Saturday, April 23, 2005

Luke 7:1–35

More healings first, which are valuable witness to many things. These get richer and richer as the story progresses. The healing of the centurion’s slave shows the centurion’s great faith and Jesus’ accessibility to the hated Roman oppressors. There’s more, but that’s meat enough. And then this young man in Nain, whose death has left his mother destitute, and Jesus raises him to great acclaim. It comes to the attention of John, who sends messengers to find out what’s going on.

So it’s clear that despite the initial encounter between Jesus and John, the baptism, and all that; the disciples, and so forth, John still isn’t sure. Jesus refers to a text from Isaiah, a messianic prophecy, and shows how these healings he is performing have marked him as “the one who is to come.”

Now Jesus bears his witness to John, just as John had borne his to Jesus. He says that “among those born of women no one is greater than John”: high praise indeed. And that even the least in the kingdom of God is greater still. So this is big stuff. Ok, point made. Then comes two little verses, the two cited at the top above. The Episcopal lectionary has curiously marked these optional for the reading. Hrm, when this happens, one always wonders why?

Perhaps, most likely, they are worried about the anti-semitic cast one might place on them. Though, given all the anti-Pharisee stuff already, and yet to come, excising two verses can’t change that. Moreover, this is about “the Pharisees and the lawyers” as opposed to the “tax collectors” and “all the people who heard this.” The latter two groups are Jews, just as much as the former. So if this is why the lectionary authors diddled the text, it’s a silly reason.

But isn’t it telling what these verses say? Remember back to John’s baptism. Why did the Pharisees and the lawyers reject it? Because they didn’t need it or so they thought. For them to admit they needed a new beginning would be to admit that their old beginning isn’t enough. I am much fond of the Benedictine saying, “Always we begin again.” Those who think they do not need to begin again, reject God’s purpose for themselves. God is never content with what we have accomplished so far. The Pharisees, in their proud confidence that they did not need a new beginning, on the theory they had not sullied the old one, end up excluding themselves.

And, once more, who is included? Even “the tax collectors” (the hated collaborators with the Roman state), “tax collectors and sinners.” Who’s out? Those who are proud and confident in their in-ness. Who’s in? Those who are excluded and rejected by society, who have no place, who have no one to trust but God.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Luke 6:27–49

Here we have the guts of the “Sermon on the Plain”, Luke’s analogue to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. It starts with the beatitudes, and continues with much of the same material (though much less of it) that Matthew puts in the Sermon on the Mount.

He is speaking to “a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon”; the last suggests that there are probably non-Jews in the audience too.

The part I’ve picked out here is Jesus’ new version of the lex talionis, the law of retributive punishment. The lex talionis is the “eye for an eye” law of criminal punishment (or tort liability, depending on how you think of it). It worked a reduction, because no longer could you exact whatever punishment you wanted, you were limited to exacting an equal punishment in kind to the harm that had been done to you.

Jesus lays out a different standard, but one based on the old. He says that you will meet with whatever you give out, “the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” In other words, be aware of the divine lex talionis and so if you want mercy, show it; if you want not to be judged, do not judge; if you want to receive richly, give richly.

The implication is that merely keeping your own hands clean, doing no wrong, is not enough to avoid judgment. For judgment hurts. To judge someone hurts them; it’s painful to be judged. You might have thought that if you did nothing wrong, then you would receive no painful judgment. That’s the pharisaic mentality as Jesus criticizes it. But he says, no! If you judge others, you will be judged, even if you judge them rightly and fairly, even if you keep your own hands perfectly clean. The only way not to be judged, not to be condemned, to be forgiven, is to refrain from judgment and condemnation, and to be forgiving.

Some like to quote Paul’s talk about right judging as if that nullified Jesus’ clear command not to judge. They have misunderstood Paul, but today’s text is Luke, not Paul. So here it is enough to answer to them, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? ... The one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” What is the foundation? Mercy, kindness, gentleness, non-judgment, non-condemnation, forgiveness, love.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Luke 6:1–26

Now in rapid succession the story gets going. Three elements. First, Jesus and the sabbath; then he picks the twelve; then the beatitudes.

Jesus breaks the sabbath law. Having just shown that God’s grace is open to all, those whom the Pharisees would exclude, having shown that the bounds of God’s grace are...well, no bound at all: that there are no bounds to God’s grace, Jesus proceeds to march through the field eating grain on the sabbath. This breaks the rules. And his appeal is to David, who broke the rules. This makes clear what the preceding miracles had implied, that Jesus is about a new set of rules, a breaking of the old rules. He proceeds to heal on the same sabbath, and this in turn enrages the Pharisees.

Then the Twelve are chosen. The old community is over: a new crowd is allowed in, and a new set of foundational rules are in place, and now a new community is made. These had all already been called. What happens now is that they are chosen for a particular role. He chose twelve of them to be the leaders of the community. This new community is the immediately itself an instrument of healing for others.

And the foundational principles of this community are then laid out. Blessed--happy--fortunate--are those who are poor, hungry, weeping, excluded, reviled, or defamed. Huh? Yep, that’s what he says. These are the lucky ones. This is the new community, the community of the excluded, the shut-out, those without power, those who are oppressed by the old rules. Who is the unhappy, the unfortunate? the rich, the full, the laughing, those who are well-spoken of.

How tragic that this could be missed. The church is the continuation of this community; the proclamation of the one holy catholic and apostolic church of the creed is the proclamation of the lineal descent of today’s church from this community: or rather, that we with them are one community. But we are so not because of our lineage, our inheritance, our continuity. Fine things those may be, but what is most important in this community are these three characteristics:

First, that the community uses rules and policies as tools for its own mission; never constrained by them against its will, but using them as holy tools for the proclamation of the new redeemed and liberated community.

