Jan
2022

Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Creative Extremist”

 

In most of the nation, today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: a day rightly dedicated to celebrating the legacy of our greatest civil rights leader.  It is also right that a monument to Dr. King, dedicated on October 16, 2011, stands in Washington, D.C. among the memorials to other American heroes in that city of monuments.  But honoring the hero may mean losing the man. Perhaps it was inevitable that honor and recognition would mute King’s radical call to justice, particularly to racial justice; that as King’s national stature grew, his historical message would be blunted, even obscured.

The result, as journalist David Love observes, is that King’s name is invoked in support of policies that the man himself would certainly have opposed:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, name-dropped King last month in announcing an anti-critical race theory bill called the Stop Woke Act. The legislation would allow private parties, such as students, parents, employees and businesses, to sue schools and workplaces that teach critical race theory. “You think about what MLK stood for,” DeSantis said. “He said he didn’t want people judged on the color of their skin but on the content of their character.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp called King “a transformational leader” and “a true American hero” who recognized “great injustice in this world” and took “the necessary steps to right that wrong.” Yet Kemp sat under a painting of a slave plantation as he signed a voter suppression law making it a crime to give food and water to people waiting in line to vote.

In Texas — where the Legislature removed King from the state curriculum and ended the requirement to teach that the Ku Klux Klan was morally wrong — Sen. Ted Cruz praised King’s fight against racial inequality and injustice

It is clearly long past time for us to remember that Dr. King stood for, marched for, was jailed for, and died for, justice and equality. He was, by his own free admission, an extremist!  In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote:

I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. 

Dr. King was in jail, in Birmingham, for leading sit-ins, marches, and protests of racial discrimination in that city.  While in jail, he learned of an open letter published in Birmingham area papers, called “A Call for Unity”—signed by eight prominent white Alabama clergymen (including, to my shame, two Methodist bishops).  The letter bemoans a “series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” and says, “We… strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”

Dr.  King  wrote his famous letter in response to these white Christian leaders, who evidently preferred “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Prophetically, King wrote of the church in his own day–and sadly, in ours:

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

A truly Christian view of racial justice must begin as Christian Scripture begins: with a radical affirmation of human unity, dignity, and equality.  As Dr. George D. Kelsey, mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. at Morehouse College, understood (George D. Kelsey, Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man [New York: Scribner, 1965]), the biblical confession that we are all descended from Adam and Eve means that there is one single human family. Throughout his theology and ethics, Dr. Kelsey “pointed to the Genesis creation narrative and its assertion of a singular and common ancestry of all humanity” (Torin Alexander, “World/Creation in African American Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook of African American Theology, ed. Katie G. Cannon and Anthony B. Pinn [New York: Oxford University, 2014], 186.)

Close reading of Genesis 1 underlines that insight.   On Day Three, when God invites the earth to “put forth vegetation” (Genesis 1:11), the earth produces “plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it” (Genesis 1:12).  Similarly, on Day Five, God creates “every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind” (Gen 1:21). On Day Six, God again invites the earth, “bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind” (Gen 1:24).  Every form of life God makes comes in kinds–except one.

When we arrive at the creation of humanity at the end of Day Six, nothing is said of there being any “kinds” of people (see Phyllis A. Bird, “‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Gen 1:27b in the Context of the Priestly Account of Creation,” Harvard Theological Review 74 [1981]: 146). This is certainly not because the ancient Israelites were ignorant of other races and cultures: Palestine was a crossroads of ancient civilizations. The Israelites were fully aware of Africans and Asians, people of varying ethnicities, speaking a host of languages, coming from a variety of cultures.  Yet Israel does not distinguish among these races and nations, as though some are more human than others.  Certainly, Genesis does not identify the Israelites as human, and their neighbors as something less. This is a remarkable confession, rejecting every form of racism and jingoistic nationalism–including our own.

As Scripture sadly but faithfully bears witness, Israel was not always faithful to this insight. But it is an insight that recurs again and again—and one that the church in our day must reclaim.  For while Genesis identifies no “kinds” of people, we have been swift to make up that lack, hastening to identify all sorts of folk as outsiders, strangers, aliens, who are not welcome in our communities. Especially on this day in honor of that “creative extremist,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., may God help us to see and repent of this sin, and to love all whom God loves, as we have ourselves been loved.

Jan
2022

We Three Kings?

For Western Christians, January 6 was the Feast of the Epiphany: a day associated particularly with the light of the star that guided the wise men (or, as the CEB and the NRSV Updated Edition more accurately read, the Magi) to the Christ Child (see Matthew 2:1-12).  Until February 27, we will be in the season after Epiphany, during which we will continue to remember and celebrate the light of God’s revelation, symbolized by the Bethlehem star.

Tradition says that there were three Magi, that they were kings from three continents and three races, and that they were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.  Of course, that is the way it is in our Christmas pageants and in our creches.  But none of this is in Matthew’s simple account:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him” (Matt 2:1-2).

The Magi were a clan of priests and astrologers from Persia–our words “magic” and “magician” derive from “magi.”  Matthew does not tell us how many Magi came–the traditional number three comes from their three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:11-12). The idea that they were kings from distant lands and races comes from Isaiah 60:1-6, traditionally read as fulfilled in the visit of the Magi:

Nations will come to your light
    and kings to your dawning radiance.

. . . the nations’ wealth will come to you.
 Countless camels will cover your land,
    young camels from Midian and Ephah.
They will all come from Sheba,
    carrying gold and incense,
    proclaiming the Lord’s praises.

 

Still, there is an appropriateness to the tradition’s reading of the Magi as representing the whole outside world.  After all, they come to the manger as the ultimate outsiders.  They come not only from outside of Judea, but from outside the Roman empire itself–from the land of the feared Parthians, an armed and unstable threat on the empire’s eastern frontier. They are not Jews, either ethnically or religiously; while nothing is said of their religious heritage by Matthew, they would have been Zoroastrians.  Remarkably, it is Matthew who tells their story. Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospel writers, is the one who records a visit to the Christ child from gentiles: foreigners and unbelievers!  Yet in this gospel these foreigners come, not as enemies to threaten the Child, but as pilgrims to honor him.

Herod’s religious experts also see the Magi’s star, and rightly interpret the Scriptures that witness to the coming king:

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
 Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become one of peace (Micah 5:2-5; see Matt 2:4-6)

But these faithful, patriotic citizens stay in the false security of Herod’s walled palace, and never see the miracle.  Instead, it is the foreign, Gentile Magi who become the first, faithful witnesses to the new thing God is doing–breaking into our world as one of us there in Bethlehem.

This season after Epiphany celebrates the light of God shining into the entire world with the birth of Christ, and indeed, the light of God’s revelation shining into all our lives yesterday, today–and one day, forever!  May we learn from the wise men to be “wise guys” ourselves: to be ready to receive God’s blessing from the hands, and to hear God’s word in the voice, of a stranger.  May we say to all hatred, racism, and fearmongering a firm and unequivocal “No.”

 

Dec
2021

O Great Mystery and Wonderful Sacrament!

Image result for nativity icon

On this winter solstice, as Christmas day draws near, I keep thinking of an ancient Latin Christmas prayer:

O magnum mysterium,

et admirabile sacramentum,

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,

jacentem in praesepio!

Beata Virgo,

cujus viscera

meruerunt portare

Dominum Christum.

Alleluia.

I first sang those words in the Parkersburg South High madrigal troupe (thank you, Mr. Daniel B. Thomas!), to a setting by the 16th century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611).  But as gorgeous as that music is, the version I keep hearing in my head today is the haunting, heart-breakingly lovely setting by 20th century American composer Morten Johannes Lauridsen.

The English translation of the Latin at Wikipedia reads,

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
Alleluia!

Were Animals in the Manger on the First Christmas? - Outdoor Nativity StoreWhether because my attention was drawn to the music rather than the words, or because I let the beautiful Latin phrases wash over me without worrying about what they meant, I am ashamed to confess that I only recently realized that this hymn is based on Luke’s account of Jesus’ humble birth:

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2:7, KJV).

This prayer expresses the awe and wonder of God come down to us in human flesh and form–not a disguise or a pretense, but an unimaginable condescension.  The Eternal becomes temporal.  The omnipresent becomes localized–and in the tiniest, most humble of locations!  As John puts it,

The Word became flesh
    and made his home among us (John 1:14).

This astonishing, impossible miracle, Luke says, was met by rejection–unable to find a roof over their heads in a strange town, Mary and Joseph had to seek refuge where they could find it.  Jesus was born in a barn–his first cradle a feed trough, the only witnesses to his marvelous birth the animals that shared their space with this young, poor family.

On Christmas day, God comes to be with us, tangibly and physically and temporally and actually with us.  And by coming in this place, in this manner, God calls us too to a ministry of presence, among the least and the lost and the lonely.  No wonder our hymn calls Christmas a sacrament.

AFTERWORD:

Merry Christmas, one and all!  I am reposting this lightly edited Christmas blog from 2014, when our choir at St. Paul’s UMC sang the Lauridsen setting (thank you, Tom Taylor!)  To it, I would like to add this delightful poem for the day.  May the joy of this day fill your lives, and change your world.

