Dec
2022

“I Will Tend My Sheep With Justice”

May be a cartoon of standing

My old friend from grad school days, fellow United Methodist minister Frank Norris, posted this panel by Everett Patterson on Facebook. It is called “José y Maria.”  Frank invites us to look for the many allusions to Christian art and Scripture in this image.

I have seen this piece many times, and posted it before myself, but this time, for the first time, I noticed the graffiti on the phone: “Zeke 3415-16.”

Ezekiel 34:15-16 reads, I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the LORD God says. I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.

Greek orthodox icon of Christ the Good Shepherd – orthodoxmonasteryicons.com

The Hebrew Bible amply attests to the use of the shepherd metaphor for Israel’s rulers (for example, 2 Sam 5:2; Jer 3:15; Ezek 34:1-10; Mic 5:1-5a; Zech 10:2-3). By analogy, the LORD as king of the universe is also called a shepherd (see Ps 23; Ezek 34:11-16), an idea that lies back of the New Testament image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in John 10  and (more disturbingly) Matthew 25:31-46, which begins,

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

 The specific source back of Matthew’s judgment scene is also the setting of that bit of graffiti in Patterson’s panel, Ezekiel 34:11-24.

This prophetic text from the Babylonian exile is reminiscent of the far better-known Psalm 23. Here as there, the LORD causes the flock to lie down in good pasture, beside streams of waters. But the mention of the settlements in the land (“inhabited places” in the CEB; 34:13) breaks up this pastoral imagery to remind the reader that this is about Israel after all, not about sheep: God will bring the exiles home, and repopulate desolated Judah.

The last verse of this section begins as a summary of 34:11-16, reiterating God’s determination to seek out and care for the scattered sheep. But then, abruptly, the image shifts: “I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy” (34:16). This statement, like the mention of settlements in 34:13, explodes the metaphor: it makes no sense for any shepherd to destroy the strong and healthy sheep!

No wonder the Greek Septuagint (LXX), the Syriac, and the Latin Vulgate all read “I will watch over” instead, assuming an original Hebrew ‘eshmor instead of ‘ashmid (“I will destroy”). The two words are nearly identical in Hebrew, where vowels are not written, and the consonants d and r look a great deal alike. It is easy to understand a scribe mistaking one for the other. The reading followed by the LXX certainly seems a better fit with the context of 34:11-16, which stresses God’s care for the flock, in striking contrast to the cruelty of the false shepherds: that is, Israel’s kings. Numerous commentators on Ezekiel (for example, Walther Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 208; Daniel Block, Ezekiel 25—48, 287; Leslie Allen, Ezekiel 20—48, 157) therefore follow the LXX here.

On the other hand, not only the CEB, but also NIV, NRSV, and even the KJV all stay with the Hebrew Bible here, which reads ‘ashmid (“I will destroy”)– and they are right to do so. The next phrase in Ezekiel 34:16 makes the prophet’s meaning clear: “But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.” God’s justice was seen in 34:1-10 with the punishment of the false shepherds, Israel’s past kings. But while the shepherds had certainly been guilty, the sheep are not therefore innocent! Throughout this book, Ezekiel rejects the exilic community’s claim that they are innocent victims (see, for example, 18:1-4).

All Sheep Matter CARTOON | Etsy

In the next section, 34:17-24, God’s justice is visited on the sheep, just as it had been visited on the shepherds. Once more good theology trumps good animal husbandry, as God sides with the weak and injured over against the fat and strong (Christian readers may be reminded of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine unguarded in the fold to seek out the one lost lamb; Matt 18:10-14//Luke 15:3-7)! The startling introduction of this idea in 34:16 is in keeping with Ezekiel’s style elsewhere: this prophet loves to shock his audience.

God’s judgment upon the flock falls into two parts, the accusation (34:17-19), and the pronouncement of judgment (34:20-24). The accusation opens, “As for you, my flock, the Lord God proclaims: I will judge between the rams and the bucks among the sheep and the goats” (34:17)–words that directly call to mind the judgment scene in Matthew 25 (compare 25:32).

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel, Rome)

In Matthew as in Ezekiel, the basis of the judgment is regard for the least (Matt 25:40, 45). So, in Ezekiel, the strong sheep are taken to task for selfishly and greedily trampling the pasture and muddying the water so that others cannot eat or drink (34:18-19). The point is expanded in 34:21: the strong are condemned for thrusting the weak aside.

In our own day, the gap between rich and poor is wider than it has ever been, as the lion’s share of the world’s resources is claimed by a diminishing minority of its people. The trampling of our earth and fouling of our water, through irresponsible use of this world’s resources, now threatens the entire planet through climate change, even as it robs opportunity from the most vulnerable. Ezekiel plainly states God’s place in this: on the side of the poor, and on the side of the abused land. God declares, “I will rescue my flock so that they will never again be prey” (34:22).

WAM Updates: Henry Ossawa Tanner's The Annunciation shines in the American  paintings galleries If you are wondering what any of this has to do with the season of Advent, or with the birth of our Lord, may I remind you that the alternate Psalm for this coming Sunday is Luke’s Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), often called the Magnificat after its opening in Latin, Magnificat anima mea Dominum (in the KJV, “My soul doth magnify the Lord;” the Presbyterian hymnal has a lovely and vigorous setting of this passage!).  Here is the whole song:

With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
    In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
        because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
    He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
    He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,
    just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.

In many Christian traditions, Advent is a penitential season (Orthodox call it “Little Lent”!).  Certainly, it is right that, in preparation for Christ’s coming, we search our own hearts and lives.  Mary’s song, like Ezekiel’s, reminds us that God takes sides in our world, and challenges us to ask what side we are on.

AFTERWORD:

Gaudete Sunday: 11 things to know and share . . .| National Catholic  Register

Having grown up in a non-liturgical church (I don’t believe I knew about the seasons of the church year, apart from Easter and Christmas, until college), I always wondered why, in some traditions, the candle for the third Sunday of Advent is pink, not purple.  

In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, the third Sunday in Advent is Gaudete Sunday, so called for the first word in the Latin introit for this day, “Gaudete in Domino semper“–from Philippians 4:4-5 (KJV): “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.”

The website “About Catholicism” explains the rose-colored candle, and vestments, for this day:

Like Lent, Advent is a penitential season, so the priest normally wears purple vestments. But on Gaudete Sunday, having passed the midpoint of Advent, the Church lightens the mood a little, and the priest may wear rose vestments. The change in color provides us with encouragement to continue our spiritual preparation—especially prayer and fasting—for Christmas.

Gaudete Sunday means that the time of waiting and preparation is nearly over–that Christmas, and more importantly, Christ, is on the way!  The message of the rose-colored candle, then, is hope.  Hold on.

Nov
2022

A Voice in the Wilderness

I love this meme, which comically demonstrates the importance of proper punctuation.  Intended, of course, was “Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog.”  For all I know, this meme has photoshopped out the punctuation for comic effect.  But without those commas, this cover announces a horror show!  On Facebook, I captioned this picture “Punctuation saves lives!”

But what about written languages–including our biblical languages!–which lack punctuation?  How are such confusions avoided?  The short answer is that, frequently, they are not.  Generally, the reader has to rely on context cues to the intended meaning of an ambiguous passage.

Matthias Grünewald: John the Baptist

Which leads us to the Gospel for this second Sunday of Advent, Matthew 3:1-12, concerning John the Baptist.  In all four Gospels, John is introduced by a quotation from Isaiah.  In the recent Updated Edition of the NRSV, Matthew 3:3 reads,

This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’ ”

However, if you look up the Isaiah passage quoted, you will find:

 

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3, NRSVUE).

