Ghoulies and Ghosties

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

This (allegedly) traditional Scottish prayer, collected by folklorist D. L. Ashliman, reminds us of the grim folklore back of Hallowe’en.  The night before November 1 was once called Samhain, an old Celtic festival of the quarter-year (falling between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice). In Celtic culture, it 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 into this world and molest the living. Food offerings, lamps, and even the severed heads of enemies (grimly recalled, perhaps, by Jack o’lanterns) could be set out to appease or turn aside the ghosts.

We call this night not Samhain, but Halloween (that is, Hallow E’en), because October 31 is of course the night 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 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 May to November 1 in response to the European (specifically Celtic) holiday of Samhain (El Dia de Los Muertos in Spain).

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.  Those Celtic Christians now knew, as Ephesians 2:4-7 affirms,

God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!  And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.  God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.

The association with All-Hallows Day made this a night of rejoicing! Hallowe’en is a celebration of life, and of Christ’s victory over death and the fear of death

Because of Samhain’s grim past, some Christians have argued 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 to receive our offerings of food–and surely, there is no better medicine against fear and despair than joy and laughter!  As the Reformer Martin Luther once observed, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

Happy Hallowe’en, sisters and brothers–and praise God for all the saints!

AFTERWORDS:  I am reposting this portion of an earlier blog, to recognize and celebrate Hallowe’en and All-Saint’s Day.

Image may contain: textCome join us at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary as we host a community Fall Festival and Trunk-r-Treat, Saturday October 26, 5:00-8:00 pm! The event is free and open to the public. All are welcome! There will be trunk-r-treating, food, carnival activities, pumpkin painting, fall games, smores, 50/50 raffle, and so much more!  My only beef is that they called it a Fall Festival, rather than rejoicing in the ancient Christian connections of All-Hallows Eve!


Happy Birthday to Me!

Every year on or around my birthday, October 3, I try to find as many opportunities as I can to share this bit of wonderful nonsense from Theodore Geisel–better known as Dr. Suess.  Under the silliness, it carries a deep affirmation of self-worth, which reminds me of the fundamental philosophy of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s best-known alumnus, Mr. Fred Rogers.  Every day on his television program, Mr. Rogers told every little child watching, “You are special, just for being you.”

This past week, in the seminary chapel and again in the chapel of the Allegheny jail, I shared Dr. Suess’ birthday poem at the opening of a sermon on Lamentations 3:19-26:

The memory of my suffering and homelessness is bitterness and poison.
I can’t help but remember and am depressed.
I call all this to mind—therefore, I will wait.

Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!
They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness.
I think: The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for him.

The Lord is good to those who hope in him, to the person who seeks him.
It’s good to wait in silence for the Lord’s deliverance.


The hope in Dr. Suess’ poem seems to echo the hope in this passage of Scripture–but does it?  After all, Lamentations (found just after Jeremiah in our Old Testament) is a grim collection of five poems mourning the fall of Judah, and the destruction of Jerusalem.  There is only one hopeful word in this book, and this is it!  Therefore, some would say that to preach on this passage is dishonest, as it is not representative of the book as a whole.  In fact,  since this passage is swallowed up by poems of despair surrounding it, the point could be that these words were ineffectual–that they provided no lasting healing or hope.

Certainly, Mr. Rogers took some flack for his message of self-affirmation.  One television panel claimed that this message was “ruining kids”:

Well here’s the problem [that] gets lost in that whole self business, and the idea that being hard and having high issues for yourself, discounted. Mr. Rogers’ message was, “You’re special because you’re you.” He didn’t say, “If you want to be special, you’re going to have to work hard,” and now all these kids are growing up and they’re realizing, “Hey wait a minute, Mr. Rogers lied to me, I’m not special”

The panel decried the damage Mr. Rogers may have done to this whole crop of kids who now feel entitled just for being them. And what he says that instead of telling them, “You’re special, you’re great,” why didn’t he just say, “You know what, there’s a lot of improvement, keep working on yourself.”

The television panel’s critique may seem to some more reflective of Christian faith (and certainly more true to the overall tone of Lamentations) than Mr. Rogers’ or Dr. Suess’ message of affirmation.  After all, Calvinism (if not Calvin) emphasizes our total depravity (the “T” in “TULIP“): that we have nothing in ourselves that is lovely or worthy, apart from God’s gracious election.  I grew up in the sawdust-trail revivalist tradition of Christianity, in which the point of preaching often seems to be bringing its hearers to such a state of fear and guilt and self-loathing that they will run to the altar to be saved from judgment, hell, sin, and themselves: repentance as the child of despair.

Image result for St. JOhn CLimacus icon

But this is not the only way that Christian tradition has spoken about humanity, or about our relationship with God.  In his Ladder of Divine Ascent, 5, Christian mystic St. John Climacus writes,  “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair.”  Repentance is not born out of despair, but is the child of hope, and indeed the denial of despair!

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (The Inner Kingdom [St. Vladimir Press, 2000], 45) unpacks St. John’s teaching on repentance:

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

I think that it is no accident that those words of hope in Lamentations have been placed in the center of the book, in the middle of its longest poem. The point is that, yes, things are bad–as bad as they could possible be. But what saves us from despair is knowing that we are loved, and that God is faithful: “Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!
They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness.” The point is not optimism, but rather hope.  Optimism says, nothing bad will happen.   However, hope affirms that no matter what happens, all will be well.  It was that hope that caused Jews being marched to the gas chambers in the Nazi holocaust to recite, from the creed of Moses Maimonides, “I believe, I believe, with a perfect faith, I believe that Messiah will come, and though he tarry, I will expect him daily.”

Friends, I believe that it is consistent with the heart of the Gospel to claim our created goodness, and our standing as people God loves, and for whom Christ died.  Looking upward to God’s love, forward with trust, we may go forth by God’s grace, transformed by Christ and empowered by the Spirit, to be the people we were created to be.

I can shout with Dr. Suess, and invite you to shout with me: “I am what I am!  That’s a great thing to be.  If I say so myself, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!”


