Archive for March, 2015
RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Alternate history” or “alternative reality” is a genre of fiction. It consists of stories in which one or more historical events unfolds differently than it actually did. A good example is Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America in which Charles Lindberg becomes president of the United States on the eve of World War II. Lindberg, the popular and heroic aviator, handily defeats a crippled Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. Being both an isolationist and a rabid antisemite, Lindberg leads the nation in the direction of fascism. I won’t spoil the novel by disclosing its ending. Suffice to say, reading it was for me an eye opening experience. It was disturbing, to say the least, to be reminded that the same ugly currents of prejudice, hatred and fanaticism that led to the rise of Nazi Germany were not far below the surface of our own culture. Given a slightly different set of circumstances, history might have taken a different and potentially horrifying turn.
Reading Mark’s gospel throughout this church year, I have begun to wonder whether he did not write something like an alternative history. What Mark introduced to us as “good news” about Jesus ends in fear and silence. So troubling is this ending that the church has been trying to give it a happier spin since ancient times. To this day there are New Testament scholars who simply cannot accept the way Mark chose to conclude his gospel. As you will see below, I think Mark knew exactly what he was doing. He has given us what is obviously an alternative history. He invites us to consider: What would have happened if the disciples never caught on to what Jesus was all about? What would have happened if Peter never learned that his betrayal had been forgiven? What would have happened if the disciples never learned that the resurrected Christ was waiting for them in Galilee? What would have happened if the women had never overcome their fear and remained forever silent about what they had seen and heard on Easter Sunday?
We can confidently call this an “alternative” history because we know how the story finally unfolded (as did Mark). Clearly, the women must have told somebody at some point about the empty tomb and the angel’s message. Otherwise, there would be no Gospel of Mark. So we are left to wonder: How did it happen? When and how did the women finally overcome their terror and find the courage to speak? How did they convince the rest of the disciples to travel to Galilee and meet Jesus?
The more we think about all of this, the more obvious it becomes that Mark’s alternative history is not as alternative as first appears. Two millennia later we are still struggling to articulate our faith. We still find ourselves struggling to follow Jesus faithfully. We are still paralyzed by fear rather than motivated by faith. The radical implications of the empty tomb still have not sunk in. So Mark’s challenge is still in front of us. How about it, church? God raised the crucified one. There is no longer any excuse for hiding in the shadows, no excuse for remaining silent, no reason to live in fear. The tomb is empty. So what are you all going to do about it?
Last year I selected Acts 10:34-43 out of the two alternate readings. For my thoughts on that text, see my post of Sunday, April 20, 2014 on which Easter fell last year. This year I am using the other alternative reading from the Prophet Isaiah.
These verses from Isaiah are part of a larger section constituting a psalm of praise for God’s anticipated salvation. I invite you to read the entire psalm at Isaiah 25:1-9. The Hebrew text is riddled with difficulties rendering the English translations doubtful at best. For example, the statement in verse 2 “Thou hast made a (or the) city a heap” is a questionable reading. Mauchline, John, Isaiah 1-39, Torch Bible Paperbacks (c. 1962 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 189. Commentators disagree over which specific city, if any, is intended. Most tend to favor Babylon, in which case the text likely originated during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile. Ibid. It is also possible that the poem is dated as late as the Greek period under the Seleucids. Ibid. If either of these theories holds, then this song clearly could not have been composed by the Isaiah of the Eight Century B.C.E. as was the bulk of the material in Isaiah 1-39. The phrase in the same verse, “A palace of strangers to be no city” is also doubtful. Ibid. Whatever their dating and precise translation, the gist of verses 1-5 is clear. God will humble and bring to nothing the ruthless and arrogant nations oppressing the poor and helpless. The latter will be exalted and the former reduced to fear and awe before God’s justice.
Verses 6-9 contain the prophecy of a new age to be initiated by God’s saving activity. As is so often the case throughout the Bible, the coming of the messianic banquet is compared to a great feast, often a wedding feast. God is the host of this great feast which will be for “all peoples.” Vs. 6. Moreover, the people are to be fed with “fat things full of marrow.” Vs. 6. The “fat” of animals was reserved for the Lord according to Israelite cultic practice. See, e.g., Leviticus 1:8, 12. Here, however, this choice part is given by God to the people.
The “covering” and the “veil” over the nations to be destroyed by the power of God may refer to the former ignorance of the “strong peoples” and the “ruthless nations” or their mourning after having been chastened by God’s judgment. Vs. 7. The lavish hospitality of God poured out upon all peoples seeking his favor at Mt. Zion is capable of overcoming both of these obstacles to God’s salvation. The declaration in verse 8 that God will “swallow up death forever,” and “wipe away tears from all faces” is echoed by John of Patmos in Revelation 21:3-4. Death, like poverty and want, has no place in the new age. It does not necessarily follow, however, that immortality is intended here. Death, in Hebrew thought, was the natural end to life. It was seen as evil only to the extent that it was untimely or violently imposed. Thus, some commentators attribute this promise to the work of a redactor much later than either Second Isaiah or Third Isaiah. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 13-39, The Old Testament Library (c. 1974 by SCM Press Ltd.) p. 201. While this may well be, the defeat of death can be interpreted in a way consistent with Hebrew thinking on the subject. Though death itself might remain in the messianic age, the evil of death may be said to have been vanquished in a world where all people live in peace and security to a ripe old age. Where death is restrained and prevented from disrupting the peace of the community or ending life prematurely, its destructive power is ended.
It is generally agreed by most commentators that Verse 9, where Sunday’s reading begins, starts a new and separate song of praise. Some scholars limit it to this one verse, while others suggest that it continues to verse 12. Ibid. 202. Nonetheless, verse 9 stands in the canonical text as a fitting conclusion to the preceding hymn of praise for God’s salvation. Israel’s patient waiting for the fulfilment of God’s ancient promises is to be vindicated on a day of the Lord’s choosing. Israel and all the world will then know that God’s people have not suffered, lived faithfully or died in vain. As noted above, it is impossible to date this passage with certainty, but the message is clear and applicable to many different times and places. It is particularly fitting for Easter Sunday, the day on which the church celebrates the destruction of death and the fulfilment of God’s covenant promises in Jesus resurrection.
“O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good.” Vs. 1 Saint Augustine remarks, “I see not what can be more solemn than this brevity, since goodness is so peculiarly the quality of God…” On the Psalms, Augustine of Hippo, The Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. VIII, (c. 1979 WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 557. “Goodness,” however, is not an abstract principle. Verse 14, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation,” is nearly identical to Exodus 15:2 which, in turn, is taken from the Song of Moses celebrating Israel’s salvation from Egypt’s armies at the Red Sea. Exodus 15:1-18. God’s goodness is both defined and illustrated through the salvation narrative of the Pentateuch. The Exodus stands at the heart of Israel’s worship and history. It is the paradigm for God’s saving acts. As we have seen throughout Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), God’s victory for Israel at the Red Sea and God’s guidance and protection as Israel made her way through the wilderness to the promised land provided a rich supply of images for prophets seeking to illuminate saving acts of God occurring in Israel’s present context and to encourage the people in their darkest hours. Thus, whether this psalm commemorates the victory of one of Judah’s kings in battle or a procession bearing the Ark of the Covenant into the temple and regardless of when it reached its final form, it echoes God’s glorious victory over Egypt at the Red Sea and Israel’s liberation from bondage.
The “glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous” in verse 16 might refer to encampments on the battlefield and therefore indicate the celebration of a military victory. Alternatively, the tents might refer to pilgrim encampments about Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W. Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 86. Again, given Israel’s practice of adapting her ancient liturgical traditions to new circumstances, these two interpretations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
The psalmist switches from singular to plural, addressing God at one point, the assembled worshipers at another. Some passages seem to be addressed by God to the psalmist. This switching of voices has led many Old Testament scholars to v this view this hymn as a compilation of several different works. Rogerson and McKay, supra, p. 85. Professor Bernhard Anderson sees this as a “royal psalm,” a liturgy in which the king of Judah approaches the temple gates and seeks admission that he may give thanks. In so doing, he serves as a priestly figure representing the whole congregation of Israel. Anderson, Bernhard, W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 113.
The words from this psalm most commonly cited in the New Testament are at vss. 22-23. Jesus quotes these words at the conclusion of his parable of the tenants in the vineyard. Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17. They are also cited at Acts 4:11 and I Peter 2:7. The “chief corner stone” is probably the chief stone supporting an arch, without which the structure collapses. Rogerson and McKay, supra, p. 88. The meaning of this ancient proverb is open to interpretation. It could well refer back to the confessional acknowledgement required of Israel that she was descended from “a wandering Aramean” and delivered from slavery in Egypt by the God who alone is responsible for her existence as his people. Deuteronomy 26:5-11. This seemingly insignificant people is in fact God’s people of blessing to all the earth. Naturally, the proverb provided assurance and hope during the period of Babylonian Exile when it seemed that Israel had been “rejected” by the builders of history. Not surprisingly, then, the Apostles recognized a parallel between the enslaved and exiled people of God exalted by God’s saving acts and the crucified messiah exalted through his resurrection.
These verses form the introduction to Paul’s extended discussion of the resurrection throughout the whole of I Corinthians 15. I encourage you to read it in its entirety. Here Paul makes the very important point that Jesus’ resurrection is not simply his own, but the beginning of a general resurrection of the dead in which all believers participate even now. Jesus is the “first fruits” of the dead whose resurrection follows. The end comes when Christ “delivers up the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and every power.” I Corinthians 15:24. This is precisely the claim that ultimately got disciples of Jesus into big trouble with the Roman Empire. As far as Caesar was concerned, there was only one kingdom and that was Rome. Suggesting that there might be another kingdom to which allegiance was owed could get you nailed to a cross. Asserting that all other kingdoms, including Rome, must finally be brought under the reign of such other kingdom was a direct shot across the imperial bow. These letters of Paul were considered subversive material in the 1st Century and would be equally so in the 21st Century-if we really paid attention to what Paul is saying.
“Now I remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel…” vs. 1. These “terms” involve specifically the resurrection of the body. Paul’s non-Jewish audience would have been quite receptive to any number of concepts for life after death. What confounded them was the very Jewish notion of the resurrection of the body. Rosner, B.S., “With What Kind of Body Do they Come?” printed in The New Testament in Its First-Century Setting: Essays on Context and Background in Honor of B.W. Winter on his 65th Birthday, Edited by P.J. Williams (c. 2004 by Eerdmans); Wright, N.T., The Resurrection of the Son of God (c. Fortress Press 2003). The canonical Hebrew Scriptures generally speak of resurrection in terms of national restoration following exile rather than personal resurrection from death. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley filled with dry bones is an obvious example. Ezekiel 37:1-14. In the 26th chapter of Isaiah the prophet declares that “your dead shall live” and says explicitly that “their corpses shall rise.” Isaiah 26:19. Yet even so, these words in their context appear to function more as hyperbolic metaphors than literal promises of individual or corporate bodily resurrection from death. Only in the Book of Daniel do we find an explicit promise of resurrection from death:
“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” Daniel 12:1-3.
Notwithstanding the lack of any fully developed doctrine of resurrection from death, the Hebrew Scriptures nonetheless lay the foundation for such a hope in their witness to God as Creator, righteous Judge and merciful Savior See, e.g., Bauckham, R., The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses, Supplements to Novum Testamentum (c. 1998 by Leiden: Brill). Moreover, the resurrection of the dead is firmly attested by later Jewish apocalyptic literature. See I Enoch 51:1; I Enoch 62:14-16; 4 Ezra 7:32-33. In Paul’s unique take on the subject, the resurrection of the dead is preceded and made possible by the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the “first fruits” of the resurrected people of God. I Corinthians 15:20-23. Hays, H.B. First Corinthians (c. 1997 by John Knox Press) p. 263.