You see the problem.  Where should the comma go?  Does Isaiah refer to a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” or does the voice cry, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”?  Does the text of Isaiah give us any way to resolve this ambiguity?

Matthew (like Mark before him) is quoting directly from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture that was the Bible of the earliest church.  Although later Greek texts do use punctuation and capital letters to enable the reader to distinguish sentences and phrases, the original text did not–indeed, often there was not even a space between words!

Greek Bible - Leviticus | MS 2649

For the gospel writers, there would not have been any clear indication of where the break belonged–and in any case, motivated as they were to find texts foreshadowing and interpreting Jesus’ life and work, we can certainly understand why they would read Isaiah 40:3 as referring to John the Baptist, “a voice crying in the wilderness.”

Mark, likely the first Gospel writer and so the first one to make this connection, actually conflates Isaiah 40:3 with another text:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
        “Prepare the way for the Lord;
        make his paths straight” (Mark 1:1-3).

The first two lines of this quotation actually do not come from Isaiah at all.  They allude to two passages from Malachi.  The first is Malachi 3:1-4:

Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me;
        suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.
        The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
 Who can endure the day of his coming?
        Who can withstand his appearance?
He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.
        He will purify the Levites
            and refine them like gold and silver.
            They will belong to the Lord,
                presenting a righteous offering.
 The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord
        as in ancient days and in former years.

Malachi comes at the end of the Book of the Twelve, and in the Christian Bible, at the end of the Old Testament.   Far from being moved to repentance and change by Malachi’s call to reform, his audience says, “Anyone doing evil is good in the Lord’s eyes,” or “He delights in those doing evil,” or “Where is the God of justice?”(Mal 2:17).  In other words, Malachi’s community believes that either God does not see what they do, or that God does not care.

Malachi gives assurance that these questions and doubts are about to be addressed, for “suddenly the LORD whom you are seeking will come to his temple” (Mal 3:1).  Those who piously claim to delight in God’s covenant will soon have the opportunity to express their gratitude personally!

Malachi proclaims not only the advent of the LORD, but also of the LORD’s messenger.  In Hebrew, “my messenger” is  mal’akhi–the same word that appears at the beginning of the book (Mal 1:1), where mal’akhi is the one through whom this book’s message of judgment is communicated.  While we might expect a name like Malachiah (“the LORD’s messenger”), “my messenger” seems an unlikely name for any parent to give a child! Probably, then, the prophet is anonymous; but is called Mal’akhi by the book’s editors because of Malachi 3:1.

But already within the editing of Malachi, we see further reflections on the identity of this enigmatic figure.  The second Malachi passage to which Mark alludes in his quotation from “Isaiah” is the conclusion to this book:

See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse (Mal 4:5-6 NRSVUE [3:23-24 in the Hebrew text]).

The prophetic forerunner of the day of the LORD has become Elijah, who was taken alive into the heavens in a chariot of fire (2 Kgs 2:11) and so could be called upon for this task!

In Christian Scripture, Jesus is the one who comes to cleanse his people from their sins (Mal 3:2-3), and John the Baptist becomes the “messenger” sent to proclaim Jesus’ coming (see the quotes of Mal 3:1 at Matt 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 1:76; 7:27), and “Elijah who is to come” (Matt 11:14; cf. Matt 17:10-11; Mark 9:11-12; Luke 1:17).  By linking these passages from Malachi to Isa 40:3, Mark laid the foundation for this reading.

Augustine too on the one hand describes John the Baptist as the “messenger” of Malachi 3:1 (Tractates on the Gospel of John 14.10.1), and on the other relates Malachi 3:1-2 to Christ: both his first coming (reading the Lord coming to “his temple” as a reference to the incarnation; see Matt 26:59-61; Mark 14:55-59; John 2:19-21, where the “temple” refers to Jesus’ body) and also to his second coming at the end of time (“Who can endure the day of his coming?,” Mal 3:2; cf. The City of God 18:35; 20:25).

Perhaps as you have been reading this blog, the musical setting of Malachi 3:1-3 from George Handel’s famous oratorio The Messiah has been playing in your head–as it has in mine.  Charles Jennens, who composed the libretto for this oratorio, doubtless picked this passage for inclusion because, like Augustine, he regarded it as a reference Christ’s first and second coming.

 

Coming back to Isaiah 40:3 in the Hebrew text: originally, written Hebrew recorded only the consonants, and lacked any system of punctuation.  However, a system of marks above and below the line developed in the scribal tradition, and was used by the scribes (called “Masoretes”) to record what they heard when the text was read aloud.  This included not only the vowel sounds (indicated by marks called “pointing;” these marks are still used, sparsely, in modern Hebrew), but also rising and falling inflections and pauses (indicated by accent marks)–even, some think, musical tones for chanting!

As this chart (from Choon Leong Seow, A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew, Revised Edition [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995], 65) shows, the accent marks are divided into conjunctive accents, which link a word to the word following, and disjunctive accents, which mark a break–acting like commas, semicolons, and periods in English.

The most common Hebrew accent, called the zaqeph qaton, is essentially a Masoretic comma. In the Masoretic text of Isaiah 40:3, the verb qore’ (“cry, call out”) is marked with a zaqeph qaton, showing that the Masoretes heard a break here.  In the printed text of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, the standard critical text of the Hebrew Bible, this disjunction is emphasized even more by a line break: qol qore’ (“A voice cries”) has a line to itself, while bammidbar (“In the wilderness”) opens the line following.  Even without those explicit markings, however, context clues would lead us to this reading.

Isaiah 40– 55 is addressed to exiles (Isa 45:11– 13), who now anticipate a return home— specifically, from Babylon (see 43:14; 48:20).  Jerusalem and the villages of Judah are described as abandoned ruins (44:24– 26).  Sarcastic reference is made to specific Babylonian rites, such as the cult processional of Bel Marduk patron god of Babylon and his son Nebo, scribe of the gods (46:1– 2); and the magical practice of astrological divination (47:12– 13).  Second Isaiah, as  Isaiah 40–55 is commonly called, can be dated to the mid- sixth century, shortly before the fall of Babylon—and about 150 years after Isaiah of Jerusalem.

An important theme in these chapters is the promise of a second exodus. Just as in the first exodus God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt, so in this new exodus, God delivers the people from the bondage of exile in Babylon. Indeed, recollection of Israel’s deliverance through the Red Sea in the first exodus is supplanted by the new thing that God will now do:

I am the LORD, your holy one,
    Israel’s creator, your king!
The LORD says—who makes a way in the sea
    and a path in the mighty waters,
    who brings out chariot and horse,
    army and battalion;
    they will lie down together and will not rise;
    they will be extinguished, extinguished like a wick.
Don’t remember the prior things;
    don’t ponder ancient history.
Look! I’m doing a new thing;
    now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?
I’m making a way in the desert,
    paths in the wilderness (Isa 43:15– 19).

Just as in the first exodus, God had led God’s people through the wilderness (see Exod 13:21– 22), so now the prophet promises that God will make a way leading through the wilderness back home (Isa 42:15– 16; 49:8– 12; 55:12– 13). Indeed, in Isaiah 40:3-5, quoted in today’s Gospel reading, Second Isaiah declares that God will build a highway for the exiles’ safe return:

A voice is crying out:
“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
    Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
    and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
    Uneven ground will become level,
    and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear,
    and all humanity will see it together;
    the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.” 