“Sharon’s Christmas Prayer”
She was five,
sure of the facts,
and recited them
with slow solemnity
convinced every word
was revelation.
She said
they were so poor
they had only peanut butter and jelly
sandwiches to eat
and they went a long way from home
without getting lost. The lady rode
a donkey, the man walked, and the baby
was inside the lady.
They had to stay in a stable
with an ox and an ass (hee-hee)
but the Three Rich Men found them
because a star lited the roof
Shepherds came and you could
pet the sheep but not feed them.
Then the baby was borned.
And do you know who he was?
Her quarter eyes inflated
to silver dollars.
The baby was God.
And she jumped in the air
whirled round, dove into the sofa
and buried her head under the cushion
which is the only proper response
to the Good News of the Incarnation.
—John Shea, The Hour of the Unexpected (1977).
Dec
2021

You Can’t Always Get What You Want!

In the Hebrew Bible reading for this fourth Sunday of Advent, Micah 5:2-5, the prophet recalls the humble birth of David. Israel’s greatest king was from Bethlehem: a little Judean village not unlike Micah’s own village of Morasheth.  If Judah was to survive, it needed to return to those humble beginnings and values.  The last thing Judah needed was another Jerusalemite dandy, born to the purple and raised with the assumption of power and privilege!  Instead, speaking for the LORD, Micah says,
As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become one of peace (Micah 5:2-5).
Such a leader would have been the last thing that Jerusalem’s elites wanted.  But Micah is convinced that this is precisely what Judah needs! 
The heading I’ve given to this blog post was shamelessly stolen from a Rolling Stones song–chances are, you’ve been playing it in the back of your head ever since you read the title!  Like Micah, Mick Jagger declares, “You can’t always get what you want.  But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need!”

Micah prophesied in the middle of the eighth century, in a tiny village about 25 miles southwest of the big city of Jerusalem called Morasheth-Gath.  It was a long way from Jerusalem to Morasheth-gath: a distance not so much geographical as social.  As its name implies, Morasheth-gath was a border town, located in contested territory right on the edge of Jewish Judah and Philistine Gath.  Its people were a hard-scrabble lot: rural, not urban; poor, not rich; decidedly lower, not upper class.  Perhaps it was this distant perspective that enabled Micah to see so clearly through the arrogance of Jerusalem’s leaders:

who reject justice and make crooked all that is straight,

         who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with injustice!
 Her officials give justice for a bribe,
        and her priests teach for hire.
Her prophets offer divination for silver,
        yet they rely on the Lord, saying,
            “Isn’t the Lord in our midst?
                Evil won’t come upon us!” (Micah 3:9-11).

Such blithe, naive arrogance was dangerous, Micah knew, for the mid-eighth century was a dangerous time, when the cruel military power of Assyria was on the rise.  This crisis called for just, wise, decisive leadership–for, in short, another David!

Today’s Hebrew Bible reading is quoted in Matthew 2:5-6.  When the foreign sages come to Judah following a star, looking for a new-born king, they come to the big city of Jerusalem, and to Herod’s palace–because where else would you look for a king?  Herod consults the scribes, who then read to him, and to his guests from the east, Micah’s ancient prophecy.

Sure enough, Jesus, like David, would be born humbly, in the little village of Bethlehem–the child of a peasant girl and her itinerant laborer husband.  We need to hear just how unlikely this sounds!  Because sometimes, in this season, we Christians wonder how Jesus’ own people could’ve missed him–implying, of course, that we would have done a better job.  But an old African American spiritual, with far more wisdom, recognizes the truth:

Sweet little Jesus Boy, we made you be born in a manger.

Sweet little Holy Child, we didn’t know who You were.

Didn’t know you’d come to save us, Lord; to take our sins away.

Our eyes were blind, we couldn’t see, we didn’t know it was you.

Herod’s scribes, who gave the wise men their directions from Scripture, did not go with them to the manger—I wonder why?  Likely it was because they couldn’t believe that Micah really meant it! Surely Messiah would not actually come in such a way!

r/alternativeart - Mary and Joseph reimagined in modern times

Jesus was not recognized as the Messiah for the very good reason that he was born among the poor– not the wealthy, powerful, or influential.  As he grew, he surrounded himself with the least, the lost, and the outcast–not the best and the brightest.  No one ever expected that Messiah would come like this! No one looked for, dreamed of, or wanted such a Messiah! But as Micah, and Mick, remind us “You can’t always get what you want. . . You get what you need.”

Jesus is still an astonishment, friends. He still shows up in the most unlikely places, among the most unlikely people—the least, the lost, the lowly. So if we would find him, that is where we too must go. And when we are lonely, when we have lost our way, we need only turn our heads to find him right there, beside us.  Because that is who he is.  That is what he does.

Jesus is still not the King we thought that we wanted—but he is the one that we need: the one who “shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD”. . . the “one of peace.”

 

Dec
2021

An Iota’s Worth of Difference

May be an image of text that says 'What? Homoousios or Homoiusios? You're not the real St. Nicholas.'

Every year (despite the unfortunate typo: that should be homoiousias), I repost this chestnut from “Orthodox Christian Memes.”  And every year, someone doesn’t get it.  So, on this the feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra (in the Western Church; in Eastern Churches, it is December 19), what’s the joke–and why does it matter?

Image result for st nicholasAccording to the Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Nicholas was

Bishop of Myra in Lycia; died 6 December, 345 or 352. Though he is one of the most popular saints in the Greek as well as the Latin Church, there is scarcely anything historically certain about him except that he was Bishop of Myra in the fourth century.

Some of the main points in his legend are as follows: He was born at Parara, a city of Lycia in Asia Minor; in his youth he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine; shortly after his return he became Bishop of Myra; cast into prison during the persecution of Diocletian [284 to 305 CE], he was released after the accession of Constantine [306 to 337 CE], and was present at the Council of Nicaea.

Image result for st nicholas

Legend also connects St. Nicholas to gift-giving at Christmas, and specifically to hanging stockings–hence, the association of Christmas and St. Nicholas, aka Santa Claus.  But, what about the meme with which we began?

Part of St. Nicholas’ legend is that, at the Council of Nicaea, he punched out Arius for denying the full divinity of Christ!  At issue were the Greek terms homoiousias and homoousias.  According to Arius and his followers, Jesus was a creation of God–the highest creature to be sure, indeed the first-born of all creation, but still distinct from the one God.  Jesus and God are therefore homoiousias: of like substance, or essence.  To be fair, this kind of language is used in Scripture. Colossians 1:15 describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the one who is first [Greek prototokos, “firstborn“] over all creation.”  The Christ hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 says that

Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings (Phil 2:6-7).

The Council, however, wound up affirming–with Nicholas, and against Arius–that Jesus and God were homoousias: that is, of the same substance, or of one substance.  The Nicene Creed accordingly confesses,

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, Light from Light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being [Greek homoousion] with the Father.
    Through him all things were made.

As old friend, ministry colleague, and shameless punster Frank Norris observes, there is way more than an iota of difference between homoousias and homoiousias!   Jesus and God are one!

So, why did the Council at Nicaea make this confession?  Theologian George Lindbeck has argued that Trinitarian theology grows out of the struggle of early Christians to speak plainly about their experience of God. Early on, the first Christians needed to affirm, on the one hand, the continuity of their faith with the faith of ancient Israel: the God they loved and worshipped was Abraham’s God.  But at the same time, they needed to speak of Jesus in the most exalted language possible (what Lindbeck terms “Christological maximalism”), as they had come to know God, intimately and personally, through him. Hence, the New Testament calls Jesus God’s Son (The Nature of Doctrine [Nashville: Westminster John Knox, 1984], 94).

Trinity (Andrei Rublev) - Wikipedia

As St. Nicholas insisted, and as the Council at Nicaea affirmed, it is true that Jesus is divine; yet it is also true that God is one.  That may seem nonsensical–but the Trinity is not a logic problem for us to solve!  We come to the paradoxical language of Trinity because we are driven to it by the shape of our experience of God.  The doctrine of the Trinity emerges out of our struggle to talk meaningfully about who God is, and what God is up to in our world.

Full-blown Trinitarian language is wanting in the texts of Scripture, but the Gospel of John comes very close.  John 1:1 affirms,

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.

Indeed, in John 10:30, Jesus proclaims, “I and the Father are one.”  In John 16:14-15, Jesus speaks of the Spirit who “will take what is mine and proclaim it to you” (16:14), yet also says “Everything that the Father has is mine” (16:15).  Jesus, the Spirit, and the Father are distinct, yet intimately related.

1 John 4:8 gives us another way to visualize the Divine life: “God is love.”  The greatest power in the universe is self-giving, sacrificial love!  God in Godself is at once the Lover, and the Beloved, and the Love that binds them as one.  God in Godself is relationship, and community!

The early Christians were not the first to realize this.  The sages of ancient Israel looked for a way of talking about God as, on the one hand, separate from the world and its objects, and on the other, as intimately involved and engaged with the world.  Particularly in Proverbs 8, they described divine Wisdom itself as a person: a woman, as the Hebrew word for Wisdom (khokmah) is feminine.

Best of Frenemies: Unexpected Role of Social Networks in Ecology | UC Davis

Lady Wisdom  says, “The LORD created me [Hebrew qanani; perhaps better “acquired me,” that is, as a wife] at the beginning of his way, before his deeds long in the past” (Proverbs 8:22).  Through Wisdom, God creates a world reflecting God’s own character and identity: a community, a web of interrelationships, every part working together and responding to every other part, on every level.