October is also the birth month of my father, Bernard Tuell.  We are heading back home this weekend to celebrate his 85th with family and friends at our home church, Big Tygart UMC.  God bless you and happy birthday, Daddy!


That’s What It’s For

Image result for Jesus teaching painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The word mammon was never an English word.  Rather, it has been carried over untranslated from the Greek text, just as it was left, untranslated, in the Latin Vulgate.  But mammon isn’t a Greek word, either.  It comes from Aramaic, the language of first-century Palestinian Jews, and so the language that Jesus spoke.  Matthew, Mark, and John preserved numerous words and phrases in Aramaic—but Luke typically did not!  For example, in Luke the place Jesus is crucified is not called Golgotha (Aramaic for “skull;” see Matt 27:33; Mark 15:22; John 19:17), but Kranion (Greek for “skull;” see Lk 23:33); traditionally rendered, following the Latin Vulgate, as “Calvary” (Latin for “skull”).

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

Image result for Saint luke icon

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

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

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

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

Women pose for photos near a homeless man during New York Fashion week this month.

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

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

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

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

Jesus stands here in the prophetic tradition of Amos:

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

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

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


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

Image result for john wesley

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

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

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


Seeing 9/11 Through a Prophet’s Eyes

On September 11, 2001, I was teaching at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, just north of Richmond. I remember the shock and horror that seized our little college town as news trickled in that Tuesday morning. First, we learned of a bizarre and horrible accident involving a plane colliding with one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.  Then swiftly came the unthinkable revelation that this was not an accident, but a terrorist attack, involving two airliners deliberately targeted on the Towers. We later learned that another plane had been targeted on the Pentagon, and that still another, intended to crash into either the Capitol or the White House, was forced down near Shanksville, Pennsylvania by its heroic passengers and crew – saving the lives of others at the cost of their own.

Many in our community had family and friends who worked in the Pentagon, or lived and worked nearby; others either were from New York themselves or had family or friends in the city, some of whom worked at the World Trade Center. So this attack hit home for us: we felt that we had been assaulted, directly and personally.

On Thursday of that week, the Ashland community held a memorial service on our town square. I was among those asked to speak. As I wrestled with what word to bring, indeed with how to speak a word of the Lord to this horrible event, I was led to the book of Habakkuk. Here was a prophet who knew what it was like to lose family and friends to a remorseless enemy. The shock and horror we felt, Habakkuk also knew. In the poem concluding this book, I found words that spoke to my own anger, grief, and desire for vengeance:

I hear, and I tremble within;
my lips quiver at the sound.
Rottenness enters into my bones,
and my steps tremble beneath me.
I wait quietly for the day of calamity
to come upon the people who attack us (Hab 3:16).

Yet on that grim day, this prophet also pointed us toward the wisdom we needed to look beyond our shock and anger, to defy the apparent meaninglessness of the moment and refuse to surrender to despair:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will exult in the God of my salvation (Hab 3:17-18).

Author photo. Theodoret of Cyr / Icon
The stark honesty of Habakkuk’s struggle with doubt and uncertainty in the face of suffering may take us aback. Certainly, in the history of the interpretation of this book, many have rushed to the prophet’s defense. Theodoret of Cyrus, for example, insists that the prophet merely “adopted the attitude” of the doubter, “putting the question as though anxious in his own case to learn the reason for what happens” ( Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, ed. and trans. Robert Charles Hill [Brookline: Holy Cross, 2006], 191). Since this is an oracle (Hab 1:1) delivered “under the influence of the Spirit,” the apparent anguish of the prophet’s cry (“O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?,” Hab 1:2) cannot be real: “it is obvious that, instead of suffering that fate personally, he is exposing the plight of those so disposed and applying the remedy” (Theodoret, Commentary, 192).

Who was John Wesley? | Art UK

Surely this defense is unnecessary. People of God in all times and places have known that faith and doubt are not opposites: indeed, deep faith and profound doubt can occupy the same heart. Long after John Wesley’s vaunted Aldersgate experience, when his heart was “strangely warmed” and he knew the assurance that Christ “had taken away my sins, even mine,” he wrote in a letter to his brother Charles, “[I do not love God. I never did]. Therefore [I never] believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore [I am only an] honest heathen, a proselyte of the Temple” (note that the portions in brackets were written in Wesley’s private shorthand). Yet in that same letter, Wesley affirms, “I find rather an increase than a decrease of zeal for the whole work of God and every part of it,” and urges his brother, “O insist everywhere on full redemption, receivable by faith alone; consequently, to be looked for now.”

Image result for MOTHER TERESA

So too, after the death of Mother Teresa, famed for her life of selfless service to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta’s slums, letters written to her confessors and superiors were published that revealed the depth of her personal struggles with doubt, darkness and fear:

Please pray for me—the longing for God is terribly painful and yet the darkness is becoming greater. What contradiction there is in my soul.—The pain within is so great—that I really don’t feel anything for all the publicity and the talk of the people. Please ask Our Lady to be my Mother in this darkness (Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta,” ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk [New York: Doubleday, 2007], 174).

Image result for My God, My God, why have you forsaken me painting
This should be no surprise to followers of the crucified Lord, who cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34//Matt 27:46). Indeed, Mother Teresa could write, “I have come to love the darkness. – For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness & pain on earth” (Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, 214).

Habakkuk (both the prophet and the book) unflinchingly recognizes that sometimes the worst thing that can happen, happens. Sometimes the hurricane moves inland. Sometimes the cancer comes back. Sometimes those we love do not get better, do not come home safely – or, do not love us back. Yet, as Donald Gowan ruefully observes,

Christian worship tends to be all triumph, all good news (even the confession of sin is not a very awesome experience because we know the assurance of pardon is coming; it’s printed in the bulletin). And what does that say to those who, at the moment, know nothing of triumph? (Donald E. Gowan, The Triumph of Faith in Habakkuk [Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1976], 38).

When tragedy strikes, we have no use for Pollyanna optimism, for shallow, saccharine assurances that all will be well. Habakkuk recognizes our need to see God in the midst of doubt, struggle, loss, and pain, and affirms God’s presence even there – indeed, especially there.