Second, that the leaders are chosen of God, from among the excluded and rejected, of every sort with a stunning diversity, and whose choice results in healing, not distress.

And third, that this community values first and always the poor, the excluded, the oppresed, the sad, the weeping; that it never courts or seeks those who are rich, powerful, or well-regarded. It proclaims that happiness, joy and the blessing of God are with the former; that the latter are in a sad and sorry state.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Sunday, April 17, 2005

1 Peter 2:19–25

In his preaching, Peter was very focused on the paschal mystery, on the cross and resurrection. Here in the middle of Easter, the preaching returns to the passion. But it is the passion as infused with the understanding of the resurrection.

The motif here is that we follow in Christ’s example. But why should this work? In other words, why should an abused and suffering failure to obtain our goals somehow get our goals fulfilled? Now the Pauline idea is that we become united with Christ in his death; our baptism joins us to him, and so by joining him in his death, we are assured we will join him in our life. Paul’s first way of doing this joining is baptism, but the patient endurance of suffering is also a theme of his preaching.

My theme in the past few Sundays however has been to look at Petrine preaching in its distinctiveness. Peter has a different thing to say than Paul. What Peter says then here is quite different. We follow in Jesus example, in part, because it’s the right example, but also because in this way it is a credit to us. We build up credit, merit, reward, by following in Christ’s example, because God repays. So if we suffer unjustly, God will reward us and make it right in the end; by our patient endurance then we win a reward.

But this is still Christian preaching; it’s not just “do right and God will reward you.” Peter says that Jesus “himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.” This is much stronger than Paul’s first Adam/second Adam language. Peter’s language is less about ontological union with Jesus and more about a functional relationship. Jesus bore our sins “in his body,” and those sins were nailed to the cross and died. In this way we are free of them, and now we have returned to him, as the “shepherd and guardian of [our] souls.”

Our patient endurance, then, indicates our commitment that Jesus himself did right by patiently enduring wrong, and we have God’s approval when we do so, just as Jesus did. It is that approval of God which we crave and which Peter assures us we have.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Luke 5:12–39

Two miracles, the calling of Levi, and a confrontation with the Pharisees and their scribes.

The miracles are miracles which grant access to those who have been excluded. The leper cannot be touched by anyone without making them unclean. Indeed, lepers were supposed to announce their presence shouting “leper! unclean!” wherever they went, lest someone accidentally touch them. Jesus, without missing a beat, “stretched out his hand, touched him, and said...” Did Jesus have to touch him to heal him? From the standpoint of the miracle, no. But the point is to show that this person is to be cured, and to be allowed to be part of the community. Jesus is willing to go outside the bounds, to transgress the rules, to make himself unclean, in order to reach this person and bring him in.

The second miracle is of a paralyzed man. Such a person isn’t necessarily excluded from the community in the way the leper is. Instead, he is unable to get in simply because of the facts of his disability. He would have to push through the crowd, but he can’t. So his friends bust through the ceiling and lower him down. Here we have the opposite of the healing of the leper. This time, the excluded ones bust through, breaking the rules (and committing no small act of property destruction) in order to gain access. Jesus forgives the man (for what, exactly? who knows! perhaps vandalism...) and the Pharisees are shocked. Sinfulness is what excludes someone from the community, and Jesus has no right to change that. The role of a leader (as the Pharisees see it) is to maintain the boundaries. Jesus, by contrast, is a physician, whose job is to cross the boundaries, and to legitimize the boundary crossings of others.

Then he includes a tax collector, Levi. And he sits down and eats a banquet which Levi prepares for him. Now the money for this banquet came from the people of Israel, whom Levi had been oppressing. Surely this boundary should not be crossed! But Jesus crosses it. He enjoys the feast and the honor Levi shows him. The Pharisees are once more incensed. Why do you do this? What justification do you have? You aren’t doing the proper religious activities (fasting and prayer), instead you’re hanging around with collaborators, dirty lepers, wicked sinners, whores, fags, drug dealers, and all the rest! Jesus, what’s up with you?!

Jesus does this. He crosses the boundaries, even the ones we think are most dear. He legitimizes the boundary crossings of other people. And why? Because only in this way can the people on the far side of the boundary be cured of whatever ails them. God’s concern (as Jonah teaches and Jonah doesn’t understand) is for everyone. The old regime in which a boundary is maintained to preserve the safety and security of those within it is gone.

This is new. It cannot be absorbed into the old or matched with it. It is so new that if you try to add this to the old system, it will tear the whole thing apart. This new attitude can only work if you are yourself made new. This is not a mere addendum or a tacked-on extra to the old system, very well it was, thank you very much. (Hence dispensationalism as such is wrong.) No, the old system must pass away. If you want to preserve what was good and preserved by the old system (the old wine in the old wineskins) you cannot do it by putting it into the new system (the new wineskins). And if you have drunk the old wine, if you are attached to the old system, you will naturally reject the new. Content with what you like, you will not see the need for change.

But those who are being included, they see the need. The leper, the paralytic, the tax collector, the collaborators, the wicked sinners, the whores, the fags. We get it. We know why the new is better, and we are drinking deep.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Luke 5:1–11

Finally we get the calling of the disciples, and it is this extraordinary tale of a great fish-catch. John places this tale after the resurrection. Matthew and Mark just have the calling of these four men as they are mending their nets. John has an entirely different depiction of the calling of the first apostles. But for Luke, it’s here, with this tale of a fish catch.