I was formed in ancient times,
    at the beginning, before the earth was.
When there were no watery depths, I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs flowing with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
    before the hills, I was brought forth;
    before God made the earth and the fields
    or the first of the dry land.
I was there when he established the heavens,
    when he marked out the horizon on the deep sea,
    when he thickened the clouds above,
    when he secured the fountains of the deep,
    when he set a limit for the sea,
        so the water couldn’t go beyond his command,
    when he marked out the earth’s foundations.
I was beside him as a master of crafts.
    I was having fun,
    smiling before him all the time,
    frolicking with his inhabited earth
    and delighting in the human race (Prov 8:23-31).

Christian readers will be reminded, again, of John 1:1-3:

In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
and without the Word
nothing came into being.

Here, Christ is the Word of God who is God, through whom the world was made. This is a Wisdom Christology: a way of talking about Christ drawn from the language of Proverbs 8!

The first chapter of John goes on to give us John’s version of the Christmas story:

The true light that shines on all people
    was coming into the world.
The light was in the world,
    and the world came into being through the light,
        but the world didn’t recognize the light.
The light came to his own people,
    and his own people didn’t welcome him.
But those who did welcome him,
        those who believed in his name,
    he authorized to become God’s children,
        born not from blood
        nor from human desire or passion,
        but born from God.
The Word became flesh
    and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
    glory like that of a father’s only son,
        full of grace and truth (John 1:9-14).

It is, granted, an unusual Christmas story—without a shepherd, wise man, or manger in sight! That is because, rather than telling a story about Christ’s birth, John considers the meaning of his birth: the mystery of the Incarnation.

Both Matthew and Luke begin their gospels by setting Jesus’ life and ministry in history: he was born in Palestine, in Bethlehem, in the reigns of Caesar Augustus and Herod.  But John’s gospel opens in eternity: En arche he logos—“In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). Any reader of Scripture will think immediately of the very first chapter of Scripture, where God speaks the universe into being, creating by means of God’s word: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light” (Gen 1:3; cf. 1:6, 9,11,14, 20, 24). But for John’s Greek-speaking audience, there would have been another resonance to this language. Logos of course means “word,” but Greek Stoic philosophers also used Logos as their name for the ordering principle behind all reality.

Astonishingly, John 1:14 asserts “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” In Greek, “flesh” is sarx: a satisfactorily ugly word for the stuff of which people are made. The logos, God’s creative Word, the very structure of the universe, has become sarx. That is, quite literally, what “incarnation” means. To understand the Latin root of the word, you don’t need to know Latin—you just need to be a fan of Mexican food. “Chili con carne” is, of course, chili with meat. The incarnation is the “in-meat-ment” of the Divine!

Madonna and Child (Icon with Panagia Glykofilousa): Virgin of Tenderness

What a bizarre thing to say! In fact, we Christians are the only ones who make such a claim about God. Many find it inconceivable, if not offensive, to imagine the unimaginable God in such a way—eternity somehow collapsed into time, omnipresence folded into such a small and scandalously specific place as a baby, in a manger, in Bethlehem. And they are right—it is offensive, inconceivable, a paradox, a mystery—but it is also the claim at the center of our Christian faith.

St. Nicholas was right, friends. Jesus IS God.  In him, God has shown us a human face, has spoken to us with a human voice, has touched us with human hands. In the person of Jesus, God has come to us as one of us.

 

Nov
2021

Hanukkah and the Bible

Hanukkah 2020 - Stories, Traditions & Origins - HISTORY

As I write this, both Advent and Hanukkah are about to begin: tomorrow (November 28) is the first Sunday of Advent, and at sundown that evening, the first day of Hanukkah begins.  On each Sunday of Advent, many Christians will light another candle on their Advent wreaths, counting down the four weeks until Christmas.  On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah (beginning Monday November 29), observant Jews will light another candle on their Hanukkah menorahs (these traditionally have nine branches, as one holds the light from which the others are lit).  A minor festival in the Jewish religious year, the significance of Hanukkah as a family holiday of feasting and gift-giving has grown in parallel to its winter neighbor, the Gentile celebration of Christmas. 

File:Michelangelo, profeti, Daniel 01.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The story back of Hanukkah is related in Talmud (b. Shabbat 21b) and in the Apocrypha, in 1 Maccabees 4:36-61.  Intriguingly, that story is also related in the Old Testament book of Daniel.  This may surprise us: the Maccabean revolt, after all, was in the second century BCE, while Daniel is set nearly 400 years earlier, in the time of the Babylonian exile.  However, most scholars agree that in its final form, Daniel must actually have been written down in the mid-second century: in fact, between 167 and 164 BCE.  For example, the writer of Daniel doesn’t know the name of the Judean king under whom the first exile took place–it was Jehoiachin (see 2 Kgs 24:8-17; Ezekiel 1:1-3), not Jehoiakim, as Daniel 1:1-4 claims–and says that the city of Babylon was conquered, not by Cyrus the Persian (see 2 Chron 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4; Isaiah 45:1-4), but by an otherwise unknown Darius the Mede (Daniel 5:30–6:3). These statements couldn’t have been made by an eyewitness to the events.

On the other hand, Daniel accurately describes the events of the Greek period, which also set the stage for the events recalled at Hanukkah. In 332 BCE, most of the then-known world was conquered by a young Macedonian called Alexander the Great. When Alexander died ten years later, leaving behind no heir, his generals divided the empire among them. For the Jews in Palestine, two of these rulers would prove especially significant.  To their south, Egypt was claimed by Ptolemy, while to their north, Seleucus ruled in Syria. Through the following generations, the descendants of these two Greek generals, called the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, squabbled for control of Palestine. As long as the Ptolemies of Egypt were in control, the Jews of Palestine were left alone. However, in 200 BCE Antiochus III, the reigning Seleucid, conquered Palestine. At first, little changed. But when Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power in 175 BCE, he began to intervene drastically in Jewish life (1 Maccabees 1:20-64; Daniel 7:25; 11:29-39): perhaps as part of a campaign to unify his kingdom under Greek culture and religion, perhaps in order to get his hands on the Jerusalem temple treasury–or perhaps as an act of anti-Semitic hatred.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Beginning of the Rebellion | Reading Acts

Antiochus IV appointed a high priest of his own choosing (ominously named Jason–clearly not a Hebrew name!) in Jerusalem, and gave his support to those in the Jerusalem aristocracy who favored the new Greek ways. When pious Jews resisted, he used cruder methods. In 167 BCE, an altar to Zeus, chief god of the Greeks, was set up in the Jerusalem temple. On this altar was sacrificed an animal sacred to Zeus: the pig. This terrible sacrilege–the sacrifice of an unclean animal to an alien god–is the “desolating monstrosity” of Daniel 11:31 (in the KJV, “the abomination that maketh desolate;” for later interpretations of this Danielic image, see Matt 24:15; Mark 13:14). Similar altars, and similar sacrifices, were ordered established throughout the land. It became illegal to circumcise male children, to observe the Sabbath or any of the other festivals, to teach or even to read the Law, and those who resisted were horrifically persecuted.

All of this is accurately (if symbolically) related in Daniel 10:1–11:39. But after this point, historical events and the course of the vision no longer coincide. Daniel 11:40-43 predicts steadily greater victories for Antiochus–until suddenly “reports from the east and north will alarm him, and in a great rage he will set off to devastate and destroy many” (Dan 11:44). Then, preparing to return to Syria, Antiochus will camp in Palestine, where the archangel Michael will fall upon him with the heavenly armies and destroy him, ushering in the resurrection of the dead and the end of the world (Dan 12:1-3).

Antiochus actually died in the course of his campaign against Persia, in 164 BCE.  Earlier that same year, Jerusalem was liberated by an army of Jewish guerrillas led by Judas Maccabeus (1 Maccabees 4:36-61).  The traditional Hanukkah song “Hayo Hayah” (here adapted and sung by Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers) retells the story.  Daniel does not describe these events, likely because the book was completed before they happened: sometime between 167 (the date of the “desolating monstrosity”) and 164 BCE.

Of course, while Antiochus’ oppressive rule ended in the mid-second century BCE, the world did not.  Later Jewish readers, as well as Christian readers such as the John of Revelation, identified Daniel’s fourth kingdom with Rome (2 Esdras 12:10-12; Rev 17:9): but the world did not end with the fall of Rome, either.  In all the generations since, the promise of God’s deliverance has been continually re-read, and applied to new situations, in the confidence that God’s faithfulness will prevail over every oppressor.

Hanukkah: History & Traditions | Live ScienceSo, why the eight nights of Hanukkah, with their eight lights?  Following the liberation of Jerusalem, Judas Maccabeus summoned faithful priests to reconsecrate the temple and its altar, defiled by the idolatrous rites that had been performed there under Antiochus’ rule.  But, according to the tradition, they hit a snag.  Talmud says:

For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest,  but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel  and thanksgiving [b. Shabbat 21b].

How to Play Dreidel | My Jewish Learning

 

The dreidel game traditionally played during Hanukkah becomes another way of recalling the miracle of the lamps:

Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ‎ (nun), ג‎ (gimel), ה‎ (hei), ש‎ (shin). These letters are translated in Yiddish to a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: nun stands for the word נישט (nisht, “not”, meaning “nothing”), gimel for גאַנץ (gants, “entire, whole”), hei for האַלב (halb, “half”), and shin for שטעלן אַרײַן (shtel arayn, “put in”). However, according to folk etymology, they represent the Hebrew phrase נֵס גָּדוֹל הָיָה שָׁם‎ (nes gadól hayá sham, “a great miracle happened there”).

