Flesh and Blood

And now for something completely different...   the texts for Pentecost 13, August 19.

1 Kings 2: 10 – 12; 3: 3 - 14  

(Yeah, we do skip over the not-so-flattering parts…)

And, what we miss is telling. It is helpful to remember that these ‘historical’ books are being constructed from various sources – and sometimes diametrically opposing points of view – during the time of the Babylonian dominance and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, almost six centuries after the fact, what few hard facts these stories might contain. It is to the credit of the editors of these books (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, et al) that they allowed these disparate trajectories to remain side by side – and sometimes mingled line to line – so that these points of view could be held in tension. They reflect the debate that raged after the destruction of the Temple both by the Babylonians and the Romans. And, in our current text, we address the dilemma faced by the returning exiles from Babylon: do we rebuild the Temple and re-establish the monarchy or do we take the ‘radical’ new/old path as prescribed by the prophets. (Hint: That same debate is played out in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew… and to a lesser extent, Luke)

So, what is missing from this text. The old king, David, is dead. It is time to pick his successor as king. And, by the way our lectionary edits the text, it seems obvious that his son, Solomon, was his rightful heir. If we read the whole story, we find that the matter of succession to the throne is highly contested. Two sons of David, Solomon and Adonijah – the last rival to Solomon that is still breathing - are both aggressive candidates for the succession. In the end, Solomon prevails and becomes king. But not easily or with honor. He must engage in choreographed deception with the aid of powerful allies, which include that scheming prophet Nathan, and his hell-bent on revenge mother, Bathsheba. He is also willing to engage in raw violence in order to eliminate his rival. Once again, the Corleones and the Sopranos got nothing on this family.

Curious, too, as Walter Brueggemann’s observes, is the ritual piece surrounding Solomon’s ascension to the throne – which is included on our assigned text - which sounds and feels all too familiar for those of us who are used to politicians giving the required lip service to the deeper values of our democratic experiment while practicing something wholly other. As he notes, “beyond deception and violence, legitimate rule requires a religious affirmation. There is need for some “God speak” to make the new king secure on his contested throne. That act of religious legitimation for the successor king is the subject to our text. Solomon participated in the required liturgy to exhibit his piety. That act is then reinforced by a dream recorded in our verses. Solomon dreams of God-given, well-grounded authority. There is no reason to doubt in the legitimacy of the dream. On the other hand, there is no reason to trust the dream either; it may strike one as remarkably convenient for the new king, so that it may be nothing more than a piece of political propaganda. Maybe it is no more, cast in ancient idiom, than a familiar blatant assertion that, “God told me...”

And, Solomon says all of the right/rite things…  He links himself to David - and reveres him for his faithful service; he exhibits the required humility and modesty; and, he asks for God’s help so that he can be the best king ever!

He asks for wisdom – best translation, a “listening heart” – and God is so impressed that he will give more than is asked. Again, Bruggemann: “God will give Solomon, beyond his asking, wealth and honor beyond compare. That is where the exchange is left (except for verse 14 to which I will return). After that the rest is history! It turns out, in subsequent narrative, that Solomon majored in wealth and honor. His temple is an extravaganza of gold. His trade policies flourish so that money flows in like it always does to a superpower. But of wisdom, not so much! While he is credited with wisdom, the narrative itself shows a foolish overreach of inordinate greed that proves unsustainable. The accumulation of wealth and honor serve to distort the wisdom God has given him so that his heart no longer “listens.”

Ephesians 5: 15 - 20

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The text was so short that I decided to include it.

Some interesting counterpoints to the gospels, the book of Acts and our rituals, though.  The other OT text, from Proverbs - that I did not include in my comments – portrays Wisdom setting the table in her house and inviting those who are hungry and thirsty to come and eat her bread and drink her wine and so lay aside immaturity and gain insight. (I can hear Bob Carlson talking about our Wine Tasting group. He thought it a good idea when it formed, and made the claim that drinking wine must make you smart since he had a few friends that – after drinking a glass or two of wine – ‘you couldn’t tell them anything.’ I miss that guy).