The fish are obviously symbolic of the catch of the church, the great number of people that these men will gather into God’s net, a mighty harvest of the fruits of the sea. But not every apostle necessarily gathered this crowd of fish. Amidst the fact of the divine call, we often sometimes miss its specificity. How easy it is to look to this story, as so many preachers do, and proceed to say how we are supposed to go out and gather such a mighty harvest of Christian folk ourselves. But are we, in fact, all evangelists?

I notice that Jesus gave them direction: do this. And they, did, and they received a great catch. And they followed and caught even more. But to other disciples, Jesus may give a different message. Indeed, James did not earn such a mighty catch after all: he was the first to by martyred. But if the words of Jesus are correct, it may will be that this martyrdom was the way that James was called to be a fisherman of people, not by evangelism, but by his own passion, his own passive witness.

This is the Calvinist truth: we are all called by God. And the Catholic truth: this calling is sometimes to very serious business, to martyrdom or to great renunciation. I will have none of those nattering preachers who say such nonsense as “None of us are called to martyrdom, but we are called to ...” or “We today are not called to give up all our possessions, but we are called to ....” I wonder, how does such a preacher know that nobody in his or her congregation is called to martyrdom or the renunciation of all worldly goods? No preacher can tell us what we are all called to do or not called to do: whether martyrdom, renunciation, evangelism, marriage, or whatever. The Catholic and Calvinist agree that God’s call is particular and individual.

There is a heresy rampant in the Episcopal Church today which, like all heresies, starts with a great truth, and then distorts it to mean something quite different, often the opposite. The Catechism of the Episcopal Church teaches that the ministers of the church come in four orders: lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. And unlike most churches, we insist on this, and we are experiencing great and wonderful revival of the sense that every Christian is called to ministry. And we call them “ministers” and the work they do “ministry.”

But the heresy now rampant is to turn this around, and start telling people that whatever they are doing is a ministry. The ministers of the church are found in all four orders, but it does not follow that everyone in each of those four is actually a minister! Some of them are falling down on the job, not doing their part, have not counted the cost, and may find themselves on the wrong side when Jesus Christ separates the sheep from the goats. From a wonderful statement that all are called to be faithful, some have drawn the lesson that all are faithful; from a statement that the ministers of the church come in four kinds, some have drawn the lesson that everyone in those four kinds is a minister. They are not. Some are, some are not. All are called to ministry, but not all have heeded that call.

No preacher can say what everyone is called or not called to with any specificity. But one of the tasks of certain ministers is to, individually, help people to discern where God is calling them, and help them to live out the call to ministry which each of us receives. But this task cannot be performed if it has been replaced with the pernicious notion that everyone is already ministering where God wants them to.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Luke 4:31–44

I think it’s interesting here, as we hear of the first miracles that Luke relates, to notice that Luke started with the preaching. All the other gospels start with calling of disciples. But Luke starts with the word. And it was received badly in his hometown (yesterday’s selection), and received well in Capernaum.

What is this authority with which Jesus spoke? A special tone of voice, or a ringing in the ears that persisted? Because we know, as John says, that his authority came not from men but from God. It is not because Jesus has some special validation from any human wisdom or power or religious structure that his words carry authority. Unlike John, it is not signaled by miracles. For John, the miracles are signs of Jesus authority intended to provoke a faithful response. But Luke puts the miracles second and the preaching first.

The authority had then, some note, some resonance, some divine response within the hearers. They recognized it as having authority, and the only source which there could have been for that recognition was the Holy Spirit in their hearts. At the end, Luke relates the two on the road to Emmaus, and after they experience Jesus among them, they say, “Did not our hearts burn within us?” That inward fire, burning, is the Holy Spirit, which recognizes the words of Jesus. In virtue of this we know that it is the word of God being spoken.

And then, only then the miracles happen. If it is true that Luke’s gospel is a re-edit of Mark’s, then Luke is saying something quite important by sticking the little preaching bit in first here. The miracles of healing here also involve preaching. Jesus rebukes the demon, rebukes the fever of Simon’s mother, and so forth. He preaches even to the demons, this time a word of command and authority. And why do the demons leave? Because he has some special power of exorcism? Not quite. The demons leave because they too recognize him: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Notice that in Mark’s telling, Jesus rebukes the demon, but not Simon’s mother’s fever.

So this is what authoritative preaching is: it is preaching which resonates in the hearer with the Spirit of God already present in them. It is recognized as the word of God because God already dwells in the hearer. And then Jesus goes to “proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also.” And only then does he start calling his first disciples.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Monday, April 11, 2005

Luke 4:14–30

We miss this: Jesus pissed people off. So much so that in this case, they took him to a cliff and were ready to throw him off.

And this is his very first “ministry event” after all the preparation. Birth, set-up, John the Baptist, lineage, baptism, testing in the desert, and here he is, ready to begin, and what he says so enrages the folks that they are ready to do him in, right then and there.

What does he say that so angers them? It started well enough. He reads the prophecy, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” which follows to detail the wonderful things he has been sent to do, to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and so forth. And he says this is now fulfilled. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”

But then they wonder, isn’t this the kid we knew growing up? And at the first sign of trouble, he says that there are plenty of others. Elijah spurned Israel during a famine and brought salvation to a Sidonian widow. Despite plenty of lepers in Israel, Elisha cured none but the Syrian Naaman. It’s the same thing John said!

Jesus is repeating that all the earth is filled with candidate children for God, and God has done and will continue to do wonderful things to draw them in, with those who are hereditarily entitled possibly thrown out. And that enrages them, because, of course, they are the hereditarily entitled ones. It’s so, so easy to miss the point, and think this is merely about Israelite vs. Gentile. And it is partly about that. But it’s also so very much more.