AFTERWORD:  This is from my commentary on Habakkuk in Reading Nahum-Malachi, Reading the Old Testament (Macon, Ga: Smith-Helwys, 2016), 51-54.



Image result for LOVE statue

We Christians talk a lot about love.  We love to quote John 3:16, “For God so loved the world.”  We make t-shirts and bumper stickers of 1 John 4:8, “God is love.”  We teach our children to sing “Jesus Loves Me,” and “Jesus loves the little children of the world.”  The love of God, and of Christ Jesus, is the center and the foundation of our faith.

Isaiah 5:1-7 begins, “Let me sing for my loved one a love song for his vineyard.”  It may seem strange to us for a love song to have a vineyard as its theme.  But in ancient Israel, love songs used vineyards as scenes for romance, and vines and grapes as symbols of love and fruitfulness.

Image result for song of songs painting

So, in the Song of Songs 7:11-12, the beloved calls to her lover :

Come, my love:
        Let’s go out to the field
        and rest all night among the flowering henna.
Let’s set out early for the vineyards.
We will see if the vines have budded
        and the blossoms opened,
    see if the pomegranates have bloomed.
There I’ll give my loving to you.

The Bible often describes Israel, God’s beloved, as a vine or a vineyard:

They will again live beneath my shadow,
        they will flourish like a garden;
    they will blossom like the vine,
        their fragrance will be like the wine of Lebanon (Hosea 14:7).

Image result for grapes

When Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5), he plays on this image of connection and belonging, of fruitfulness and love.

Still, the poem that follows in Isaiah 5 doesn’t sound much like a love song!  The beloved declares that he planted his vineyard on a fertile hill, tilling the soil, lovingly tending the vines, protecting them with a hedge and a watchtower, doing everything necessary for it to bear sweet, succulent grapes for the finest wine.  But when harvest time came, he found instead shriveled, sour, worthless, wild grapes (NRSV; the CEB has “rotten grapes”!).

What is to be done?  The beloved says,

Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard.
I’m removing its hedge,
    so it will be destroyed.
I’m breaking down its walls,
    so it will be trampled.
I’ll turn it into a ruin;
    it won’t be pruned or hoed,
    and thorns and thistles will grow up.
I will command the clouds not to rain on it (Isa 5:5-6).

This is particularly ominous given what the prophet now says about the vineyard, and its Planter:

The vineyard of the LORD of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
    and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
    righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! (Isa 5:7).

Likewise, in Luke 12:49-53, Jesus seems neither loving, nor lovely:

 I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze!  I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division.  From now on, a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three.  Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

This doesn’t sound much like the Jesus of our childhood songs!

Friends, God is love, and Jesus is the ultimate demonstration of God’s love (see Romans 5:8).  Our problem lies not with our understanding of God, but with what we think love means.

Image result for moonstruck movie poster

My favorite movie is a romantic fable called “Moonstruck,” written by John Patrick Shanley, starring Cher and Nicolas Cage.  The key scene in this wonderful film comes when the baker Ronny Cammarari at last declares his love for spinster accountant Loretta Castorini (who is already engaged, albeit lovelessly, to his brother Johnny!).

Loretta, I love you. Not. . . not like they told you love is, and I didn’t know this either. But love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything, it breaks your heart, it makes things a mess!

I confess that, far more often than I care to admit, when I say “God is love,” what I really mean is “God is nice”—God is innocuous, God is inoffensive, God will never challenge me or threaten me.  But that is not love!  Ronnie Cammarari is right: “Love don’t make things nice”!  Love ruins everything, because love means commitment.  Love forces difficult choices—and so may well immerse us in conflict.

We sometimes speak as though God’s justice is separate from God’s love–indeed opposed to God’s love.  We may even separate a “New Testament” god of love from an “Old Testament” god of wrath and judgement.  But friends, we do not have two gods: we only have the One, whose love and justice are also one.  God is a God of wrath because God is a God of love. God’s wrath is directed against cruelty and injustice because God loves justice.  God’s wrath is directed against oppression because God loves the oppressed.

Image result for Love Wins book cover

Christian writer Rob Bell puts this quite plainly:

When we hear people saying that they can’t believe in a God who gets angry—yes, they can. How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply? What kind of God wouldn’t get angry at a financial scheme that robs thousands of people of their life savings? (Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived [New York: HarperOne, 2011], 38).

Where would such a God have us stand today? It is not a hard question to answer.  We need only look to where, and with whom, Jesus stood. Two chapters before the disturbing Gospel text we are addressing, Jesus sets forth the two greatest commandments (Luke 10:25-28):

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind [quoted from Deut 6:5], and love your neighbor as yourself [quoted from Lev 19:18].

Some interpreters have proposed that “Love your neighbor” is an in-house commandment: that in Leviticus, “your neighbor” means “your fellow Israelite;” in the early church, it means “your fellow Christian.” Presumably, then, for me, “your neighbor” means “someone like me.”

But Leviticus 19:33-34 demonstrates that this is far too narrow a reading. Here, love is commanded toward “immigrants” who “live in your land with you.” The Hebrew term rendered “immigrant” in the CEB is ger–that is, a person of foreign birth, living within the borders of Israel but without land or legal status (NRSV has “alien”).  A special command is needed to insure justice for the ger, as it is for widows and orphans, often mentioned in the same contexts (for example, see Exod 22:21-24; Deut 10:18-19). Leviticus 19:33-34 commands love for the ger in the same language Lev 19:18 uses for the neighbor: “You must love them as yourself.” In fact this passage says, the ger “must be treated as if they were one of your citizens.”

We could perhaps say that these words of Scripture address the church, not the state; and that national policy needs to be mindful of the security of our borders.  But for the church, and for all of us who would follow Christ, there is no passing this particular buck. If we want to be followers of Jesus, he has commanded us to love our neighbors—including immigrants and refugees—as we love ourselves.

In his love poem, Isaiah condemns his own people–God’s own people–for their violence and injustice, and declares that judgment is coming.  So Jesus warns his own generation that they should not be surprised by God’s judgment (Luke 12:54-56).