 

The Gospel writers, by identifying John the Baptist as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness,” read Isaiah 40:3 differently than the Hebrew scribes who have given us the text back of our Old Testament.  From the best evidence, it appears that those scribes have accurately communicated the intent of Second Isaiah. Does this matter?  Only, I would suggest, if we insist on retrojecting the Gospel reading into the Hebrew Bible.  We can recognize Second Isaiah’s distinctive message and purpose, and still recognize that the purpose of this text in its historical setting does not exhaust its meaning.

Within Christian Scripture, this passage expressing God’s gracious concern and providential care of the Babylonian exiles has come to express God’s gracious concern and providential care in other ways, too.  By sending John the Baptist, God showed God’s care for Jesus, providing for him a support, and perhaps a mentor.

“The Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor” in comparison with “The Isenheim Altarpiece – First View” by Matthias Grünewald and Niclaus of Haguenau

But John also, as Gruenewald’s altarpiece at Isenheim concretely proclaims, points us to Christ, and models for us in this Advent season the path to Christian maturity and to faithful witness: Illum oportet crescere, me autem minui (“He must increase; I must decrease”).

 

Nov
2022

Does It Matter Who Wrote Hebrews?

A 'Jeopardy!' Competitor Confused Jay Cutler for Tim Tebow During  'Tournament of Champions' - Trending NewsIf you are a fan of the television quiz show “Jeopardy,” a fellow Bible wonk, or just a person of faith on social media, chances are that you are aware of the recent flap over a “Final Jeopardy” answer in the recent Tournament of Champions.

Heading into Final Jeopardy!, Professors’ Tournament winner [Sam] Buttrey led with $14,800, with He at $13,200, and super-champ Amy Schneider trailing with $2,400. The final clue under the category “The New Testament” read: “Paul’s letter to them is the New Testament epistle with the most Old Testament quotations.”

Schneider’s answer, “Who are The Hebrews,” was deemed correct by host Ken Jennings, while Buttrey’s “Who are The Romans” was considered incorrect. Meanwhile, He answered incorrectly with “Philippiaes,” but after Buttrey’s wager, he ended up with enough earnings to win the episode.

Some fans were not happy with this outcome, as there is much debate over who wrote the biblical texts, including parts of The New Testament. As noted on the Jeopardy Fan website, there are “conflicting sources as to whether Romans or Hebrews contains more quotations. Secondly, there’s the more pressing question of authorship—specifically of Hebrews. There’s no dispute that Paul wrote Romans.”

To say that there “is much debate over who wrote the biblical texts” is true, but not really relevant to the authorship of Hebrews.  Our New Testament contains thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the Greek text: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon.  Indeed, the first word in all of these books is “Paul”!  But Hebrews is not one of them.  That book is anonymous: Hebrews never claims Pauline authorship, and indeed does not even sound like Paul.

The authorship of Hebrews was debated even in antiquity: Origen (185-254 CE) famously wrote, “God alone knows who wrote Hebrews.”  Still, in the King James Version, this book is titled, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews”–a double error (carelessly repeated by the editors of the “Jeopardy” team as well).  Even the Evangelical NIV does not follow the KJV here, but titles the book simply as “Hebrews.”  Hebrews not only is not by Paul, but also is not an epistle: the book only superficially resembles a letter in its close, where it also mentions Paul’s friend Timothy (Heb 13:23-25).  Rather, Hebrews is a sermon on selected Old Testament passages: the book contains 32 citations from the Hebrew Bible, including ten from the Psalms, particularly Psalm 110.  Accordingly, Hebrews refers to itself (Heb 13:22) as logou tes parakleseos: a “word of exhortation” (NRSV) or “message of encouragement” (CEB).

The Historic Importance of Saint Paul

By the fourth century, Christian teachers such as Jerome and Augustine were ascribing this book to Paul–hence, the title in the KJV.  Quite probably, Hebrews came to be attributed to Paul in the tradition because of that epistle-like conclusion mentioning Timothy, because it was anonymous, and because, without it, there would be thirteen letters of Paul–an inauspicious and unfortunate number!  Of those thirteen, Paul’s authorship of Romans, the bulk of 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 is almost certainly a later expansion, as it conflicts with Paul’s statements about women elsewhere, even in this same book [see 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 ]), 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon is unquestioned.   But since in the ancient world, writing in the name of a well-known and respected teacher was common (Plato’s Dialogues, attributed by him to his teacher Socrates, are a famous non-biblical example), it is no surprise to find examples of this phenomenon in the New Testament as well.

Those letters attributed to, but likely not written by, Paul are called Deuteropauline Epistles.  Very few scholars accept Paul’s authorship of 1 and 2 Timothy or Titus (letters very similar in style to one another but unlike Paul’s certainly authentic writings, commonly called, collectively, the Pastoral Epistles), or of 2 Thessalonians (although I believe that Paul may have written this one!)  Paul’s authorship of Colossians and Ephesians can be, and is, debated, although most scholars hold that they are different enough from Paul’s theology, vocabulary and style elsewhere that Paul likely did not write them

The authorship of Hebrews, however, and its identification as a letter are (the unsupported claims of Augustine and Jerome not withstanding) non-controversial: despite the title page of this book in the KJV, Hebrews is not an epistle, and was not written by Paul.  This time, clearly, “Jeopardy” got it wrong.

May be an image of text that says 'Nerdy enough to watch Jeopardy Presbyterians Nitpicky enough to quibble over Pauline authorship Tech savvy enough to get on social media to to complain'

But–does this matter?  Clearly it matters to Mr. Buttrey, as it was the difference between winning and losing the match.  It also ought to matter to the producers and researchers on “Jeopardy,” if they care about the integrity of their quiz program.  Whoever was responsible for this gaffe simply dropped the ball–a modicum of research would have told them that the answer was, at best, badly worded.  But beyond them, the joking meme above (apologies to nerdy, tech-savvy, nitpicking Presbyterians–no offense is meant!) suggests that it really doesn’t matter at all.

In one sense, that conclusion is correct.  Whether Paul wrote Hebrews or not, it is part of the Christian canon.  Recognizing that Hebrews does not claim to be by Paul, or that it is not in fact an “epistle,” has nothing to do with the status of this book as Scripture.  Indeed, I am persuaded that Hebrews may be particularly relevant to our contemporary American church.

Consider the clues this book offers as to its context and audience.  Hebrews is written in excellent Greek–indeed the best Greek in the New Testament!  That suggests not only an educated author, but a highly cultured, well educated audience.  The community is well off: although they have known robbery (Hebrews 10:34), they are still able to help others in trouble, and do so.

The Great Awakening and the American Revolution - Journal of the American Revolution

In the past, this community had seen signs and wonders–their conversion had been marvelous (Hebrews 2:4)!  But those glory days are long past.  Now, the preacher of this extended sermon declares, they have grown complacent and  content.  They are dull of hearing. Although they ought to be teachers themselves, they instead need instruction in the very basics of the gospel (Hebrews 5:11-14).

Some in this community have experienced conflict and trouble because of their faith (Hebrews 10:32-34), but they have not known real, bloody persecution (Hebrews 12:4).  Yet, despite their privileged position, the community is weak, ineffectual (Hebrews 12:12).  Their problem is not persecution, or even sin, but indifference: indeed, some no longer even gather for worship (Hebrews 10:23-25)!