It’s about never, never, never resting on one’s religious laurels, sure of one’s place, confident that one is on the inside. All those wonderful things in the prophecy, whose announced fulfillment had everyone thinking such good things about Jesus, were potentially for others. Eek! We thought he meant us.

Entitlement, of any sort, has absolutely no place in God’s kingdom. Nothing so enrages those who think they are entitled, the guardians of the social order, of the way things have always been. As soon as tradition becomes a self-confident assuredness that by keeping one’s tradition one is on the in with God, one is set and assured, one has become prone to reject Jesus when he tells you that you just might get passed over in favor of the outsiders, the unacceptible, the great unwashed (unbaptized?).

So whenever you hear anyone start saying that the tradition authorizes their message of exclusion and privilege, you know that they have left the Christian tradition, and headed off for something quite different, and that they are among those prepared to toss Jesus off the cliff for his challenge to their status.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Sunday, April 10, 2005

1 Peter 1:17–23

Continuing the readings from 1 Peter appointed for the Eucharist this year in Easter, we have a clear indication that Peter’s letter is written to converted pagans, not to Jews. Notice that he refers to “the futile ways inherited from your ancestors,” and that “through [Christ] you have come to trust in God.” These are not things to be said to Jewish Christians, whose ancestors did not have “futile ways”, and who already trusted in God before their faith in Jesus. No, this is the way you talk to converted pagans.

Since we live in a pagan culture, a culture which cannot any longer claim to a general Christian or even godly understanding of itself and the world, Peter’s words are pretty good for us. He speaks of conversion and newness of life, being brought through faith in Christ, which his hearers could not have received any other way.

Think of such a converted pagan at that time. First Peter refers to the Father “who judges all people impartially according to their deeds”; this echoes Petrine preaching in Acts also, where Peter says that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” It’s actually distinctively Petrine. Our religion is so heavily Pauline, especially since the epistle to the Romans has been treated by some as if it were the basis of all theology. It’s good to stop and hear what Peter himself says, rather than filtering it through the lens of Paul.

Peter focuses on impartiality: that God does not play favors with Israel. This is a lesson that was hard won for Peter. But his experience of the gentile church taught it to him. Moreover, Peter follows this up, both in Acts and in his epistle, by referring to deeds as the standard for acceptability to God. It is right living which God wants. And since God shows no partiality, it cannot be that the written law is the key. That is, if you needed revelation from God to know what is right and wrong, then only those who get the revelation would have hope of living rightly. This is the dynamic of law and gospel again, but in a very different key from the more commonly heard Pauline version.

What Jesus brings to these pagans is not a new law even. It would be tempting to say that Jesus is the universal revelation, thus because Jesus is available to all, this is how God no longer plays favorites. But let’s not read Paul back into this here either. Peter himself tells us what he means. Jesus was indeed “revealed...for your sake.”

So what is this “for your sake,” what is it that Jesus did, according to Peter here? Two things. First, ransomed us from “the futile ways inherited from your ancestors.” Pagan religion and culture, those futile ways. Nothing here speaks of hell, nothing here speaks of the judgment of God, except to say that God judges everyone fairly according to their deeds. So the ransoming here is expressed as a ransoming from the past, from something bad we have gotten from our ancestors. If you think that Peter is talking about the future or some kind of ransoming yet to come then you’ve missed what he is talking about here. That doesn’t mean there is no such thing as a ransoming in the future; yes indeed there certainly is! But it’s not what Peter is talking about here.

Second thing Jesus did, according to Peter here. Because God “raised him from the dead and gave him glory,” we have come to trust in God. In other words, we see this wonderful thing God did for him, and we come to trust in God ourselves who can and will do such wonderful things for us.

And it ends with Peter’s statement of new birth: “you have been born anew,” with a new inheritance. And we must purify our souls, live in obedience to the truth, but that’s not enough: we must then “love one another deeply from the heart.” This is the point, and this is the “deed” most central by which we are all judged impartially.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Saturday, April 9, 2005

Luke 4:1–13

After Jesus was tempted, the devil left for an opportune time. That time was in the garden, one presumes, when Jesus (according to Luke) sweated drops of blood.

After his meeting with John, Jesus first needs to confront and deal with himself, with his own hopes and dreams, and subordinate all of them to the will of God. This is something I have never been able to do myself until recently, because I wasn’t even in touch with my own hopes and dreams, let alone able to see them as potential distractions.

Jesus of course gets everything he wants, food, power, authority, self-confidence in his own mission, safety. Luke gives the three temptations in a different order from Matthew and from the way we normally remember them. Matthew’s go food, safety, power. But Luke puts the bit about safety, the temptation to dive off the pinnacle of the temple and be saved, as the last one.

This is because, I think, for Luke this is the resurrection. Jesus receives all the things he is tempted with, but only by being willing not to get them, and that’s why he sweated those drops of blood.

I want to take my own will and place it at Jesus’ feet, for him to use as he wishes. I am now at a place in my life where I think I have gotten rather well in touch with what I want, some of which I have received and some not. It’s not about changing what one wants though. It’s about being willing to, as they put it, “deal with unfulfilled desire.” It’s ok to want things, the point is to place getting what one wants in second place and not in first.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Friday, April 8, 2005

Luke 3:15–22

Huh? This is the good news? Remember those bad tracts which first start off by trying to convince you you’re going to hell, and then tell you how to avoid it, and end up with a little prayer of dedication and the address of a local church? The idea is that before you can hear the good news of salvation, you need to hear the bad news of what you’re being saved from. Well, this is crazy.

