Posts Tagged Covenant
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you are the tree of life, offering shelter to all the world. Graft us into yourself and nurture our growth, that we may bear your truth and love to those in need, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“We walk by faith, not by sight.” II Corinthians 5:7
That’s good, because I can’t see very much these days of the “new creation” Paul talks about in this Sundays’ lesson. This week Italy’s new populist government refused to let a humanitarian boat carrying more than six hundred refugees and migrants, including one hundred twenty-three unaccompanied minors, eleven other children and seven pregnant women dock at any of its ports. Meanwhile, here at home our nation’s policy on illegal immigration is routinely separating minor children from their parents. Last week South Dakota Republican State Representative, Michael Clark, declared that a businessman “should have the opportunity to run his business the way he wants. If he wants to turn away people of color, that’s his choice.” All of this sounds a lot more like the old creation of marital strife, violent religious conflict, tribal animosity and cultural divisiveness depicted in the early chapters of Genesis than anything new. We had better be walking by faith because walking by sight leads only to despair.
Walking by faith involves more than a Polly Annaish hope that things will get better. For Paul, walking by faith means living as though Jesus really was raised from death to life. If it is true that the crucified one who poured out his life for the poor, the sick and the unwanted of the earth has been exalted to God’s right hand, if it is true that the nations are to be judged strictly on their treatment of the people for whom Jesus died, if it is true that every knee will one day bow and every tongue confess this Jesus as Lord, then we are compelled to see the world in a new and radically different way. No longer is it possible to view anyone, least of all the outcast, strictly from the human viewpoints of national security, cultural compatibility and economic utility. No longer do we dare allow ourselves to be formed by these false measures of judgment, much less employ them. The resurrection subverts the tenants of nationalism, populism, racism and tribalism with the bold declaration that Christ died for all so that we might no longer live for ourselves, for our families, for our tribes or for our nations, but rather for all people-especially for those living at the margins of society.
Paul challenges us to stake everything on the belief that God raised Jesus from death, thereby changing everything. That is a big ask, especially when it appears that nothing is changing, that the whole world is playing by the winner-take-all rules of the old creation and that we stand to lose everything if it turns out this whole resurrection thing never happened. “Nice guys finish last” says the old adage. Ironically, that very point was made recently by Tony Perkins, evangelical leader and president of the right-wing Family Research Council. Mr. Perkins said contemptuously of Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek when stricken: “You know, you only have two cheeks…Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.” I guess that means you can only follow Jesus so far. There comes a point where you have to lay aside all that Jesus crap and follow Kenny Rogers’ dictum: “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” I get that. It is hard to be a disciple of Jesus when it appears that everything Jesus tells you to do seems ineffective and might get you beaten up or even killed. But that is precisely where walking by faith begins.
Last week Paul pointed out exactly what it looks like to walk by faith:
“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” II Corinthians 4:7-12.
I have said many times that I am not a “progressive.” That does not mean I don’t think progress is sometimes made. Most assuredly, it is. I count it progress that our nation elected an African American president named Barak Obama. I count it progress that on any given day on most college campuses in the United States you will see mixed race couples, gay and lesbian couples and transgender persons walking the pathways between classes and nobody takes a second look. I count it progress that women are being emboldened to speak out against and stand up to a culture of sexual abuse and exploitation that has for too long been tolerated at all levels of our society. These are tangible gains, but they are far from permanent. We dare not suppose that any gain is irreversible. The reemergence of blatant racism and the growing acceptance of white supremacy we have seen since the 2016 election are grim reminders that we can never safely turn our backs on evil or confidently suppose that the hard-fought gains we achieve for good are complete or safe from reversal.
I am hopeful that the election of Donald Trump was the last frantic scream from the GOP base of predominantly angry white men whose numbers are decreasing and who rightly sense that they are losing their grip on power and privilege. I am hopeful that a younger generation of voters with minds uncluttered by the bogymen of their parents will move us from stale partisanship to fresh thinking and a determination to address our nation’s entrenched racism, its environmental challenges and its role in the global community. Yet I know all too well that this penultimate hope of mine might be misplaced. It is possible that we are entering into a dark period in the history of our nation and of the world. It may be that we will finally be unable to come together in time to avert ecological disaster, nuclear war and tyranny. It is possible that we are being plunged into a new age of night where “because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.” Matthew 24:12. What then?
