The Song of Solomon, is unique within the bible on several counts.
- It does not mention God.
- It is an unabashed celebration of physical, carnal life.
This is the only Sunday in the three-year cycle of the lectionary when we are scheduled to read from the Song of Solomon. Strangely, however, while the reading features springtime, it appears at the end of summer.
Some people have allegorized the book as a poem about the all-embracing love of God. Others read it at face value, as an exuberant expression of joy at life in its bodily form.
In this particular passage (2:8-13), the first speaker, a woman, exclaims on both the beauty and power of her lover who then sings about the springtime and the explosion of new life. Here is the complete passage.
The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.
The lectionary pairs this Hebrew scripture with a passage from Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 in which, the Pharisees and … scribes from Jerusalem gathered around him and noticed that some of his disciples were eating loaves of breadwith defiled hands, that is, without washing them.
Defiled handsdoes not mean that the hands were dirty, but merely that they had not been ritually purified.
For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; … Leviticus included a number of references to cleanliness and over time this understanding of purity had become codified into traditional rituals.
The Pharisees and the scribes asked, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” ….
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen carefully to me, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Jesus tells the people that the traditions misdirect them when they focus on the external and ritualized behaviour: not what is in the heart.
The pairing of the two passages suggests that life, in its natural form, as God created it, is good. The body and the rise of hormones in the springtime of life are to be celebrated. Jesus also seems to say that hands that are good enough for daily use do not need ritual purification before eating.
Jesus’ objection to the Scribes and Pharisees is with the traditions that were invented by humans to interpret the intent of scripture. Making a sin of not washing is not what God intended. He tells them that what pleases God is not the correct performance of ritual acts of cleanliness but ethical behaviour. In doing so, he reverses the usual understanding which was that evil comes from what one ingests. Instead, he says that it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.
Churches have seen traditions change over the years. As recently as the 1960s women and girls were not considered properly dressed if they did not wear hats and gloves or men wore suits and ties. But this was a tradition of human invention, not God’s requirement.
- Are there other traditions that we hold that deserve reconsideration? Why do priests wear albs, stoles, and chasubles that come from fourth century Roman culture? Why do we follow a pattern of scripture readings that virtually always include an Old Testament, Acts or Epistle and Gospel reading?
- More to the point of the scripture readings, shouldn’t we be praising God more routinely in our daily lives for the joy of life, the exuberance of laughter, beauty and for the taste of good food? Isn’t that a fundamental point of the scripture readings?
- As we approach the end of summer and enter early fall does nature speak to us of God’s glory in different ways? After the heat of this past summer does fresh morning air feel wonderful? Do the stars of later mornings and early evenings remind us of the vastness of God’s creation afresh?