Verses 3-8 contain the earliest testimony to the resurrection of Jesus we have in the New Testament. It begins with the assertion that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” Vss. 3-4. Echoes of these verses are heard in the second articles of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. But what does Paul mean by “scriptures?” Clearly, he can only mean the Hebrew Scriptures as these were the only Bible the church had during his lifetime. We mistake Paul’s meaning if we understand him to be saying that the Hebrew Scriptures “prove” that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection fulfill the covenant promises to Israel. It is actually quite the other way around. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are attested by the witness of the apostles as we will soon see. But these events can be properly understood and appreciated only through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is to these scriptures we must turn in order to interpret Jesus. Without them, he is readily misunderstood as has been demonstrated by numerous heretical teachings that have attempted to sever the Hebrew Scriptures from the New Testament. According to Paul, “the message of the cross must be understood through the OT categories of sacrifice, atonement, suffering, vindication and so forth.” Ciampa, Roy, E. and Rosner, Brian S., I Corinthians, pub. in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edit. Beal, G.K. and Carson, D.A. (c. 2007 by G.K. Beal and D.A. Carson, pub. by Baker Academic) p. 744.
Paul’s recitation of the resurrection appearances to the apostles is interesting in that it implies Cephas (Peter) was the first to meet the resurrected Christ, followed by the Twelve, the five hundred and then James (the brother of the Lord?). He makes no mention of the appearance of Jesus to the women attested in Matthew, Mark and Luke or the appearance to Mary Magdalene in John’s gospel. Since Paul is arguing the resurrection of Jesus to some in Corinth who appear to deny it, his purpose in citing these witnesses seems to be that of bolstering his position. As women were not generally deemed to be competent witnesses in Jewish culture and in some other near eastern societies, he might have intentionally avoided mentioning them in this letter to avoid weakening his case. In any event, the point here is to illustrate that Jesus both died and was raised from death and that there remain eye witnesses to this saving work of God.
Paul includes himself among the apostolic witnesses to the resurrected Christ. Vs. 8. Indeed, he appears to ground his apostleship in part on his having seen Jesus. I Corinthians 9:1. Most likely, this is a reference to his conversion experience on the Road to Damascus. This story is related by Paul himself in Galatians 1:13-17 and throughout the Book of Acts. Acts 9:1-9; Acts 22:6-16; Acts 26:12-18. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ is removed not only in time but in quality from that of the other apostles. Mary Magdalene, the other women at the tomb and the twelve all encountered the same One they had known and followed throughout his ministry (though they were not always quick to recognize him). There is no indication that Paul ever knew Jesus during his mortal lifetime and thus could only have known him through his self-identification. Paul seems aware of this difference, referring to his encounter with Jesus as an “untimely birth.” Vs. 8. Nonetheless, untimely though it may have been and unworthy as he may have been, Paul had an encounter during which he “saw” the resurrected Christ. His witness further substantiates the claim that God has indeed begun to raise the dead and the proof in the pudding is Jesus.
A word or two further should be said about resurrection from death. This is not a distant hope to be fulfilled only in the indefinite future. Death is destroyed even now-if we understand that it is not the last word. I must say that one of the greatest disappointments I have experienced throughout my life in the church is our inordinate fear death. I cannot honestly say that I have found in the church any less denial of death, inability to discuss death or acceptance of death than in the public at large. Now I am not suggesting that death should be treated lightly or that anxiety about dying is unnatural or suggests a lack of faith. But I do believe that disciples of Jesus ought to know how to die. Like all other disciplines, the art of dying well is learned and practiced in a community of faith. The church should be a place where a person can discuss the deterioration of health, life threatening sickness and the effects of chronic pain in comfort and without awkwardness. We should all be assured that no one of us has to die alone. People in hospice should be comforted by visitors who read psalms to them, pray over them or simply sit at their bedside. A disciple’s funeral should be in the sanctuary where s/he worshipped. The casket should stand in the presence of the baptismal font and be surrounded by the symbols of faith. The Lord’s Supper should be celebrated as a testament both to our resurrection hope and the communion of saints that even now transcends the grave. The church should then accompany the casket to the cemetery where the body is placed in the earth like a seed awaiting the life giving Spring of the resurrection. None of this makes death pleasant. But, as Paul tells us, it can take the sting out of it. I Corinthians 15:54-58.
As I have mentioned before, Mark’s resurrection is the Transfiguration story at the center of his gospel. At least that is how I see it. See my post of February 15, 2015. There Jesus is revealed as God’s beloved Son transcending both the law and the prophets. At the end of the book we have only an empty tomb, a cryptic messenger and some women running away in terror. It is hardly surprising that subsequent editors sought to supplement the gospel with some other resurrection traditions. See Mark 16:9-20. I suspect they were uncomfortable with the loose ends left hanging at verse 8. But Mark excels at loose ends, unfinished stories and unanswered questions. He seems to delight in denying us “closure.”
Though scholarship is virtually unanimous in viewing the resurrection accounts following verse 8 as non Marcan accretions, not all New Testament scholars are convinced that verse 8 is or was intended to be the end of Mark’s gospel. Vincent Taylor, for example, argues that “it is incredible that Mark intended such a conclusion.” Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (Second Ed.) Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 609. The argument is based largely on the fact that the concluding sentence, “the [women] said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” ends with the Greek word “gar,” meaning “for.” Such a construction is admittedly clumsy and hardly an appropriate conclusion for any literary work. Cranfield likewise rejects the conclusion that Mark intended to end his gospel at verse 8. “Since the fact of the Resurrection appearances was clearly an element of the church’s primitive preaching, it is highly improbable that Mark intended to conclude his gospel without at least one account of a Resurrection appearance.” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press). The supposition is that the original ending was either lost, deliberately suppressed or never completed.
I don’t find any of these objections to ending Mark’s gospel at vs. 8 persuasive. As I noted earlier, Mark delights in leaving us with more questions than answers. Awkward grammar in the final verse fits nicely into the messy, jerky and twisted manner in which the gospel is told from beginning to end. As Morna Hooker points out, there is a fine irony in the closing scene. Whereas up until now Jesus has been urging his followers and the benefactors of his miracles to remain silent about what they have experienced, here the young man at the tomb orders the women to tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus has risen and will meet them in Galilee. But the women now manage to do exactly what no one else had been able to do throughout the entire narrative, namely, keep quite. The women run from the tomb in terror and say nothing to anyone. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 587. In sum, Mark has given us a splendid (if deeply troubling) literary ending to his work. The church’s attempts to improve upon it only blunt its impact.
In the Gospel of Luke, the women disciples are identified in the midst of the text at Luke 8:1-3 where we learn that they played a pivotal role in financing the ministry of Jesus. In Mark the women make their appearance only after the crucifixion of Jesus where we learn that they were watching this event and Jesus’ subsequent burial from a distance. Mark 15:40-41. They were, it seems, the only witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion as the other disciples had fled. Their presence at the crucifixion, albeit “at a distance,” explains how they knew where to find Jesus’ body on Easter Sunday. As noted above, when confronted by the (angelic?) messenger, told that Jesus has been raised and commanded to bring this news to the disciples, they flee and say nothing to anyone.
Here, too, Matthew and Luke tell a different story. According to Luke, the women carry out their commission and bring the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to the rest of the disciples. Their tidings, however, are discounted as an “idle tale.” Luke 24:1-12. In Matthew, as in Mark, the women are directed to tell the rest of the disciples that Jesus has risen and to instruct them to go to meet him in Galilee. But in Matthew’s telling, the women carry out their commission and the disciples evidently believe them and meet Jesus in Galilee. Matthew 28:1-10; 16-20.
I do not know how to reconcile these seeming inconsistencies. Nor am I fully convinced that I understand why Mark chose not to include any resurrection appearances of Jesus although it is clear from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that such accounts were circulating within the church decades before Mark’s gospel was composed. But it seems to me that Mark has deliberately written an open ended Gospel, challenging us to tie up the loose ends and fill in the blanks. How and when will we find the courage to speak the good news of Jesus’ resurrection? When will we overcome our fear and break the silence? How and when will the news of Jesus’ resurrection draw his terrified disciples (then and now) out of hiding to follow him once again? Perhaps we should read the gospels of Matthew and Luke, who rely heavily on Mark’s gospel, as faithful responses to Mark’s challenge.
SUNDAY OF THE PASSION / PALM SUNDAY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Everlasting God, in your endless love for the human race you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross. In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
How did a faith espousing an executed criminal as God’s Son become the religion of an empire? How did a man who spent his life in the company of social outcasts, misfits and the disgraced wind up the champion of white middle class morality and family values? When did we cease honoring the martyrs who preferred accepting death rather than inflicting it by serving in the military and begin honoring as heroes snipers with kill numbers in the hundreds? In a sense, these are rhetorical questions. I know generally the historical currents that brought us to this place and time. But I find myself coming back to them each time we near Holy Week and begin once again to trace Jesus‘ last days from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the Sunday of the Resurrection.
We might argue whether and to what extent it was or was not a good thing for Christianity to become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. We might debate the pros and cons of the church’s participation in shaping the culture and politics of Europe and America. But there is no denying that this ascendency of the church resulted in a huge gap between the New Testament and mainstream Christianity of today. The New Testament is the product of a faith community living on the margins of the margins. It was a church trying to get its head around the outrageous assertion that the only God who is God saved the world through the execution of a criminal who, it turned out, was God’s Son. The man Rome crucified is the one to whom not only Rome, but every person under heaven must ultimately bend the knee. The claim itself is audacious enough to invite ridicule. But more remarkable still, the claim is asserted by such a small and insignificant collection of riff-raff from the backwaters of the empire.
The stark contrast between this marginalized community that lived as a body made up of equally valued but differently gifted members on the one hand, and the strict dominant hierarchical structure of Roman society on the other could not have been clearer. To be baptized into Christ Jesus meant rejection of the defining parameters of Roman culture assigned to free men, women, citizens, non-citizens and slaves. One had to choose whether to believe in the pervasive power of the Roman pantheon with the emperor at its apex or trust the God who raised the crucified friend of sinners from death. For people on the margins, the good news about Jesus was good news indeed. The higher up one was on the imperial pyramid, however, the more threatening and dangerous this news began to sound.
What happens when the narrative about Jesus is appropriated by the hierarchy? What happens when the story of Jesus is told to children of the privileged and well to do? What happens when the persons gathered to hear the story are too thoroughly invested in their politics, professions and financial security grounded in the existing order to imagine an alternative way of being human? What if they identify more with the American Dream than the Kingdom of Heaven? Can the news about Jesus still be heard as “good”? Can it still be heard as “news”? Or will it be heard as mind numbingly familiar? Perhaps the gospel narrative is like an antique radio sitting on a shelf in the heart of a modern living room, eliciting pleasant memories from a simpler and happier time that never really was, but serving no true purpose.
Then, too, this might be the year that the story prevails. The Easter gospel might open for us a portal into an alternative reality where people, not profit matter most; where the economy is driven by human need rather than human greed; where border crossings are avenues of hospitality rather than scenes of hysteria; where the future is anticipated with apocalyptic hope rather than apocalyptic dread. If Christ is risen from the dead, all this stuff is not merely possible. It’s inevitable. So, then, how do people convinced that Jesus is risen live in the heart of the American empire?
