Comments

Revised Common Lectionary Commentary

Fourth Sunday in Lent - March 18, 2012



Saint Dominic contemplating the Scriptures

Saint Dominic
contemplating the Scriptures

Comments have been prepared by Chris Haslam using reputable commentaries, and checked for accuracy by the Rev'd Alan T Perry, of the Anglican Diocese of Montreal. While not intended to be exhaustive, they are an aid to reading the Scriptures with greater understanding.

Comments are best read with the lessons.

Feedback to is always welcome.


Lessons for this week from the Vanderbilt University web site

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Numbers

Numbers begins with the first census of Israel, and is named for it. After several chapter containing laws, the narrative section begins in Chapter 9. It follows the people of Israel from near the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula to Moab, east of Palestine, over a period of 38 years. Numbers is not a history in the modern sense but rather a record of how God acted in history: as an indicator of how he would act again on behalf of his people.


Numbers 21:4-9

The people of Israel are now in the desert in the Sinai peninsula, probably near its northeastern edge (southwest of the Dead Sea.) During their journey from Egypt to Palestine, the Bible tells us of eight rebellions: six of the people against their leaders and God, and two of their leaders against God. In today's reading, the people rebel against Moses and God. The people are “impatient” (v. 4) or short-tempered because Moses has refused to engage Edom in battle and, (after being attacked) Israel, with God's help, has won a military victory over the local Canaanites. In criticizing “this miserable food” (v. 5), i.e. manna, they are resenting what God gives them freely. So God sends “poisonous” (v. 6, or fiery) “serpents” – fiery possibly because the bites become inflamed before the victims die. The people do repent, and ask Moses to intercede for them (“pray to the LORD”, v. 7). God replies that he will heal through a symbol, a bronze snake on a pole. Those who believe in God will be healed. The rebellion stories tell of a lack of trust in God – which led to all those of the generation that left Egypt (including Moses) dying before Israel entered the Promised Land – a punishment for lack of faith, and an example for later generations.

These stories also tell, very frankly, of the issues of human leadership: its qualifications, manifestations and limitations. Moses really has to struggle to be an effective leader. The bronze serpent was preserved and worshipped until, because it had become a symbol of worship separate from the worship of God, it was smashed to bits during the reign of King Hezekiah, in the late 700s BC (see 2 Kings 18:4).


Psalms

Psalms is a collection of collections. The psalms were written over many centuries, stretching from the days of Solomon's temple (about 950 BC) to after the Exile (about 350 BC.) Psalms are of five types: hymns of praise, laments, thanksgiving psalms, royal psalms, and wisdom psalms. Within the book, there are five "books"; there is a doxology ("Blessed be ... Amen and Amen") at the end of each book.


Psalm 107:1-3,17-22

The psalmist exhorts a community to “give thanks to the Lord”, but when was the psalm written? The community is “redeemed” (v. 2) from some unknown foe; God has “gathered” (v. 3) its members from diverse lands. Israelites were “gathered” as they returned from exile, but not from the “west”. So what is the occasion? We don’t know. Vv. 17-18 recall the story from Numbers read today. In the ancient world, people thought that sinfulness led to sickness. The people turn towards God in their distress; he hears them, heals them, and restores them to life (v. 20). The setting of these verses is probably the Temple, where they are to “offer thanksgiving sacrifices” (v. 22); they are to proclaim God’s power joyfully.


Ephesians

This letter of Paul was written from prison, probably in Rome. Whilst the Bible states that it was written to the church at Ephesus, the some early manuscripts do not contain an addressee in 1:1. This would imply that Ephesians was a circular letter, sent to a number of churches. If so, it introduced a new idea into letter writing: we know of no other circular letters from this period. This book celebrates the life of the church, a unique community established by God through the work of Jesus Christ, who is its head, and also the head of the whole creation.


Ephesians 2:1-10

Paul has written of the recipients of this letter, of how they reacted to hearing the good news: they believed, and “were marked with the seal of the ... Holy Spirit” (1:13) in baptism. He has heard of their faith and of their love for fellow Christians. May they receive “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” (1:17) as they come to understand God more and more, coming to know the hope and the inheritance that are theirs through their calling, and the greatness of God’s power available to believers of all cultures.

Now he speaks of the time before their conversion, a time when, encumbered by sin, they were “dead” (2:1) spiritually. It was thought that the “air” (2:2) was the domain of demons, so the “ruler of the power of the air” is the devil; they were subservient to him. He still holds sway over the “disobedient”, those who have rejected the call to faith. (By implication, Christians are no longer his slaves.) “All of us” (2:3), both Jews and Gentiles, once lived self-centred lives, apart from God’s redemptive power. We were “children”, descendants of Adam – in danger of God’s “wrath” against those who sin (as they still are). (Colossians 3:6 says “the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient”.) We were in a state apart from God’s love for humankind in Christ. But, says 2:4, even then, when we were spiritually “dead”, God loved us greatly, so greatly that he brought us life together, raised us together and enthroned us together – “with Christ” (2:5). (In the Greek, each of these verbs begins with syn, as in synergy.) Christians have been given a new status, a new life, and new freedom, in order that, by living in this way, we may be channels through whom God shows his gifts to us to the world. We are saved by God’s freely given inestimable gift of love (“grace”, 2:7). Our salvation is already happening through the medium of our “faith” (2:8), but even “this” (salvation) is a gift from God, rather than a result of our efforts (“works”, 2:9). God’s plan has always included making Christians what we are: “created in Christ ... for good works” (2:10): being saved, we do “good works”.


Symbol of St John

John

John is the fourth gospel. Its author makes no attempt to give a chronological account of the life of Jesus (which the other gospels do, to a degree), but rather "...these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." John includes what he calls signs, stories of miracles, to help in this process.


John 3:14-21

Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, has come to Jesus, (because he has recognized that Jesus is “from God”, v. 2), to ask: “How can anyone be born [again] after having grown old?” (v. 4) Jesus has answered: to be part of God’s plan launched through him, one needs to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be baptised into Christ (v. 5). God’s Spirit works in ways that humans cannot fully understand; Jesus is the only source of knowledge about heaven: he has been there. Nicodemus fails to understand even what Jesus tells him in earthly terms, by analogy. Jesus continues with an analogy (v. 14). Moses' bronze serpent preserved from death those who (through this symbol) trusted in God. In a similar way, thanks to God’s great gift of “his only Son” (v. 16, “the Son of Man”, v. 14), whoever believes in Christ will have “eternal life” (v. 15), participation in God’s life, life in the age to come. Jesus took on human form to save all who will listen (however sinful), not to condemn anyone, but those who willfully refuse to believe are, through the act of rejecting him, condemning themselves (v. 18). When Christ came, there are those who preferred “darkness” (v. 19), “evil”: they avoided the light, the truth, lest their wickedness be exposed. But there are others who “do what is true” (v. 21): they seek out truth, i.e. God, and act accordingly as they follow his ways. Others see their example.

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