It’s a typically Protestant problem: a key doctrine was forged in a religious climate foreign to today, and that key doctrine has been elevated way out of proportion in a bad form long past its expiration date. In this case, the doctrine is that we are saved from hell through faith in Christ and through nothing else. If you think that’s all there is to salvation, then you’re kind of stuck when someone doesn’t believe in hell in the first place: hence those awful tracts. For a medieval, whose fear of hell might have been acute, this saving gospel is indeed good news. (Though I reject Martin Luther’s claim that the medieval church didn’t teach the gospel of salvation; it certainly did.)

Many of the people Jesus was preaching to didn’t even believe in an afterlife at all, and his preaching did not start out with a bunch of bad news from which the good news would save you. (And leave you where? right where you started? why bother?) Consider contemporary universalism. How is it good news to first convince somebody who trusts in a saving and redeeming God, that they might actually be tortured by that God for eternity, and then that the little prayer on the back of the tract will get them out of hell? How is this good news? for such a person? Answer: it’s not.

Ok, now what about John? Is his preaching just that kind of bad news? No. By contrast, his preaching is good news, very good news, because he says that God is going to act soon to “clear the bastards out.” To get the point, you have to get a whole lot more visceral and a whole lot less namby-pamby. The point is that if you’re upset with the way things are going in the world, so is God, and God is going to act very soon to rectify the situation. John proclaims that he is only able to get you ready, not to bring about God’s action. He warns that God’s action will baptize--that is, cleanse--you with the Holy Spirit and with fire, that is, not with the water of the Jordan. So be ready for it. But the point here is not a scary ghost story or a frightfully vindictive hell from which you can be saved, but that God is going to act to clean up all the nastiness and ugliness and hatred and war and violence and everything else in the world.

Then we are told that the one who is the agent of this transformation is Jesus Christ, and the good news is not only that the world is going to get cleaned up (and is being cleaned up), but that God will bring us (suitably cleansed and transformed) into that fresh new world.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Thursday, April 7, 2005

Luke 3:1–14

The preaching of John the Baptist gets short shrift, and so it’s good that we pick up Luke at this point. John is his own person, not just a forerunner to Jesus, he is a true prophet, he is Elijah who was to come.

He tells the crowds that they cannot look to Abraham as their ancestor as a guarantee of salvation. This is radical stuff, because the people relied on God’s promise to Abraham as the guarantee of their own secure place in his kingdom. But John says that the promise was to Abraham, not to them, and that God can keep his promise to Abraham without giving them anything: “I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

So it’s turned around: instead of focusing on their Abrahamic pedigree as the guarantee of their own place, John tells them to focus on their own actions, and not just on their ancestry--literal, or spiritual ancestry, we should add. If they behave like Abraham, they are his children, but if they spurn the right path, it won’t matter a hill of beans who their ancestor is. And, pace the Protestants, and pace St. Paul in Romans 4, John tells the crowd how to be children of Abraham: by right and moral action.

People today should note that John the Baptist does not tell the crowd anything about sex, or anything about religion. He tells the crowd that if you have two coats you must share with anyone who has none; the same for food. Tax collectors--collaborators with the occupying enemy state--have a place, provided they stop asking more than is right. Even the Roman soldier--good grief! is just anyone</i> being allowed in?</i>--can have a place, provided he cease using his power as a way to extort money.

So it’s a moral command, but it’s a moral command that is not about the maintenance of the existing social order. We see a foretaste of Jesus’ own hobnobbing with tax collectors and prostitutes and occupying Romans; Jesus tells us elsewhere that the prostitutes were also down at the river with John.

The so-called Christian Right had better start taking this to heart. They cannot count on their spiritual pedigree, their religious correctness, their (pretended) purity, even (dare I say it?) their faith in Christ. These will not save them. God can make new people better than they out of the stones any time he chooses. But if they turn back, repent, receive grace anew, and start bearing fruits worthy of repentance then they have a chance. And what’s the fruit? They need to start welcoming all as John did, they need to start explaining how everyone--even the most apparenty evil--have a place in God’s kingdom, and they need to start sharing with those who have none.

Index of Comments on Scripture

Monday, April 4, 2005

Isaiah 7:10–14

This year the Annunciation has been delayed to avoid colliding with Holy Week and Easter Week. Fitting, isn’t it? I read the psalmist’s expression of patient waiting for salvation to Ahaz, who in desperation and fear was approached by Isaiah, who wanted to promise deliverance. But Ahaz wouldn’t have it, feigning a religious attitude, “I will not put the Lord to the test.”

It’s a fake; Isaiah has come to announce deliverance, and he’s going to, whether Ahaz is ready or not. The promise to Ahaz was about his son, presumably Hezekiah, who did in fact secure freedom for Judah and kept Judah at least functional as a semi-independent state, instead of falling under Assyrian direct rule as Israel did. Because Assyria was scary, and Ahaz was sure that there was no hope. For this reason, Ahaz seeks help from Egypt, but it won’t do any good (and didn’t); but the intervention of God did. According to 2 Kings, the Assyrians got all the way to the gates of Jerusalem when they were struck with a plague and fled. Not long after the Assyrian empire fell under the rise of the Neo-babylonian empire.

Hezekiah wasn’t too smart; while he got the kingdom on a stable footing and started a solid religious revival, he also showed emissaries from Babylon all the treasures of the kingdom. And in a few generations, the Babylonians had taken over everything and came and stamped out the independence of Judah too, carting the inhabitants off just as the Assyrians had done to the northern kingdom Israel.

So this deliverance announced by Isaiah to Ahaz was short-lived; it survived his life indeed, but it wasn’t the kind of freedom and security the country really needed.