Mark’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a good deal more subdued than the accounts of Matthew, Luke and John. It is not clear whether those accompanying Jesus with palms and praise included anyone other than his disciples. Moreover, when Jesus arrives at Jerusalem, he is not swept into the temple on a tsunami of praise to cleanse it. Instead, he merely inspects it and retires to Bethany with his disciples. The parade ends with a whimper instead of a bang.
Unlike the other gospels, Mark does not cite Zechariah 9:9 in his telling of the story. Nevertheless, he is most probably influenced by the whole of Chapter 9 from the Book of the Prophet Zechariah. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Second Ed., Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 353-354; Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 352. For a more dubious view, see Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to St. Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentary (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Henderson Publishers, Inc.) p. 257. The oracle of Zechariah 9:1-8 foretells the destruction of Israel’s enemies at the dawn of the messianic age. Zechariah 9:9 announces that Israel’s messiah is coming, not as a military conqueror on a war horse, but “humble and riding on an ass.” The chariot and the warhorse shall be “cut off” and the new king will “command peace to the nations,” not armed attacks. There may also be echoes in this account of the entry of Simon Maccabeus into Jerusalem “with praise and palm branches…and with hymns and songs.” I Maccabees 13:51. Taylor, supra at 546. This triumphal entry also was associated with a cleansing of the temple. Maccabees 13:50. I find the association doubtful, however.
The term “Hosanna” is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew imperative, “Save now” found in Psalm 118:25. Vs. 9. This is a cry for salvation similar to other such cries found throughout the Psalms of lament, though used here in a Psalm of thanksgiving. It is also used in other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures to address kings with petitions for relief. II Samuel 14:4; II Kings 6:26. Psalm 118:25 is perhaps antiphonally juxtaposed to Psalm 118:26 cited by Mark immediately thereafter: “Blessed is he who enters in the name of the Lord.” Vs.10. This was possibly a blessing pronounced by the priest to pilgrims coming to worship at the temple on high holy days and would certainly fit the occasion of Passover in Jerusalem. Mark, of course, expands this exclamation to cover Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem as messiah/king. The words “blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” stop short of “full throated Messianic homage.” Vs. 10. Taylor, supra at 452. Clearly, however, Mark himself fully intended for the reader to draw this conclusion. Cranfield, supra at 352.
The meaning both of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and of Zechariah’s prophecy are sharpened by the occurrence of another parade that would have taken place a week earlier when through a gate at the opposite end of the city Pontius Pilate entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers to keep the peace during the potentially turbulent time of Passover. See Borg, Marcus and Crossan, John Dominic, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus Final Week in Jerusalem (c. 2006 Harper) pp. 2-5. Pilate represented another kind of peace: the Pax Romana. To an extent never before seen in history, the Roman Empire was able to enforce its reign over the Mediterranean basin establishing law and order. While Rome’s governance kept a lid on local hostilities and allowed the expansion of trade and commerce, these benefits came at a terrible human cost. The cross was the ultimate instrument of terror by which Rome kept the peace.
I cannot help repeating what I have said many times before, namely, that while pacifism has been at the fringes of Christian theology since the beginning of the 4th Century, it is at the heart of the New Testament witness to Jesus. Palm Sunday is as strong a repudiation of the Armed Forces parade as any you will ever find. Pilate at one end of the city with his armed columns, their sabers rattling and their boots tramping over the stones with military precision inspiring terror. At the other end, the humble king riding unarmed and peacefully into town on his donkey greeted with joy and hope. The “Just War Tradition,” “The Two Kingdom Doctrine” and “Christian Realism” amount to little more than Christendom’s lame effort to march in both parades at once.
This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Sunday’s reading is a passage from the third of Isaiah’s four “servant songs.” The other three are found at Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p. 92. Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet him/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.
Though tidings of a new beginning might at first blush sound like good news, it is likely that many of the exiles did not hear it that way. Life in cosmopolitan Babylon may not have seemed much like captivity to the second generation of Jews who had purchased land, begun businesses or secured important posts in the Babylonian government. Giving up the security of a settled existence for a dangerous trip back to a ruined land must have seemed like madness to them. No doubt they resented and perhaps feared this prophet whose preaching enticed members of the community away from their homes and families to embark on such a misguided adventure. Not surprisingly, the prophet met with resistance that included violence (smiting, spitting and pulling out the beard). Vs. 6. The prophet is undismayed by this abuse, confident that his commission is from the God of Israel. Vss. 7-9.
Westermann notes that “[t]he special characteristic of the prophetic office is the very fact that the prophet wakens his ear ‘morning by morning,’ and must continually allow it to be opened by God, in order to have ‘an answer to give to the weary.’” Ibid. p. 229. Perhaps this is what John the evangelist had in mind when he quotes Jesus as saying: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” John 7:16. The incarnation, then, fuses the prophet and the Word as one. Not surprisingly, then, the rejection of that Word by a sinful world, as occurred most definitively in the passion narrative, takes the form of lethal violence.
Westermann believes these passages from Isaiah to be “truly revolutionary in their importance” because they express the servant’s acceptance of his/her persecution as an affliction intended by God as the fulfillment of his/her prophetic mission. Ibid. p. 231. Though the psalmists and the prophets, most notably Jeremiah, struggle with seemingly unmerited persecution which they hope to see redressed through retribution of some kind, the servant seeks not retribution but vindication. Israel’s final salvation, not her just punishment, will demonstrate that the servant’s suffering is not evidence of God’s rejection, but of the prophet’s faithfulness.
I agree with Westermann’s reading of this text, though I am not convinced that it is quite as revolutionary as he supposes. While the prophets could be caustic in their prayers for retribution against their enemies and unsparing in their proclamations of judgment, they never lost sight of their solidarity with Israel. Even the socially ostracized Jeremiah could weep bitterly over the fate of his people-however justly deserved it might be. Jeremiah 9:1. Isaiah recognizes that he is “a man of unclean lips, and dwells in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah 6:5. As withering as Amos’ judgments against Israel were, he prayed fervently that the people might be spared the worst of God’s wrath. Amos 7:1-6. In sum, the prophets always understood God’s judgment as an instrument of healing and salvation. Similarly, they must have understood at some level that their persecutions were part and parcel of their callings.
These observations tie naturally into the passion narrative that will occupy center stage this coming Sunday. The persecuted and rejected prophetic word, now become flesh, is vindicated and triumphs not through an act of counter-violence, but through God’s patient determination to keep on speaking the gracious invitation to forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in the face of that rejection. God’s power is God’s patience.
This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. As noted in last week’s post, the essential elements of its type are:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
- Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. If some elements are missing in this week’s reading, it is because the lectionary has truncated the psalm, probably in the interest of fitting the readings onto the commercially prescribed bulletin inserts. Moreover, the psalms are prayers formed in the furnace of human experience. As such, they do not always fit neatly into the scholarly categories of literary forms floating about like Platonic prototypes in the scholastic ether. In any event, it is puzzling to me that the lectionary did not begin the reading early enough at least to incorporate verse 5, “Into thy hand I commit my spirit.” Psalm 31:5. That would have been a good tie in to the passion narrative, albeit John’s rather than Mark’s.
Verses 9-13 are particularly striking. The psalmist complains that he is surrounded by enemies, people who whisper behind his back and seek his destruction. We might wonder about the mental health of someone who makes such complaints. Folks who imagine that the world is conspiring against them generally overrate their importance and exaggerate the hostility of those around them. I was recently asked by a traveling companion who noticed my Ezee Pass, “Doesn’t it bother you that the government knows where you are going and when?” I don’t remember what my precise response was, but the truth is I would be flattered to learn that the government or anyone else deemed my little life important enough to merit observation.
That being said, we all tend to be a little paranoid when we are feeling sick, weak and vulnerable. The aged and infirm naturally fear well-meaning relatives and friends who take it upon themselves to make important decisions for them without their input. When rumors of layoffs begin to make their way through the workplace it is natural to look for indications in the way people talk to you and act around you suggesting that you might be on the “to go” list. When something deeply hurtful, deeply personal and deeply embarrassing occurs in your life, it is not unusual to begin wondering whether the person you are speaking with knows all about it and what he or she might be thinking. Whether real or imagined, human malice is an experienced reality and one that the psalmist rightly lays before the Lord.
In addition to the affronts of his enemies, the psalmist is clearly disappointed in the friends s/he feels have deserted him or her. Vs. 12. Again, this desertion may or may not actually be real or malicious. When we are hurting, human companionship alone seldom fulfills all of our needs. We are all aware that there are some people who feel neglected and slighted no matter how often you visit or call. As important as friendship is and as valuable as it can be in difficult times, it is no substitute for faith in God’s promises. Perhaps it is because we lean too heavily on our human relationships, looking to them for the healing only God can offer, that they fail us. Marriages, friendships and family simply collapse under the weight of our unrealistic expectations. Again, the psalmist quite properly turns his or her hope toward God, the one companion whose promises never fail. When that adjustment is made, a return to healthy human companionship is again possible.
There is near scholarly consensus that Paul is citing in this passage an ancient Christian hymn of Palestinian origins possibly alluding to the “servant” figure form Second Isaiah discussed under the heading of our first lesson. It fits perfectly Paul’s articulation of his theology of the cross in I Corinthians 1:18-4:20 and his discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:1-14:40. As the “Body of Christ,” the church must have the “mind of Christ.” Vs. 5. So far from aspiring to godhood (the sin of Adam and Eve), Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, living joyfully, trustingly and obediently within the limits of his humanity. Vss. 6-9. The Greek word for “servant” (doulos) is literally translated “slave.” It is the word Jesus used when he told his disciples that the greatest among them must be the servant/slave of all. Mark 10:44.
In a sinful world, a life so lived draws hostility and hatred. Jesus’ death on the cross was therefore the expected outcome of his obedient life. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus’ death was necessary. To put it in the most cynical way, “that’s what happens to nice guys.” But such cynicism is silenced by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vs. 9. The upside down kingdom for which Jesus lived and died is real. The powers that put him to death are transitory and doomed to pass away. It is to Jesus, not to Caesar or any other nation or flag that all the universe will one day kneel. Vss 10-11. Disciples are called to live in the certain knowledge of that reality now.
I don’t preach on the Passion. The Passion text preaches itself. Whatever I might add can only detract. Yet, if you are foolhardy enough to try and improve on the gospel narrative, there are several points of interest. First, the story begins with Jesus in the home of Simon the leper. Mark 14:3. This individual was likely well known to Mark’s audience as nothing more is said to identify him. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books) p. 371. It is worth noting that, up to the very end, Jesus maintains table fellowship with those deemed unclean.
Second, the story of the woman who anoints Jesus with the alabaster flask of ointment is worth telling. Mark 14:3-9. It is ironic that this story has been saved, according to Jesus, to preserve the woman’s memory though we do not even know her name! We might use this opportunity to memorialize all the unknown, nameless persons whose acts of extravagant generosity go unrecognized. It strikes me that this would be a good opportunity for recognizing social workers, school teachers and other members of the helping professions seldom mentioned without a condescending sneer on the lips of politicians from a certain political party of the American two-party system which is not Democratic and will otherwise remain appropriately anonymous. These folks work long hours, are disgracefully underpaid and typically handle oversize classes and/or caseloads with decreased funding. On top of all that, they must endure the constant refrain that their sacrifices are pointless and a waste of taxpayer money.