Worshipping at a country church | Minnesota Prairie Roots

Doubtless, this is the reason for the preacher’s terrifyingly harsh words in Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-31.  Reading those passages as a young believer, I became for a terrible few days convinced that I was damned–for I knew full well that I had sinned since I believed, and Hebrews 10:26 plainly states, “If we make the decision to sin after we receive the knowledge of the truth, there isn’t a sacrifice for sins left any longer.”  It took me awhile to realize that these passages are not the entire Bible, and to hear the assurance of forgiveness in other texts, notably 1 John 1:8-9

If we claim, “We don’t have any sin,” we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong.

The author of Hebrews was railing at this community, trying desperately to break through their comfortable, casual Christianity and rouse them again to passionate faith.  Does this sound familiar, friends? I am convinced that we twenty-first century American Christians in particular may find challenge and power in these ancient words!

So far as its status as Scripture goes, it does not matter who wrote Hebrews.  But for students of the Bible who want to dig deeper, to understand the message and meaning of Scripture, it does matter that we pay close attention to what the texts of Scripture actually say.  Hebrews does not claim Pauline authorship for itself.  If we try to shoehorn this book into Paul’s writings, we may be misled.  For example, there is no mention of justification by grace through faith in Hebrews.  Its absence may prompt us to downplay the importance of this teaching in Paul’s writings (for example, Romans 5:1-10).  The author of Hebrews, evidently addressing a committed Jewish Christian audience, draws heavily on the imagery of priesthood and sacrifice (and particularly, of Jesus as both king and high priest “according to the order of Melchizedek;” Hebrews 7:17; Psalm 110:4).  Paul uses sacrificial imagery in very different ways.  It would be a mistake to try collapse these two understandings of the cross of Christ into one another.

As Origen observed nearly 1800 years ago, we do not know who wrote Hebrews.  We may never know.  That does not in any way devalue the message and power of this book.  However,  pretending that we know more than we do cannot possibly help us understand this book any better.

 

 

Nov
2022

“An Opportunity to Testify”

The Peaceable Kingdom | CMOA Collection

The lectionary readings for Sunday seem to present two radically different visions of the future—and contrary to common presumptions, the positive one is from the Old Testament!

Isaiah 65:17-25 presents a vision of transformation and healing: a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem, without sorrow or sickness or fear, in which

Wolf and lamb will graze together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
    but the snake—its food will be dust.
They won’t hurt or destroy at any place on my holy mountain,
    says the LORD (Isa 65:25).

It is a return to the natural paradise described in Genesis 1:29-30:

Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food. To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened.

Jesus’ words in Luke 21:5-19, however, are a grim warning of natural and social collapse, of a time of suffering and persecution when

You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. Everyone will hate you because of my name (Lk 21:16-17).

However, as a consideration of the broader context of each passage reveals, these are not two different visions of the future, but two sides of the same end-time vision.  The “new heaven and new earth” of Isaiah’s vision requires that the present reality be cleared away; the new Jerusalem is necessary because of the corruption, injustice and sheer disappointment inherent in the “old” Jerusalem.

So too, the culmination of natural and political violence in Jesus’ vision is the inauguration of a new reality: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory”(Luke 21:27, NRSVUE; quoting from Daniel 7:13-14).

Geza Vermes | The Times

Jewish New Testament scholar Geza Vermes noted that Jesus’ teaching regarding the end was typical Jewish apocalypticism with a twist: fervent, imminent expectation of the endtime, joined to an absolute refusal to specify dates and times!  So, Jesus warns,

Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them (Luke 21:8).

Jesus words were a rebuke to end-time prophets of his  own day–as well as a needed riposte to those in our own who confidently claim knowledge of God’s future!  Jesus’ teaching will result in a lifestyle of perpetual expectation:

“Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36, NRVSUE)

Jesus places an intriguing face on the hard times to come upon his followers: “This will provide you with an opportunity to testify” (Luke 21:13)!  In that witness, we are given an extraordinary promise: we need not be afraid, for Jesus himself will PROVIDE our testimony: “I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict” (Luke 21:15).

It is important not to take this too far: this does not mean that we should go into the world, or into the pulpit, unprepared!  Still, it certainly does mean that we need not be anxious—we can enjoy our ministry, even in the midst of struggle and pain.

Our church still lives, and must minister, in places of need, trouble, struggle. How are we to respond?  We could despair—give up on our search for peace and justice on this side of glory.  Or, we can remember, as texts today affirm, that there is no birth without birth pangs, no Easter without Good Friday: that God is present precisely in the midst of our world, working to accomplish God’s purpose. We can see, in our struggle, an opportunity to testify to the presence and transforming power of Christ!

Knowing that the culmination of history is in God’s hands, and not our own, enables us face the future with confidence.  As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said “The texture of our universe is one where there is no question at all but that good and laughter and justice will prevail.”

Archbishop Tutu is exactly right: our ministry can be, indeed must be, not only a ministry of goodness and justice, but a ministry of joy. May the spirit of the living God fill you, friend, and may Christ’s peace be channeled through you in your ministry.  May you love, and laugh, much! And in the times of trial that will certainly come, may God grant you the strength to square your shoulders and say, “Well, this will give me an opportunity to testify.”

Oct
2022

Happy All Hallows Eve!

Halloween: Origins, Meaning & Traditions - HISTORYHere we go again!  The Jack o’ lanterns, spooks, giant skeletons, and other holiday decorations in lawns and department store windows, the heaps of candy in grocery stores, the perennial return of pumpkin-spice-EVERYTHING–all presage the approach of Halloween: after Christmas, the biggest commercial holiday of the year.  But what many will not realize is that, like Christmas, Halloween is a Christian celebration.

On All Saints Day we remember those who have gone before us in the faith. "All-Saints" 15th century. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. October 31 is called Halloween (properly “Hallow E’en”)  for the same reason December 31 is called “New Year’s Eve,” or December 24 “Christmas Eve.”  It is, of course, the night before November 1, which is All Hallows Day–hence, All Hallows Eve.  All Hallows, or All Saints, Day was first celebrated on May 13, 609, when Pope Boniface IV declared a feast day for all martyrs.  Pope Gregory III (731-741) shifted the focus from the martyrs to the celebration of all the saints who lack a feast day of their own, and as such All Saints Day was declared an official holy day of the church by Pope Gregory IV in 837.

The feast was shifted from spring to fall in response to the Celtic celebration Samhain (pronounced “SOW-en”), an ancient festival of the quarter-year, falling between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. In Celtic culture, Samhain was believed to be a night when the borders between this world and the next became particularly thin, so that the unquiet dead could cross over and molest the living. Food offerings, lamps, and even the severed heads of enemies (grimly recalled, perhaps, by jack o’lanterns) were set out to appease or turn aside the ghosts.

When the Celts became Christians, this grim night too was transformed.  As the Epistle for All Saints Day (Ephesians 1:11-23) affirms,

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, . . . so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may perceive what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph 1:11, 18-23 [NRSVUE])

Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin, death, hell, and the grave–so death, and the dead, no longer need to be feared!

The separate Roman Catholic celebration of All Souls Day on November 2 is down to Odilo, abbot of Cluny, who died 1048. Having remembered all the saints in heaven, Odilo thought, it was only right that on the following day we remember all the faithful dead, and pray for their release from purgatory.   But for many Christians, All Saints Day celebrates the lives and anticipates the resurrection of all believers.

All Saints Day was John Wesley’s favorite Christian celebration.  Joe Iovino writes:

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, enjoyed and celebrated All Saints Day. In a journal entry from November 1, 1767, Wesley calls it “a festival I truly love.” On the same day in 1788, he writes, “I always find this a comfortable day.” The following year he calls it “a day that I peculiarly love.”