Of course, this prophecy was quoted by Matthew to explain the birth of Jesus, which is why it’s appointed for the feast of the Annunciation. But once we get clear on the context of this verse, it’s harder to understand it. For it’s pretty clear that the deliverance was temporary, that the Immanual Isaiah speaks of is Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son. I think this is ok, however. Yes, Matthew is pulling a verse out of nowhere for his own purposes; it’s crazy to think this was what was in Isaiah’s head. (By contrast, the more clearly messianic prophecies in deutero-Isaiah would get a very different treatment from me!)

Yet Matthew is canonical text, including the quote. What can we get from it? I’m not sure. I want to understand Isaiah 7 all by itself first, without trying to force it into being a prophecy of Jesus’ birth. But having done that, it does seem as if part of the message is about accepting deliverance. Joseph is who is being addressed in Matthew 1, and Joseph is reluctant to take Mary as his wife, and surely would be even more unwilling to take her son as his own. It just may be that this is Matthew’s comment on Joseph, that Joseph is a bit like Ahaz, but a better one: one who accepts the promised deliverance, one who is willing to be told Good News (even though it’s scary), one who is faithful and obedient and truly religious, rather than the pretended religiosity of Ahaz’s “I will not put the Lord to the test.”

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Sunday, April 3, 2005

1 Peter 1:3–9

What’s this inheritance? Peter’s grammar is tightly wrought and hard to parse here. I don’t have good enough Greek to make my own judgment, so I may embarass myself by relying on the NRSV, but here goes.

By his great mercy,
  he has given us a new birth
      into a living hope
        through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
      and into an inheritance that is
        and unfading,
        kept in heaven for you,
          who are being protected
            by the power of God
            through faith
          for a salvation ready to be revealed
            in the last time.

So, the new birth, that’s baptism. And it brings two things: a living hope, and an inheritance.

The living hope is given through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The inheritance has three properties: imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. And it’s “kept in heaven.”

And the recipients of this gift start out as “us”, but end up as “for you,” and who? We who are being protected by God’s power, and through faith. And protected for what? A salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Ok, that’s the grammar of the sentence. So what’s the inheritance? I’m going to guess that it’s not mere repetition, and front the following interpretation. At least, this was in the background of my homily this morning. (But if I’m wildly off base here, at least my homily didn’t rely on this interpretation!)

The living hope, I think, is our present hope. The hope we have now, in all its fullness, for all the things we hope for. A constant theme in my preaching is that this kind of hope is hope for heaven, for universal justice, truth, and love, for reconciliation with everyone, for all that eschatalogical stuff, but also and perhaps even more urgently it is hope for all the ordinary things we hope for: hope for security and peace, hope for tasty food, hope for our children to be happy, and so forth. So that’s the present hope. Hope is a big thing, but my little quest here is to figure out what the inheritance is, not the hope.

Ok, so the inheritance. One is tempted to say “eternal life.” But wait. If so, that’s mere surplusage. Because eternal life is part of the hope. And eternal life isn’t being “kept in heaven.” Something close is; better than eternal life, perhaps the inheritance is our resurrection? Unlike eternal life, the resurrection of our bodies isn’t something we have now. It’s something being “kept for us.” But that doesn’t work either, because it doesn’t address really the strong theme of preservation which is going on here. If this were pointing to the resurrection of our bodies, then it wouldn’t be saying all this stuff about preservation. No, the resurrection is included in the living hope too, it’s part and parcel of our hope. Moreover, surely the resurrection is the “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

Ok, so then what is the inheritance? It’s kept in heaven, for we who are being protected. I’ll tell you what I think it is. It’s the Body of Christ, and specifically the church as the body of Christ. And the church is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. This is how my homily this morning had it, but I relied on the gospel reading more. The church hasn’t been fading. It’s stronger than ever, and cannot be defiled, cannot perish, and cannot fade. (Why? Because it’s kept in heaven!)

Now this is pretty sketchy, I admit. Perhaps the more natural reading is just to take this as referring to eternal life and the resurrection and the consummation of all things. At least, that’s how I’ll probably think of it within a week. But I trot out this tendentious reading for one purpose: to underscore what Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus does not make here a comparison between Thomas and the other ten. No, no, no. For all eleven only believed after they saw. (And there is nothing in the gospel to suggest that Thomas takes Jesus up on the offer to touch his wounds either.)

The comparison is between Thomas and us, and indeed, the lectionary chose this bit from 1 Peter almost certainly because of the phrase Peter uses, “even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice.” Ah hah! See, we are better off than the apostles. We are more blessed, more happy, more fortunate. Why? Because we have so much greater a cloud of witnesses. Despite not seeing Jesus, we see him more clearly than the apostles ever could, and our successors in faith will see even more clearly yet.

The Buddhist picture has it that the Buddha comes, delivers the Dhamma, and over time it is corrupted and weakens and decays. Eventually it has vanished from the earth, and then after many ages another Buddha appears. But the Christian picture is the dead opposite. Jesus Christ came, bringing the Gospel. But the Gospel does not, over time, corrupt, weaken, and decay. No, just the opposite. It grows and strengthens and builds. The later you come, the more blessed you are, because the Gospel has expanded and grown still more, including more and more witness to the reconciling love of God in Christ. The legacy of Jesus is not just the Bible, or a “deposit of the faith once delivered” (though it includes those things); Jesus is with us now, and our primary witness to the Resurrection is in our heart, the testimony of the Holy Spirit, speaking to us through the Church, present and real.

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Saturday, April 2, 2005

Mark 16:9–15, 20

Here we have one of those lectionary readings which isn’t actually part of the text. For this little appendix to the Gospel of Mark was, with virtual certainty, simply not part of the Gospel. It was added by other people later.