 

Book Of Daniel Art | Fine Art America

While Hanukkah rightly celebrates the military victory of the Maccabees over their Greek oppressors, the book of Daniel models a different path, of passive, peaceful  resistance.  Perhaps the most famous story in this book is Daniel in the lions’ den (Dan 6:1-28), set in the reign of Darius–evidently the Persian Darius I (522-486 BCE).

In form, this story is reminiscent of the book of Esther, also set in the Persian period (in Esther 1:1, Ahasuerus [Xerxes I, 485-465 BCE] is said to rule “from India to Cush—one hundred twenty-seven provinces in all;” note that the Greek text of Daniel 6:1 also counts 127 satrapies). In Esther as in Daniel, a good and just councilor (Mordecai in Esther, Daniel here) is victimized by jealous enemies in the court (Haman in Esther; in Daniel, all the other councilors). In both books, the Persian king is tricked into signing an irrevocable edict: in Esther, ordering the deaths of all the Jewish people; in Daniel, directing that “for thirty days anyone who says prayers to any god or human being except you, Your Majesty, will be thrown into a pit of lions” (Est 3:9-15; Dan 6:8, 12, 15).  We should note that “the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be annulled” (Dan 6:8, 12) is a bit of folklore, rather than a genuine feature of Persian law.  But while in Esther Ahasuerus’ irrevocable command is matched by a new law arming the Jews and empowering them to resist (Est 8:8-13), in Daniel Darius is forced to carry out his edict. Daniel, who had continued his practice of daily prayer in defiance of the law, is hurled into the lions’ den.  The story records how, after a sleepless night, King Darius breathlessly ran to the lions’ den, to learn how his friend had fared:

At dawn, at the first sign of light, the king rose and rushed to the lions’ pit.  As he approached it, he called out to Daniel, worried: “Daniel, servant of the living God! Was your God—the one you serve so consistently—able to rescue you from the lions?”  Then Daniel answered the king: “Long live the king! My God sent his messenger, who shut the lions’ mouths. They haven’t touched me because I was judged innocent before my God. I haven’t done anything wrong to you either, Your Majesty.”  The king was thrilled. He commanded that Daniel be brought up out of the pit, and Daniel was lifted out. Not a scratch was found on him, because he trusted in his God (Dan 6:19-23).

Althouse: They've covered the popular "Lion Attacking a Dromedary” diorama at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh — do you see why?

In ancient times, Asiatic lions ranged across the Near East, and were understandably feared and respected–even regarded as symbols of royalty in Israel (for example, Gen 49:9; 1 Kgs 10:18-20//2 Chron 9:17-19; Ezek 19:1-9) and Mesopotamia. This diorama in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History contains the taxidermied remains of an Asiatic lion, but sadly, that species is now extinct; modern lions are restricted to a few African regions.  Yet for all the vividness of Daniel’s story, we have no evidence from the Persian period of lions as a mode of execution. Daniel Smith-Christopher (“The Book of Daniel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII, ed. Leander Keck [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996], 91) proposes that the lions’ den serves as “a symbol of the exile itself,” and of God’s promise of deliverance to God’s people.

Mahatma Gandhi | Biography, Accomplishments, & Facts | Britannica

Mahatma Gandhi, who called Daniel “one of the greatest passive resisters that ever lived,” said specifically of the lion’s den story:

When Daniel disregarded the laws of the Medes and Persians which offended his conscience, and meekly suffered the punishment for his disobedience, he offered satyagraha [nonviolent resistance; a term coined by Gandhi] in its purest form.

The book of Daniel models and affirms the passive, nonviolent resistance practiced by its own faithful community: a different way than the path of violent revolution followed by the Maccabean rebels, but one to which, in our violent times, we ought particularly to attend.

Chanukkah sameach and a joyous Advent to you and yours, friends–God bless us every one!

Nov
2021

A Thanksgiving Prayer

30 Scripture Verses to Celebrate Thanksgiving with an Attitude of Grat - Clothed with Truth

FOREWORD: In Sunday’s worship service, my pastor (and former student!) Karen Slusser led us in this beautiful thanksgiving litany, from poet, theologian, and civil rights activist Howard Thurman.  I share it with you for your own meditation and devotion this festive week.  God bless you, friends–Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

Howard Thurman’s Thanksgiving Prayer

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.
I begin with the simple things of my days:
Fresh air to breathe,
Cool water to drink,
The taste of food,
The protection of houses and clothes,
The comforts of home.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:
My mother’s arms,
The strength of my father
The playmates of my childhood,
The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives
Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies
And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;
The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;
The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the
Eye with its reminder that life is good.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:
The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;
The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I
Feared the step before me in darkness;
The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest
And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;
The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open
Page when my decision hung in the balance.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

If John Wesley Came to General Conference – Part 1 - United Methodist Insight

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:
The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,
Without whom my own life would have no meaning;
The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;
The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp
And whose words would only find fulfillment
In the years which they would never see;
The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,
The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;
The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,
Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;
The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream
Could inspire and God could command.
For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment
To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:
The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,
My desires, my gifts;
The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence
That I have never done my best, I have never dared
To reach for the highest;

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind
Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the
inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the
children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,
I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,
Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

Who Was Howard Thurman? | BU Today | Boston University

AFTERWORD:

Howard Thurman, 1899–1981 (from Rich Barlow, “Who Was Howard Thurman?”, Boston University Today, January 7, 2020)

“In 1944, Thurman cofounded San Francisco’s Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first integrated interfaith religious congregation in the United States. In 1953, he became the dean of Marsh Chapel, the first black dean at a mostly white American university, mentoring, among many others, Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) as he developed his philosophy of nonviolence.

Yet Thurman didn’t live the dramatic public activism of King or suffer a similar martyrdom. In fact, critics called him a backbencher in the Civil Rights Movement, more preoccupied with mystical meanderings than frontline protesting. Thurman countered that the first order of social change was changing one’s individual internal spirit. ‘He rather gently and powerfully moved through the world in a spirit of grace, dignity, and humility,’ says Walter Fluker (GRS’88), the School of Theology Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Ethical Leadership, who published Thurman’s papers, taught a seminar on the man last semester, and wrote his dissertation on Thurman and King.

Who exactly was Howard Thurman?

In an interview shortly before his death, Thurman said he caught the ‘contagion’ of religion from his grandmother, who cared for him after his father died when Thurman was seven and his mother became the family breadwinner. His grandmother recited for Howard the mantra of the black preacher she’d heard as a child on her owner’s plantation: ‘You are not slaves. You are not niggers. You’re God’s children!’ His grandmother’s charismatic rendition, Thurman told the interviewer, inspired in him the belief that ‘the creator of existence also created me.’

That belief took him to Morehouse College in Atlanta, then to seminary and a series of jobs as pastor and professor. His first pastorate after his 1925 ordination as a Baptist minister, in Ohio in the 1920s, led to study with Quaker pacifist Rufus Jones, which Thurman said changed his life. His thinking was honed by a 1935 trip to India with other African Americans to meet Mohandas Gandhi, who completed Thurman’s conversion to nonviolent social activism.

Thurman’s association with Martin Luther King, Jr., predated BU. Thurman and King’s father, an Atlanta minister, were friends when the young King was growing up. ‘Thurman was at the King home many times,’ says Vita Paladino (MET’79, SSW’93), former director of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, which houses King’s donated papers. Their BU time overlapped for only a year, and King considered his father and Thurman a different, older generation, Paladino says. Nonetheless, King carried Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman’s most important book, while leading the 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott.

Published in 1949, the book argues that Jesus taught the oppressed a faith-based unconditional love that would enable them to endure their oppression. Thurman’s message moved not only King, but Jesse Jackson, who in 1982 penned an essay for a postmortem tribute to Thurman by BU. Jackson the activist wrote that he’d been drawn to Thurman the academic by his insistence that ‘if you ever developed a cultivated will with spiritual discipline, the flame of freedom would never perish.’”

Nov
2021

The Pierced King

What is truth? Christ and Pilate - Popxartist

This Sunday, the last Sunday after Pentecost, marks the end of the Christian year; next Sunday, with Advent, a new year will begin. The last Sunday of the Christian year is called the Reign of Christ, or the feast of Christ the King.  Appropriately, the Gospel for this Sunday, John 18:33-37, relates Jesus’ trial before Pilate on the charge of political insurrection:  has Jesus claimed to be a king, in opposition to Caesar?

Pilate went back into the palace. He summoned Jesus and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?” 

Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”

Pilate responded, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Jesus replied, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”

“So you are a king?” Pilate said.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”

The epistle for this Sunday, Revelation 1:4-8, further clarifies what sort of kingdom Jesus rules, and what sort of king he is:

Grace and peace to you from the one who is and was and is coming, and from the seven spirits that are before God’s throne, and from Jesus Christ—the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, who made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father—to him be glory and power forever and always. Amen 

Look, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye will see him, including those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him. This is so. Amen.

John’s reference to Jesus as the pierced one alludes to an enigmatic text from Zechariah:

And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn (Zech 12:10, NRSV).

As in Joel 2:28-29 (in Hebrew, 3:1-2), God pours out God’s spirit.  But here, rather than a spirit of prophecy poured out on all people, God pours out “a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (12:10). This spirit sufficiently softens their hearts so that “when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”

But who is this pierced one?  Our Hebrew Bible reads ‘elay ‘eth ‘asher-daqaru: “to me whom they have pierced.”  The third person forms used later in the verse (“mourn for him . . . weep over him”) suggest that perhaps ‘elay should read ‘elaw (“to him”)—a common scribal error.  Accordingly, the NRSV has “the one whom they have pierced.”  The Greek text of John 19:37, which quotes this verse, reads hopsontai eis hon exekentesan, “they shall look at him whom they have pierced,” which seems to be the form of the saying assumed by most early Christian writers.