 

Disney tried to trademark 'Day of the Dead.' They make up for it with Pixar's 'Coco' | America MagazineBecause of its association with Samhain, some Christians argue that we should not celebrate Hallowe’en at all–that to do so is to flirt with the demonic, and to open the door to evil influences.  I disagree.  I think it is fitting that this night, which used to be a grim and grisly night of fear, has become a night of laughter and joy, when it is little children who come to our doors for treats!  As the Reformer Martin Luther once observed, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

Happy Hallowe’en, friends!  A joyous All Saints Day to you all–and to my Dad Bernard Tuell, the best saint I know, a happy 88th birthday too!

AFTERWORD

The Mexican Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead), delightfully depicted in the Disney movie Coco, shows some influence from both Celtic Spain, and from the Christian All Saints and All Souls days.  However, its roots are not only pre-Christian, but pre-European, going back to indigenous Meso-American cultures such as the Aztecs.  Significantly, while this festival also involves belief in the dead crossing over to the world of the living, the dead are not feared: their families remember, celebrate, and welcome them.

Oct
2022

Good Guys in Black Hats

 

Randolph Scott - Turner Classic MoviesWhen I visit my father, who turns 88 this month (Happy birthday, Daddy!). we often watch old movies together–especially old Westerns.  You never have to wonder who the good guys are in those old oaters! They are always dressed the part: clean-cut, clean shaven, and wearing white hats.  The villains by contrast are scruffy, mustachioed, and wear black.

Another classic TV western, 'Have Gun-Will Travel' | News, Sports, Jobs - News and SentinelSo, when “Have Gun, Will Travel” appeared on television in 1957, it was something of a shock.  Its main character, Paladin (expertly portrayed through its six-year run by Richard Boone), wasn’t a sheriff or a cowboy, but a gunfighter for hire.  Paladin wore black.  He looked, dressed, and often talked like a villain—yet he was the hero.  Sometimes, in those short, often very well-written episodes, Paladin would wind up changing sides–fighting for the people he believed to be in the right, rather than the ones who had hired him.

 

The Gospel for this Sunday (Luke 18:9-14) is the short, very familiar parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:

Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

When we read the gospels, we are already primed to believe that we know who the good guys and the bad guys are—and the Pharisees, who frequently appear as the opponents of Jesus, are definitely the bad guys!  Indeed, in modern English, “Pharisee” can be a synonym for “hypocrite.”

But this was certainly not the case in Jesus’ day.   In first century Palestine, the Pharisees were the advocates for the common people.  Indeed, the differences between Jesus and the Pharisees are so intense in the Gospels because they are, in essence, family quarrels: in many ways, Jesus was closer to the Pharisees than to any other Jewish party in his day.

Unlike the priestly party, the Sadducees, the Pharisees were famous for tolerance and mercy in their court rulings.  While the Sadducees were biblical literalists, the Pharisees held that the “oral Torah”–the teachings of the rabbis that interpreted and applied Scripture to life–also needed to be considered.  As a result, the Sadducees rejected both belief in the afterlife and in the coming of the Messiah, as they saw neither explicitly stated in the Torah. Pharisees embraced both of these ideas.  When the Pharisee describes his personal acts of piety, fasting and tithing, he is not exaggerating or boasting–this actually would have been his lifestyle.

Zacchaeus the Tax CollectorLikewise, in the first century, the tax collector most definitely would have been seen as the villain.  Tax collectors were collaborators with the Roman military occupation.  They were famously corrupt, typically collecting from the people far more than the Romans actually demanded, and living well off the proceeds (Zacchaeus being a familiar biblical example).  That is why people are so scandalized by Jesus eating and drinking with tax collectors (Matthew 9:9-12)

The surprise twist for the original audience of this parable, as for the television audience of “Have Gun, Will Travel,” would have been that the “hero” of the story is the bad guy!  One lesson of this parable, then, is that we shouldn’t assume we know who the good guys are!  As frequently happens in Jesus’ stories, things are not as they seem on the surface.

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector” by Julius Schnorr von  Carolsfeld (1794–1872).

The Pharisee in this story may be looking up, and the tax collector looking down, but it is the tax collector who seeks, and finds, God. In the end, the Pharisee sees only himself–and does not even see himself clearly!  The honest penitence of the tax collector, on the other hand, leads him past self-examination to a true insight into God’s character.  It is he, Jesus says, who “went down to his home justified” (Luke 8:14).

Kallistos Ware: Theologian Who Explained the Orthodox Way to Oth... |  Christianity Today

Regarding repentance, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who died this past year, wrote

[Repentance] is not self-hatred but the affirmation of my true self as made in God’s image. To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God I can yet become.

God grant that this may be so for all of us, friends: that we may become, not what the world sees when it looks at us, or even what we ourselves see, but what God sees.

Oct
2022

At One-ment

September 22 was the autumnal equinox, and sundown Sunday, September 25 Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  I have always resonated with beginning the year in the fall–since for most of my life I have been in school, as a student and as a teacher, September rather than January has always been my time of new beginnings!  Now that I am retired, it still feels a bit strange to be able to vacation and travel in this time, as Wendy and I did again this year.  As I write this, the ten Days of Awe following Rosh Hashanah have just ended, culminating yesterday in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

In Judaism, Yom Kippur is a fast day, on which one reflects upon the sins of the past year, repents before God, and resolves to live differently in the year to come.  In Scripture, both the rite for Yom Kippur and its significance are quite different from the day as it developed in Jewish life and practice.  But those ancient rites, and what they might mean for how we think about God, have a great deal to teach us about the ways that we read, and sometimes misread, Scripture.

First, take that word “atonement.”  Look it up in any dictionary, and the first definition you will find will be something like, “reparation for a wrong or injury.”  I recently encountered just that meaning in a word puzzle.

Growing up as a young Christian, that was certainly the way that I saw Christ’s atoning death on Calvary: as Jesus making reparation to God for my wrong.  The only way of understanding the cross I then knew was that Jesus had taken on himself God’s wrath, and the deserved punishment for my sin, so that I could be forgiven–an understanding of the atonement called “penal substitution.”  I grew up singing “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood” and “Jesus Paid It All.”

However, like many believers, I have grown concerned about what this language says about God.  Do I really believe that God’s wrath can only be assuaged by blood, even the blood of his innocent Son?   Further, if it is solely the death of Jesus that atones for our sins, doesn’t that make his life and teaching irrelevant?

The history of our English word “atonement” suggests a different original meaning for this term, which may broaden our understanding of God, Christ, and the cross–as well as our reading of Yom Kippur.  The Oxford Dictionary dates “atonement” to the early 16th century, when it was coined out of  the phrase “at one”–influenced by the Latin word adunamentum  (“unity”), and an older word, “onement:” from the obsolete verb form, “to one,” meaning “to unite.”  The word was particularly used to talk about the reconciliation of God and humanity accomplished by Christ.

The King James Bible

When the King James Version of the Bible was translated in 1611, the relatively new expression “make atonement” was used for the Hebrew verb kipperparticularly in connection with Yom Kippur (see Leviticus 16).  That word apparently had the original meaning “cover.”  However, kipper came to be used specifically for rites of cleansing and purification.

In ancient Israel, Yom Kippur was the day when all lingering defilement from the previous year, either accidental or deliberate, was expunged, making full access to and communion with God possible in the new year.  The Common English Bible, which translates Yom Kippur as “Day of Reconciliation,” captures both the meaning of this ancient rite and the older meaning of the word “atonement” as dealing, not with reparation or punishment, but with communion restored.

