The First Sunday of Advent – (3 December 2023)
Lectionary Readings: Is 63:16b-17. 64:1.3-8; Ps 80:2-3.15-16. 18-19; 1 Cor 1: 1.3-9; Mk 13:33-37 
Theme: “All our righteous deeds”  

These lines in the passage from Isaiah particularly caught my attention: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” (Is. 64:6). The question that came first to my mind was not a theological one, but a practical one.  Does Isaiah mean a cloth – perhaps a rag used in housework – that has become so dirty that it cannot be washed clean?  An accurate translation shows that this was not his meaning.  I have looked for an accurate translation in English-language Bibles and so far have found two examples. One is in David H.  Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible (1998) and the other is in the very first English Bible, that of John Wycliffe, who made his translation in the 1380s. This is Wycliffe’s translation: “… alle oure riytfulnessis ben as the cloth of a womman in vncleene blood.”  Stern’s translation is: “all our righteous deeds like menstrual rags.” The King James Bible has “filthy rags” and this is presumably why ‘filthy’ seems to have replaced ‘menstrual’ as the adjective of choice in English translations.  Those curious as to why translators avoid the accurate word might appreciate reading the classic work Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966) by Mary Douglas. It should be noted that “Jewish law places no restrictions on a menstruant’s touching a Torah scroll or reciting or leading prayers.” (Etz Chayim, pp. 668, 1545.)

The question that comes next is: “Why should we regard our ‘righteous deeds’ in such a way?  Are we supposed to feel ashamed of behaving well?  We are certainly not supposed to feel proud. To avoid congratulating ourselves we need to interrogate our ‘righteous deeds’.  Jesus did this when he watched people making donations to the treasury of the Temple. He saw the rich paying large amounts and contrasted them to a poor widow putting in her ‘two mites”.  (Mark 12:41-44; also in Luke 21:1-4):

And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.

For Reflection and DiscussionLook back over your life for times when you gave of your abundance – whether of money, time or talent – and for times when you gave of your scarcity and inadequacy. 

BibliographyEtz Chayim: Torah and Commentary (The Jewish Publication Society, 2001). Wycliffe’s translation is available at

This week’s Sunday Liturgy Commentary was prepared by                                                                         Anne Morton, Canada, Bat Kol Alumna 2010


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