In Palestine, then as now, the weather depends on which way the wind is blowing.  West winds off the Mediterranean bring cool, moist air, and rain.  But out of the desert to the southeast come hot, dry winds–which sometimes bring the dreaded dust storms called Khamsin, which desiccate and destroy.

Jesus says, “You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time?”  How can you say that you do not know what God wants or expects of us?  How can you be surprised at the word that judgment is coming?

Friends, God IS love.  But Ronnie Cammareri was right: “Love don’t make things nice.” To live in God’s love is to love what, and who, and how God loves:  to care passionately for those for whom God cares, passionately.  That may well mean confrontation and conflict, in our communities, in our churches–even, as Jesus sadly states, in our own homes.  Jesus came to set fire on the earth–the fire of God’s love and justice! May that flame catch in our land, and in our hearts.  May God’s love fill us with the passion for justice of our Lord Jesus Christ.

AFTERWORD:  Thanks to the people of Clinton PCUSA, who invited me to worship with them Sunday and share this message.


Amos’ Call–And Ours

The Hebrew Bible text for Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary is Amos 7:7-17, which begins with a vision report:

This is what the Lord showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall, with a plumb line in his hand.  The Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?”

“A plumb line,” I said.
Then the Lord said,
“See, I am setting a plumb line
    in the middle of my people Israel.
        I will never again forgive them.
The shrines of Isaac will be made desolate,
            and the holy places of Israel will be laid waste,
            and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (Amos 7:7-9).

This famous prophetic image is beautifully reflected in a prayer for the day from the Lectionary’s editors:

Steadfast God, your prophets set the plumb line
of your righteousness and truth
in the midst of your people.
Grant us the courage to judge ourselves against it.
Straighten all that is crooked or warped within us
until our hearts and souls stretch upright,
blameless and holy,
to meet the glory of Christ. Amen.

Image result for tin chemical symbol

The trouble is, this translation of our passage is suspect.  The word rendered “plumb line” in the Common English Bible is ‘anak, which actually means “tin.” In Amos’ vision, the LORD is standing  al-khomath ‘anak (“beside a wall of tin”), holding ‘anak (“a piece of tin”) in God’s hand.

The ancient versions attempt in various ways to come to terms with this Hebrew original.  The Greek Septuagint reads teichous adamantinou (an impenetrable, that is metal-sheathed, wall), and in the LORD’s hand is a piece of metal (adamas).  The Latin Vulgate, understanding the piece of metal in God’s hand to be a trowel (trullu cementarii), has the LORD standing on a plastered wall (murum litum).  The Aramaic Targum, as it generally does, eschews metaphor for what its translators thought the metaphor actually intended–here, the wall is a place of judgment (Aramaic din), and a judgment against Israel is in the LORD’s hand.

The reading “plumb line” is relatively recent, going back only to the medieval Jewish interpreter Ibn Ezra (1089-1164).  However, it was popularized by Martin Luther in his 1534 translation of the Bible into German (which uses the German Bleischnur, meaning “plumb line,” here) and today is found in nearly every English translation (see some examples here).  Even the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanak (an abbreviation for Torah [Law], Nebi’im [Prophets], and Kethubim [Writings], the three parts of the Hebrew Bible) has “plumb line,” although footnotes in the NJPS translation suggest that the LORD holds a pickaxe, and that the wall is “destined for a pickaxe”!   In the end, the footnotes say, the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.

However, as we have seen, the Hebrew is not at all uncertain: in Amos’ vision, the LORD stands by a wall of tin–or perhaps, a wall sheathed in tin–holding a piece of tin.  God says that God is placing tin “in the middle of my people Israel; I will never again forgive them” (7:8).  What the text says is plain.  The question is, what does this mean?

Both Ibn Ezra and Luther apparently understood the metal in this vision to be the weight on a plumb line, and the wall to have been built using a plumb line.  The point of the vision therefore is that God is holding Israel to account, testing that they are true to the LORD as a mason uses a plumb to test whether a wall is truly vertical.  However, plumb bobs were made of stone or lead, not tin (note that the German Bleischnur used by Luther literally means “lead line”).  The ancient versions all seem, similarly, to interpret based on the metal.  But comparison with Amos’ other visions suggests another possibility.

In Amos 8:1-2, the prophet is shown a basket of summer fruit (Hebrew qayits) and told, “The end [qets] has come upon my people Israel; I will never again forgive them” (compare 7:8, where that same expression is found).  His vision is not about qayits (“summer fruit”) at all, but about the word “qayits”—a punning reference to Israel’s end (qets). So too, Jeremiah sees the branch of an almond tree (Hebrew shaqed), and is told, “I am watching [shoqed] over my word to perform it” (Jer 1:11-12).  So what if Amos 7:7-9 is also a pun?  What if the point of Amos’ vision is not ‘anak (“tin”), but something that sounds like ‘anak?

As S. Dean McBride, Jr. notes, the second person singular pronoun (“you”) in Hebrew has a complex history.  The free-standing form of the pronoun is ‘atta (contracted from an original ‘anta) or ‘at; however, the pronoun may be appended to a noun as ka or ak (meaning “your”).  The first-person pronoun may offer a clue to this complexity.  While later Hebrew texts prefer the shortened form ‘ani, the older form ‘anoki is also common.  Some Semiticists propose that the older form of the second person pronoun may have similarly been something like ‘anak.  McBride proposes that Amos’ vision of ‘anak, “tin,” in 7:7-9 is a pun on an archaic ‘anak[?], “you” (like qayits/qets in 8:1).

If this is so, then God is telling Amos, “I am placing YOU in the middle of my people Israel” (7:8)–making this vision Amos’ call to prophesy.

The narrative in Amos 7:10-17 shows us Amos snatched from his home in the village of Tekoa, in the southern kingdom of Judah, and placed by God in Bethel, one of the great cities of the northern kingdom of Israel.  There, Amos’ message of justice places him in opposition to both the high priest Amaziah and the northern political leader, Jeroboam II–which is not comfortable for the high priest or the king.  However, it is not comfortable for Amos, either!  He protests to Amaziah (and to us!) that this life was not his choice:

I am not a prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son; but I am a shepherd, and a trimmer of sycamore trees. But the Lord took me from shepherding the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ (Amos 7:14-15)

Image result for Michelangelo portrait

I am reminded of Michelangelo, who always regarded himself as a sculptor rather than a painter.  So, throughout the years he spent painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the Pope’s command, Michelangelo stubbornly signed his letters “Michelangelo, Sculptor.”