The centerpiece of the ancient ritual for this day involved two goats.  One was selected by lot as the goat to be offered as the sin offering (the most familiar translation of the Hebrew khattat; the CEB reads “purification offering,” which better catches the significance of this sacrifice in ancient Israel).  The second goat was given to Azazel.  We have no idea what this means; perhaps Azazel was a monster or demon believed to live in waste places, or perhaps Azazel is an old word for “wilderness.”  The KJV read “scapegoat,” which has entered our language as a person or group blamed for wrongs done by others.

In Leviticus, the goat for Azazel is not a sacrifice, nor is it killed.  It is driven out into the wilderness, symbolically carrying away the defilement of the people.  The other goat, selected by lot as belonging to the LORD, is sacrificed.  Its blood is taken by the high priest into the inner room of the shrine, called the Most Holy Place, where God was believed to be specially present.  This inner chamber held a golden box, called the Ark (the Hebrew word for the Ark, ‘aron, simply means “box,” or “chest”).

File:Benjamin West - Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant - Google Art Project.jpgThe lid of the Ark was a slab of gold, molded in the image of two cherubim: terrible semi-divine heavenly beings like winged sphinxes.The cherubim‘s inner wings overlapped to form a throne: the divine title “the LORD, who is enthroned on the cherubim” (for example, 1 Sam 4:4Ps 80:1) recalls this connection.  The Ark itself served as the LORD’s footstool, making this golden box the intersection of divine and human worlds.  In the days of Israel’s wilderness wandering, Moses and Aaron encountered the LORD at the Ark (for example, Exod 25:22).

On Yom Kippur, the blood from the people’s purification offerings was applied to the lid of the Ark (kapporet in Hebrew; translated as “mercy seat” in the KJV and the NRSV, but best rendered, as the CEB has it, simply as “cover” or “lid”).  This meant that, once a year, the blood of the purification offering was brought to the very feet of God.

In Romans 3:23-25 (NRSV), Paul seems to use the rite of Yom Kippur as a way to understand the work of Christ on the cross:

since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

The Greek word translated “sacrifice of atonement” in the NRSV (the KJV has “propitiation”) is hilasterion.  But this Greek word is used in the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint, not for either the sin offering or the scapegoat but for the lid of the Ark: the kapporet.  The CEB translation “place of sacrifice” is a little better, though still misleading.  Paul’s point appears to be that the cross where Jesus’ blood was spilled has become the kapporet: the point where divine and human worlds intersect, and so the place where reconciliation–atonement–happens.

Reading the Bible in English, we are likely to miss all of this.  We may assume that, in Leviticus, Yom Kippur is the day of atonement in our relatively modern sense: referring to a reparation for sins, made in blood to an angry, judging God.  We may assume that the death of Jesus too must be read it this same way: as Jesus taking the punishment, or paying the price, for our guilt.  The meaning of the Hebrew words  kipper and kapporet, the Greek hilasterion, and even the history of the English word “atonement,” may well pass us by.

This is, of course, an argument for learning the biblical languages, so that subtleties and nuances often lost in translation can be recognized.  Even for those of us without access to the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts of Scripture, it means learning to read the Bible carefully and prayerfully, making use of commentaries , study Bibles, and other resources that will “complexify” our plain reading of the text.  For all of us, it means remembering that the Bible was not written in English.  We need always to be aware of the bones beneath the flesh of the translation, and to resist the temptation to see our own surface reading as what the Bible “plainly” says.

Sep
2022

Mammon

Image result for Jesus teaching painting

FOREWORD:  I am reposting this blog from three years ago, when this difficult parable last appeared in the lectionary.  My former D.S. and ministry mentor Paul Smith used to say, “Money is spelled P-O-W-E-R.”  The message of this unpopular word of Jesus has never mattered more.

 

This week’s Gospel is a parable of Jesus unique to Luke, much like those perennial favorites the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son.   But unlike those stories of Jesus, this one is unlikely to be anyone’s favorite:

Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’ The household manager said to himself, What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg.  I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses. One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’  He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’  He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’ (Luke 16:1-7)

Why does Jesus tell this strange story?  His point seems, if anything, stranger still:

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes (Luke 16:8-9, NRSV).

Yup.  That’s what it says.  Jesus said “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  What are we to do with that?

When I was a brand-new pastor, fresh out of seminary, I came into a Bible study at one of my churches, looking at the parables of Jesus.  Some of the folk in that study were using the Living Bible–a popular paraphrase of Scripture into everyday language that had been my own favorite Bible as a young Christian.  But to my astonishment, here is what the Living Bible did with this saying of Jesus:

But shall I tell you to act that way, to buy friendship through cheating? Will this ensure your entry into an everlasting home in heaven?  No! For unless you are honest in small matters, you won’t be in large ones. If you cheat even a little, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.

That “NO!” was not in my Bible–nor, I quickly discovered, was it in the Greek text of Luke.  Kenneth Taylor, who authored this paraphrase, justifies this extraordinary reading in a footnote:

Luke 16:9 [reads] . . . literally, and probably ironically, “Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that when it shall fail you, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles.” Some commentators would interpret this to mean: “Use your money for good, so that it will be waiting to befriend you when you get to heaven.” But this would imply the end justifies the means, an unbiblical idea.

In other words, I don’t believe that Jesus would have said this, therefore he didn’t.  But surely, that is no way to read Scripture!

I found no more help in Eugene Petersen’s popular contemporary paraphrase, The Message.  Petersen reframes Luke 16:8-9 as follows:

Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.

This is interesting–and certainly, less offensive!  But to me it seems too clever by half–particularly since this paraphrase makes no mention at all of the “dishonest wealth” that is the most troubling part of this saying, and that seems after all to have been the point of the parable.

If like me you grew up with the King James version, you may be aware that in that Bible translation, a strange old word appears:

And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.  And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

The word mammon was never an English word.  Rather, it has been carried over untranslated from the Greek text, just as it was left, untranslated, in the Latin Vulgate.

But mammon isn’t a Greek word, either.  It comes from Aramaic, the language of first-century Palestinian Jews, and so the language that Jesus spoke.  Matthew, Mark, and John preserved numerous words and phrases in Aramaic—but Luke typically did not!  For example, in Luke the place Jesus is crucified is not called Golgotha (Aramaic for “skull;” see Matt 27:33; Mark 15:22; John 19:17), but Kranion (Greek for “skull;” see Lk 23:33); traditionally rendered, following the Latin Vulgate, as “Calvary” (Latin for “skull”).

The Aramaic word “mammon” means, as we can guess from its context in today’s passage, “wealth”—but generally, it was used in a negative sense.  It is found only four times in the Bible: once in Matthew 6:24, and, curiously,  three times in today’s reading from Luke: 16:9, 11, and 13 (//Matt 6:24). Why should Luke, who generally avoids Aramaic terms, uncharacteristically use this word, in this place?  To answer that question, we need to know a bit more about Luke.

Image result for Saint luke icon

The gospel of Luke is the first volume of a two-volume work–part two is our book of Acts.  Luke writes in excellent Greek, for an educated, Greek-speaking audience.  Clearly, Luke was well educated, which cost money.  Both Luke and Acts open with greetings to Luke’s patron, Theophilus.  Evidently, Theophilus was funding Luke’s travels and research as he wrote his account of the life of Jesus and the growth of the early church.  In sum: Luke comes from money; his project is funded by a patron with money, and he addresses himself primarily to an audience with money.

