Saturday, 9 February 2013

Celebrating with the strangers who abide with us

“… you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground … and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name” (Deuteronomy 26: 2)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday week, 17 February 2013, is the First Sunday in Lent.

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for the First Sunday in Lent (Year C) are: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11; Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16; Romans 10: 8b-13; Luke 4: 1-13.

In this series of Bible studies, we have been looking at the Old Testament readings.

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11

1 When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’ 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5 you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, 7 we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

Looking at the text:

The Book Deuteronomy could be described as a theological account of and interpretation of the final speech by Moses to the freed Hebrew slaves before they cross into the Promised Land. This chapter, then, anticipates the climax and conclusion of that final speech.

We could also see this book as a reinterpretation of the Exodus legal tradition for a later generation, who now live a settled life. Exodus 23: 19 and Exodus 34: 26 say only: “The choicest/best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.”

This passage expands on this teaching. Why?

At different points in their history, the Jews who settled in Palestine made great efforts to remember how it was that they got there, and under certain kings, and certainly on their return from their captivity in Babylon, there were attempts to set all of this history and oral tradition down in writing.

In Deuteronomy, we have an excellent example of what was attempted either in the reforms of King Josiah (8th century BC), or with the return from Babylon (6th century BC).

In this reading we have the stipulations for a “thanksgiving ceremony” followed by a remembrance of the deliverance from Egypt. The verse that begins with “a wandering Aramean…” is an integral part of the Haggadah, the liturgy for the Passover Seder. But the commandment here is highly specific. The first fruits – and not simply the best or choicest – are to be taken in a “basket” (verse 2) to “the priest who is in office” (verse 3) and to a central location.

Earlier, there were several shrines to God but now there is only one – the Temple in Jerusalem. Here the giving is linked to Israelite history: God swore to Abraham (“ancestors,” verse 3) to give the Promised Land to Israel. Jacob, the “wandering Aramean” (verse 5), and his children moved to Egypt in a time of famine. There they multiplied, were oppressed and enslaved. When they prayed to God to help them, he used his power to free them.

Note how in verse 9 they are no longer “wandering” semi-nomads. Now they live in a prosperous “land flowing with milk and honey.”

In thanks for God’s gift of both the land and abundant crops, the Israelites are to give produce to God (verse 10). In recognition of his sovereignty over the land, they are to prostrate themselves (“bow down”) before him. God’s gifts are the cause for celebration by both Israelites and the foreigners (“aliens,” verse 11) who live among them.

The places God leads us may be places of blessing, but they are often places where growth comes with, or perhaps through, pain and struggle.

Some additional notes on the verses:

Verses 1-11:

These verses describe a liturgy for the presentation of the first fruits in the central sanctuary.

Verse 2:

The occasion is the harvest pilgrimage festival, the Festival of Weeks (see Deuteronomy 16: 9-12). During that festival, the worshippers thanked God for the gift of the land and a bounteous harvest.

“you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground”: The Israelites in Canaan, being God’s tenants-at-will, were required to give him tribute in the form of first-fruits and tithes. No Israelite was at liberty to use any productions of his field until he had presented the required offerings.

The tribute began to be offered after the settlement in the Promised Land, and it was repeated each year at one of the great feasts (see Leviticus 2: 14, 23: 10, 23: 15; Numbers 26: 26; Deuteronomy 16: 19). Every head of a family carried it on his shoulders in a little basket of osier, peeled willow, or palm leaves, and brought it to the sanctuary.

Verses 5-10:

These verses amount to a basic confession of faith in the form of a story.

Verse 5:

you shall make this response … ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor …”

The ancestor referred to here is to Jacob’s semi-nomadic life.

The ancestors of the Hebrews were nomad shepherds, either Arameans or Syrians by birth as Abraham, or by long residence as Jacob. When they were established as a nation and came into possession of the Promised Land, they were indebted to God’s unmerited goodness for their distinguished privileges, and in token of gratitude they brought this basket of first-fruits.