And then, there’s the Day of Pentecost as described in the Book of Acts. Peter has to stand before the crowd and the first thing he says is to make the disclaimer that this is not a case of the disciples having had too much wine since it was only 9 in the morning. (After 11, all bets are off). Ephesians is making the contrast between being filled with wine and being filled with the Spirit. In Acts, the crowd confuses being filled with the Spirit with drunkenness.

The admonition against debauchery, asotia in the Greek text, is best translated as excesses of indulgence. So, I wonder if a deeper meaning is that too much of a good thing, even of our ritual and religion – what one of my professor’s called “swallowing the Holy Spirit, feathers and all” – comes into play here. Paul dealt with many who were guilty of religious excesses. So, do we.

I also like the phrase, “making the most of the time.” One of my sources indicates that the NRSV translation of exagorazo may raise some questions. The better translation is “redeem,” which is how the word is translated in Galatians. The point is that ‘redeem’ carries with it the connection to God. I am able to redeem the time – make the most of it – because God redeems (makes the most of) me. We cannot do this alone.

John 6: 51 - 58

First of all, some context for this passage. We must keep in mind that John’s gospel has no last supper, that is, no final meal in which Jesus passes around the bread and cup with the words that reference eating my body and drinking my blood. (There is no birth narrative either, nor a temptation in the wilderness, and you could argue, only an implied baptism by John, and that’s a stretch of the material. John’s Jesus does, however, set up his own baptizing operation, something he never does in the synoptic gospels).

Still, in this 6th chapter, we move with John deeper and deeper into this notion of the bread of life, which finally brings us into this whole “eat my flesh and drink my blood” thing. And, we need to forget what we think we know here, because this is not necessarily a eucharistic image, even though our tradition interprets it that way. (John does not have a last supper, after all).

Which is to say, that one then cannot be certain what all of this means (It’s much easier to just think it is about the eucharist, but again, John is pulling us away from a focus on ritual and the power vested in a wafer and a shot of wine).

That said, some random thoughts.

Interesting to note that in this passage, two different verbs for eat are used, four occurrences each. For those keeping score, the more common, phagein, appears 15 times in John – four here – and 143 times in other passages in the NT. The more rare form, trogein, appears only six times in the NT, four of those occurrences here. And, the word caries negative connotations. The other place it appears in John is in reference to Judas eating next to Jesus before he goes out to betray him. The word itself is generally used to describe animals audibly gnawing on their food.

Adding to the confusion – and another negative connotation – comes from Raymond Brown’s observation that the Aramaic phrase “eater of flesh” is a title for the devil. (Gnawing on flesh…)

And, then – I have to say it – there is the relationship to cannibalism and vampirism. Archeological and genetic evidence shows that cannibalism has been practiced for hundreds of thousands of years. And, though they were not known as vampires, Greco-Roman mythology – following the lead of the Persians – is filled with demons who would drink human blood. The devil himself would engage in drinking the blood of victims. Jewish culture/Hebrew demonology was also populated by estries, female shape-changing, blood drinking demons who were said to roam the night seeking victims. They were thought to have been created in the twilight hours before God rested.

So, why do I mention this (other than to say you really need to search Youtube for a stand-up routine by Eddie Izzard)? Well, with tongue firmly lodged in cheek - both were known to the culture of Jesus – and John. And consider, both involved the deaths of innocent victims. In some cannibalistic societies, the consumption of the victims took on a ritualistic nature. There was remorse for the death of the innocent, but there was also the belief that in the eating of the other, one acquired their attributes. The victim would ‘live on’ as part of the one who ate his or her flesh. For vampires as well, the drinking of the vital fluid – in this case blood – brought life to the one who drank the blood of the victim.

Just thought it interesting to play with…   so, watch Eddie Izzard. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hP9XWMDcDs