However, the Greek Septuagint keeps the first person reference in Zech 12:10, translating the phrase as epiblepsontai pros me anth’ on katorchesanto (“they shall look to me because they mocked”[?]; the Greek texts of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotian have exekentesan, “they pierced,” instead of katorchesanto, “they mocked”).  The early Christian teacher Theodoret of Cyrus accordingly read, “They will look on me, on the one they have pierced” (Commentary on the Twelve Prophets).  The Latin Vulgate also uses the first person (aspicient ad me quem confixerunt; “they shall look upon me whom they have pierced”), as does the old King James Version: “they shall look upon me whom they have pierced.”  The CEB has, “They will look to me concerning the one whom they pierced;” similarly, the Jewish Publication Society’s translation reads “they shall lament to me about those who are slain.” This is a possible, if awkward, reading.

But if the Hebrew text is correct here, as seems likely from the textual evidence, the simplest and best reading is, “when they look on me whom they have pierced.”  Incredible as it seems, this passage refers to an assault by Jerusalem’s leaders upon God.  The one “whom they have pierced” is the LORD.

There is precedent for this in Zechariah 2:8:

The Lord of heavenly forces proclaims (after his glory sent me)
        concerning the nations plundering you:
            Those who strike you strike the pupil of my eye.

Here, those who assault Judah are regarded as though they had poked God in the eye!  Cruelty to those whom God loves is an assault upon the Divine.  No wonder Zechariah 12:10 calls the people of Jerusalem and their leaders to mourn!

Crucifixion of Jesus - Wikipedia

The quotation of Zechariah 12:10 in the Fourth Gospel comes in John’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion:

It was the Preparation Day and the Jewish leaders didn’t want the bodies to remain on the cross on the Sabbath, especially since that Sabbath was an important day. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of those crucified broken and the bodies taken down.  Therefore, the soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men who were crucified with Jesus.  When they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead so they didn’t break his legs.  However, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.  The one who saw this has testified, and his testimony is true. He knows that he speaks the truth, and he has testified so that you also can believe. These things happened to fulfill the scripture, They won’t break any of his bonesAnd another scripture says, They will look at him whom they have pierced (John 19:31-37).

Breaking of the legs of the crucified was intended to speed their deaths.  If victims of crucifixion were unable to push up to relieve the pressure on their lungs and diaphragm, they would soon suffocate.  Otherwise, those crucified suffered for hours, even days, before dying.  The religious leaders do not ask a quicker death for Jesus and his fellow sufferers out of mercy or pity, however.  Unburied corpses defile the land (Deut 21:23, Paul’s prooftext for Jesus taking our curse on himself; see Gal 3:13).  Therefore, it is important for these leaders that the condemned men die before sundown, so that they do not die on the Sabbath–particularly this Sabbath of Passover.  When the executioners see (doubtless to their surprise) that Jesus is already dead, they stab him with a spear to make certain, fulfilling, in John’s mind, Zechariah’s prophecy (as well as Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12, which direct that the bones of the Passover lamb are not to be broken, and Psalm 34:19-20).

Returning to Sunday’s epistle reading, Revelation 1:7 also alludes to Zechariah 12:12: “The land will mourn, each of the clans by itself.”  Here, John follows the Septuagint reading kai kopsetai he ge kata phulas (“the earth shall mourn by tribe”).  So John declares that every tribe on earth will see the exalted, returning Christ–and everyone will be brought by this revelation to mourning and repentance.

By contrast, the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr read this passage as referring specifically to the Jews, who looking on “him whom they have pierced      . . . shall say, ‘Why, O Lord, have you made us to err from your way? The glory which our fathers blessed has for us been turned into shame” (First Apology 52). Indeed, Hippolytus describes those who crucified Jesus, whom he identifies as “the people of the Hebrews,” wailing when they see “him whom they have pierced,” and repenting—but too late, as they have already been consigned to hell (On the End of the World 40).

No contemporary Christian can–or should–read those words without shame. Jesus was not killed by the Jews, as the Bible and history alike make utterly plain.  But while absolutely repudiating the anti-Semitism of these ancient Christian authors, we can still learn from them. By identifying the “pierced one” with Jesus, whom they certainly regarded as divine, these early Christian exegetes recognized that in Zech 12:10, God is the offended party.

But while Jerusalem and its leaders have by their injustice and faithlessness wounded the LORD, God’s response is not to seek vengeance, but to pour out God’s spirit, and so to bring them to sorrow and remorse.  The reference in Zechariah 12:10 to mourning “as one mourns for an only child” (Hebrew hayyakhid, “the only one”) recalls other texts depicting extreme grief (Jeremiah 6:26; Amos 8:10).  Just as the reference to the firstborn (habbekor) recalls the grim story of the tenth plague in Exodus 12:29-32, and the “terrible cry of agony” when the deaths of the firstborn were discovered, the reference to the only child recalls Genesis 22, where Abraham is commanded to give up “your son, your only son [yekhideka] Isaac, whom you love” (Gen 22:2) and the loss of Jephthah’s only daughter (Hebrew yekhidah) in Judges 11:34.  Christian readers are likely to think of John 3:16, which describes Jesus as God’s only child (Greek monogenes; the same word used in the Septuagint of Jdg 11:34 for Jephthah’s only daughter), given up for us.

What kind of king is Jesus?  He is not a cruel despot, like Pilate or Caesar–or indeed, like any of the kings of the earth over whom he reigns.  He is the pierced one, who knows our suffering from the inside, who by his blood has freed us from the power of our own sin.  He comes, not to avenge, but to bring us all to a full recognition of our own violence and hatred, and so to healing grief and repentance.

 

Oct
2021

Being the Bible Guy: Does the Bible Matter Today?

FOREWORD:  I was humbled and honored to deliver the 2021 Ira Andrews Lecture this past Sunday at Randolph-Macon College.  I thank R-MC President Robert Lindgren and campus minister (and old friend!) Rev. Kendra Grimes for this invitation, and Rev. Michael Kendall, pastor of Duncan Memorial UMC, for his hospitality.  It was grand to see and visit with so many old and dear friends.

What follows is derived from my lecture.  If you would like to view it, you can find it online here.  Ira Andrews was a good friend, a generous colleague, and a tireless advocate for the Gospel, the United Methodist Church, liberal arts education–and specifically, for the way that those ideally came together at his beloved Randolph-Macon College.  May light perpetual shine upon you, my brother!

 

Even after sixteen wonderful years teaching seminarians at PTS, there are things I still miss about teaching at a liberal arts college.  At R-MC, I had trusted colleagues in a wide range of disciplines.  So, if I had a question about astronomy, physics, or science generally, I could go to my good friend George Spagna.  When my research required me to decipher an article written in Italian, I was able to rely on my colleague Aouicha Hilliard for a translation.

My colleagues in turn asked me about the Bible.  I still recall an inquiry from my colleague in Spanish, Mark Malin.  I cannot remember Mark’s question, but I distinctly remember how his email began: “Since you are the Bible guy. . .”.  Immediately I thought, “That is exactly who I am!  I love the Bible: I love studying it, I love teaching it, and most of all, I love the God revealed in its pages.  I am a Bible guy.”  When, eight years ago, I began this blog, I knew what I had to call it.  Today, I have retired after 33 years of guiding college and seminary students through the Scriptures, but I am still certain that this is my calling.  I am a Bible guy!

But for these last sixteen years, teaching seminarians, I have been preaching to the choir!  Students coming into my classroom already valued the Scriptures, and accepted that the Bible matters.  That was not the case at R-MC!  Every term, and more and more as the years went by, I had students in my classes who had never set foot in a church, synagogue, or mosque; who had never opened a Bible before. Once, when Ira and I were discussing the increasing secularity of our students, he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Steve, we’re missionaries!”

So:  on the first day of class, I would say to my students, “I know why most of you are here. R-MC requires you to take two courses in philosophy or religion (or both), and you have picked Bible. I am fine with that. My job is to persuade you that you made a good choice!”  I would then proceed to share with them some reasons why, in our culture, the Bible matters.

COVID-19 and the Constitution: How the Bill of Rights Is Being Tested by the Coronavirus | New York Law Journal

American legal and political traditions, I would tell them, derive from English common law, which is based in turn–at least, in principle–on moral and ethical ideals drawn from Scripture.  Specifically, our laws build on the foundation laid in the Decalogue (Exod 20:1-17; Deut 5:1-22): respect for life, for property, loyalty to one’s commitments, wishing the other’s good–the principles that make human community possible.

Night sky Colors & Stars: Cyc Ideas http://southwestdesertlover.wordpress.com/tag/wyoming-night-sky/ | Night sky photography, Night skies, Sky

Next, I would take my students to Gen 1:14-19, where the priests of ancient Israel describe God’s creation of the sun, moon, and stars.  These heavenly bodies are called in Hebrew me’orot, that is, lights: a big light to rule the sky at day; a little light and a generous scattering of tiny lights to adorn the heavens at night.

The sun, moon, and stars are not gods or goddesses, but merely lights in the sky: objects, not persons or powers!  Once we understand that we live in a world of objects—in short, once our world is disenchanted—we can begin the attempt to understand their interrelationships. By observation and experiment, we can begin to formulate hypotheses and test them; we can make predictions about what our world will do. The ancient Israelite priests who wrote Genesis 1 were not scientists, but the step that they took in Genesis 1:14-19 made our scientific and technological age possible.

