. And he did the same for many of his wives, who openly worshipped their own gods.

Twice in the past God had appeared to Solomon: the first time when he asked Solomon what special gift he wanted and Solomon, setting set aside wealth and military power, had asked for wisdom. In the second vision, just after Solomon had completed the Temple, Yahweh had promised many blessings on Solomon. But now, God is angry with him, especially because of his repeated idolatry and his violation of the covenant. Solomon had broken the most basic demands of the covenant and thereby severely undermined the entire covenant relationship between God and his people.

In punishment, his kingdom would be given over to not to a son but to one of his servants. However, for the sake of David, Solomon would remain king until his death. Also, for David’s sake, Solomon’s son would be left king of just one tribe. In this way, the promise of an everlasting dynasty for David’s line would be, at least partially, observed.

As Jerusalem contained the temple built by David’s son, the destiny of Jerusalem and the Davidic dynasty were closely linked. The temple represented God’s royal palace, where his earthly throne (the Ark) was situated and where he had pledged to be present as Israel’s Great King.

Solomon’s foreign marriages were primarily contracted for political ends and the pagan shrines were intended for his wives and for traders. Such contacts, however, jeopardized the purity of the religion of Yahweh, and the author interprets the situation in the spirit and language of Deuteronomy. God punishes Solomon’s impiety by raising up enemies abroad (Hadad the Edomite) and at home, (Jeroboam will take over 10 tribes as king, leaving only Judah to Solomon’s son).

In the end, Solomon’s great wisdom could not prevent him being ruled by his heart and his political and economic interests.

How often have we, too, been ruled by our emotions and other considerations and been led into behavior which we know is wrong? It is so easy for us to rationalize, which means creating false reasons to justify what we do. And yet, the only way to go for our own long-term good is the way of truth, integrity and genuine love. Again we pray for that wisdom which gives us an insight into where truth and goodness are to be found.
The road to that wisdom, of course, is the Way of Jesus.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Psalm 106
Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
Blessed are they who observe what is right,
who do always what is just.
Remember us, O LORD, as you favor your people;
visit us with your saving help.
Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
But they mingled with the nations
and learned their works.
They served their idols,
which became a snare for them.
Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to demons.
And the LORD grew angry with his people,
and abhorred his inheritance.
Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
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Mark 7:24-30
Jesus went to the district of Tyre.
He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it,
but he could not escape notice.
Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him.
She came and fell at his feet.
The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth,
and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter.
He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.
For it is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
She replied and said to him,
“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”
Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go.
The demon has gone out of your daughter.”
When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed
and the demon gone.
We now come to a high point in Mark’s gospel which the texts of previous days have been leading up to. Since the beginning of this gospel the question has been continually asked: “Who is Jesus?” Today we get the answer. The blind and deaf disciples show that they are beginning to see more clearly.

So Jesus himself puts the question that has been underlying all that has gone before: “Who do people say I am?” The disciples give a number of answers reflecting the speculations of the people. These include:
          - John the Baptist come to life again;
          - Elijah, who was expected to return to earth just before the arrival of the Messiah;
          - One of the other prophets . . .

Then Jesus asks his disciples what they believe. “Who do you say I am?” Peter speaks up in the name of all: “You are the Christ.”

This is indeed a dramatic moment. Jesus is not just an ordinary rabbi, not just a prophet. He is the long-awaited Christ, the Messiah, the anointed King of Israel. This is a tremendous breakthrough for the disciples. However, they are told to keep this to themselves for the time being. There were many expectations about the Messiah and Jesus did not want to be identified with them.

But it is not the end of the story. There is a sudden and unexpected twist for which they were not at all prepared. Jesus immediately begins to tell them what is going to happen to him in the days ahead: that he will suffer grievously, be rejected by the religious leaders of his own people, be put to death and - perhaps most surprising of all - after three days rise again. And there was no mistaking his meaning for “he said all this quite openly”. ‘Religious leaders’ here refers to the Sanhedrin, the 71-member ruling council of the Jews consisting of elders, the chief priests and the scribes. Under Roman rule, it had authority in religious matters.