Third, I have always found interesting that, at the close of chapter 13, Jesus admonishes his disciples three times to “watch.” Mark 13:32-37. In the Garden of Gethsemane they must be jarred out of sleep exactly three times and reminded to watch. Mark 14:32-42. Recall that the disciples are preoccupied with the timing of the temple’s destruction and the signs accompanying the close of the age. Evidently, they do not know what to watch for. The darkening of the sun (Mark 15:33), the acclimation of Jesus as “King” (Mark 15:26) and the confession of Jesus as God’s son by the gentiles (Mark 15:39) all occur within the Passion narrative. Jesus came in his glory, but the disciples missed it because they failed to keep watch! Makes you wonder what signs should we look for? How does Jesus rule? What is glory anyway? Nothing of what we expect.
Then, of course, there is my favorite: the streaker in the garden. Mark 14:51-52. This little aside about the young man wearing a linen cloth has always fascinated me. Where did he come from? Why was he naked except for the linen? Why, out of all the disciples, did the temple authorities grab him? Whatever happened to him? Why does Mark (and only Mark) bother to relate such a seemingly inconsequential detail of such an important story? I can’t answer any of these questions, much less figure out how to get a sermon out of them.
In summary, I recommend not preaching the Passion. But if you must, these are just a few things you might talk about.
FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, with steadfast love you draw us to yourself, and in mercy you receive our prayers. Strengthen us to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, that through life and death we may live in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Some years ago I was listening to an interview on the radio of an elderly Polish Catholic woman, one of the “righteous gentiles,” who had given refuge to Jewish families during the Second World War. The interviewer asked her point blank: “Why would you put your life and the lives of your own family members in jeopardy to help people who are strangers to you?” There was a long and uncomfortable pause before the woman finally responded, “Well, what else would one do?” For this woman, there was simply no moral issue at stake, no ethical dilemma to stew over, no choice between greater and lesser evils. When your neighbor is in danger, you offer protection. To borrow a phrase from Geico Insurance Company, “It’s what you do.” She couldn’t imagine any other course of action.
I think that must have been something like what the prophet Jeremiah had in mind when he spoke about a new covenant under which the Torah of God would be inscribed on the hearts of his people. I believe that is why the psalmist has “laid up [God’s] word in [his/her] heart, that [s/he] might not sin against [God].” A heart that is so thoroughly shaped by praying the psalms, hearing the gospels and studying the epistles finally internalizes them. They become the tools with which the Holy Spirit builds in us the mind of Christ. We finally cannot imagine turning away a neighbor in need, resorting to violence in order to resolve a dispute or bending the truth to gain an economic advantage.
Of course, it is not the scriptures alone that transforms our hearts. The words of both prophet and psalmist presuppose a covenant community formed around the scriptural witness and for which the scriptures are a normative authority. I have often said, much to the consternation many, that I believe the scriptures to be meaningless apart from their interpretation by and through such faith communities. The Ten Commandments don’t work as law for a secular society. The Sermon on the Mount makes no coherent sense apart from the life and work of the Lord who preached and lived that sermon. Apart from communities formed by the narratives of the patriarchs, the Exodus and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Bible is just an historical curiosity with no more relevance than the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
I have heard again and again that the church’s preaching is not reaching our contemporary audience. We tend to blame that on preachers. Now I am willing to admit that there are more poorly prepared sermons and more lazy, burnt out and apathetic pastors out in the church than there should be. But I believe that the primary problem with preaching is that, like the Bible, it presupposes an intentional community of faith for which the preaching of Jesus is central. It is hard to proclaim Christ as the true vine that keeps us all alive to a group of individuals that understands itself as a voluntary organization and where “church” is understood as a place you go weekly (or about a dozen times per year statistically for most Lutherans). Our preaching does not make a great deal of sense among folks for whom being a Republican/Democrat, being a supporter/opponent of gun rights, being an American is more constitutive of who one is than being a baptized child of God. When church becomes tangential, the Bible becomes at best a trite collection of edifying nuggets and at worst a source of ammunition for culture warriors. The Bible has nothing to say to a collection of individuals that is no longer a community centered on the Bible and no longer worships as Lord the one to whom the Bible testifies.
More than ever I long for the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. More than ever I long for the day when the scriptures will cease to collect dust on coffee tables, sit idle on church bookshelves and will once again become the instrument of the Holy Spirit forming communities of faith. I long for the day when the scriptures will be so thoroughly ingrained in our hearts that we no longer need to argue about whether we ought to open our homes to destitute children fleeing into our country, welcome gay, lesbian and transgendered folk with all their gifts into our congregations, renounce the use of violence in all contexts and tithe our income for God’s good use. I long for the day when, like that dear old Polish saint, our hearts are so thoroughly ruled by the Holy Spirit that we are unable to imagine doing less than what Jesus would have us do.
Israel understood God and her relationship to God not on the basis of theological assertions about God or philosophical ideas about God, but through a series of historical covenants with God. God’s heart, mind and will for Israel were discerned through the living out of those covenants in obedience to Torah, a body of law that shaped Israel’s worship, commerce, community life and her relationship with other nations. According to the Deuteronomist, the glory of Israel was the wisdom and understanding gained through her obedience to Torah. Deuteronomy 4:6. Jeremiah was on the same page with the Deuteronomist on this score. He was probably a young man when, under King Josiah, Judah undertook significant reforms, purging the land of idolatry, restoring the temple in Jerusalem that had fallen into disrepair and strengthening the institutions of worship. See II Kings 23.
While Jeremiah likely approved of these reforms, he learned through bitter experience that, in themselves, they were insufficient for restoring Israel’s heartfelt obedience to her God. “The heart” he observed, “is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9. In the hands of a perverse and godless people, even the Torah becomes an instrument of injustice. “How can you say, ‘We are wise and the [Torah] of the Lord is with us?’” Jeremiah asks. “[b]ehold, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie.” Jeremiah 8:8. For this reason, Jeremiah believed that a new covenant was required. Understand, however, that a new covenant is not synonymous with a new law. The Ten Commandments and the rest of the body of law given through Moses needs neither replacement nor supplementation. It is the heart of Israel, not the Torah that must be changed.
A covenant is not a legal contract, though it does stipulate terms for living within it. It is best to think of a covenant as a relationship. Jeremiah compares it to a marriage. Vs. 32. The core of every marriage is fidelity. Whatever rules and statutes govern that marriage, they are not the essence of the marriage. They exist to protect, strengthen and enhance the marriage. If there exists no bond of fidelity, there is nothing for the laws to protect. When God enacts a covenant, it never begins with rules. First comes the promise. In the case of Abraham and Sarah, it was the promise of a land, a people and a blessing. In the case of Sinai, the giving of the law was preceded by God’s rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The law was given to protect Israel’s new gift of freedom and to keep her from becoming another Egypt. Thus, Jeremiah looked forward to some new saving act of God that, like the two aforementioned covenants, would melt Israel’s stubborn unbelief. Through this new saving event, God would once more give Torah to the people of Israel, not on tablets of stone, but engraved upon their hearts.
It is important to appreciate both the continuity and discontinuity between this anticipated “new” covenant and the “old” covenants of Sinai and the patriarchs/matriarchs. As in the past, this new covenant would be initiated by the free act of Israel’s God. Some saving intervention of God in the human story would prove to be as compelling as was the call to Abraham and the deliverance from Egypt. The only conceivable response to such gracious acts of salvation is thankfulness from which genuine obedience flows. Torah will no longer be a means of establishing obedience. Its role will be to channel that outpouring of newfound thankfulness inspired by what God will shortly do. Rather than being an objective authority imposed from outside, Torah will be internalized and written upon the heart. Vs. 33. This covenant is consistent with God’s merciful intent for Israel expressed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It will be “new” in the sense that Israel will have another wonderful experience of that merciful intent renewing her ancient faith and enriching her narrative.
A new covenant was sorely needed. The promised land, the temple, the line of David and many other hallmarks of the prior covenants would soon be lost with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and subsequent exile. What would it mean to be Israel without all of these things? Was such an existence even possible? Jeremiah’s answer is a resounding “yes.” God is far from finished with Israel. The exile, to be sure, was God’s just punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness. But it is not only that. God is laying the groundwork for a new salvific act through which God’s faithfulness will be manifested and Israel’s faith restored. This is a good word for individual believers and churches experiencing loss and facing an uncertain future. God never makes an end of things except to make a new beginning.
For my general observations on the form and content of Psalm 119, see my Post for September 7, 2014. This psalm is the longest of eight acrostic poems found within the Book of Psalms. The others are Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. Instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, however, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the second section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “Bath.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.
If the psalm has a theme, it is the centrality and supremacy of God’s Torah in every sphere of human life. The psalmist does not merely learn, memorize and conceptually understand the Torah. His/her heart, mind and daily practices are shaped by the Torah. Torah regulates the psalmist’s daily routine, inspires his/her praise and forms the perspective from which the psalmist views the rest of the world. One might object that such an obsession with Torah amounts to “brain washing.” But the fact of the matter is, we are all “brain washed” in the sense that how we perceive everything from the daily news to the mood of our spouses is shaped by preconceived notions about reality. Nobody is capable of viewing anything purely “objectively.” The psalmist is well aware of this. S/he wants his/her perspective on everything to be shaped by his/her reflections upon Torah-rather than say, MSNBC or Fox News. That isn’t to say that the psalmist might not have watched either of these networks had television been available in the 6th Century. But the psalmist would have evaluated what s/he saw under the lens of Torah rather than the other way around.
Our section of the psalm begins with a question: “How can a young person keep his/her way pure?” The answer comes in the very next sentence: “by guarding it according to thy word.” Vs. 9. This is precisely what the prophet Jeremiah told us must happen and it is significant that this psalm was composed long after the prophet’s time. We might see this psalm as something of a fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. “I have laid up thy word in my heart,” says the psalmist. Vs. 11. The people of Judah not only survived the Babylonian conquest and exile, but learned through that and subsequent experience to internalize Torah.
The psalmist understands, as did Jeremiah, that Torah cannot be learned. It must be taught and taught chiefly by the God who gives it. Thus, s/he prays, “teach me thy statutes!” vs. 12. Because the psalmist trusts God to teach, s/he is diligent in “declaring,” “meditating” and “fixing [his/her] eyes” on Torah. This is no burdensome and onerous task. To the contrary, the psalmist “delights” in Torah and vows not to “forget thy word.” Vss. 13-16. The psalm is a testimony both to the transformative power of Torah and the blessedness of the life by which it is shaped.
In order to make sense out of this psalm (the entire Bible for that matter), we need to see the covenant community that formed the prayer and which, in turn, is formed by it. The statutes about which the psalmist sings are those given by the God who promises an aged, barren, childless nomadic couple a land, a people and a blessing. They are given to slaves, a people that was no people, but who have now been liberated and called to freedom. They are laws given by the God who sets rulers over his people, not to reign as gods, but to be God’s representatives of justice for the widow and the orphan. Psalm 119 is the payer of individuals, families and communities struggling to live as the people of this marvelous God. Seen in that light, the study of Torah is an invitation to enter into the marvelous narrative of Israel’s history with her God, not the dry and onerous study of mind numbing rules we might otherwise imagine it to be.