Similarly, Amos saw himself as a shepherd, not a prophet.  Had he had his own way, he would never have left home!  But there is no doubt in Amos’ mind that he is in the right place, whether it is the place he would have chosen or not.  He is where he is because God has put him there: “the LORD took me from shepherding the flock” (7:15).  Amos was not comfortable.  Nor strictly speaking, was he successful: his passionate summons to God’s way of justice (Amos 5:21-24) went unheeded, and as he had warned, the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians.   But Amos was faithful–and that is what mattered.

Just as God spoke to Amos, so God says to us, in our day, “I am placing you in the midst of my people.”  If we believed that following Christ’s call would save us from conflict and discomfort, we were laboring under a major misapprehension!  It is not hard to see how we could have gotten there: knowing that God is love, we concluded thereby that God is nice, and wants us to have a nice life: peaceful and conflict-free.  But it was not so for Amos, or for John, or for Jesus, and it will not be so for us!  God is love–but love wills the good, not the nice; justice, not expedience.  Elsewhere in his prophecy, Amos makes this plain: “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion!” (Amos 6:1, KJV).

We too, I am persuaded, have been placed in the midst of God’s people in our day, and so in the midst of conflict and controversy. God has called and empowered us, friends, for just such a time as this.  As Charles Wesley’s powerful hymn reminds us,

To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
Oh, may it all my pow’rs engage
To do my Master’s will!

Wesley is starkly–indeed, terrifyingly!–forthright regarding the stakes of our faithfulness to that call:

Help me to watch and pray,
And on Thyself rely,
Assured, if I my trust betray,
I shall forever die.

God grant that we, like Amos, will be faithful to our call.


Talking Trinity

This Sunday, the first after Pentecost, is Trinity Sunday–which, sadly, is unlikely to prompt tremendous enthusiasm either on the part of preachers, reluctant to preach on this difficult concept, or their congregations, who have to listen to those sermons!

Psychoanalytical pioneer and scholar of religion Carl Jung remembered taking confirmation classes from his father, a Lutheran minister.  It was all very boring–but young Carl had read ahead in his catechism, and knew that coming up was something strange, mysterious, and wonderful–the Trinity!  When the day assigned to study the Trinity arrived at last, however, Jung’s father said, “This is very complicated, and I really don’t understand it myself, so we’ll skip over it.”  For Jung, this marked a major turning point, in his strained relationship with his father, and in his decision that he could not accept what he saw as his father’s pallid, shallow faith.

Image result for baptism

The Trinity is foundational for Christians in the most basic sense: we are baptized in name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:18-20).  So we really can’t “skip over” this; we need to talk about it!  However, the Trinity is not a logic puzzle for us to solve.  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’s language of the Father and the Son (The Nature of Doctrine [Nashville: Westminster John Knox, 1984], 94).  We come to the language of Trinity because the shape of our experience of God drives us to it.  As my friend and colleague from graduate school Ray Jones used to say about the Trinity, “I don’t believe this stuff because I want to.  I believe it because it’s true!”

While it would be generations before Christians refined their theology into the Trinitarian formulas of the classical creeds of the church, we can already hear the seeds of this idea in the pages of our New Testament.  For example, 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.  The doctrine of the Trinity emerges out of our struggle to talk meaningfully about who God is.  As 1 John 4:8 affirms, “God is love.”  The greatest power in the universe is self-giving, sacrificial love!  God in Godself is Lover, and Beloved, and the Love that binds them.  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.

Lady Wisdom  says, “The LORD created me 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.  Christian readers will be reminded 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, through whom the world was made (compare Genesis 1).  It is a way of talking about Christ (that is, a Christology) drawn from Proverbs 8!

Lady Wisdom, describing her role in God’s creation, says:

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 (Proverbs 8:30-31).

The Wisdom teachers of Proverbs are clear on the role of humanity in such a world, made in such a way by such a God: we are beloved!  God delights in us.  This is a very exalted view of humanity—the sages have no time for any “I’m only human” nonsense.  Being human is our glory, and our joy.

How are we to live with such a God, in such a world?  The role of the church is to build a community in the human family reflecting God’s own identity, and God’s will manifest in creation.  It is a daunting task.  But we are not on our own!  Remember the promise of God’s Spirit in John 16:14-15, to communicate to us all that Jesus has and is, which is in turn all that the Father has and is.

No photo description available.

Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity draws on the biblical story of Abraham showing hospitality to three strangers, who turned out to be a manifestation of the Divine (Gen 18:1-8).  The Three sit companionably around a table.  They are looking at one another, not at us: God is complete in Godself, and does not need us, or anything we can offer.  Yet God does graciously accept our worship, as the Three accepted Abraham’s hospitality.  Further, we are included in this Divine fellowship–invited to share in the Divine life.  In the side of the table, there is a small niche–representing the vision in Revelation 6:9-11 of the martyrs who are given a place under the altar in the heavenly temple.  In this icon of the Trinity, we are there!

As strange, complicated, and paradoxical as the Trinity is, we believe it because it is true: true to our experience of God in Christ, true to the witness of the Spirit in our world, true to our best hopes and dreams and insights into what the world can and should be—and in the deepest and truest sense, already is. Community, interrelationship, mutual respect and regard are more than good ideas—they are the way that the world truly works, reflecting the identity of the Creator.  When we forget this, when we elevate the self above the other, when we exalt taking and having over giving and sharing, life itself breaks down.  But the gospel for this day is that God, who in Wisdom had the first word, also has the last word.  God calls us to share God’s very life in Christ Jesus, and by the gift of God’s Spirit empowers and renews us today to live our lives in love.  We can dare to believe this, and to act on this belief, because it is true.


I posted the original blog on which this one is based six years ago, in May of 2013: the year that I began blogging as the Bible Guy.  What a joy it is to still be sharing with you as we wrestle with the word of God in Scripture together, six years later!