Whether I am right in my hopes for the future or wrong, nothing really changes. Our calling as disciples remains the same. We stand with the marginalized-even when we lack the means, power or influence to do much for them. We love our neighbors, even those who seem to hate us. We care for the earth, even when it seems that it has been handed over to the “destroyers of the earth” for ruthless exploitation. Revelation 11:17-18. We speak truthfully to power, even when our voices are shouted down by the megaphone of falsehood. We meet violence with non-violent resistance-even if that means losing our lives. For the death we carry in our bodies is the death of Jesus, the seed of resurrection. The future belongs to the God who raised Jesus from death. For now, that future takes the shape of the cross. But when God is all in all; when God’s gentle reign of peace arrives; when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven; we will rise to discover that, after all, we were on the right side of history.
Here is a poem about signs of hope, their ambiguity and a call to walk by faith and not by sight.
I could have sworn I heard a songbird,
What type I cannot guess.
Her music came from so far away
I scarcely could tell whether
It was indeed a song I heard
Rather than the pipes, radiators
Or someone turning on NPR.
I stood still in the bathroom,
Staring out the window into darkness,
As if the intensity of my gaze
Might induce her to give me another bar.
She must have sensed my interest
Or perhaps my senses coming to life
Snuffed her music the way an
Acolyte extinguishes an altar candle.
I still don’t know if what I heard
Really was the song of a bird
Or just my restless imagination
Reaching out to embrace
A friendlier season.
You can’t grow a new cedar simply by planting a twig from another cedar. Vs. 22. That is just not biologically possible. Moreover, cedars do not bear edible fruit. Vs. 23. But that only makes more emphatic the work God is doing here. The allegory of the cedar is filled with messianic and eschatological (consummation of the age) imagery. The messiah is frequently spoken of in prophetic literature as a “branch” or “shoot.” See Jeremiah 23:5-6; Zechariah 3:8. The exaltation of Mount Zion is a common prophetic term for the fulfilment of God’s purpose for Israel and the world generally. See Micah 4:1-4; Isaiah 2:1-4; Psalm 87. From a mere twig cut from the tree out of which it draws sustenance, a twig that by all rights is as good as dead, God grows a tree on the highest mountain that will tower over all other trees. Vs. 23. It will give shelter to animals and a home to birds of every kind. Vs. 24. By this great act, “all the trees of the field,” that is, the nations “shall know that I the Lord bring low the high tree, make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish.” Vs. 24.
The phrase “you shall know that I am the Lord” appears frequently throughout the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel 6:7, 10, 14; Ezekiel 7:4, 9, 27; Ezekiel 12:15; Ezekiel 13:23; Ezekiel 14:8; Ezekiel 17:21. It is important that God and God’s works be made known to Israel. In this passage, however, God is to be made known to all the nations, not merely by name but by action. God is to be known as the one who brings mighty empires to nothing and raises up a people that, to all appearances, appears to be nothing. Echoes here can be heard of the Exodus-God’s liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt to make of her a nation of promise. In a culture where the greatness of a god is measured by the political and military might of its patron nation, the God of a defeated and exiled people would seem hardly worthy of worship. But God does not belong to Israel only. God is God of all nations, raising them up and disposing of them as best serves God’s redemptive purposes. Moreover, God’s glory is not tied to Israel’s military might or geopolitical influence but to Israel’s faithfulness. This portrait of Israel’s exultation is therefore not comparable to the rise of great empires such as Assyria and Babylonia that dominate and exploit the lesser nations. Israel’s exaltation will be a life giving event for the nations of the world. This will be a different kind of kingdom ruling a different kind of world!