William Blake - Wikipedia

Finally, I would share with my class the words of that great English poet, artist, and mystic William Blake: “The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art” (cited by Northrop Frye in The Great Code: The Bible and Literature [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982], xvi).  In the West, you cannot look at a sculpture or a painting, go to a play or a movie, read a poem or a novel, without encountering images, ideas, even plot lines taken from the pages of Scripture.

That is what I used to say to my classes, and I could say the same now.  But today, I would need to say something more.  Today, we are in the midst of a global pandemic.  COVID-19 has taken the lives of nearly five million people world -wide; 741,231 in the U.S. alone.  And yet, some still refuse vaccines or masks, and say that they do so because of their faith.

Image result for white CHristian Nationalists at Capitol

Some who mobbed our nation’s capital on January 6 carried crosses, or wore t-shirts with Christian slogans–believing, with Evangelical author Eric Metaxas, that “Jesus is with us in this fight.”  In these days of crisis and division, white Christian nationalists believe that the church belongs to them, and to those like them–and that the Bible tells them so.

These groups, and many like them, treat the Bible I love, not as a source of light and healing, but as weapon: a bludgeon to beat down their adversaries. We need to say “no” to these groups.  But to oppose them effectively, we need to know what the Bible actually says.

Christian author and apologist Josh McDowell. Photo courtesy of Set Free Global SummitLet me give you an example of what I mean.  On September 18, 2021, one of the speakers at a meeting of the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) was Christian author Josh McDowell.  His talk took aim at Critical Race Theory, often abbreviated as CRT—a common bugaboo of Fox News commentators and of many white Evangelicals, which says that racism is not simply a matter of individual bad choices or bad actors, but rather a systemic and institutional problem, woven into the structures of our society.

McDowell told those Christian counselors that CRT “negates all the biblical teaching” about racism — because it focuses on systems rather than the sins of the human heart and said today’s definition of “social justice” is not biblical. “There’s no comparison to what is known today as social justice with what the Bible speaks of as justice,” he said. “With CRT they speak structurally. The Bible speaks individually. Make sure you get that. That’s a big difference.” The Bible, according to Mr. McDowell, only focuses on individual sin, not social or structural sin.

Mr. McDowell went on to say,

I do not believe Blacks, African Americans, and many other minorities have equal opportunity. Why? Most of them grew up in families where there is not a big emphasis on education, security — you can do anything you want. You can change the world. If you work hard, you will make it. So many African Americans don’t have those privileges like I was brought up with.

These racist remarks were rightly and roundly condemned, and Mr. McDowell’s speech was removed from the AACC website. To his credit, he later apologized:

At a recent conference, I made comments about race, the black family, and minorities that were wrong and hurt many people. It breaks my heart to know what deep pain I have caused.

Mr. McDowell announced that he was stepping back from ministry, to enter a “season of listening.”

I hope he means it, friends.  Still, the problem is that Mr. McDowell’s attitudes toward race and society are inseparable from the way that he and many white Evangelicals choose to read the Bible: as about individuals, not society or social justice. These claims about Scripture are simply wrong. Note that this is not a matter of opinion! We aren’t dependent on someone to tell us what the Bible says—we have Bibles of our own, and can read them for ourselves.

Far from being an unbiblical idea, social justice is a consistent and persistent part of the prophetic witness. The prophets spoke, not to isolated individuals, but to their people, who were called to account not merely individually, but corporately.  Certainly that was the case for Amos, who addresses his message to the entire northern kingdom:

The Lord proclaims to the house of Israel:
        Seek me and live (Amos 5:4).

In the Talmud, that great compendium of rabbinic tradition, Rabbi Simlai teaches that although there are 613 commandments in Torah, in Amos they are boiled down to one: “Seek the LORD, and live” (b. Makkot 23b-24a)!  The alternative, Amos declares, is destruction for the house of Joseph and Israel (that is, the northern kingdom):

Seek the LORD and live,
        or else God might rush like a fire against the house of Joseph.
        The fire will burn up Bethel, with no one to put it out (Amos 5:6).

Why?  Because, Amos says,

They hate the one who judges at the city gate,
        and they reject the one who speaks the truth.
Truly, because you crush the weak,
        and because you tax their grain,
    you have built houses of carved stone,
        but you won’t live in them;
    you have planted pleasant vineyards,
        but you won’t drink their wine (Amos 5:10-11).

Note that, in Hebrew, the “yous” in this passage are plural (like “y’all” in the South, or “yinz” in Pittsburgh!). Amos is addressing, not isolated individuals, but a society.

Amos 5:21-24 is, frankly, terrifying:

I hate, I reject your festivals;
    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food
        I won’t be pleased;
    I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps (Amos 5:21-23).

God rejected the worship of Israel–but why?  What does God want, if not beautiful, emotionally stirring worship?  We know well Amos’ answer to that question:

But let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

We know those words well because Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously quoted them, in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail and in his “I Have A Dream” speech.  Dr. King used these words in exactly the same way that Amos used them–to call a society to repentance.

A few pages later in our Bibles, the prophet Micah similarly addresses the sins of the southern kingdom of Judah.  God brings a lawsuit (Hebrew rib; the NRSV reads “case” or “controversy”) against God’s own people:

Hear what the LORD is saying:
Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains;
        let the hills hear your voice!
Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the LORD!
        Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!
The LORD has a lawsuit against his people;
        with Israel he will argue (Micah 6:1-2).

The LORD reminds Judah of their past: of who they are, and who God is:

My people, what did I ever do to you?
        How have I wearied you? Answer me!
I brought you up out of the land of Egypt;
        I redeemed you from the house of slavery.
        I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you (Micah 6:3-4).

Next, much like Amos, Micah asks, “What does the LORD expect of us?  What does God want?”

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit? (Micah 6:6-7).

Micah’s answer, too, is much like Amos’:

He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the LORD requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

In Hebrew, the word rendered “faithful love” in the CEB is the gloriously untranslatable khesed (the NRSV reads “kindness,” the KJV has “mercy”)–a word that means steadfast love, covenant loyalty–the commitment of the whole self to God and to the justice that God loves and requires.

In Daniel 9:4-11, Daniel is reading Jeremiah’s prophecy of seventy years of exile (see Jeremiah 29:10; 25:11– 12).  Daniel cannot understand why God’s promise has been delayed, and so, fasting and mourning in sackcloth and ashes, he offers his corporate prayer of confession.  In this book, Daniel is presented as a conspicuously righteous and pious man.  But recognizing that, as an Israelite, he shares responsibility for the sins of his people, he prays for and repents of the sins of all Israel (note the emphasized words in this powerful prayer):

Please, my Lord—you are the great and awesome God, the one who keeps the covenant, and truly faithful to all who love him and keep his commands:  We have sinned and done wrong. We have brought guilt on ourselves and rebelled, ignoring your commands and your laws.  We haven’t listened to your servants, the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our leaders, our parents, and to all the land’s people.  Righteousness belongs to you, my Lord! But we are ashamed this day—we, the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, all Israel whether near or far, in whatever country where you’ve driven them because of their unfaithfulness when they broke faith with you.  LORD, we are ashamed—we, our kings, our leaders, and our parents who sinned against you.  Compassion and deep forgiveness belong to my Lord, our God, because we rebelled against him. We didn’t listen to the voice of the LORD our God by following the teachings he gave us through his servants, the prophets.  All Israel broke your Instruction and turned away, ignoring your voice. Then the curse that was sworn long ago—the one written in the Instruction from Moses, God’s servant—swept over us because we sinned against God (Daniel 9:4-11).

Some may say, “Well, yeah, but that is all on the left-hand side of the Bible.  Jesus taught individual accountability.”  But, is that so?  Remember that Rabbi Simlai looked for the core of the 613 commandments of Torah, finding them all summed up in Amos 5:4.  The question of the greatest commandment was addressed by Jesus, too: in Matthew 22:34-40Mark 12:28-34 (the Gospel reading for this Sunday!); and Luke 10:25-28.  These accounts differ in small points: in Matthew, the expert on the Jewish law seeks to test Jesus when he asks his question; in Mark, his question is sincere; in Luke, it is Jesus who questions the expert.  In all three, however, Jesus’ answer is the same: I can’t give you just one, I have to give you two!

The first commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:5 (the alternate Hebrew Bible reading for Sunday): “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.”  The heart (lebab in Hebrew) is the center of the will: loving God with all your heart means loving God as much as you can.  To love God with all one’s being (Hebrew nephesh should not be translated as “soul;” it refers, as the CEB translation “being” indicates, to the whole of oneself) is another way of saying that one is to love God entirely.  The last word, typically translated “strength” or “might,” is me’od in Hebrew; it means literally “much” or “very.”  We are to love God with our muchness–again, as much as we are possibly capable of loving!

The second commandment is Leviticus 19:18: “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.”  In Matthew 22:39, Jesus expressly connects this commandment to the first, saying that it is “like it.” Responsibility to our community is not optional!   After all, in the prayer that Jesus taught us, we do not pray “My Father,” but “OUR Father.”  Jesus taught us to pray, not “forgive me my trespasses,” but “forgive US OUR trespasses.”  Communal responsibility and social justice are common, prominent, universal themes in the whole of Scripture.