I invite you, friends, to join me in this prayer for Trinity Sunday:

God of delight,
your Wisdom sings your Word
at the crossroads where humanity and divinity meet.
Invite us into your joyful being
where you know and are known
in each beginning,
in all sustenance,
in every redemption,
that we may manifest your unity
in the diverse ministries you entrust to us,
truly reflecting your triune majesty
in the faith that acts,
in the hope that does not disappoint,
and in the love that endures. Amen.
Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers copyright © 2002 Consultation on Common Texts admin. Augsburg Fortress.


A Wesleyan Reading of Scripture


We Methodists love to recall that on this day 281 years ago–May 24, 1738–John Wesley went “very unwillingly” to a prayer meeting at Aldersgate Street in London. There “about a quarter before 9, while one was reading from Luther’s preface to the Letter to the Romans, I felt my heart strangely warmed.” In that moment, Wesley wrote, he felt the assurance that Christ “had taken away my sins, even mine.”  It is good, and right, that we celebrate this day.

But in 1766, 28 years after Aldersgate, Wesley wrote in a letter to his brother Charles,

“[I do not love God. I never did]. Therefore [I never] believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore [I am only an] honest heathen, a proselyte of the Temple.” 

The parts in brackets were written in the Wesleys’ private shorthand–as though, even in a private letter to his brother, John was deeply ashamed of this confession!  But we need to remember this too, friends. Wesley’s Aldersgate certainty was not always before him.  He continued, long after, to wrestle with his faith and with his God.

Later, in the very same letter in which he sorrowfully acknowledges, “[I never] believed, in the Christian sense of the word,” Wesley writes, “I find rather an increase than a decrease of zeal for the whole work of God and every part of it,” and urges his brother Charles, “O insist everywhere on full redemption, receivable by faith alone; consequently, to be looked for now.”  The point, friends, is that faith and doubt lived together in John Wesley’s heart–in short, that he was one of us!   Wesley certainly did not regard his own experience or ideas as changeless norms.

This is important, for a vital conversation in our movement right now concerns what it means to be “Wesleyan.”  One understanding of that term is that to be Wesleyan is to think what Wesley thought: to regard his sermons and commentaries and other writings as the compendium of what we too are to think and believe.  Most, of course, will recognize that not all of Wesley’s words are equal: few, for example, will think that we should embrace his medical advice:

However, we may think that Wesley’s biblical interpretations ought to be embraced by anyone who calls herself a Wesleyan: so, a Wesleyan reading of Scripture would be one that agrees with Wesley’s positions in his sermons and commentaries.

Certainly, John Wesley greatly valued the Scriptures:

Indeed, Wesley famously referred to himself as homo unius libri, or “a man of one book”–that is, the Bible:

I want to know one thing,—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri.

However, in the preface to his Sermons (where he identifies himself as homo unius libri), Wesley also acknowledges that the meaning of Scripture is not always simple and straightforward:

Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights:—“Lord, is it not Thy word, ‘if any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?’ Thou givest liberally, and upbraidest not. Thou hast said, ‘if any be willing to do Thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know Thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.

Friends, I propose that here in this preface Wesley lays out a Wesleyan method for the interpretation of Scripture: a way to read the Bible with Wesley, reading as he read, if not necessarily drawing the same conclusions he did.  It is an approach to the Bible that recognizes the depth of Scripture: not only that the meaning of a passage may not be immediately apparent, but also that the meaning of Scripture is not exhausted by any single interpretation.

Not surprisingly, Wesley’s method reflects what Methodist scholar Albert Outler famously called the Wesleyan QuadrilateralScripture itself comes first in that tally, of course.  But a Wesleyan reading of Scripture requires prayerful reflection and spiritual discernment–that is, a personal experience of devotion to God through Christ and of yieldedness to the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, the Bible is not itself an end, in this Wesleyan reading, but a means to an end–that is, an encounter with the living God of Scripture through Jesus Christ.

Image result for C. S. Lewis

This approach to Scripture was upheld by another British Christian, long after Wesley: the famous Christian writer and thinker C.S. Lewis.  In a letter to a Mrs. Johnson, on November 8th, 1952, Lewis wrote:

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our ancestors too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and read without attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.

If the Bible is indeed a means rather than an end, then reading and applying Scripture must mean more than looking up “what the Bible says” about any particular issue–let alone what Wesley says!–and then stating that as our position.  Understanding the Bible also requires study–that is, the exercise of reason!  As John Wesley wrote, “I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable.”

Bible study means immersion in the Scriptures–searching out, as Wesley says, “parallel passages of Scripture, ‘comparing spiritual things with spiritual.'[1 Cor 2:13]”  We need to read the Bible in big hunks, always attentive to the way that Scripture continually alludes to itself.  Here, the UM Publishing House’s excellent resource, the Disciple Bible Study series, is a great help.  Serious Bible study will also require the careful consultation of other books: commentaries, Bible dictionaries, the best of current scholarship.

Wesley writes, “If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak.” Faithful interpretation of Scripture calls us to enter into conversation with other believers, past and present: in short, with the tradition.  But it is clear from the method laid out here, as well as from Wesley’s entire ministry, that he did not regard slavish adherence to tradition as a goal.

The end of Bible study, for Wesley, is application through teaching and preaching: “And what I thus learn, that I teach.”  But Wesley also remained aware of the need for openness to others.  In his Sermon 39, on the “Catholic Spirit,” John Wesley unpacked 2 Kings 10:15:

And when [Jehu] was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him: and he saluted him, and said to him, ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?’ And Jehonadab answered, ‘It is.’ ‘If it be, give me thine hand.’ And he gave him his hand; and he took him up to him into the chariot [KJV].

Wesley declared this as his own view with regard to sisters and brothers who were not Methodist: “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? If it be, give me thine hand.”

I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavour to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only “give me thine hand.”

Wesley argued that every Christian must hold her or his convictions firmly:

A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek… he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any.

