The law of liberty

2 September 2018
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 17B (RCL)

Song of Solomon2:8-13
Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

We’ve now finished our course of historical reading in the semi-continuous OT track, having come as far as Solomon’s consecration of the Jerusalem Temple. For the rest of the year, we will read passages from wisdom literature. We start with a passage from the Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon. I suppose we start there because of the connection with Solomon. But, if Solomon wrote this, he wrote most of it from the perspective of the woman.

For much of the history of the church, this song has been read as the love song between the soul and God. Recent scholarship has begun to read it as erotic poetry, and indeed, we can learn a great deal by reading it as such. The concerns of women in love are much different from the concerns of men in the political realm. At all events, the female voice in these poems takes an active role in the relationship (even impatient), and has a positive view of enfleshed love. If written by a man, this could be male fantasy, but it also then discloses what men assumed to be true of women.

I suggest another reading. I believe this could be read as the love affair between Israel and God, read from Israel’s side. The language of the fig tree putting forth its figs, and the vines in blossom is reminiscent of much poetry about the covenant (compare to Isaiah 5, for a start). Certainly, Mark uses the paired fig tree and vineyard in the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree and telling the parable of the vineyard as a stand-in for Israel’s faithlessness. The lover’s impatience and even impertinence, could then be read alongside the history as the historians tell it. Israel as the one who wrestled with God would fit here. Hosea tells a similar story from God’s side: Israel as a faithless lover.

Although this passage was not chosen to complement the passage from Mark, an interesting contrast can be drawn. If the Pharisees are trying to set a hedge around the law, so that no precept of the law is accidentally breached, they are reading the motivation for keeping covenant very differently from how the author of the Song is reading it. The lover is motivated by desire; the Pharisees by fear perhaps, or scrupulosity (that, of course, is a caricatured reading of their concern). But certainly, for a lot of us, our observance of religion is motivated by a concern not to break the rules as much as by desire for our lover. If we are concerned about breaking the rules, then the list of vices Jesus lists would be those things to avoid. How differently the lover in the Song waits for her lover.

James adds a piece of insight, an epistemological insight. How do we know who we are? If we try to discover ourselves by looking in a mirror, we will soon forget who we are. If we only listen to the rules of what we shouldn’t do, we will never come to a full identity. If we engage a set of practices directed at becoming who we want to be, we will see ourselves reflected in the law of liberty. A ‘rule of life’, seen as a set of practices, liberates us to be whom we desire to be. The twelve steps of AA are a perfect example. By practicing the twelve steps, alcoholics become persons in recovery, and discover a new liberty. What would be different if our religion were like the desire of the lover in the Song of Songs, and less like a worry about the rules?

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