To recap what I have written before, I do not view the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews as an assertion of Christianity’s superiority over Judaism as some commentators do. Instead, I believe that the letter was written to explain the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. and to deal with the disappointment of some disciples who might have been expecting that event to usher in the consummation of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. The destruction of the Temple was a severe blow to both Jews and Jewish disciples of Jesus who, according to the Book of Acts, worshiped there. For Jews it meant the end of the sacrificial cult that came to define much of what it meant to be a Jew. For disciples of Jesus it meant the loss of an institution Jesus attempted to purify and the failure of a prophetic understanding of its destruction as a sign of the inbreaking of God’s reign. In short, the destruction of the Temple was a traumatic event for Jews, both those who accepted Jesus as messiah and those who did not. For the most part, the Jews dealt with this catastrophe by turning to the Torah and the synagogue as their center of faith and life. Disciples of Jesus saw in Christ “a new temple not built with hands” (John 2:19-22) and in the community of faith called church Christ’s bodily presence. I Corinthians 12:27. So the writer’s objective is not to discredit Judaism with Christianity, but rather to illustrate how the mission of Jesus and his continuing presence with the church fulfills the functions of the temple cult and supersedes it.
Our lesson for Sunday speaks of Jesus as the new “High Priest.” Vs. 5. “The essential concept underlying priesthood in the ancient world, among both Jews and Gentiles, was that of mediatorship between the divine and human, by virtue of the priest’s superior knowledge of, or power of communication with, the supernatural.” Shepherd, M.H., Jr., “Priests in the New Testament,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 889. Though likely in existence in some form from ancient times, the office of high priest came into prominence following the return from exile in Babylon and the reconstruction of the second temple around 520 B.C.E. In the writings of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah the high priest, Joshua, appears to hold power comparable to Zerubbabel the Persian appointed Jewish governor of Judah. Haggai 1:1; Haggai 1:12-14; Haggai 2:2; Zechariah 6:9-13; Zechariah 3-4. “With the disappearance of the Davidic line, it was inevitable that the postexilic high priest should acquire much of the power and prestige which formerly belonged to the king.” Abba, R., “Priests and Levites,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 887. The priesthood was hereditary, being tied exclusively to the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron. As the writer of Hebrews points out, “one does not take the honor [of priesthood] upon himself, but he is called by God just as Aaron was.” Hebrews 5:4. With the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the decimation of the priesthood and the termination of sacrificial worship, the question becomes: How does one properly worship the God of Israel?
As noted previously, the answer lay in Torah and the synagogue for most Jews. The Pharisaic tradition, which had championed this perspective all along, became the definitive shape of Judaism going forward. The priesthood had no further relevance. For disciples of Jesus, the priesthood was understood to have been assumed by Jesus whose offering of his life atoned for sin and created a new and better avenue of approach to God. Jesus was understood among his disciples as God’s true high priest from an entirely different lineage than that of Aaron, namely, the line of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is an obscure figure who makes only a fleeting appearance in the scriptures. Genesis 14 tells the story of how a confederation of kingdoms defeated the infamous city states of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abram’s (later Abraham) cousin Lot and his family got caught in the cross-fire and were kidnapped and enslaved by the victorious confederation. Abram formed his servants into an army and pursued the confederation forces, ambushed them during the night, scattered their troops and rescued Lot. The king of Sodom was naturally grateful to Abram as this victory benefited his kingdom. He came out to greet Abram and with him was Melchizedek, king of Salem (another name for Jerusalem). Melchizedek, identified as “priest of God Most High,” brought with him bread and wine. He also blessed Abram with the words:
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram gave [Melchizedek] one-tenth of all the spoils of his victory.” Genesis 14:19-20. The only other mention of Melchizedek is in Psalm 110, a coronation hymn, in which the newly crowned king of Judah is named “a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” Psalm 110:4. It is this very mysteriousness of Melchizedek and his lack of genealogy or history that makes his priestly office such an appealing analogy to the ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ priestly authority is not grounded in the corrupt lineage of the Jerusalem establishment of his time, nor is it even rooted in any human genealogy. Jesus’ appointment and priestly office are grounded in God’s sovereign choice.
In my former life as an attorney, I knew a judge who, when confronted with a trial adjournment request for a case that had already been sitting on the docket for years would blurt out, “and when did the accident take place? Back when Christ was a corporal in the Marine Corps?” What interests me about this profane remark is its rather poor theology. It implies that Jesus started out at the lower echelons of human existence and worked his way up through the ranks to become God’s Son-a sort of spiritual Horatio Alger myth. Actually, one could get that impression from an over hasty reading of verses 7-10 in our lesson. It is important to note, however, that Jesus was at all times God’s Son. “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” Vs. 8. What he “became” was not God’s Son (which he already was) but “the source of eternal salvation.” Vs. 9. His “perfection” was the life he lived in the “flesh,” the only life that ever was genuinely human. And being human in the way God desires and in the way that God is human when God is incarnated in human flesh entails an obedience which, in a sinful world, leads inevitably to suffering.
The other psalm citation by the writer of Hebrews is found in Psalm 2. Like Psalm 110, this is also a coronation hymn likely used for the crowning of a Judean king in the Davidic line. “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” Psalm 2:7. Like the priesthood, so also the royal line of Judah came through God’s anointing. In the case of the psalm, the term “begotten” is clearly figurative. For the New Testament writers, the term took on a more profound meaning in the description of Jesus’ person and ministry. One might wonder why the writer chose a coronation hymn like this when his/her focus was clearly on Jesus’ priestly function. As Psalm 110:4 and the duel offices of Melchizedek illustrate, however, the royal and priestly functions were blurred from ancient times. The objective is to show that the priestly functions of the temple ministry and priesthood have passed to Jesus and his active presence in the life of the church. Like the lesson from Jeremiah dealing with the destruction of the first temple, so this reading from Hebrews helping disciples of Jesus to come to terms with the destruction of the second temple speaks words of comfort and hope to a church that has come to believe its best days are behind it.
Sunday’s lesson is taken from the closing chapter of Jesus’ ministry in John’s gospel. We are in the midst of John’s Palm Sunday narrative. Philip, whose name is Greek and who came from a predominantly Greek speaking region is approached by “Greeks” who wish to see Jesus. Scholars wishing to delve into the so called historical basis for this encounter suggest that these Greeks were actually Greek speaking Jews from the diaspora coming to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. However that might be, John wishes to emphasize their “Greekness” and identify them with gentiles. These are “the other sheep that are not of this fold” who must be brought in so as to heed Jesus’ voice. John 10:16.
This episode marks a significant turning point. Jesus has said repeatedly throughout the prior chapters that his “hour had not yet come.” John 2:4; John 7:30; John 8:20. But the coming of the Greeks signals that now “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Vs. 23. How is the glorification of the Son of Man to take place? Jesus leaves little doubt: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Vs. 24. Jesus’ death will be his glorification. We must not lose sight of the fact that Jesus’ death glorifies Jesus precisely because it is the natural, legally anticipated consequence of his life of perfect obedience to the Father. Jesus is what genuine humanity looks like. He is also what the heart of the Father looks like. For this incarnate life there can be only one end in a world that shuns the light and chooses darkness.
“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Vs. 25. These are difficult words for a culture that values enjoyment of life, that believes the pursuit of happiness to be a fundamental human right and that strives for comfort above all. But the truth from which we hide is that our comfort in this society comes at a terrible cost to the rest of humanity, to the earth’s biosphere and to our capacity for empathy and compassion. It seems to me that there is much to hate about the way we live. As noted last week, the term “eternal life” as used by John refers not chiefly to life’s duration but to its orientation. Life that is lived in relationship to Jesus is shaped by the love binding the Trinity as illustrated in Jesus’ prayer at John 17. Such love is directed toward the world to which the Son was sent to give life. John 3:16. We are compelled to ask how much of our living is “eternal,” that is, grounded in the love of the Father for the Son, love of God for the world and love for one another. If we cannot take a look at our lives in the light of truth and hate what we see, how can we ever arrive at life that is eternal? “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also.” Vs. 26. These words should dispel once and for all the notion that “Jesus bore the cross so that we would not have to.” In reality, bearing the cross is a privilege. It is our opportunity to escape from a selfish, consumer driven and destructive existence that we should have learned by now to hate. It is sheer grace for those who have eyes to see it.
John’s gospel does not have a Transfiguration story as do Matthew, Mark and Luke. Verses 27-33 serve many of the same literary purposes, however. The voice from heaven both glorifies Jesus and declares that his name will be further glorified. The voice is directed to the disciples and, in John’s gospel, to the Palm Sunday crowd as well. There are echoes also of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane in vs. 27 where Jesus resists the temptation to ask the Father to save him from the hour of suffering. As in the three other gospels, so also in the gospel of John, Jesus is a fully human person no more eager to suffer and die than anyone else.
“Now is the judgment of this world.” Vs. 31. This will in fact be a double judgment. The world will judge Jesus and Jesus’ condemnation and death will be God’s judgment on the world. The cross will bring to full light the world’s hostility toward the Father in all of its ugliness. More importantly, though, it will bring to light the Father’s love for his fallen world. The world will be exposed for what it is and God will be exposed for who God is. In this the “ruler of this world” is cast out. In the cross, the devil had his best shot at rupturing the love that holds the Trinity in unity and the love of the Triune God for creation. He took it and scored a bull’s eye. But the devil’s strongest punch could not take Jesus out. It could not induce Jesus to abandon his mission. It could not induce God to retaliate for the murder of his Son. The love of the Father for the Son remains intact as does the obedience of the Son to the Father. God’s love for the world is still as strong as ever despite the cross. The devil couldn’t crack the Trinity.
FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
I can well understand why, as our gospel lesson tells us, people prefer darkness to light. I don’t expect that the individuals on the Ferguson police force whose racist emails recently made the news were happy about the light shining into their private lives. Of course I don’t know, but I suspect they all presented a very tolerant and progressive face in public. I would not be surprised to learn that they were always friendly and respectful toward their African American associates and acquaintances. I strongly suspect that they had every intention of keeping their racist humor within the limited circle of their friends “who understand.” These were jokes for buddies with a sense of humor, guys not caught up in all that political correctness crap. They never expected that their private jokes would ever become public and probably never gave a thought to what might happen if they ever did.
I expect that the same assumption prevailed among the Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers from the University of Oklahoma chanting their racist slurs while riding a charter bus. They were all just a crowd of good old boys letting their hair down and having a little fun. They would never have spoken the same words in the college cafeteria or the campus commons. They knew better than that. Who would have thought that someone might capture this moment of private revelry on video? Who would have imagined the whole affair unfolding to the public over social media? To its credit, the national leadership of Sigma Alpha Epsilon immediately shut down the offending chapter and is in the process of expelling all who took part in this tawdry little incident. But one cannot help but wonder whether the protests of “this is not who we are!” are not more accurately characterized as “this is not how we want to be seen.” I wonder whether the wrath visited on the offending brothers was less outrage over their conduct than anger over their stupidity in allowing it to go public. If you are going to be a racist, at least be discrete about it!
We should not be too hard on the folks from Ferguson or the frat brothers, however, unless we are prepared to be put under the same scrutiny. I’m not ready for that. Of course I don’t think I’m a racist and I hope I am right about that. I don’t think of myself as particularly powerful or privileged either, but I am certainly that. It starts with the fact that I am a “man.” Moreover, I am a “white” man. Further, I am a “straight” white man. These factors alone give me a huge leg up over everyone who lacks them. There is no question in my mind that the opportunities I have had over the years would not have come to me-or at least not come to me as easily-if I had been either a woman or a person of color or the uncloseted member of a sexual minority. Thanks to my parents and the power they enjoyed, I received a college education and more. That, too, has given me a head start in life. I am not saying that I didn’t work hard to arrive at where I am or to obtain what I own. Chances are, though, that without my gender, race, sexual orientation and educational advantages I would have a good deal less to show for all my hard work.