Why, then, can’t Mr. McDowell see it?  Perhaps because, as an Evangelical Christian, he believes, as I do, in the importance of a personal, individual relationship with Christ.  It is far too easy to see in Scripture not what is there on the page, but what we expect to see; to hear only what we expect to hear.  But this need not be an either/or, friends.  After all, Micah called not only for justice, but also for a personal, humble walk with God.  There need be no conflict between personal faith and social justice.

Friends, we must challenge those who arrogantly claim that the Bible legitimates their hatred and division—but how? I remain persuaded that the only way to beat bad Bible is with good Bible. We need actually to READ the Bible ourselves, in big hunks! We need to study this ancient text, so foundational for our society, in the church and in the academy. We need to ask hard questions, of the text and of one another. We need to find and engage with reliable scholars and teachers, old and new. To reclaim the Bible as a positive force for good in our world, we must all become Bible Guys.

AFTERWORD:

Disney tried to trademark 'Day of the Dead.' They make up for it with Pixar's 'Coco' | America MagazineOctober 31 is called Halloween (“Hallow E’en”)  for the same reason December 31 is called “New Year’s Eve,” or December 24 “Christmas Eve.”  Sunday is of course the day before November 1, All-Hallows Day–hence, All-Hallows Eve.  All-Hallows, or All-Saints, Day began in the days of Pope Boniface IV as a feast day for all martyrs, and was first celebrated on May 13, 609.  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 by extension, of all who have died in the Lord), and as such All-Saints 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;” called El Dia de Los Muertos [the Day of the Dead] in Spain), 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 night was transformed by the realization that Jesus Christ had triumphed over death, hell, and the grave. Death, and the dead, no longer needed to be feared.

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 Halloween, friends, and a joyous All Saints Day–and to my Dad Bernard Tuell, the best saint I know–happy birthday!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oct
2021

“What You Are Doing Isn’t Good”

Pastor Appreciation Month — The Pastor's SoulThis past Sunday, I am told, was Pastor Appreciation Day, and October is Clergy Appreciation Month.  To all of my friends and colleagues in parish ministry, including many former students–thank you for all that you do, every day and every month!  But perhaps there is also no better time than this to remind one another of the dangers of pastoral overwork , including the risk of burnout, and of our need for good support systems and self-care.  In recent weeks, tennis star Naomi Osaka and gymnastics great Simone Biles have both chosen to withdraw from some competitions, to conserve their own mental and emotional health. Their controversial choices have put self-care into the headlines.  By contrast, clergy far too often ignore self-care, with devastating personal results.

But pastoral overwork is also damaging to the communities that we serve, and to the faith that we profess.  Indeed, Parker Palmer calls such workaholism “‘functional atheism,’ the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us” (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000], 88).

'Moses' by Michelangelo JBU140.jpg

As a Bible Guy, I tend to think in biblical rather than theological or psychological terms.  Specifically, this issue calls Exodus 18 to my mind.  Here, Jethro follows his famous son-in-law Moses through what appears to be a typical work day, and at day’s end tells him,

What you are doing isn’t good.  You will end up totally wearing yourself out, both you and these people who are with you. The work is too difficult for you. You can’t do it alone (Exod 18:17-18).

Exodus 18 is an old northern, or E, tradition in the Pentateuch–so called because of its preference for the Hebrew title ‘elohim (“God”) rather than the personal Divine Name Yhwh (typically rendered as “the LORD,” in all caps).  Northern traditions in the Pentateuch do use Yhwh once the Name has been revealed to Moses (Exod 3:9-15), but they remain reluctant to use it too frequently. In this chapter, only Exodus 18:1 and 8-11, use “the LORD”–in each case, for a reason.  These verses all recall the deliverance from Egypt, calling the Name particularly to mind.  Indeed, in 18:11, the Name is necessary to distinguish the LORD from other deities: “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all the gods [kolha’elohim], because he delivered the people from the Egyptians.”  Otherwise, the Divine is referred to throughout this chapter as “God” (Exod 18:1a, 4, 5, 12 [twice], 15, 16, 19 [three times], 21, 23).

Further, Moses’ father-in-law is called Jethro here (Exod 18:1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12; compare Exod 3:1; 4:18) rather than Reuel (Exod 2:18) or Hobab (Num 10:29; see also Jdg 4:11), the names used in the old southern epic (usually called J, for the Germanic spelling of the Divine Name, JHVH, from which we get “Jehovah”).  The focus on Moses in this chapter is also typical of northern traditions. What is surprising, however, is that this passage is critical of Moses. Elsewhere, northern traditions exalt Israel’s liberator (for example, Num 12:6-8; Deut 5:1-5).

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By contrast, this chapter is remarkable for its very human portrayal of Moses.  St. John Chrysostom wrote,

For nothing was more humble than he, who being the leader of so great a people, and having overwhelmed in the sea the king and the host of all the Egyptians, as if they had been flies, and having wrought so many wonders both in Egypt and by the Red Sea and in the wilderness, and received such high testimony, yet felt exactly as if he had been an ordinary person. As a son-in-law he was humbler than his father-in-law; Moses took advice from him and was not indignant (“Homilies on 1 Corinthians 1.4,” cited in The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. 3, ed. Joseph T. Lienhard; gen ed. Thomas Oden [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2001], 94).

In our chapter, Moses tells Jethro of the Lord’s deliverance of Israel from Pharaoh, and from the hardships they have faced so far in the wilderness. Jethro rejoices, and declares “the LORD is greater than all gods” (Exod 18:11). Then the Midianite priest offers a sacrifice to the Lord, followed by a sacred meal in which Moses’ brother, the priest Aaron, also participates (Exod 18:12).

This scene would have been highly significant to the old northern priestly families who preserved this tradition. Through much of Israel’s history, the right to serve as priests was denied those northern Levites. The southern Jerusalem priests claimed that only they, the rightful descendants of Aaron, could offer sacrifices.  But in this northern tradition the right to priestly service is given even to Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, with Aaron himself giving his blessing by eating bread with Jethro “in the presence of God” (18:12).

Many early Jewish and Christian interpretations wrestle with this inclusion, and can only accept Jethro’s role by seeing his confession in Exod 18:10-11 as a conversion!  In Targum Pseudo-Jonathan of Exod 18:6, Jethro tells Moses that he has come in order to convert (Aramaic l’tgyyr’, see also Exod Rab 1:32; Tankha Buber Yitro, 5; and Mekhilta). Among Christian interpreters, Cyril of Alexandria and the Venerable Bede also see this scene as Jethro’s conversion.

On the other hand, Josephus notes that Moses here gives due praise to a Gentile! He did not

conceal the invention of this method; nor pretend to it himself: but informed the multitude who it was that invented it. Nay he has named Raguel [alternate spelling of Reuel {see Num 10:29, KJV}; i.e., Jethro] in the Books he wrote, as the person who invented this ordering of the people (Ant III. 4.2; http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-3.html),

Similarly, St. Augustine wrote:

Moses very prudently and humbly yielded to the advice of his father-in-law, foreigner though he was. . . For he realized that from whatever intellect right counsel proceeded, it should be attribute not to him who conceived it but to the One who is truth, the immutable God (On Christian Teaching, Prologue 7).

A similarly inclusive approach to ministry is found in the parallel to this passage in Numbers 11:11-17.  There, Moses has no problem with Eldad and Medad who, despite not having been present at the consecration of the seventy elders, spontaneously prophesy at the spirit’s prompting: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Num 11:29; compare Mark 9:38-40).

As we noted at the beginning of this blog, Jethro stays with Moses for awhile, watching quietly as his son-in-law works through a long day. Only at the day’s end does Jethro question what he has seen: “What’s this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people are standing around you from morning until evening?” (Exod 18:14). There is an ambiguity in this question not apparent in translation. The Hebrew la’am could mean, not “for the people,” but “to the people (as in Gen 12:18; 20:9; 26:10)—perhaps already implying that Moses’ actions are harming, not helping them.

Moses’ answer (Exod 18:15-16) reveals a threefold job description. First, the people come “to inquire of God” (18:15). In the Hebrew Bible, to “inquire of [Hebrew darash] God/the Lord” often means to consult a prophet concerning God’s will (for example, 1 Kgs 22:8//2 Chr 18:7; 2 Kgs 3:11; 8:8; 22:13, 18//2 Chr 34:21, 26). So, Moses is a prophet. In fact, we could perhaps more accurately say that Moses is the prophet: Deuteronomy 34:10 says “No prophet like Moses has yet emerged in Israel; Moses knew the LORD face-to-face!” This does not mean that Moses was engaged in fortune-telling, predicting the future of each inquirer—what we today may think of when we hear the word “prophet.” Rather, Moses is God’s messenger, communicating God’s will to the people.

Second, Moses is a judge: “When a conflict arises between them, they come to me and I judge between the two of them” (Exod 18:16). The roles of prophet and judge are not entirely distinct; Deborah was both prophet and judge (Jdg 4:4-5); as was Samuel (1 Sam 3:20-21; 7:15-17). However, the task of deciding matters of law is in Deuteronomy 21:1-5 assigned not to prophets, but to priests. This puts a whole new spin on the role Moses is seen to fill in this text. For the priests were also given a limited, semi-prophetic role: they could use the Urim and Thummim (apparently a sacred lot) to “inquire of the LORD” (Deut 33:8; for how the sacred lot was used, cf. 1 Sam 14:3, 41-42 and 23:1-6). As prophet and judge, Moses, it seems, is filling a priestly role as well.