It is always worth asking how disciples of Jesus articulate and live out the prophetic confession of this God who raises and brings down empires for God’s own purposes in a nation that believes itself to have been uniquely selected by God to further God’s purpose through advancing its own national interests. The identification of God’s purpose with that of America, known as “American particularism,” is deeply imbedded in the American protestant psyche. Nowhere is this heretical notion better expressed than in our standard practice of placing the American flag in our sanctuaries, frequently on the same level as the altar and the cross. Sometimes I long for an encyclical from our ELCA presiding bishop condemning this idolatrous practice. I know full well, though, that no such directive will be forthcoming. First, American Lutheran bishops don’t issue encyclicals. Second, such a decree would generate more opposition than an order to shorten the worship service by omitting some of the appointed lessons. The latter is a sad commentary on the spiritual state of the church!
The superscription, “A Song for the Sabbath,” indicates that this psalm was used in connection with Sabbath observance in later Judaism. According to one commentator, the psalm most likely originated in public worship at a festival at some sanctuary lasting for several days. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 614. It is possible that the festival in question was the New Year celebration instituted in Leviticus 23:24-25. Ibid. The strict injunction against work of any kind during this holiday would help to explain its later use for Sabbath worship. The sanctuary in which this liturgy was first used could have been the one at Shiloh referenced in I Samuel or the temple in Jerusalem.
“It is good to give thanks to the Lord.” Vs. 1. That is a simple yet important reminder. To live well is to live thankfully. Thankfulness does not come naturally for most of us. Many of us are stuck in the entitlement mentality, believing that God, the world, our families or our churches “owe us something” and never quite pay up in full. Or we are caught up in the deadly sin of envy that can never recognize God’s gifts to us as anything other than second best to what is given to others who seem to be better off. Of course, in a culture that values accomplishment and achievement, thankfulness is practically an admission that you received something you have not earned or deserved. Why thank God or anybody else for what I earned by the sweat of my own brow?
A thankful worshiper understands quite simply that s/he lives by grace. S/he lives life at a leisurely pace, refusing to be rushed. S/he savors the smell of fresh coffee each morning, the warmth of the sun, the refreshment a spring rain brings to thriving vegetation, the songs of birds and the shouts of children. A thankful worshiper understands that each day of health, strength and vigor is an undeserved gift and that there is no entitlement to the same tomorrow. S/he knows that on the worst day there is still always plenty for which to give thanks and praise.
It is not altogether clear what is meant by a “ten stringed lute” in verse 3. The lute was a medieval predecessor to the guitar, but whether it was anything like the instrument described in the psalm is unknown. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 161. That it had “strings” suggests that it was something like a lute, guitar or lyre.
Verses 12-14 are reminiscent of Psalm 1 which speaks of the prosperity that flows from choosing the way of righteousness over wickedness. The fate of those who lack the sense to recognize God’s works and ways is discussed in verses 5-9 which are not included in our reading. For my cautionary remarks on the interpretation of psalms such as these, see my commentary on Psalm 1 in my post for Sunday, May 17, 2015. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 92 in its entirety.
For my general comments on Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, see my post of June 7, 2015.
The most puzzling piece of this passage is Paul’s remark that “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” Vs. 6. Shorn of its context, this sentence is rife with potential for misinterpretation. Paul is not suggesting that the body is the prison of the soul or that salvation is liberation of the spirit from bodily incarceration. Paul is merely stating a fact. As pointed out earlier in II Corinthians 5:1, “the earthly tent we live in is [being] destroyed.” We are dying as is the creation. Nonetheless, “though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.” II Corinthians 4:16. So far from separating soul from body, salvation consists in resurrecting the body. Thus, “while we are still in this tent [body], we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked.” II Corinthians 5:3. There is no advantage to being a naked spirit even if such a thing could exist. To be human is to be a body. It is only through the body that we can know each other. We are dependent on speech, hearing and sight. Critical to communication are the subtle tones of voice telling the hearer that, whatever our bear words might convey, we are speaking in jest. Facial expressions, hand gestures, hugs, kisses and so much more can only be conveyed by creatures with bodies. That is precisely why God has always spoken to Israel and the church through the words of Moses, Elijah, the prophets and apostles. That is why in the fullness of time the word became embodied. Jesus’ resurrection was the resurrection of his Body. His ascension to the right hand of the Father did not dispense with that Body but extended its reach to every scrap of matter in the universe. God remains embodied in God’s holy people. It is for this reason only that we can say God is in some measure knowable.