Yet, a major theme of Luke’s gospel is the community’s responsibility to the poor.  His gospel begins with a song sung by Mary when she learns that she has been chosen to bear the Christ:

[God] has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed (Lk 1:52-53).

So too, in Luke’s version of the beatitudes, we read, “Happy are you who are poor, [rather than, as in Matthew 5:3, “poor in spirit”] because God’s kingdom is yours” (Lk 6:20 ), counterbalanced by “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation (Lk 6:24).  Indeed, next week’s gospel is another parable  unique to Luke, the story of the rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31).

It is hard to avoid the conclusion, then, that the point of today’s parable is money, and what we are to do with it.  Luke was writing to a well-off community—much like the church in the US today.  To address the issue of wealth, he deliberately uses the unfamiliar Aramaic word “mammon:” a strange, but authoritative word–a Jesus word, from Jesus’ own native tongue. Luke assumes that his community is smart enough to deduce from context, as we can, that “mammon” means “wealth,” but he adds the Greek adjective adikias (rendered “dishonest” in the NRSV; “unrighteous” in the KJV) to let his community know that wealth is used here in a negative way: both the CEB and NIV have “worldly wealth,” which I think captures Luke’s point quite nicely.

By telling this parable, Jesus certainly isn’t commending the manager’s dishonesty—he doesn’t say that we should get worldly wealth the way that this man does. Rather, Jesus says, here is what we are to do with our wealth!

Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much.  If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?  If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? (Lk 16:10-12).

If  we are not faithful with worldly wealth, how can we expect to be trusted with heavenly?

Jesus stands here in the prophetic tradition of Amos:

Hear this, you who trample on the needy and destroy
        the poor of the land, saying,
    “When will the new moon
        be over so that we may sell grain,
        and the Sabbath
        so that we may offer wheat for sale,
        make the ephah smaller, enlarge the shekel,
        and deceive with false balances,
         in order to buy the needy for silver
        and the helpless for sandals,
        and sell garbage as grain?”

   The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
        Surely I will never forget what they have done (Amos 8:4-7).

Those Amos condemns cheat the poor so as to multiply their own riches, as though wealth were an end in itself.  For them, the purpose of money is to make more money, by any and every means possible.  With Amos, Jesus condemns this attitude: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt 6:24//Lk 16:13).

 

The dishonest manager in Jesus’ story may be a scoundrel, but at least he knows what money is for!  In Jesus’ parable, the manager spends his wealth (well, actually, his master’s [!]) to reduce others’ debts, to ease their burdens–to “make friends.” Only if we spend our money in that way, Jesus affirms, will our wealth make any difference in this world–and certainly, only in that way will our wealth make any difference to us in the world to come, as we cannot take it with us!

Image result for john wesley

John Wesley preached his famous sermon, “On the Use of Money,” based on this very difficult text.  His conclusion was very simple: first, “Christian prudence” means to “Gain all you can” and “Save all you can.”  However, this is scarcely the beginning:

But let not any man imagine that he has done anything, barely by going thus far, by “gaining and saving all he can,” if he were to stop here. All this is nothing, if a man go not forward, if he does not point all this at a farther end. Nor, indeed, can a man properly be said to save anything, if he only lays it up. You may as well throw your money into the sea, as bury it in the earth. And you may as well bury it in the earth, as in your chest, or in the Bank of England. Not to use, is effectually to throw it away. If, therefore, you would indeed “make yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness,” add the Third rule to the two preceding. Having, First, gained all you can, and, Secondly saved all you can, Then “give all you can.”

Here, I think, Wesley has grasped very neatly the point of this difficult parable.  Wealth is not an end to itself.  Mammon is not to be our master, but our servant: it is meant to be used, to ease another’s burden, to heal another’s pain.  We get it so that we can give it away.  That’s what it’s for.

Aug
2022

Blessing, Not Commandment

How To Write a Book - The Beginner's Guide | Wealth of Geeks

When I first began shopping my current book around, some prospective editors urged me to eliminate the Hebrew references: “You’ll just confuse your readers,” I was told.  However, I remain convinced that serious Bible students are well aware that the Bible was not written in English, and know that some subtleties in the original languages may not be captured in translation.

Further, I am persuaded that questions I have relating to translation and interpretation will occur to other readers too, whether they know the original languages or not.  So, in my teaching and preaching, as in my writing, I refuse to insult the intelligence of my audience, and when the text calls for it, I endeavor to guide them through the linguistic thickets–although I also try to avoid overly-technical language that will indeed frustrate and confuse rather than enlighten.

All of which is to say that today’s blog does indeed go pretty deep into the weeds of Hebrew grammar.  But I am persuaded that the exegetical and theological payoff is worth the effort.  To put it very simply, friends– this’ll preach.

Creation Day 5-Fish and Birds - The Breakthrough Lifestyle

On Day Five of the first biblical creation account (Gen 1:20-23), God addresses God’s creations for the first time: “Then God blessed them: ‘Be fertile and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth’” (Gen 1:22). The CEB translation rightly recognizes that the verbs in this verse are imperatives. But in Hebrew, the imperative doesn’t always indicate a command.

Semitic grammarians Paul Jouon and T. Muraoka note that “The imperative is the volitive mood of the second person;” it “is essentially a form for expressing the speaker’s will, wish, or desire” (A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Part Three: Syntax [Rome: Ponifical Biblical Institute, 1996], 378-79).  The context of these imperative forms, within a blessing, suggests that they should not be rendered as commands, but rather as expressing God’s desire and intention for God’s creatures: as David Carr observes, “within a blessing, the imperative stands as a modal wish” (Genesis 1—11. International Exegetical Commentary of the Old Testament [Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2021], 43).  Better would be, “May you be fruitful and multiply.”

That distinction becomes even more important when we examine Gen 1:28, which this verse foreshadows. Here, God blesses human men and women:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it.”

Unfortunately, some have tried to construct a sexual ethic out of this verse. Since, as the early Christian theologian and scholar St. Jerome (340-420) observed, “God’s first command” is, “‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth’” (Against Jovinianus, 1.3; cf. Gen 1:28), any sexual act that could not produce a child is contrary to God’s design and intent.

In the Mishnah (the Jewish compendium of traditional interpretations of the Torah, to which the Talmud serves as commentary) as well, this verse is construed as a commandment: but for the man, not for the woman (b. Yebamot 65b)! As the broader context of this discussion is a debate regarding the divorce of a woman who is barren or miscarries, the point would appear to be that, while men are obligated to father children if they can, women are not necessarily obligated to bear them.

Mr. Spock and the Aaronic Benediction

However, it is essential to remember, as in Gen 1:22, that—despite its (mis)use in Christian and Jewish traditions—Gen 1:28 is a blessing, not a commandment! Grammarians Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi note that the imperative can express a promise: “The speaker assures that the recipient of the imperative will take the action in the future, although he action itself is normally outside the power of the person receiving the order” (A Guide to Biblica Hebrew Syntax [Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2003], 64).  Likely, that is the case here. As Carr observes regarding this passage,

The blessing here, as in 1:22, is formulated in Hebrew with an imperative form. This corresponds to the rule, wherein the contents of blessings, insofar as they are formulated in verbal form, are expressed with modal verb forms. . . . There is, therefore, no implication of a command to multiply or rule the earth in the imperative forms of v. 28. Instead, there is the promise of powers/capabilities (Carr 2021, 84).