While none of the above makes me racist, it does place me in a position of advantage and domination in a society that clearly is. Standing in the light Jesus sheds upon me, I cannot deny that I have benefited from the privileges afforded white males or that these privileges come at the expense of others. That is something I would rather not have known. I would have much preferred to remain in the dark about these realities and go on pretending that I am a self-made man who has nothing he didn’t earn by the sweat of his brow. But the events in places like Ferguson and in Sigma Alpha Epsilon remind me that, for all the progress we sometimes seem to have made, racism lies very close beneath the thin venire of civility we try so hard to maintain. I am reminded that I am not competing on a level playing field and that I was born with points already on the scoreboard.
“This is the judgment,” says Jesus, “that the light has come into the world.” We cannot “unsee” what we have seen. We can no longer hide behind the pretext of ignorance. We can no longer use the excuse that we didn’t know. The truth is clear-painfully clear. Now that we see it, what are we going to do about it?
I dealt with this text at length in my post of Sunday, September 14, 2014, which I invite you to revisit. This time around I was struck by a couple of things. First, the frustration of the people. I have no first-hand experience at being lost in the wilderness. In this day of cell phones, GPS, Google Earth and NSA watching our every move, I am guessing that getting lost in the wilderness would require some serious effort. Not only would you have to find a patch of wilderness big enough to get lost in, but you would have to rid yourself of all the gizmos that hitch you to the grid. These days that could include your watch, phone, car keys and wallet. You would also need to avoid detection by satellites and passing drones. With all the ways we have of tracking each other these days, it amazes me that some hikers, climbers and explorers still manage to get themselves lost.
Nevertheless, I surely have been lost, though not in the wilderness. I remember well the time I drove home with my family from Interlochen, Michigan to Ridgewood New Jersey in one overnight haul. The worst stretch was through Pennsylvania on Route 80. It was pitch black in the dead of night. All I could see was the road in front of me. I was exhausted and far too tired to be driving. Worst of all, though, was the lack of signage indicating how far along I was on the freeway and how much further I had to go. What drove me nuts was element of “not knowing.” That is, not knowing how much longer this hell was going to last or how to respond to my children when they asked me that question. I can well understand how the people of Israel finally lost it when it seemed Moses was leading them on yet another detour. “What the hell? Moses, do you have any idea where you are going? Have you got a plan? How much longer is this trip going to last?”
I have often sensed this frustration in the congregations I have led. They see the challenges facing their church such as declining membership, loss of support and they turn to me for guidance, for assurance, for some plan or strategy to get us out of this wilderness of danger and uncertainty. In some measure, I feel the same frustration as I look to my denominational leaders and find little in the way of guidance, assurance and direction. I forget that they are just as lost as I am; just as lost as my congregation. We are all lost, but at least we are lost together. That would give us much comfort if only we could find the courage to admit to each other that we are lost, that none of us knows the way out and that none of us has a plan. It is at just such times that the Spirit of God often finds an opening to work in our hard, headstrong and determined hearts.
The other noteworthy thing is the prayer of the people. Upon realizing their sin, the Israelites beg Moses to pray God to rid them of the serpents. But God does not rid Israel of serpents. Instead, God provides a remedy for the bite. The serpents remain and people presumably continue getting bit. How much longer this went on the text does not tell us.
This answer to prayer is at once less and more than Israel requested. Obviously, the people would have preferred removal of the serpents to a cure for the bite. That would have restored them to the status quo ante. But there is no going back to what was before. The rebellion of the people and God’s judgment upon them are a settled fact of history. Once a marriage is scared by infidelity or a friendship broken by betrayal, a mere apology is not sufficient to repair the breach. Grace consists not in pretending the breach never happened, but rather in the determination to continue the covenant relationship despite the breach. Israel’s rebellion has damaged the covenant, but not fatally so. It is still possible for Israel to live under the shelter of that covenant, albeit painfully so.
Perhaps there is an analogy here to life under our baptismal covenant. On the one hand, the covenant is sure. God guarantees it. Yet it is also true that in so many ways we violate that covenant, giving God just cause to annul it. God does not turn a blind eye to our infidelities, but neither does God exercise the option to vacate our baptismal covenant. Through confession and absolution, repentance and forgiveness on a daily basis, the sting of the serpent is healed. It becomes possible for sinners to live under the covenant of baptism as God’s saints.
This is a psalm of praise. Verse 22 suggests that it was sung by the faith community before a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That the worshipers are “gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Vs. 3) suggests that this psalm was composed after the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Though some of the exiled Jews returned home to Palestine, most of the Jewish population remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem on high holy days. Such pilgrim journeys were fraught with dangers, escape from which was one of many occasions for thanksgiving.
Our reading jumps from the introductory verses 1-3 to verse 17 stating that some of the worshipers now giving thanks had become “sick” through their sinful ways. The Hebrew is obscure at this point. Some translations of the Hebrew Scriptures favor the alternative reading: “some were fools, they took to rebellious ways.” New English Bible. Given this ambiguity, we are left to ponder whether the persons described here were rescued from sickness brought on by their rebelliousness or from their rebellious ways otherwise destructive to their wellbeing. Verse 18 stating that these individuals were so affected as to become “sickened” at the sight of food is merely figurative. It means little more than that food brought them no pleasure and that they had no appetite. Thus, there is no definitive indication that sickness is the affliction from which these worshipers were delivered. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 52; but see Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 687 for a contrary view.
In verse 18 we are told that the worshipers “drew near to the gate of death.” The psalmist pictures death as a city drawing the hapless traveler into its fatal orbit. Again, the interpretation depends on our rendering of verse 17. In a world without much in the way of medicine and where illness was poorly understood, many of the sicknesses we view as non-life threatening brought fear and foreboding. Every sickness was a reminder of human mortality as it might well progress to something much worse than first appeared. So, too, bad choices can bring a person to ruin from which there seems no way of return. In either case, we are invited to glorify the God of Israel for turning even these seemingly hopeless circumstances into occasions for the exercise of God’s saving power.
God “sent his word” at verse 20 can be understood at several different levels. At the most superficial level it can be understood as a word of rebuke (assuming that the affliction is foolishness) or of encouragement (assuming the affliction to be illness). The bringer of the word can be linked to the word in such a way as to be an extension of that word. This notion of angelic intervention applies to help in the form of natural elements that serve as God’s “angels” or angelic beings serving at God’s behest. In later Judaism and in the New Testament, the word often became identified with God’s self. See John 1:1.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 107 in its entirety. This marvelous hymn recounts God’s faithfulness and salvation through the lenses of many differing human situations of want and need. In every case we are invited to “thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men.” Vs. 21.
“Dead through trespasses and sins” “following the prince of the power of the air” –how are we to make sense of these terms? To understand what Paul and his followers meant by this terminology, it helps to understand the context in which they lived and worked. The Roman Empire was the overriding and dominating presence throughout the Mediterranean world in the 1st Century. Under its reign society was rigidly and hierarchically ordered with the emperor at the apex and slaves making up the base of its pyramid of power. How you regarded and treated others in your life was dictated by your assigned place in this order. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Harmenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 49 and the citation to Lendon, J.E., Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (c. 1997 by Oxford: Clarendon) pp. 289-292. For Paul and his associates, this way of “walking” (Vs. 1) is sinful by definition. As a Jew, Paul understood God as the one who liberated Israel from slavery for a life of freedom in covenant with God. As a disciple of Jesus, Paul believed that genuine divine power does not manifest itself top down through the imperial hierarchy, but from bottom up through the faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection of the Christ. Jesus topples Rome’s pyramid uniting into a single people persons of all nations, all classes and all races. Of this people, Jesus Christ, not Caesar is Lord. There is no hierarchy in this new people, but only a diversity of gifts exercised for the building up of the Body of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-16. This is the good work in which disciples of Jesus are called to walk. Vs. 10.
I believe Paul would have recognized much that was familiar to him in a city like Ferguson, Missouri. A police department that is overwhelmingly made up of white officers whose homes are far removed from the largely African American community it serves looks a lot more like an occupation force than a public servant. Though surely saddened, I doubt Paul would be shocked to discover that elections are bought by powerful corporate interests, that wealth is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of a very few while a growing sector of the population lacks even the basic necessities of life. I think that Paul would recognize “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Vs. 2) every bit as much in our age as in his.
What I am not sure Paul would recognize is the presence of the church in the midst of such a world as ours. Would Paul recognize a church that is so thoroughly woven into the cultural and economic fabric of our domination society that it blends naturally into the Americana landscape? Would Paul recognize as the meeting place of Christ’s Body a locked building with a “No Trespassing” sign over the door? Would Paul see in our still highly segregated Sunday mornings the descendants of his churches? Would Paul find any disciples of Jesus engaged in the good works in which they are called to “walk.”? Vs. 10.
Our failure to appreciate the extent to which the church’s very existence challenged the legitimacy of Rome’s culture of domination has compromised our preaching of this and other Pauline texts. Perhaps the timing of this lectionary text in close proximity to the fiftieth anniversary of the march at Selma is no accident. There could hardly be a more graphic illustration of what it means to “walk” in the good works to which disciples of Jesus are called.
For some background on the larger context of this brief snippet from John’s gospel, see last year’s post from Sunday, March 16th. Suffice to say that Jesus is engaged in a conversation with Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, who has come to him by night. Nicodemus, having been told that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being “born from above” mistakenly believes that Jesus means he must be born all over again-a seeming impossibility. When Jesus explains that entering the Kingdom is not so much a re-birth as it is a new birthing by God’s adoption of us through the Spirit, Nicodemus is still mystified. Jesus then says to Nicodemus what we have in our lesson for Sunday: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Vss. 13-15.
As pointed out by one prominent commentator, the words “in him” are associated with eternal life rather than with “believe.” Thus, “whoever believes, in him may have eternal life” is the preferred rendering. Barrett, C.K., The Gospel According to St. John, Second Ed. (c. C.K. Barrett, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 179; accord, Marsh, John Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 187. Belief is not the engine of salvation unto eternal life. As Martin Luther points out, “the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.” The Large Catechism of Martin Luther, published in The Book of Concord, edit. Theodore G. Tappert (c. 1959 by Fortress Press) p. 365. Eternal life is given in Jesus, the Word that evokes and directs faith toward himself. To read this verse in any other way suggests that faith is a precondition for God’s mercy rather than the heartfelt response to such mercy.
“Eternal life” is a term frequently used throughout the fourth gospel, though the other gospels use it occasionally as well. While used in Jewish and Christian literature to speak of life in the new age to come, John uses it in a more expansive way. For John, eternal life begins when one believes in Jesus. “And this is eternal life,” says Jesus, “that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” John 17:3. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the eternal life Jesus shares with the Father is mediated to the disciples. John 16:13-15. It is critical to emphasize John’s present tense lest eternal life be misunderstood as a distant hope realized only after death.
It is important to remember also that the Greek texts do not contain punctuation. Thus, the decision to end the quote from Jesus at verse 15, as does the RSV, is an editorial decision. The NRSV continues the quotation up to verse 21. Commentators are split on this point. For example, Professor Raymond Brown sides with the NRSV. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 149. Professor Lightfoot, however, would end the quote at verse 15. Lightfoot, R.H., St. John’s Gospel (c. 1960 by Oxford University Press) p. 118. I lean toward the NRSV rendering on this point. I see no compelling reason not to extend the quote up to verse 21 and so accept John 3:16 as Jesus’ pronouncement. “All Jesus’ words come to us through the channels of the evangelist’s understanding and rethinking, but the Gospel [of John] presents Jesus as speaking and not the evangelist.” Brown, supra, at 149. With this in mind, it is possible to read John 3:16 not as a doctrinal proposition, but as Jesus’ proclamation of his reconciling mission to us.