That said, we are in a limited sense imprisoned by our bodies. However much we might think we know another person, there are depths we cannot reach even with our best communication skills. How much more so with our God! Our bodies are imperfect communicators, lacking the ability to “know as we are known.” We cannot know each other or our God perfectly. As Paul says in his first letter to the church in Corinth, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” I Corinthians 13:12. Thus, our hope is not that we shall be liberated from our bodies to become naked spirits, but that “we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” II Corinthians 5:4. God is even now working the miracle of this transformation in our bodies giving us manifestations of God’s Spirit within the church as a guarantee of all that is to come. II Corinthians 5:5.
Knowing this, Paul is confident in his ministry. He is well aware that some in the Corinthian Church are critical of his personal appearance and what they judge to be his deficiencies as a public speaker. II Corinthians 10:10. There is also a suggestion that some in the congregation believe Paul to be mentally unstable. Vs. 13. Paul does not waste his breath disputing any of this. “I may stutter, I may be uglier than a baboon’s butt and mad as a hatter,” says Paul (highly paraphrased). “But it’s all for your sake that we do what we do.” Vs. 13. Paul is motivated by the love of Christ who died for all. Knowing that, it is impossible for Paul to view or judge anyone from a purely human perspective. Vs. 16. Paul once judged Jesus from just that perspective, but having encountered him as the one God raised from the dead, Paul cannot view him anymore as just another misguided teacher with some radical notions who came to a bad end. Vs. 16. Neither can Paul view women as subordinates, slaves as mere property or gentiles as unclean. Galatians 3:28. The resurrection is a game changer. Seen through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection, creation is altogether new. Vs. 17.
Sadly, the lectionary moves on next week to chapter 6 of II Corinthians passing over what I believe to be one of the most powerful articulations of the church’s mission to be found in the New Testament, namely, II Corinthians 5:16-21. I invite you to read it and reflect on it as it follows directly from what Paul has just told us in today’s lesson and explains what follows in next week’s reading.
The first of these two parables of God’s kingdom follows upon the Parable of the Sower told in Mark 4:3-9. This parable is not an allegory, though Jesus later resorts to allegory in order to explain it to his clueless disciples. Mark 4:10-20. The kingdom of God is to be seen in the totality of the circumstances: the sower who spreads his precious seed indiscriminately over soil both receptive and resistant; the varying degrees of response to that sowing and the resulting fruitfulness. Building on the same imagery, the parable of the planting, growth and harvest in verses 26-29 illuminate the kingdom from a different angle. The sower, though powerless to make the seed sprout, grow and mature nevertheless takes an active role in the process. The sower both plants and takes in the harvest. But that is the extent of the sower’s power to act. Growth comes of itself without the sower’s activity. For all that takes place between planting and harvest, the sower can only patiently wait.
So is Jesus intimating that the kingdom may be a long time in coming and that his disciples must sow the seeds of their ministry and wait patiently for growth? (Weiss, J., Das Markusevenelium (in Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments, Vol. I, 3rd ed. Revised by W. Bousset, c. 1917) cited by Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to Mark, Second ed., Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor) p. 266)). Or is he saying in effect that the time of growth is over and the day of harvest has arrived? (Schweitzer, A., The Quest for the Historical Jesus(c. 1906 by W. Montgomery, English Translation) cited by Taylor, supra.); Cranfield, The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press) p. 167; Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 142. That the reference to the harvest has strong eschatological overtones (e.g. Joel 3:1-13) suggests that the interpretation favored by the weight of scholarly authority is in fact the better view. The conviction that the time for harvest has already come comports with Jesus’ inaugural declaration that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Mark 1:15. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to recognize the parable’s emphasis on the growth and maturing of the crop as beyond the control of the planter. As Mark will make clear to us, the disciples’ understanding of Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims is laden with misconceptions and clouded by self-interest. Nevertheless, that kingdom is erupting into the world under their very noses and the opportunities for harvest are plentiful but as yet unseen.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed in verses 30-32 should likewise be understood against the backdrop of Jesus’ declaration that the kingdom of God has drawn near. Just as the parable of the planter concludes with an allusion to the final judgment pronounced by the Prophet Joel, so too this parable concludes by echoing the messianic proclamation in our lesson from Ezekiel. Yet there is a striking difference between the Parable of the Mustard Seed and Ezekiel’s prophetic oracle about the miraculous growth of the great cedar. Unlike the stately cedar, mustard is an invasive plant that can readily take over a field cultivated for more profitable crops. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a weed. Whereas Matthew and Luke dignify the parable by characterizing the mustard plant as a tree (Matthew 13:31-32; Luke 13:18-19), Mark is content to call it what it is-a bush.