For the first time in this gospel Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man”. He will do this many more times. The title was first used in the book of Daniel (7:13-14) as a symbol of “the saints of the Most High”, referring to those faithful Israelites who receive the everlasting kingdom from the “Ancient One” (God). In the apocryphal books of 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra the title does not refer to a group but to a unique figure of extraordinary spiritual endowments, who will be revealed as the one through whom the everlasting kingdom decreed by God will be established. Of itself, this expression means simply a human being, or, indefinitely, someone, and there are evidences of this use in pre-Christian times. Its use in the New Testament is probably due to Jesus’ speaking of himself in that way, “a human being”, and the later Church’s taking this in the sense of the Jewish apocrypha and applying it to him with that meaning.

It is not difficult to imagine how the disciples must have been profoundly shocked and could not believe their ears at what Jesus was telling them. Peter, their impetuous leader, immediately begins to protest. They have just pronounced Jesus to be the long-awaited leader of the Jewish people and now he says he is going to be rejected and executed by their very own leaders. It made absolutely no sense whatever. Jesus turns round, looks at his disciples and scolds Peter with the terrible words, “Get behind me, Satan! Because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.”

This is what the gradual opening of the eyes of the blind man in yesterday’s story indicated. They had reached the stage where they had made the exciting discovery that their Master was none other than the long-awaited Messiah. They had answered the first question of Mark’s gospel: Who is Jesus? But they were still immersed in all the traditional expectations that had grown up around the coming of the Messiah, as the victorious and triumphing king who would put all Israel’s enemies to flight.

But they would have to unlearn all this. The rest of Mark will answer the second question: What kind of Messiah is Jesus? or What does it mean for Jesus to be Messiah?

And a further question follows from that. What will all that mean for the disciples - and for us? We will see some of that tomorrow.


Sarah in the tent said...

(Father, some commentaries seem to have become mixed up ...)

The Syrophoenician woman. In yesterday's reading, food does not make you unclean; however in today's reading 'food' can cleanse.

I recently saw reports on tv about the Copts in Egypt. Because so many things are unclean for Muslims, the Copts are the nation's recyclers. I imagine the gentiles, with their pigs and their taste for sausages, performed a similar function in Israel. Perhaps gentile pig farmers would buy up all the scraps from Jewish feasts. Maybe this is what happened to the 12 baskets of scraps: they 'evangelized' the gentiles. When the Syrophoenician woman says to Jesus: 'dogs under the table eat the scraps from the children', maybe she is reminding him of those baskets of scraps, who bought them, and letting Him know that she believes in and wants that bread.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Sarah, early in Genesis, we read that when God created humankind, he gave us the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle and other creatures of the earth as our food. None of these creatures were "unclean" because God forbade our early ancestors from eating them. Rather, people learned that they got sick or even died after eating the flesh of some creatures. They also learned that some fish, fowl and meat tasted better than others, and later, that some tasted better cooked than raw. And so various forms of what we now would call "haute cuisine" developed in various parts of the world -- even to this day.

Sarah, your comment about the Copts in Egypt fits in well with what we know about the Gerasenes in an earlier gospel, and the Syrophoenician woman in this one. Because they were not Jewish, they were not bound to the same norms of "kashruth". Gentile farmers did indeed collect "scraps" to feed their stock, and to improve the taste of their meat products.

One last word, since this comment is getting long: Food can cleanse and food can heal. Cod liver oil was the main source of Vitamin D for children in an earlier generation. Today we substitute tablets with calcium + D to make up for vitamin & mineral deficiencies in folks who were children in those earlier generations.

One last word, returning to Solomon: It was not because he allowed his Gentile wives and concubines to worship their own pagan deities that Solomon lost ten of the twelve tribes of David, but because he worshipped at their altars. More on that topic tomorrow.