“God so love the world” Vs. 16. The word “world” is important. When I was in confirmation, my pastor encouraged us to substitute our own names in place of “world” when reciting this well-known verse. While I appreciate that he was trying to help us personalize Jesus’ ministry, there is a danger in such particularization. For too long the church has held a narrow, individualistic view of salvation. It is as though God were trying to save as many passengers as possible from the deck of a sinking ship. This wicked world is on cruise ship destined for hell. But faith is the lifeboat that can get you safely off the ship before she goes down. God, however, is determined to save the ship. “The earth is the Lord’s” the psalm tells us. Psalm 24:1. God is not conceding one inch of it to the devil. For this reason, our own individual salvation is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the rivers, forests, animals, the hungry, the oppressed and the oppressor.
The “sending” of the Son into the world as an expression of God’s love points in two directions. Vs. 16. First, it points to the miracle of the Incarnation. John treats this in his poetic prologue at John 1:1-18. It is important to understand that incarnation, the dwelling of God with humankind, has been the intent of God from the “beginning,” that is, before creation, the fall into sin and its consequences. The constant refrain throughout the prophets is “I will be their God and they shall be my people.” That refrain is echoed in the Book of Revelation where this divine desire is finally fulfilled. Revelation 21:3-4.
Second, the sending of the Son points forward to the cross-the price God is prepared to pay for dwelling in our midst, for becoming flesh that can be torn, broken and pierced by nails. This desire of God to dwell among us at the cost of God’s only beloved Son is the measure of divine love. Such love takes shape in our lives when we become passionate about God’s reign or, to use John’s language, when we enter into eternal life which we might well render life that is eternally significant. To believe in the resurrection is to believe that the God Jesus lived and died for is real; that the salvation he offers the world is worth living for and even dying for.
Jesus continues by telling us that he has been sent not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Vs. 17. Yet condemnation there surely will be. “He who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Vs. 18. Often there is a twofold reaction to Jesus in the gospel of John placing in stark relief the response of faith to that of rejection and unbelief. It is not that Jesus himself judges any person. Rather, “the idea is that Jesus brings out what a man really is and the real nature of his life. Jesus is a penetrating light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a man is.” Brown, supra, pp. 148-149. For, “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” Vs. 19. This applies to all persons across the board. The question is how one responds to this judgment. Does one say “yes” to the judgment upon his or her life and turn from death to “eternal life” as we have defined it? Or does one shun the light, continue in sin and cause the judgment to become condemnation? In sum, this passage presupposes an encounter with Jesus such as is occurring with Nicodemus in our lesson. It should not be lifted out of this context and employed for speculation about who will or will not finally be saved.
One final observation: for all the dualism in this text-light vs. darkness; belief vs. unbelief; and knowledge vs. ignorance-terms which seem to mandate that one choose one side or the other, Nicodemus remains an ambiguous character throughout John’s gospel. He appears briefly in Chapter 7 when he questions his fellow members of the council about their rush to judgment on Jesus and his ministry. John 7:50-51. We meet him again after Jesus’ crucifixion as he goes with Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus a proper burial. John 19:38-42. John seems to recognize that there is a twilight zone between darkness and light; belief and unbelief; understanding and ignorance. In this zone faith struggles to be born.
THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously. Keep us steadfast in your covenant of grace, and teach us the wisdom that comes only through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.” — Elie Wiesel
Power is a fact of life even for those of us who don’t think we have much. It comes up in our most intimate family relationships, in our professional lives and in our churches. At the root of everything is a desire for control leading to abuse of power. Understand that I have no diabolical intent when I try to control people. I am only trying to help. I am only trying to get them to realize that I know what is best for them and that they would do well to listen to me. I think that some good leaders become dictators out of a desire to protect the gains they believe they have made for their people, gains that might be lost if law and order were to break down and things are allowed to spin out of control. I think that pastors frequently damage their congregations when they invoke their pastoral authority to move their people in the “right” direction. God knows there have been plenty of children ruined by controlling parents.
So what do I do with the power I have? How can I prevent it from becoming a destructive force in my life and the lives of everyone I love? I think Eli Wiesel hits the nail on the head. Redemptive power begins with the exercise of power over our own desire for dominance and control. Paul also has a lot to say about power generally and the power of God in particular. According to Paul, the power and wisdom of God is manifested in the cross. The cross is the way God exercises power. God becomes “weak” and vulnerable, opening God’s self up so that we may approach without fear. The vulnerability of God is costly, of course. The hands that reach out to heal can be received with nails. The Son sent to bring reconciliation and peace can be rejected and murdered. But God never ceases-never will cease-to raise him up and offer him to us again. God’s power is God’s undeterred commitment to love the world God made without dominating it, without controlling it and without manipulating it.
We don’t ordinarily think about power in that way. For us, power usually consists in the ability make others do what we want. But that is precisely the use of power we need to resist if we would be powerful in the cross. My problem is that I seldom recognize my abuses of power as they occur. It is only in retrospect that I come to understand how what I thought was a genuine desire to help was actually a disguised need on my part to feel important. It is only after the fact that I realize how my principled stand on a particular issue had more to do with arrogance, pride and a need to be right than with anything at all principled. I am a poor judge of my own motives and character. I am even worse when it comes to judging others (though that doesn’t stop me from trying!).
For that reason I find myself praying with the psalmist, “who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.” I am blind when it comes to diagnosing my own sin. I am powerless when it comes to restraining my urge to control. I need help in learning to embody the power of the cross. I need the preaching of God’s Word; the Body and Blood of Christ; the admonition, prayers and forgiveness of the church of Christ. I think that is what this season of Lent is all about.
It has been twenty years since I first read “The Place of the Decalogue in the Old Testament and its Law,” Miller, Patrick D. (published in Interpretation, Vol. 48, no. 3, July 1989) p. 229. I still find that article to be one of the most helpful in understanding the place of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures. Dr. Miller points out three factors demonstrating the high importance of the Commandments within the Torah as a whole. First, the commandments are set forth twice in the Pentateuch in very different literary contexts. Whereas our lesson for Sunday has the Commandments delivered to Israel shortly after the Exodus from Mount Sinai on tablets still hot from the imprint of God’s finger, they are repeated verbatim at Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Here the people stand at the frontiers of the Promised Land having spent forty years as nomads in the wilderness. In both cases Israel is making a new beginning where she will encounter new opportunities, new challenges and new temptations.
Second, “the giving of the Commandments clearly presents their transmission as something that happened directly between God and the people.” Ibid. p. 230. The “Decalogue is thus perceived as direct revelation of God to the people, while the rest of the law is mediated through Moses.” Ibid. Though, to be sure, all of the law is deemed “God given,” the narratives emphasize that the Ten Commandments represent the starting point from which all subsequent law flows and in which all subsequent law is grounded.
Third, the language in which the Ten Commandments are given remains virtually identical in both Exodus and Deuteronomy. By contrast, there is significant variation between the collection of law given at Sinai by Moses in Exodus and Leviticus on the one hand and that given on the plains of Moab in Deuteronomy on the other. Miller goes on to analogize the Ten Commandments to the United States Constitution. Neither are “law” in the sense that they constitute statutes applying to specific circumstances. Like the Constitution, the Ten Commandments are fundamental principles from which specific legislation derives. “These foundations do not change. They continue in perpetuity to be the touchstone for all actions on the part of the people as they seek to live in community and order their lives.” Ibid. 231.
Here we need to exercise caution. While the Commandments may be said to embody moral priorities that are eternally valid for the community of Israel, they come to us “in earthen vessels” to borrow a Pauline phrase. II Corinthians 4:7. Like every other passage in the Scriptures, the Ten Commandments are historically and culturally conditioned. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Tenth (or Ninth and Tenth, depending on how you number them) Commandment prohibiting a man from coveting his neighbor’s wife…house, field, servants “or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Vs. 17. Obviously, a man’s wife is here classified as property. Some more contemporary renderings of the commandments change the wording to prohibit coveting of “one’s spouse.” As laudable as the intention may be, I find such efforts to modernize the Commandments dishonest and potentially damaging to the very cause these efforts promote. Not until we recognize the suffocating effect of patriarchy in the biblical world can we begin to appreciate the depth of heroism, ingenuity and creativity demonstrated in the lives of women in the biblical narratives who acted faithfully to further the redemptive purposes of Israel’s God. The stories of Sarah, Rebecca, Debra, Mariam, Esther and so many others bring into sharp focus the central truth of the Biblical story as a whole: the way things are is not the way things have to be-nor the way they always will be.
It is for this reason that Miller points out that we must discern “a kind of trajectory for each commandment as it is carried forward, a trajectory that holds to the intention of the particular commandment but also creates a dynamic of new or broader meanings that are seen to grow out if its basic intent.” Ibid. 234. If we are going to follow this trajectory faithfully, I believe that it is essential for us to keep a couple of things in mind. The prologue to the Commandments is critical because it tells us where they come from. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Vs. 2. The Commandments are not moral, philosophical concepts formed in the world of ideas. The Commandments are given to a people newly liberated from slavery by the God who liberated them and wants to ensure that they do not slide back into slavery again.
It follows, therefore, that the Commandments are unintelligible apart from the covenant between the liberated people of Israel and the God who liberated them. The Commandments were not given for general public consumption. They will not function properly in just any old society. It is for this reason that the Commandments are out of place in front of municipal buildings, courts of law and public schools. The covenant is with Israel, not the United States of America. The Ten Commandments do not function meaningfully outside of that covenant. It cannot be overemphasized that the Torah was given to protect, enhance and strengthen the life of a free people bound to its God and to one another. The laws of the United States are designed to govern the civil life of a people of diverse loyalties, priorities and beliefs that may or may not include faith in Israel’s God. Losing sight of that distinction serves neither the Commandments nor the republic well.
Furthermore, any interpretation of the Commandments that enslaves us is dead wrong. Martin Luther rightly recognized that our use of the Commandments to win the love that God would give us freely and unconditionally enslaves us. So, too, when the Commandments are employed to stigmatize, exclude, dominate and marginalize people they are being misused. The polestar for interpreting the commandments is love: Love for God and love for the neighbor. As Jesus points out, the Commandments are gifts given to people for the benefit of people; people were not made for the purpose of following commands. That is why I keep telling my friends who seem fixated on “biblical views” of sexuality, marriage and God only knows what else that they can scream Bible verses at me until they turn purple and it won’t change my mind. If your interpretation of the law results in placing a stumbling block before someone God is calling into the Body of Christ, it’s wrong. That’s the end of the discussion.
There is much more that can and should be said about the Commandments. For those of you who might be interested in pre-canonical issues regarding the oral history, transmission and literary/historical source material for the Ten Commandments, I refer you to the excellent commentary of Dr. Brevard Childs. Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1974 by Brevard S. Childs, pub. by The Westminster Press) pp. 385-393. You might also consider giving the section on the Ten Commandments in Martin Luther’s Large Catechism a read. There is some wonderful material there on the First Commandment. If I were going to choose a specific Commandment to preach on this Sunday (I am not), I would go for the Eighth Commandment (under the Lutheran numbering) against bearing false witness. I believe it is probably the most frequently and flagrantly violated commandment of this Century. But don’t get me started on that…
This wisdom psalm is a favorite of mine. Many commentators suggest that it is actually two psalms, verses 1-6 being a hymn praising God’s glory revealed in nature and verses 7-14 being a prayer which, like the lengthy psalm 119, praises God’s law. I am not convinced that we are dealing with two psalms here. Both sections praise God’s glory, the first as it is revealed in the created universe and the second as it is revealed to the human heart in God’s laws. Quite possibly, the psalmist did make use of two different poetic fragments to construct this poem. Nevertheless, I believe, along with other commentators, that a single author skillfully brought these two strands together weaving them into a single theme of praise for God’s glory. See, e.g., Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 86.