This impression is strengthened by the third role Moses holds in Exodus 18:15-16. Moses is a teacher: “I also teach them God’s regulations and instructions” (18:16). Here again, we might say that Moses is the teacher (Deut 4:1-5), as he is the one who will receive the Law from God on Horeb (the name northern traditions use for the mountain elsewhere called Sinai). However, teaching the law was a task particularly assigned, in all the traditions, to the priestly house of Levi (for example, Lev 10:11; Deut 24:8; Ezek 42:23-24; Mal 2:6-7). So by describing Moses as prophet, judge, and teacher, Exodus 18:15-16 may also be claiming for Moses another role, as priest.

From the viewpoint of the old northern priestly families, this would have been important, since many appear to have traced their own descent from Moses himself, as the genealogy of the priests of Dan in Judges 18:30 reveals. In the Hebrew of this passage, in both the Leningrad and Aleppo Codices, scribes apparently offended by this claim have inserted a superscripted letter nun into the name “Moses” (presumed by the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate), changing it to “Manasseh” (see the KJV of Jdg 18:30)!  For the purposes of this study, this indicates yet another burden placed upon Moses, which he evidently believes that he must bear alone (Exod 18:14, 18; cf. Num 11:14).

Although, as we have seen, Jethro was the priest of Midian, in this chapter he is called Moses’ father-in-law (Hebrew khoten) thirteen times (18:1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12 (twice), 14, 15, 17, 24, 27), and a priest only once (18:1; see Terence Frethheim, Exodus, Interpretation [Louisville: John Knox, 1991], 195).  Jethro responds to Moses’ inhuman workload as any caring parent would, telling him, in no uncertain terms, “What you are doing isn’t good” (18:17)!

What burnout really is, and ways to prevent it | The Seattle Times

First, it is not good for Moses, and for obvious reasons: “You will end up totally wearing yourself out . . .  The work is too difficult for you. You can’t do it alone” (Exodus 18:18). Long before contemporary psychotherapists came up with the term “burnout,” Jethro described the condition to a tee.

But the danger was not to Moses alone—as the Hebrew of Jethro’s initial question (“what are you doing to the people”) has already implied. In full, Jethro says, “You will end up totally wearing yourself out, both you and these people who are with you.” What Moses is doing is not only self-destructive, but destructive to the community as well.

The workaholic’s conceit is always, “I can’t quit now. They are all depending on me.” That may well be true—but if it is, then “they” are all being deprived of their rightful opportunity to make their own decisions and to live their own lives. Jethro’s proposal of delegated authority not only gives Moses a much-needed rest, it also empowers the community. Like Moses, we may try to “do it all” for the best of reasons, out of a profound desire to help. However, that sort of “help” swiftly becomes coercive, even pathological—not ministry, but codependency. Once more, Jethro diagnosed the disease long before it was given its own label in the psychotherapeutic dictionary.

Jethro proposes that Moses seek out “capable persons who respect God. They should be trustworthy and not corrupt. ” (Exodus 18:21). This is a checklist that could scarcely be improved upon today for identifying people in our communities worthy of the task of leadership. What is more, Jethro confidently expects Moses to discover that such people are not rare. He will find enough to place some “over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (18:21).  Jethro gently informs Moses that God can work through others, too; there are plenty of people capable of sharing his burden.

Notice that Jethro does not tell Moses to stop caring—or even to change his job description. Moses is to continue in his priestly role, as prophet, judge, and teacher:

Your role should be to represent the people before God. You should bring their disputes before God yourself.  Explain the regulations and instructions to them. Let them know the way they are supposed to go and the things they are supposed to do (Exod 18:19-20).

The cure for Moses’ burnout—and ours—is certainly not quietism, noninvolvement, or apathy. Rather, Jethro tells Moses to go right on doing what he has been doing, but with a difference. Moses must acknowledge that he cannot, and should not, do it all alone—that he needs help.

The system Jethro describes provides for a far more efficient means of dealing with questions and conflicts. First recourse, apparently, would be to the judge appointed to you personally: one for every ten Israelites. Jethro recognized that Moses could not possibly be personally involved in the life of every Israelite. But in this way, every member of the community could talk to someone who knew them very well. Similarly, John Wesley divided the first Methodists into classes, or bands; small groups for prayer and support that met weekly

To speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt since our last meeting (John Wesley, “Rules of the Bands,” 1744; cited in John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler, Library of Protestant Thought [New York: Oxford, 1964], 180).

Jethro also proposed providing higher courts of appeal: judges over fifties, hundreds and thousands. These persons could deal with problems too severe or widespread for the judges over tens. Only the most important cases would then be appealed ultimately to Moses himself (Exod 18:22).

Obviously, Jethro’s proposal spares Moses a great deal of work. But that is by no means all that it does. Remember Jethro’s observation that the people, as well as Moses, were being worn out by the old ways. They had no voice, no real participation in decision-making. But once this program is in operation, “they will share your load” (18:22). Jethro’s proposal shares power and responsibility broadly, among the people whose daily lives are effected by the decisions made. Jethro predicts that this program will lead to greater satisfaction and tranquility: “all these people will go to their home in peace” (18:23).

God Reaches Out, No Matter Where You Are: Purves

So—what lessons applicable to our current circumstances can we draw from Jethro’s practical admonition to this son-in-law? Andrew Purves addresses his transformational book The Crucifixion of Ministry primarily “to busy, tired, somewhat depressed, midcareer, and fed-up ministers who can’t carry the load of ministry any longer”—in short, to pastors like Moses in Exodus 18 (The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2002], 11)! At the very beginning of his book, Purves describes a conversation with his wife about her frustration with pastoral ministry, “that no matter what she tried, nothing seemed to change.”

Suddenly, I mean out of the blue, I had the insight that there is little, maybe nothing, we who are ministers of the gospel can do that really changes things. If anything worthwhile is to happen, Jesus has to show up. . . . Walking on the beach I was suddenly aware that our attempt to be effective ministers is a major problem. We are in the way. Our strategies, action plans, pastoral resources and entrepreneurial church revitalization techniques have become not the solution but the problem. Our ministries need to be crucified. They need to be killed off. What if Jesus showed up? That’s our only hope. Our people don’t need us; they need Jesus. Our job is to bear witness to him. (Purves, 9-10)

The purpose of his book, Purves writes, “is to offer a perspective on ministry and illustrate a practice that liberates ministers from the grind of feeling that ‘It’s all up to me.’”  That perspective begins with a crucial insight: “Conceiving ministry as our ministry is the root problem of what ails us in ministry today.” Instead, “Ministry should be understood as a sharing in the continuing ministry of Jesus Christ” (Purves, 11).

L. Roger Owens

L. Roger Owens describes a different sort of problem with the goal-driven ministry Purves decries: what if it succeeds?

My problem was that I was doing it well and seeing results. I’d put on the mask of the visionary leader and I wore it convincingly. But after five years of wearing it, the mask was beginning to chafe. . . I’d been going against the grain for five years, and was suffering because of it—physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. I was contemplating how to get out (“Staying with God: Eugene Peterson and John Chapman on Contemplation,” in Pastoral Work: Engagements with the Vision of Eugene Peterson, eds. Jason Byassee and L. Roger Owens [Cascade Press, 2014], 131-32).

For Owens as for Purves, the way forward is a reorientation, away from “practicing ministry with the unconscious assumption that if I don’t make something good happen here it never will” (Owens, 132) and back toward Christ, through contemplative spiritual practice. Part of trusting in God is trusting that God is at work, in ways we do not know and cannot see or control.

Another point worthy of note is that we need to find a Jethro of our own. Each of us needs someone who knows us well, and loves us enough to confront us with hard truths. In Judaism, this truth finds expression in Mishnah:

Joshua ben Perahiah used to say: appoint for thyself a teacher, and acquire for thyself a companion and judge all men with the scale weighted in his favor (Pirkei Avot 1:6).

Seek out a spiritual director or covenant group, and see them regularly.

We would do Jethro’s wise counsel a disservice if we did not mention a theme that runs through the entire plan. Jethro begins with a blessing: “Now listen to me and let me give you some advice. And may God be with you!” (Exod 18:19). The people sought out to be judges, he directs, must be people of reverence, who “respect [the Hebrew actually is “fear”!] God” (Exod 18:21). Finally, Jethro concludes by saying, “If you do this and God directs you, then you will be able to endure. And all these people will be able to go back to their homes much happier.” (Exod 18:23). Jethro’s counsel is godly counsel. He places it before Moses for prayerful consideration; only if Moses is commanded by God to take this step should the counsel be followed at all.

To be sure, this tells us something important about Jethro. As a wise counselor, he was also a person of faith, willing to submit his own plans to the direction and guidance of God. But Jethro’s stipulation that the installation of judges should only take place at God’s command also tells us something important about the system itself. Note that Moses followed his father-in-law’s advice, as 18:24-26 describes. Although God’s command is not explicitly described, we can assume that Moses believed this structure to represent God’s will.

One final note on Jethro as wise counselor: when the job was done, “Jethro went back to his own country” (Exod 18:27). Jethro did not have to stick around and compulsively fiddle with the structure he had devised. Nor did he have any need or desire to be a back-seat driver, looking over Moses’ shoulder. Jethro was himself able to let go, trusting that God was at work, and trusting Moses to handle matters that arose as Moses saw fit. In other words, Jethro was that rare and wonderful commodity, an advisor who was able to take his own advice.

AFTERWORD:

October is also a month of birthdays in my family–both mine and my Dad’s!  Every October, I look for a chance to recite, or post, this wonderful bit of Suessian whimsy! God bless you all, my friends, and thank you for your birthday greetings.

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