But this is its own witness to the Resurrection. Some see in this an embarassed reaction to the abrupt ending of the Gospel of Mark, an unfortunate copying of the elements of the other gospels back into the text of Mark. I cannot speculate sensibly on the intentions of whoever added these bits.

And I cannot tell you whether they are canonical. But I can say this: the very fact that whoever added these bits was so sure of the Resurrection of our Lord, that he felt it quite necessary to make that faith explicit. It is not relevant nor the least bit important that the details seem to come from elsewhere. It is not relevant nor the least bit important who did it, or why. But what is patently clear is that these bits were added out of faith, out of a conviction that a gospel which ended without actual faith in the Resurrection was inadequate.

Well, the Gospel of Mark has its own integrity without this addition. But rejoice, shall we, in the confidence that inspired whoever to add these bits. I do not care why they were added, but they were added by someone with faith, who wants to tell us something important, perhaps only that we should not stop short. We should add our own witness, our own stamp, our own modification, if you will, to the message of Jesus. Amen! Alleluia!

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Friday, April 1, 2005

John 21:1–14

This charming story of breakfast on the lakeshore, with Peter’s nudity and implusive dash into the water (when is the last time you heard of someone putting clothes on so that they could dash into the sea and swim to shore?), the charcoal fire, the net laden with a hundred fifty-three fish, is often only used as the prelude to Peter’s re-integration and reconciliation with Jesus after having betrayed him.

I’m interested in something else. Since all week I’ve been speaking about recognition of Jesus as a major theme in these Easter appearances, I want to point to this odd quote above. Normally one does not remark that someone didn’t ask “Who are you?” In other words, either the person is recognized, which is normal, and so it isn’t worth mentioning that they weren’t asked, or not recognized, in which case they are asked.

So this verse tells us that the situation was something in the middle. That one might think Jesus wasn’t recognized, but that in fact he was. Which, to me, means that it took them a moment, that this recognition wasn’t just ordinary recognition but the kind of thing that the previous appearances were all supposed to help with. In other words, it’s still not immediate, still not automatic, that they recognize Jesus, but they are getting better at it.

This is bolstered by the earlier comment, “Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.” This could mean just that the distance from boat to beach was great, and indeed it does mean that, but it is also there to signal the same kind of recognition scene as we are now familiar with.

The beloved disciple is the first to recognize him, “It is the Lord!” And then Peter jumps in. The other disciples collect fish from the sea and have a splendid breakfast, and then, “they knew it was the Lord.” A Eucharistic moment follows, with Jesus giving them bread and fish, and then one of John’s countings: “This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” Remember the third sign he did in the Gospel of John? It was the feeding of the five thousand in John 6, a chapter filled to the brim with Eucharistic overtones.

Peter is reconciled, and then John tells us that “There is much else that Jesus did. If it were all to be recorded in detail, I suppose the world could not hold the books that would be written.” It is this invitation that we have now been instructed how to recognize Jesus, and we must now proceed to start telling these other things that Jesus did, the things he’s done in our own lives and the ways we have recognized him and come to know him.

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Thursday, March 31, 2005

Luke 24:36b–48

With this greeting Jesus culminates the resurrection appearances in Luke. The story as Luke has told it is as follows. Early on Sunday the women came to the tomb, see an angel, but not Jesus, and return to “report everything to the eleven and all the others.” The story “appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them.”

Then as we had yesterday, the Emmaus story, which is thus the first actual resurrection appearance in Luke. The two unnamed disciples tell Jesus about the vision of angels and the missing body, and at supper they realize they have been with Jesus all along on the road.

And now, back in Jerusalem, they find that Jesus has appeared to Simon in the meanwhile: “It is true: the Lord has risen; he has appeared to Simon.” And they share their story.

Now amidst the excitement, “there he was, standing among them.” Once again, the suggestion is of a recognition, as if he were there all along and they didn’t know it. They are frightened, and think they have seen a ghost, but he invites them to touch him, and he eats some food to prove that he is real. And then, just as with the Emmaus incident, he shows how “the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms” foretold what has happened.

Once more, there is a sending out. The women at the tomb were sent to the eleven. The two in Emmaus were sent back to Jerusalem to rejoin the community. And now, the whole community is sent out “to all nations beginning from Jerusalem.” It is this sending and this telling which is so crucial to Luke, at every stage. It isn’t nearly as pronounced in Matthew; in Mark it doesn’t even get obeyed; in John the focus is entirely different.

But for Luke, the whole nature of the resurrection is to be proclaimed, sent out, published abroad. Jesus leaves them once more, for good this time, or so it seems, in his ascension. Luke’s gospel ends with that. But no, wait, it doesn’t. It ends with this: “And they returned to Jerusalem full of joy, and spent all their time in the temple praising God.” Jesus hasn’t left them, but the need for these resurrection appearances has been completed. Each of them was designed to bring the community together and to urge it on its way of proclamation.

Now they have learned to see Jesus in each other, in the breaking of the bread, and in their distribution of this message to the four corners of the world.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Luke 24:13–35

How does one recognize Jesus? The resurrection appearances, as I have been noting, frequently seem to include this component of non-recognition. Here we have two unnamed disciples, leaving town after the death of Jesus, not knowing what’s up, and he joins them on the road. But they don’t know who he is.

Notice that they begin telling their companion who Jesus was and what had happened to him. They even repeat the resurrection story as they have heard it from others. Jesus chides them for their foolishness. But why are they foolish? Because all the evidence they need is right there even before they recognize him. And so he explains to them, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” that none of this should have been a surprise, but rather should have shown them who Jesus was and given them hope and courage.