That said, however, Wesley was also fully aware that “humanum est errare et nescire: ‘To be ignorant of many things, and to mistake in some, is the necessary condition of humanity’” (Wesley’s own translation of an inscription on the tomb of John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, in Westminster Abbey)—that is, “He knows, in the general, that he himself is mistaken; although in what particulars he mistakes, he does not, perhaps he cannot, know.” This realization necessitates, in any reasonable person, a generosity of spirit:

Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions, than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question, “Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart”?

It is my prayer that the people called Methodists in our own day may learn that same generosity of spirit, as we wrestle together with God’s Word in Scripture.


Christ Is Risen!

Since I discovered Laurent de la Hyre’s ‘Christ Appears to the Three Marys’ (1606) a year ago, it has become my favorite Easter image.  I love the joyous surprise on every face–including the face of Jesus!  I love that their hands are not quite touching him as he ascends into glory: radiantly alive, at once in our world of time and space and transcending it.  This painting is Easter in a bag!

And so is this poem by one of my favorite poets, e.e. cummings:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

May this Easter find you, like the Marys, like Jesus himself, overwhelmed with joy “for most this amazing” gift of life, from “most this amazing” God!  Brothers, sisters, friends, Christ is risen!


Palm Sunday from the Left-Hand Side of the Bible

This Sunday, Palm or Passion Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week, leading up to the remembrance of Jesus’ death on the cross–and of course, ultimately, to the celebration of his resurrection, and our own.  We Christians may think that now of all times our proclamation must stick to the uniquely Christian Scriptures on the right-hand side of our Bibles.  But in truth, we cannot understand the Gospel account for this day without looking at three passages in particular from the Hebrew Bible.

Curiously, Zechariah 9:9-12 is not one of the lectionary readings for Palm Sunday in any year, although Matthew and John both quote Zechariah 9:9 in their accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt 21:5 and John 12:15; see also Mark 11:1-11 and the Gospel reading for this year’s celebration, Luke 19:28-40, which both use the word polon, “colt,” found in the Septuagint’s Greek translation of Zech 9:9):

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion.
        Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem.
Look, your king will come to you.
        He is righteous and victorious.
        He is humble and riding on an ass,
            on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.

Applying to this passage a deliberately wooden literalism, Matthew describes Jesus entering Jerusalem somehow mounted on both an ass and her colt (Matt 21:6-7)!  This bizarre image was doubtless intended to ram the point home, making absolutely certain that the reader could not miss the connection between Jesus’ actions and the prophet’s words. As the early Christian teacher Theodoret of Cyrus records, “This acquires a clear interpretation in actual events: the king who is prophesied has come” (Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, trans. Robert Charles Hill [Brookline: Holy Cross, 2006], 256).

The CEB translation “righteous and victorious” (9:9) is difficult to understand. The Hebrew reads tsaddiq wenosha’. The first term means “righteous,” perhaps defending “the royal legitimacy of the king” (so Carol and Eric Meyers, Zechariah 9-14; AB 25c [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1993], 127; note that NRSV has “triumphant”), although it may also refer to his morality (the Aramaic Targum Nebi’im has zaqay, meaning “innocent”). The second term is a passive participle meaning literally “one who is saved” (reflected also in the Aramaic of Tg. Neb.). The Septuagint renders this as sozon, an active participle (“saving”). David Petersen, who translates these two words as “Righteous and victorious,” says that the Greek reading “seems to be the required sense” (Zechariah 9—14 and Malachi, OTL [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995], 55). Carol and Eric Meyers, however, stay with the plain sense of the Hebrew: “[The LORD] is victorious over the enemies, with the result that the king is ‘saved,’ thereby enabled to assume power” (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 127). In short, this is already a transformed notion of kingship, grounded not in dynastic and regal pomp and power, but in God’s own salvation and deliverance.

As this passage unfolds, it continues to draw distinctions between this king and other, previous kings. The humble mount in Zech 9:9 derives from a long tradition of kingly processions  (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 129). By riding an ass rather than a war horse or chariot, the king shows humility and declares that he comes in peace. But this time, the prophet declares, this is not just for show!  This king truly is humble, and not only comes in peace but also comes to bring peace:

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
        and the warhorse from Jerusalem.
The bow used in battle will be cut off;
        he will speak peace to the nations.
His rule will stretch from sea to sea,
        and from the river to the ends of the earth (Zech 9:10).

In the Persian period, the province (called a “satrapy”) to which Judah belonged was Abar-Nahara: that is, the lands “Beyond the River,” across the Euphrates and west toward the Mediterranean Sea. “[F]rom the river to the ends of the earth” seems to envision Jerusalem’s sway extended throughout this region. Further, the mention of Ephraim (the largest of the northern tribes, often used to represent the entire northern kingdom of Israel, e.g., Isa 7:2; Jer 7:15; Ezek 37:19; Hos 5:3) shows that this renewed kingdom will include those formerly excluded, the “lost tribes” from the northern kingdom destroyed and dispersed by the Assyrians long before.

It is little wonder that this passage, with its transformed view of kingship, so captured the imagination of the Gospel writers. While the first Christians confessed Jesus as christos, the term used in the Septuagint for Hebrew meshiakh (“Messiah”), it is clear that their understanding (and Jesus’ own understanding) of what it meant to be “Messiah” transformed that image. Mark 1:1 identifies Jesus not only as Christos, or Messiah, but also as “the Son of God.” While related to the idea of the king as God’s adopted son (Pss 2; 45), this confession goes much further than any Jewish conception of Messiah: Jesus the Messiah is God! This confession creates new problems, raising the need for the church to affirm that “Jesus Christ has come as a human” (1 John 4:2; see also John 1:14).

But while Christian confessions about Jesus exalt the role of Messiah far beyond traditional Jewish expectations, they at the same time subvert the idea of Messiah as king. In debate with the Pharisees, who believed in a literal future Messiah (Matt 22:41-46), Jesus asks,

“What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”  “David’s son,” they replied (Matt 22:42).

In response, Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1:

The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right side until I turn your enemies into your footstool’

Assuming the speaker to be David (the title of this psalm after all identifies it as a psalm of David), Jesus asks, “If David calls him [that is, the Messiah] Lord, how can he be David’s son?” (Matt 22:45). Although Matthew’s genealogy takes pains to demonstrate Jesus’ descent from David (Matt 1:6, 17), Christ is more than another Davidic king!