However one wishes to characterize the mustard plant, there is an obvious contrast between its seed which is proverbially small and the grown plant. Moreover, mustard is a fast growing plant that is highly disruptive. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 136. Thus, it is unlikely that the parable is stressing the need for patience as the disciples wait for the gradual, progressive evolution of God’s kingdom through the institutions of democratic societies. The seed carries in it the immanent incursion of God’s reign into the well-ordered imperial garden. Be afraid, Caesar. Be very afraid!
SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Almighty and ever-living God, throughout time you free the oppressed, heal the sick, and make whole all that you have made. Look with compassion on the world wounded by sin, and by your power restore us to wholeness of life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Today is Memorial Day and I spent it the same way I have done for the the last decade. I attended and delivered the benediction at the annual Memorial Day observance in front of the town hall of Bogota, New Jersey. About one hundred of us stood under the dark pewter sky as the names of all our town’s fallen soldiers from the First World War to the present were read. There were speeches, readings, placement of wreaths and, of course, the playing of Taps. At the end of it all comes my part-the benediction.
I am never sure exactly what to say at a time like this. No brief word of comfort or hope spoken by me can heal the gaping wounds represented by the names just read. So I pray for peace. That is, after all, the hope for which these soldiers died. If anything can give meaning to the senselessness of war, it is a final end to war. If there is any comfort to be given the families of the slain, it is our God’s promise that one day all will live in the peace for which their loved ones died. That promise is encapsulated and given expression in the commandment to observe the Sabbath. For Israel, the holy day was not chiefly about worship, but about rest, refreshment and the restoration of wellbeing. Grounded as it is in God’s own rest on the seventh day after creation, the Sabbath points to a time when God’s peace will prevail. This peace is more than mere cessation of conflict. God’s peace, God’s “shalom” envisions a harmonious state of existence in which there is no hostility, competitiveness or strife. It represents the life we long for without knowing it. If I can perhaps touch that hope with my words and make an opening for God’s word that promises to vindicate it, that is at least something.
Here is my benediction for Memorial Day:
Almighty God, you make wars cease to the end of the earth; you break the bow and shatter the spear; you burn the chariots with fire and bid us be still and know that you are God. Be exalted, O God, among the nations. Be exalted in the earth. And may we, your people, learn the ways of peace; teach us to beat our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks and to learn war no more.
Bless our remembrance of these lives that have been so generously given in the cause of peace and justice. May their deaths inspire us to live in the peace for which they died. May their sacrifice move us to generosity toward our nation, toward one another and to all among us in need. May their selfless commitment to duty remind us of the sacred duty each of us has to love our neighbor as ourself. May their courage inspire us to give all in seeking to become the nation of justice, equality and freedom for which our ancestors have struggled over the generations.
And now may the God of all nations bless us and keep us, make his face to shine upon us and be gracious to us; lift up his favor upon us and give us peace. In Jesus name. Amen.
Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the “Pentateuch,” the first five books of the Bible traditionally attributed to Moses. It should be understood that, even from this traditional perspective, authorship was not understood as it is today. Modern biblical research has led to a general consensus that the Pentateuch is the product of four sources and perhaps several editors. For a brief outline of the history for the Pentateuch’s composition, see my post for January 7th. For a more thorough discussion, see this article on the Documentary Hypothesis.