And while he does this, their hearts were burning within them. Something was being kindled, that had not been kindled yet. But still, they are not aware of who this is.

Then, in a eucharistic moment, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” This is extremely curious language. We have the blindness theme, so common in the gospels and especially so important in Luke and Acts. They have been blind, and now they see. But they do not only see who this is that has been with them on the road; they see who Jesus was all along. Remember how he called them foolish? Their blindness concerned not only this fellow-traveler on the road; they were also blind to who Jesus was before his passion.

Now that they can see, he vanishes from their sight. He is no longer seen, because they have seen. What is the meaning of this? Once more, as I noted yesterday, the point is to send them back to the community from which they came. Instead of leaving Jerusalem for Emmaus, giving up hope, they are to return. Jesus did not appear to them and manifest himself to them in order to give them a pep-talk; he did so to reverse their blindness and to send them back to Jerusalem. Once their blindness had been reversed, they reversed their steps as well.

And so they rejoin the community in Jerusalem, which is by now abuzz with the news of resurrection, and they add their own story to the rest.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

John 20:11–18

After yesterday’s more ugly reading, full of deceit and conspiracy and fraud, today’s, from John, is more internal, personal, and poignant. Mary had been cured of seven demons, she owed her whole new life to Jesus. It is only through him that she found wholeness, and all that was dashed when he was killed.

And now, as a final indignity, she isn’t even allowed to care for his body. Not understanding, she sees the angels--she does not know they are angels--and is weeping. She is weeping because Jesus is dead, and she is weeping because even his body is denied her. Then, seeing Jesus, still not understanding--she does not know he is Jesus--she is still weeping. And he asks her, just as the angels did, why she is weeping.

The angels and Jesus both know, and in her desperation, she asks Jesus for the body. Note the reversal here: Jesus has given himself to her, and gives his body to us, and this is exactly what she is looking for: the body of Jesus, the body of Christ. And it is what she finds. But Jesus says not to hold on to him, not to hold on to his body.

How did the encounter with Mary end? We are not told. The resurrection appearances of Christ are filled with stories of encounter and recognition, but not so much of parting. We only get stories of parting when Luke and Matthew describe the ascension. So here she is, overjoyed at the recognition, given Jesus’ body yet not given Jesus’ body, and what does she do? She returns to the disciples.

The body of Jesus, the body she was not allowed to hold on to, was his physical body. The old is gone; gone are the days of Jesus walking around and teaching and eating with his disciples. Even though after his resurrection he does do these things, it is not in the same way, it is strange and mysterious, and always ends not with further eating and teaching and walking around, but instead with the people who have seen the risen Christ being sent to go and announce to others what has happened to them.

During his earthly life, Jesus’ body was most importantly that of an ordinary human being. Now, after his resurrection, it is most importantly found in the community of the disciples. Mary is not to stay in the garden and hold on to his physical body; she is to go to the disciples: to the Church, to the Body of Christ, and tell them what Jesus has said and done for her.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Matthew 28:9–15

The tale here is a particularly ugly one today, but stay with it. It’s the Gospel for Easter Monday.

One figures that the back-story is something like this. First, the Christian proclamation involved an empty tomb. There are two explanations immediately available for why the tomb was found to be empty. As Christians say, Jesus rose from the dead. Or, alternatively, the body was taken away from the tomb. We see the latter thought in John 20:11-15 where Mary Magdalene sees the tomb empty, but assumes that the body has been stolen.

Unlike Luke and John, Mark makes mention that the stone in front of the tomb was quite heavy. And Matthew amplifies this in two ways, to short-circuit the “stolen body” explanation. One supposes that some people around in the days of the early church agreed that the tomb was empty, but claimed that this was no proof of resurrection, but only that the body has been stolen.

So Matthew places this concern back when Jesus is buried, and has the only discussion of this point. He presents the Pharisees coming to Pilate and saying that the tomb must be made secure, and Pilate grants them a guard of soldiers to make the tomb secure. (Matthew 27:62-66). Then, after Sunday, the priests and elders bribe the guards to lie and say that the body has been stolen. And indeed, Matthew’s claim that this story is “still told among the Jews to this day” is borne out, with many ancient Jewish commentators giving the stolen body explanation as the correct explanation for the empty tomb.

Note that Matthew does not say that those who were repeating the story “to this day” were in on the fraud. The villains are those who are perpetrating the fraud, and not those who have been deceived by it. Nothing here licenses anti-semitism or anything of the sort.

But two oddities are present here, and they are also quite unique to Matthew. Note that the leaders who are committing the fraud know the tomb is empty and know that the body has not been stolen. We see a similar situation in Matthew’s account of the ascension (Matthew 28:16-20) where we are told: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”

It is this possibility which Matthew is highlighting, and what is most distinctive about Matthew’s description of the resurrection appearances. In Luke, the risen Jesus is recognized together with recognizing him as Lord and trusting him in faith. In John, the same is true. In Mark, we don’t even get a resurrection appearance at all. This is not to say that these others are wrong, merely that the other evangelists each have their own distinct and quite important things to say about the risen Jesus.

What Matthew says, quite singularly, is that it is possible to know that Jesus has been raised, to see him, to be present, to have all the right experiences, and still to be an unbeliever, to be without faith. Whether it’s the dishonest leaders who are perpetrating the fraud in today’s gospel, or those on the mountain who doubted at his ascension, Matthew wants us to know that there is something more than just an intellectual assent, or a particular experience, which is crucial.

What is this something more? It is the decision to worship, to trust, to believe.

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