Particularly subversive of traditional Messianic expectation is the Christian view that the Christ must be understood in terms of suffering. Thus, in Mark, Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the Christ is inadequate: faced with Jesus’ determination to suffer and die, Peter rebukes him and is in turn himself rebuked by Jesus (Mark 8:29-33). Indeed, in Mark, the first human to make a full confession about Jesus is his executioner, who declares when Jesus dies, “This man was certainly God’s Son” (Mark 15:39). It may well be that Jesus understood his own role in terms of the Servant of the LORD in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; and 52:13—53:12). Certainly, early Christians did (see 1 Cor 15:3; Acts 8:32-35; 1 Peter 2:22-25), and the idea must have come from somewhere (cf. Matt 8:17; 12:18-21; 20:28; Mark 9:12; 10:45; Luke 22:37). In any case, for early Christians, the image of the peaceful and humble king in Zechariah 9:9-10 was the perfect representation of Jesus.

The gospel lesson for Palm Sunday this year is missing one familiar feature: in Luke’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry, nothing is said of the crowd shouting “Hosanna!”  This is typical of Luke–writing as a Gentile for a Gentile audience, he often avoids Jewish or Semitic elements (which is why Luke 23:33 uses the Greek Kranion [“The Skull”] rather than the Aramaic Golgotha for the place where Jesus is crucified; the KJV of Luke 23:33 uses the Latin Calvary; both “Calvary” and “Golgotha” also mean “skull”).  Still, “Hosanna!” is woven into our Palm Sunday hymns, and into our liturgies.  In Matthew, Mark, and John’s accounts, the crowds shout “Hosanna!” the way that we might cheer at a ball game:

Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10; compare Matthew 21:9; John 12:13).

“Hosanna” comes from Psalm 118, the Psalm reading for this Sunday.  Psalm 118:25 reads in Hebrew:

‘ana’ YHWH hoshi’ah na’

‘ana’ YHWH hatslikhah na’.  

In Judaism, this Psalm is part of the Hallel (Pss 113—118), sung in festivals and particularly at Pesach, or Passover: the feast that in today’s reading brought these crowds on pilgrimage from across the Roman world to Jerusalem.  The first two psalms in the Hallel are sung before the Passover meal, and the last four are sung after.  So the Hallel would have been in the air, for any Jewish community, surrounding Pesach.  Little wonder the words of the Hallel come so readily to the lips of the crowd.

The Hallel would have been learned, and sung, in Hebrew, but most ordinary Judeans in Jesus’ day didn’t actually speak Hebrew: their everyday language would have been Aramaic.  So, while the crowds know the words to the song, they don’t necessarily know what those words mean. While they shout “Hosannah!” as though it meant “Hurray!,” what it really means is “Save us, please!”  The CEB translates this verse,

Lord, please save us!
    Lord, please let us succeed!

Whether the crowd knows it or not, when they shout “Hosannah!,” they are calling for Jesus to save them!

The last passage presupposed by our Palm Sunday Gospel reading is Habakkuk 2:9-11:

Doom to the one making evil gain for his own house,
        for putting his own nest up high,
        for delivering himself from the grasp of calamity.
You plan shame for your own house,
        cutting off many peoples
        and sinning against your own life.
A stone will cry out from a village wall,
        and a tree branch will respond.

The expression botsea’ betsa’ (“making. . . gain”) elsewhere refers to greedy, unjust gain (Prov 1:19; 15:27), and particularly to the wealthy and powerful preying on the poor and powerless (Jer 6:13; 8:10; Ezek 22:27).  But Habakkuk doubles down on this depiction by adding the adjective ra’ (“wicked, evil”): “Doom to the one making evil gain for his own house” (2:9). Often in Hebrew, “house” refers to one’s family, but here the term is used literally to refer to the solid, secure mansions of the rich (see also Amos 5:11; Isa 5:9).  In the following verses, Habakkuk plays with this ambiguity, going back and forth between house as a building, and house as one’s family.

Habakkuk accuses the rich of using their unjust gains for

for putting his own nest up high,
        for delivering himself from the grasp of calamity (2:9).

The reference to a nest set “up high” calls to mind the eagle’s nest (Job 39:27) used as a metaphor for security. Indeed, the Song of Moses (Deut 32:1-43) compares God’s providential care and protection of Israel in the wilderness to the eagle nurturing its young in their nest:

Like an eagle protecting its nest,
    hovering over its young,
God spread out his wings, took hold of Israel,
    carried him on his back (Deut 32:11).

Elsewhere, however, this metaphor depicts a vain quest for safety; those who seek, like the eagle, to set their nest high in the rocks will be brought down (Num 24:21-22; Jer 49:16; Obad 3-4).

So, Habakkuk declares, robbing the poor to set up strong and secure houses will bring the wealthy of Jerusalem no security. Instead of gaining security, by the pursuit of dishonest gain, “You plan shame for your own house”–here, the family rather than the physical structure–and indeed are “sinning against your [the NRSV has “you have forfeited”] your own life” (2:10).

The CEB of Hab 2:11 reads, “A stone will cry out from a village wall, and a tree branch will respond.”  The NRSV reads, “The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.” The word rendered “tree branch” in the CEB and “plaster” in the NRSV is the Hebrew kaphis, found only here in the Hebrew Bible.  From its use elsewhere, however, it seems best to render it as “beam” or “rafter” (see the KJV and NIV of this passage).  In short, the houses themselves (here, the buildings once more) will witness against their wicked owners!

In Luke’s account of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus alludes to Habakkuk 2:11.  When the Pharisees’ demand that Jesus silence his obstreperous followers, Jesus says, “I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:40).  Jesus, like the prophet Habakkuk, opposes the religious and secular leadership of Judah for refusing to hear the outcry of the poor–something we might miss entirely if we didn’t know where Jesus’ words were coming from!

Brothers, sisters, friends, as you worship and teach and preach this week, let your proclamation be enriched by the whole of Scripture!  God be with you.