The term “glory” as used in the Psalms refers to God’s self-revelation in all its splendor. Such revelation naturally inspires awe. The “vault of heaven” or “firmament” held back the waters thought to weigh over the earth. Genesis 1:6-8. Only the merciful and creative Word of God keeps these waters and those beneath the earth from rising up and breaking through the barriers within which God keeps them and enveloping the earth such as almost occurred in the Great Flood. Genesis 7:11-16. The stars inhabiting the firmament, though not gods, nevertheless give praise to God in their silent adherence to their courses and faithful discharge of light. Vss. 2-4. During the day this firmament forms a “tent” for the sun, poetically compared first to a bridegroom emerging from his tent and then to an athlete taking the field. Vs.4b-6. Just as the articulate silence of the stars speaks volumes about God’s creative handiwork, so the regular journey of the sun across the sky testifies to God’s constancy. Though none of these wonders are divine, they are far from inanimate objects. All of them derive their being from their Creator and so cannot help but magnify God’s glory.
Beginning at verse 7 the focus turns from God’s glory reflected in the natural world to God’s perfection made known through the Torah. Vs. 7. We need to exercise care here in our understanding of the words translated from Hebrew as “law” and “precept.” Law or “Torah” is more than a collection of rules and regulations. For Israel, Torah is the shape Israel’s life is intended to take under covenant with the Lord her God. Attention to Torah “makes wise the simple” (Vs. 7), it rejoices the heart and enlightens the eyes. Vs. 8. The wise and understanding crave Torah as one would crave honey and desire it as a lesser mind might yearn for wealth. Vs. 10. Yet Torah is not an end in itself, but the invitation to learning and practices that train the heart to perceive God’s voice. Vs. 11. Mechanical obedience, however, is not enough to “keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins.” Vs. 13. The psalmist must pray for God to “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.” Vs. 14.
This beautiful prayer paints a portrait of faithfulness acquired through a lifetime of attentiveness to the miracle of the universe and the witness of the Scriptures. Both the Word and the world it has called into existence bear witness to the glory of God. Neither witness is complete without the other.
This is perhaps the most profound piece that Paul ever wrote. Why is the cross “folly” to those who are perishing? How is it “power” to those of us who are being saved? The cross is the power of God to refrain from retaliating against us, to forgive us and to continue loving us in spite of our rejection and murder of God’s Son. It is, as I said last week, the power of the glue holding the Trinity in unity over our own sin and the devil’s wiles that would pull it apart. To all who view power in terms of coercive force, the power to forgive and the refusal to retaliate appears as weakness. That is why there really is no substantial difference between militarists who view violence as the primary means of dealing with opposition and so-called Christian realists who accept it only as a tragic last resort. It is only a matter of degree. Both maintain that when it comes to dealing with Hitler, ISIS or any other like tyrant, raw coercive power is the only sure bet. To think otherwise is naïve and unrealistic.
The trouble with Christian realists is that they focus on the wrong reality. Jesus’ resurrection redefines reality. The resurrection, as I have said before, represents a divine turning of the other cheek. It is the paradigm for a disciple’s response to violence. It is tempting to invoke here the success of non-violent movements such as those led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi to bolster the case. It is a temptation, however, that I think must be resisted. At best, these movements suggest that non-violent resistance can be successful. They do not, however, negate the converse. In some circumstances, non-violence may not “work.” The movement might be crushed. For every Selma there is a Tiananmen Square. Does that not bring us back again to the very “realism” we have rejected? Yes, of course we should begin with non-violence and exhaust all avenues of non-violent resistance. Then what? Pull out of our hip pockets the revolver we have been keeping at the ready all the time just in case the police start using real bullets instead of tear gas and fire hoses? Again, the difference between such conditional commitments to non-violence and frank acceptance of violence as a permissible means to a just end is simply one of degree.
As I read Paul and as I read the gospels, the measure of our commitment to Jesus’ way can never be based on some estimate of its potential effectiveness. The cross, by any reasonable measure, is hardly an effective means to any just end. If ever there were a time when violence might have been justified, it would have been in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of Jesus’ arrest. If Peter was forbidden to strike with the sword in order to save God’s only begotten Son from torture and death, when in God’s name (literally!) is it ever acceptable to strike with the sword? To follow Jesus in this way under the shadow of the Third Reich seems like “folly” from the perspective of geopolitical realism. But if Paul is speaking the truth, then this very folly is the power and wisdom of God.
I believe that Paul’s message here is more urgent than ever before. Ours is a world on the brink of violent collapse. I am not referring here to the obvious, i.e., terrorism; school shootings; police brutality; hate crimes and the like. I am speaking of the subtler forms of violence that inhabit our civil (uncivil!) discourse; predatory commercial practices; exploitation of workers with the double edged sword of longer hours and decreased compensation/benefits; coercive and authoritarian management techniques whether at Wall Street firms or church council meetings. Wherever power is understood as the ability to force others to do what we want (or think in our heart of hearts is what they ought to do), the seeds of violence are already sown. Whenever we delude ourselves into thinking that the ends will justify the means, we set ourselves up for the unpleasant discovery that violent means contaminate the ends we seek.
Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke who place Jesus’ cleansing of the temple near the end of his ministry, John places it at the very beginning. This visit to the temple in Jerusalem takes place near the feast of Passover. It is one of three Passovers mentioned in the gospel, the others being John 6:4 and John 11:55. We are told that Jesus “went up” to Jerusalem. That is confusing to us moderns of the northern hemisphere because Jesus was actually traveling south from Galilee to Jerusalem in Judea. We would therefore say he was going “down” to Jerusalem. Throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, however, one always goes “up” to Jerusalem from whatever direction s/he is proceeding.
This drama took place in the outer court of the temple. The oxen, sheep and doves were being sold to worshipers coming to offer sacrifice. Because imperial coins used in ordinary commerce had images of Caesar on them, they were in violation of the Second Commandment forbidding the making of images. Accordingly, these coins were unfit for payment of the temple tax referred to in Matthew 17:24-27. The much maligned “money changers” therefore provided a necessary service in exchanging this currency for money acceptable for commerce in the temple. Of course, there was an exchange fee involved!
The whip of cords fashioned by Jesus in verse 15 was probably made out of rushes used by the animals for bedding. As such, it was not suitable nor intended as a weapon and does not appear to have been used in this way. The objective appears to have been to clear the temple of the animals and their handlers which would have been accomplished by driving the animals out with the switch. This, at least, has been the understanding of the church from its earliest days as evidenced by the following story recounted by Cosmas Indicopheustes about Theodore of Mopsuestia who lived in the 5th Century C.E.
“Rabbula previously showed much friendship toward the famous interpreter (Theodore) and studied his works. Yet when, having gone to Constantinople to attend the Council of the Fathers (381) he was accused of striking priests, and he responded that Our Lord had also struck when he entered the temple, the Interpreter arose and reprimanded him saying, ‘Our Lord did not do that; he only spoke to the men, saying “take that away,” and turned over the tables. But he drove out the bullocks and the sheep with the blows of his whip.’” Wenda, Wolska, La Topographie de Cosmas Indicopleustes (c. 1962 by Presses Universitaires Francaises) p. 91 cited in The Politics of Jesus, Yoder, John Howard (c. 1972 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 51.
However one understands the text, it is surely a slim reed on which to build a case for violence based on Jesus’ ministry. As Yoder points out, Jesus was fully in control of events following the temple’s cleansing. It would have been an easy thing for him to exploit the confusion in the temple and the crowd’s enthusiasm for an assault on the likely unsuspecting Roman fortress next door. Jesus did no such thing. Clearly, Jesus could hardly have been perceived as potentially violent given that his opponents felt free to engage him in conversation and question his authority. Rather than threatening violence, Jesus made himself vulnerable to the violence of his adversaries who he knows will “destroy” him. Vs. 19. See Yoder, supra at 51-52.
There is a play on words here between “house of prayer” which the temple was designed to be and “house of market” or “house of trade” which it had become under the current religious establishment. Vs. 16. It is important to keep in mind that the temple in Jesus’ day was constructed by Herod the Great, the non-Jew appointed “King of the Jews” by the Romans. The Romans took a generous share of the considerable profits generated though temple operations, financing for which fell heavily on the backs of the poor. Thus, so far from being a house of prayer, the temple had become an instrument of commercial exploitation.
“Zeal for thy house will consume me.” Vs. 17. This is a citation to Psalm 69:9, a personal prayer for deliverance from enemies. There is some indication that this prayer may have been edited to fit circumstances during the period when the temple was in ruins following the Babylonian conquest in 587 B.C.E. The psalmist laments the state of affairs. Perhaps s/he is one who, like the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, was eager to see the temple rebuilt, but faced opposition from his/her own people who had other priorities, from Samaritans opposed to the rebuilding project or both. Just as the psalmist’s zeal for rebuilding the temple has earned him or her opposition, so too, Jesus’ determination to cleanse the temple is now bringing him into conflict with the religious authorities in Jerusalem.
“What sign have you to show us for doing this?” vs. 18. Jesus’ warrant of authority has already been given by Jesus in his referring to the temple as his Father’s house. Vs. 16. But the “Jews” now seek from him a “sign.” It is critical to recognize that the term “Jews” refers collectively to the religious leadership governing the temple. It specifically does not refer to the Jewish people as a whole. The temple authorities quite understandably feel that Jesus’ radical action requires a convincing show of authorization. This they will receive in due time. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Vs. 19. In near Clintonesque fashion, everything turns on what “this” means. Jesus’ opponents assume that “this temple” means the structure in which they are standing. Vs. 20. Jesus, we are told, is speaking of his body which will replace the temple as the locus of worship. Vs. 21. More will be said about this in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. John 4:19-26. As with so much else in John’s gospel, the full significance of this event in the life of Jesus will become clear only after he has been raised from death. Vs. 22.
Prophetic attacks upon the temple cult in Jerusalem were not new at the time of Jesus. Jeremiah famously predicted (accurately as it turned out) that the temple would be destroyed as it had become “a den of robbers.” Jeremiah 7:8-15. Indeed, the prophet Micah had given the same prophetic warning a century before. Jeremiah 26:18; Micah 3:12. The temple was thus an ambiguous symbol throughout Israel’s history. At its best, the temple was a reminder of God’s abiding presence with and for Israel, a sacred space for worship, praise, lament, forgiveness and thanksgiving. At its worst, it promoted a magical view of God as subject to Israel’s control and manipulation through sacrificial rites and liturgies. As noted earlier, the temple became an instrument of Roman exploitation in the time of Jesus.
It might be worth considering the extent to which our sanctuaries, programs and institutions throughout the church function in destructive and self-serving ways rather than in ways that are life giving. A leader in my own Lutheran Church remarked recently that when a congregation is strapped for cash, the first to go is the organist/music director; then the pastor; and, last of all, the building. Once the church can no longer support the building, it folds. These priorities are, as any sensible middle schooler would put it, “Bass Ackwards.”