Verse 6:

us – the plural pronouns show that worshipper identifies with the community of faith in making this recitation.

Verse 11:

you … shall celebrate – Feasting with friends and the Levites, who were invited on such occasions to share in the cheerful festivities that followed oblations (Deuteronomy 12: 7; 16: 10-15).

The other readings:

Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16

Perhaps a priest or temple prophet speaks the opening verses of the psalm. Worshippers are to trust in God to protect them. He will protect them from attacks by demonic forces day and night (verses 3-6); he will shield them as a mother hen guards her chicks. Many may succumb to evil forces, but not the faithful (verse 7).

Those who trust in God will see evildoers punished (verse 8). God will ensure that no harm comes to those who live a godly life (verse 9). “His angels” (verse11) will be his agents, guarding the faithful in whatever they do. The roads of Palestine were rocky so the metaphor in verse 12 is apt. Not only will the faithful be safe from accidents, but they will also take the offensive in defeating evil (verse 13). God speaks in verses 14-16.

Knowing God’s name includes realising that he helps those in need. When they seek help, God will “answer them”. Perhaps the “long life” (verse 16) is the king’s: political uncertainty ensued when a king died.

It is very easy, therefore to link this Psalm with the Gospel reading.

But if you were to take up the theme of sharing with the alien or foreigner in our midst you might also want to draw on verse 1, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High …”

Romans 10: 8b-13

In the previous chapter of this epistle, Saint Paul has written that the Israelites were striving for law-based righteousness (9: 31), a right relationship with God, but they failed to achieve it because they sought it through “works” (9: 32) rather than faith.

Drawing on the Prophet Isaiah (see Isaiah 28: 16 and 8: 14), Saint Paul says that God is the impediment that lay in their way. He desires that they be part of God’s plan of salvation because of their “zeal for God” (10: 2). However, they lack the right relationship with God that now comes from God: that revealed in Christ. They missed the real meaning of what God has done through Christ, thus failing to embrace Christ as the model for living. Moses said that union with God comes through obedience to the Law (verse 5), but this is close to impossible: it is like a Christian being expected to bring about his own resurrection (verse 6) and ascension (verse 7), which is not what we are asked to do.

Rather, Saint Paul tells us (in verse 8) that God’s “word”, his freely-given gift of love and right living, is readily available (“near you”) through faith. We need only acknowledge that “Jesus is Lord” (verse 9) and believe in Christ’s resurrection by the Father. One who believes this and recognises Christ as sovereign is godly (“justified”, verse 10) and will have new life when Christ comes again (“saved”).

In verse 11, Saint Paul again draws from Isaiah: “no one” who believes will be condemned (“put to shame”) at the Last Day.

The theme in the Old Testament reading of sharing with the alien or the foreigner is reflected in verse 12, where we are reminded that there are no ethnic or cultural distinctions in Christ: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

There is one Christ – for all people, and everyone who sincerely believes and calls on him shall be saved (verse 13).

Luke 4: 1-13

Earlier in this cycle of readings, we have heard Saint Luke’s account of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan (Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22, the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 13 January 2013). There, Saint Luke recalls “a voice ... from heaven” (Luke 3: 22) saying: “You are my Son ...” On that occasion, “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form.”

In the Gospel story in this set of readings, Christ moves between the spiritual world and the earthly world as he faces these testing by the devil.

But there are resonances here too with today’s other readings. For example, his time in the wilderness (“forty days,” verse 2) parallels the forty years in the wilderness. Or, he eats nothing … just as Moses eats nothing during the time he was on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. And he answers the questions put to him with quotations from the Book Deuteronomy.

Collect:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
Give us grace to discipline ourselves
in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
you renew us with the living bread from heaven.
Nourish our faith,
increase our hope,
strengthen our love,
and enable us to live by every word
that proceeds from out of your mouth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Dublin (Trinity College Dublin). These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with part-time MTh students on Saturday 9 February 2013.

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