TLW 35 — The RSL readings for September 2, 2018
Theme: the Lord of love who changes our hearts from within
Song of Solomon 2:8–13 » A loving heart celebrated in a love poem
Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23 » Religious tradition can’t hide what is in our heart
James 1:17–27 » The word of God is a mirror to show us our heart
SUMMARY The human heart is innately sinful, selfish and corrupt — until it is opened up to God’s transformation through trusting Jesus. The Old Testament reading in Song of Songs is a picture of love, and of God’s heart of passionate love. The Gospel reading in Mark 7 brings Jesus’ confrontation of the religious leaders who were picky about observing religious things while harbouring hatred, anger and other deeply sinful things in their hearts. The epistle reading in James 2 brings teaching on how God’s word acts as a kind of mirror in which we see what our hearts are really like.
Also in the lectionary for this Sunday: Psalm 45:1–2, 6–9 “My heart is stirred…”
Song of Songs 2:8–13 » God’s heart of love in a love poem
The spring season of God’s love comes into flower
The Song of Songs is part of the Biblical wisdom literature, which celebrate love and wisdom as gifts of God to be received gratefully and joyfully. The title tells us it was written by Solomon and the best love song about marriage ever written. It is the story of various encounters between a young Shulammite girl, chosen for the king’s harem, and her feelings of real love and relationship. It could also be Solomon’s wistful story of an earlier marriage with an Israelite girl, before departing from monogamy and Jewish integrity in a (likely) arranged marriage with Pharoah’s daughter, 1 Kings 3:1, Deut. 7:6. Early interpreters saw this as an allegory of God’s love for His people, or His church. Recent scholarship has seen this love poem for what it is, as it states, a work of Solomon, who reflects on the purity of simple, unfettered romance compared with the experience of every kind of need provided for in the palace. However, it also speaks illustratively of Christ’s deep love for His church.
8 Listen! My beloved!
Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills.
9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.
Look! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice.
The girl looks out for her lover with eager anticipation; she sees him as like an agile deer, adept at surmounting obstacles. They just want to be together, despite obstacles.
10 My beloved spoke and said to me,
“Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me.
11 See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone.
Winter in the Middle East can be a cloudy, gloomy season of rain, but the transition to spring is rapid.
12 Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land.
“Singing” — more likely from the context than ‘pruning’ in older versions.
13 The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.”
All the senses are aroused in this description of the land awakening.
14 My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside,
show me your face, let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.
Doves were associated with love; Solomon is saying that in her, he experiences love. The hidden Shulammite girl is the real dove who he wants to see and hear. The words face…voice, voice…face are in the form of a literary mirror.
IN PRACTICE This excerpt from Solomon’s love song speaks to us about being real about love and its emotions and sensuality — all God-given. It can also be seen as a picture of God’s love for His Church — and for us. He wants to capture our hearts more than any passionate young lover can express.
QUESTION What gets inhibits you from revelling in God’s love for you?
Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23 »Religious tradition can’t hide what is in our heart
In this chapter the Pharisees become more outspoken in opposing Jesus, and the gap between true spirituality and man-created religious tradition becomes more evident.
1–4 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of His disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
“Teachers of the law… from Jerusalem” — a delegation of leading Pharisees who had come from the city, probably at the invitation of the Galilean Pharisees. Mark’s readers in Rome needed additional background on the ways of Judaism to understand the dispute.
“Defiled… unwashed” — this washing had nothing to do with dirty hands. Someone would pour water out of a jar onto your hands with the fingers pointing up, then again over both hands with the fingers pointing down. This created a ritual dissociation with anything ‘unclean’ the hands might have touched. There was nothing in the law of Moses about washing hands before eating, except for priests about to eat holy offerings.
5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t Your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
“Tradition of the elders” — this was a collection of laws and interpretations constructing rules of living that went beyond the Scriptures. At this point it had become a higher religious authority in Judaism than Scripture itself. Jesus was held responsible for His disciples.
6–7 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
“ ‘These people honour Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.
They worship Me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’
Isaiah’s prophecy, here in the Greek version, perfectly describes the attitudes of the Pharisees and scribes Jesus encountered. They were ‘pretenders’, masked actors, the original meaning of hypocrites, holding a sham spirituality like many religious people today, where knowing God and His ways had been replaced by unscriptural and non-binding “merely human rules” listing various ‘oughts and musts’. They had turned living in God’s love and faithfulness and knowing Hs heart, into a religion of performing the right actions.