When we read these opening chapters of Genesis, it is important to remember that they are neither history, nor science, nor law.  They are confessions, made by communities of faith—grounded not only in universal, timeless ideas but also in the particular circumstances of their authors.  Therefore, when we hear something from the priests in Gen 1:1—2:4a that we would not expect to hear, it carries particular weight.

Unprotected Texts – Prayer & Politiks

The affirmation in Gen 1:27 that maleness and femaleness alike reflect the image of God hits like a thunderbolt: it can scarcely be ascribed to the typical attitudes of its patriarchal culture!  This extraordinary valuation of the feminine need not be read, however, as restricting God’s intention for humanity to the union of male and female.  Certainly Jerome, with his eloquent defense of celibacy (Against Jovinianus, 1.3), did not regard singleness as condemned by this passage!

Further, there may be a hint here about how God might be viewed. While admittedly, male images of God predominate in Scripture, female images as well can be identified. Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8 is certainly a feminine aspect of God. In the Psalms, God appears a midwife (Ps 22:9-10), while in Hosea 11:3-4, God speaks as a mother:

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;
        I took them up in my arms,
        but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them
        with bands of human kindness,
        with cords of love.
    I treated them like those
        who lift infants to their cheeks;
        I bent down to them and fed them.

Similarly, Jesus cries out to Jerusalem, “How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that” (Matt 23:37//Lk 13:34).

God is neither male nor female, for neither masculinity nor femininity can fully capture the Divine. Attempts, then, to derive from Genesis 1 a rebuke of transgender persons, or the affirmation of a sexual binary as the God-imposed norm, are seriously misplaced. Indeed, both masculinity and femininity reflect aspects of God, who makes all humankind, of every gender, race, and nation, “in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen 1:26).

Chagal Stock Photos, Royalty Free Chagal Images | Depositphotos

On the other hand, the call to “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it” (Gen 1:28) is no surprise: it fits neatly into the flow of the narrative from Genesis through Joshua. As God’s people endure threat after threat, seeming always on the edge of extinction, fertility is essential for their survival.  In particular, Gen 1:28 prefigures the growth of the people into a great nation, despite Egyptian persecution (see Exod 1:6-7, 20) and despite the faithlessness of the wilderness generation (see Num 22:3-4),  in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (see Gen 15:5-6).  We may question, then, whether this “first commandment” is intended as a universal imperative, or as promise to a beleaguered community.

 

 

 

 

Aug
2022

Where the Ball Will Be

 

Troy Polamalu overcame college injuries to become an All-America and NFL injuries to become a Hall of Famer - Sports Illustrated Talk Of Fame Network

I am thinking as I read this week’s lectionary passages (Jeremiah 23:23-29, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56) about Troy Polamalu.  Polamalu is partly famous for his full head of long, flowing hair (indeed, he STILL does Head and Shoulders commercials!), but mainly, of course, as strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2003-2015. During his tenure leading the Steelers defense, the team made seven playoff appearances, won five division titles, and won two of their three Super Bowl appearances. Polamalu is a member of the NFL All-Decade Team of the 2000s and the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020.

My wife Wendy is a huge Troy Polamalu fan. She admires the classy way he shows love and respect for his wife, and his understated but firm confession as an Orthodox Christian—not to mention, of course, my own uncanny physical resemblance to Troy Polamalu:

Mostly, though, it was fun to watch Troy Polamalu play football!  He started 142 of 158 career games; made 32 interceptions for 398 yards and three touchdowns; successfully defended against 107 passes; forced 14 fumbles; recovered seven fumbles for 120 yards and two TDs; made 12 sacks; and recorded 783 tackles – 583 of which were solo.  So, how did he do it?

If you ever watched Polamalu play, you already know! Although he is from American Samoa, Polamalu was called the Flyin’ Hawaiian (!) and the Tasmanian Devil, because he hurled himself into the game, seeming to be everywhere at once. While other defenders try, with greater or lesser success, to follow where the ball is, Polamalu read the line, intuited where the ball would be—and then did whatever it took to put himself in that spot, to break up the pass, get the tackle, or make the interception.

To use a theological expression, Polamalu played proleptically. Prolepsis means anticipation, but also something more: Webster defines it as “the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished.” That is the way the Bible speaks about the future.

This week’s lectionary passages all speak of God’s future: which, to Christian believers, means Christ’s future coming, and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. But we miss the point if we think this is all about the future. Far too much ink has been spilled and time wasted in the fruitless attempt to predict the future with the symbols and visions of Scripture, as though the Bible was a horoscope or Tarot deck rather than word of God for people of God.

The prophet Jeremiah had little patience for idle dreamers—particularly when their dreams are lies, which make no difference in people’s lives, and so cause them to forget God’s name:

I have heard the prophets prophesying lies in my name. They claim, “I’ve had a dream; I’ve had a dream!” How long will deceitful prophecies dominate the minds of the prophets? Those prophets are treacherous. They scheme to make my people forget me by their dreams that people tell each other (Jer 23:25-27).

According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), only 10% of those ages 18–29 in America identified as “religiously unaffiliated” in 1986. By 2016, that number had increased to 38%.  It declined slightly in 2020, to 36%, but still–over a third of a generation of young people want nothing to do with the church: not because they reject the gospel, I am certain, but because they have never heard it.  They associate the church with the dark, empty dreams and “deceitful prophecies” of prominent preachers, and want nothing to do with their racist, sexist, and homophobic rhetoric–which is what many young people think “Christianity” represents.

In contrast, Jeremiah says, God’s word is real!  The word of the LORD is “like fire and like a hammer that shatters rock.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Prophet's Prophet | My Jewish Learning

Jewish philosopher and Bible scholar Abraham Heschel saw this coming in 1966, and called for a prophethood of all believers:

In biblical days prophets were astir while the world was asleep; today the world is astir while church and synagogue are busy with trivialities.

Jesus, too, says that his words are like fire: “I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze!” (Luke 12:49).  He recognizes the dangerous power of the kingdom of God that he announces, which will sadly bring strife and division between those who follow, and those who will not (Luke 12:51-53).

Jesus’ word about the kingdom is not a word for someday, in the distant future: “You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56).  So, to follow Jesus is to live the way Troy Polamalu played: proleptically, as though the promised future was already a reality.  As the author of Hebrews writes,

So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne (Heb 12:1-2).

God calls and empowers us to live by the principles of God’s kingdom not someday, but here and now!

The problems we face are great—far too great for us to solve! There are too many lonely, too many hurting, too many sick and hungry and homeless—we cannot help them all.  It is easy, then, to succumb to despair, and yield to this world’s standards and expectations.

A gift to all humanity': Remembering Desmond Tutu | ShareAmerica

But the certain triumph of God’s coming reign gives us hope, so that we can live confidently in the present. Archbishop Desmond Tutu affirms,

The texture of our universe is one where there is no question at all but that good and laughter and justice will prevail. In the end, the perpetrators of injustice or oppression, the ones who strut the stage of the world often seemingly unbeatable – there is no doubt at all that they will bite the dust.

We need not cynically conform to this world’s standards and expectations, because we know what God’s future holds. Like Troy Polamalu, we know where the ball will be! Now, are we willing to do whatever it takes to put ourselves there, at the point of God’s in-breaking reign? God wants to empower us today to do just that—to place ourselves, not where the world says the ball is, but where God says the ball will be.

AFTERWORD:

I have been blessed these two weeks to worship with the congregation at St. John’s Lutheran in North Versailles, PA–this blog is based on my sermon for Sunday.  Thanks to that vibrant community for their gracious hospitality, and to their pastor and my good friend the Rev. Dr. Kimberly Greway, for inviting me.