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
“Commands of God…human traditions” — Jesus told them they had abandoned the Ten Commandments and Moses’ summary of Deuteronomy 6:1–6 and Deut. 11:1. God’s heart was to be on their hearts, but instead they had created an exclusive and over-complicated religious system of ‘holiness’, a misunderstanding of Lev. 11:44, that missed the point — what we call a ‘tick box mentality’ that actually cancelled out God’s word, Mark 7:13 (omitted from the reading).
14–15 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to Me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”
“Listen to Me, everyone” — Jesus makes a bold and clear statement to encourage his hearers, at the expense of infuriating the religious leaders.
21–23 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come — sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
“Outside a person… from within” — it is not living in an impure world that is defiling, but having an impure or evil heart. Sin separates from God, not unclean hands. What a person is on the inside will find expression on the outside and show them to be of true character and therefore purity — or show them up.
Post-resurrection and Pentecost, the apostles taught that spiritual rebirth and the empowered life of the Spirit enabled believers to choose to live in their new nature, above selfish ‘flesh’ motives.
IN PRACTICE This is clear teaching by Jesus of the folly of the Pharisees’ practice of religious ‘righteousness’ (and their pride in it) while harbouring hatred and a desire to speak badly and untruthfully about Him and even try to kill him. To ‘major on the minors’ of tradition while missing the point by having resentful hearts is a lesson for us all. Turning to Jesus and acknowledging His Lordship in a personal submission, is like having a whole new heart, which the Holy Spirit continues to indwell to make us more and more Jesus-like.
QUESTION Have you truly given your heart to Jesus? And which part of your heart might He still be asking you to hand over?
James 1:17–27 » The word of God is a mirror to show us our heart
We are responsible for ridding ourselves of wrong attitudes
17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
“Father of… lights” — an ancient Jewish expression. God created the sun, moon and starts, which all move in the sky, cast moving shadows and vary in brightness. God’s light is constant, Malachi 3:6, 1 John 1:5.
18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first-fruits of all He created.
“First-fruits” — in the OT, an expression for the first and best of the harvest. Christians are to show God’s new creation that is to come, 2 Peter 3:10–13, as examples of the ultimate restoration of creation, Romans 8:20–22.
19–20 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
“Human anger” — when things go wrong our first reaction is retaliation from the flesh. Until we let go of that first response of, literally, “man’s anger”, we can’t be directed by the Spirit to perceive God’s righteousness coming through our view of the difficulty.
“Get rid of”, literally “put off” like mucky overalls. This is commanded in more detail in Eph. 4:22, 1 Peter 2:1.
“Save you” — sin is never lifegiving but has the opposite effect, death-bringing: first spiritually, then physically.
“Humbly accept” — as those who are teachable. “The word planted in you” — an allusion to the ‘new covenant’ prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31–34 where God promises to ‘write His law’ on His people’s hearts.
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
“Merely listen” — the teachable spirit wants to learn and apply. Hearing and not responding is the beginning of more serious and systemic deception.
“Deceive” — or delude yourselves. It is a word used in mathematics. James is saying that those merely listening but not engaging have made a serious miscalculation.
“Do” — more literally, “prove yourselves doers of the word” (NASB). As Jesus taught, Matt. 7:24, 26; Luke 6:46, 49.
23–25 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it — not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it — they will be blessed in what they do.
“Forgets what he looks like” — not acting on something in your reflection that needs to be straightened, is to forget to do it. Similarly with the word of God, which is a mirror showing what is askew in our soul.
26–27 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. ‘Religion’ that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
“Religious… religion” — a play on this word which contrasts ceremonial, church rituals and external trappings with genuine faith. Perhaps the third ‘religion’ should be in quotes. Religious acts are no substitute for changed values and a changed, unselfish way of life.
IN PRACTICE Being made holy — the long word is sanctification — is truly a life-long process which starts with new birth through the word of truth. The truth that is God’s word continues to confront and bring change to our deep-seated human independence, and all the attitudes and responses that come from that. We were born in selfishness and independence from God and coming back to Him in holiness is a long journey, with a big step change we call the new birth. All the time the word and the Holy Spirit are working together to transform us from the inside, with our willingness or resistance playing a big part in that. James’ teaching here is about not destroying the good process by “merely listening,” “not doing what it says” and entertaining “human anger” — but working with God the Father to become people who find ourselves doing what He would have us doing.
QUESTION When you hear God speak to you through the word, what helps you to put it into practice?
PRAYER Lord, help me to purify my heart and make it Yours. I know it’s a process, but I pledge my willingness to work with You and listen when You show me what needs to change. Come, Holy Spirit, Spirit of Jesus, and grow me to be more Jesus-like as I set out to do my part. Amen.
Originally published at The Living Word.