The Book of Deuteronomy is thought to have originated with the reform movement undertaken during the reign of King Josiah. See II Kings 22-23. Though reportedly triggered by the rediscovery of “the book of the law” during the course of renovating Jerusalem’s temple (II Kings 22:8-13), the teachings of Deuteronomy reflect much of the preaching against idolatry and injustice found in the writings of the prophets. The Book of Deuteronomy itself therefore represents more than whatever might have been discovered in the temple. It is, in addition, a reinterpretation of the ancient Mosaic covenant with Israel in light of centuries of prophetic preaching and bitter experience of Israel’s failure to live faithfully within that covenant under the pressures and temptations of nationhood.
The decline of Assyrian influence in the near east at the end of the 7th Century gave the Southern Kingdom of Judah breathing room to rebuild and re-assert its independence from imperial control. The writers and editors of Deuteronomy saw this geopolitical development as Judah’s opportunity for a fresh start and a new beginning. Drawing upon the wisdom of the Mosaic covenant, they retold Israel’s story in such a way as to inspire hope for the dawn of this new day and to warn of the temptations they knew were lying ahead. The Book of Deuteronomy as we have it today relates Moses’ final word to the people of Israel as they are encamped on the borders of the Promised Land. Life is about to change for the people of Israel. They will no longer have Moses to lead them. Moses, of course, has been leading the people for half a century. He confronted Pharaoh, King of Egypt on their behalf speaking God’s demand for Israel’s release from slavery. He led Israel out of Egypt and to the brink of the Red Sea where God defeated Pharaoh’s armies decisively. Moses was God’s spokesperson bringing down from Mt. Sinai the words of the covenant that would shape Israel’s new life of freedom. He was with the people throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. Now Moses addresses the people for one last time before they reach their long awaited destination.
As might be expected, a recitation of the Ten Commandments is found at the beginning of Moses’ oration. These commands constitute a clarion call for a kind of human existence that is radically different from the slave culture of Egypt and the surrounding Canaanite city states. For more on that, see my post of February 26, 2018. This Sunday’s reading contains the commandment to observe the Sabbath which, along with the commandments against covetousness and bearing false witness, are largely neglected. Sabbath observance in the protestant tradition has long been confused with worship which, in my own humble opinion, belongs under the commandment to honor God’s name. In reality, Sabbath has less to do with worship than it does with justice for working people, humane treatment of animals and preservation of the earth from exploitation. The commandment against work on the Sabbath gave all people, including servants and beasts of burden, a much needed opportunity for rest and refreshment. The season of rest to be given cultivated land every seventh year mirrors this requirement. The Sabbath, it should be remembered, was the very first commandment God instituted at the dawn of creation. To emphasize the importance of observing this day of rest, God rested on the seventh day following the completion of creation. So tell me again about how your work is so important and pressing that you just can’t find time to take a break!
Later on in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, the Sabbath took on an eschatological dimension symbolizing the rest all creation will one day experience when God ushers in a new heaven and a new earth. One example can be found in the Letter to the Hebrews 4:6-10.
“Since therefore it remains open for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day—‘today’—saying through David much later, in the words already quoted,
‘Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.’
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day. So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his.”
The consequences of neglecting this commandment are obvious. Work is claiming increasingly more of our lives as more people are finding it necessary to work multiple jobs in order to earn sufficient incomes. E-mail, texts and cellular phones allow the office to invade what little time we have to spend with our families, in worship and at recreation. All of this places increasing stress on our personal health, the wellbeing of our marriages and our commitments to church and community. Our ruthless exploitation of the environment has pushed us to the brink of a global crisis. The commandment pleads with us to make room in our lives, in our communities and on the face of our planet for rest; for the cessation of relentless, dehumanizing and misdirected labor that is crushing us.
Psalm 81 consists of two parts. The first, which constitutes the reading for Sunday, is a call to worship (vss 1-5) followed by an address from the Almighty reciting the story of Israel’s liberation from Egypt, God’s protection and provision for her during her journey through the wilderness to the Promised land (vss 6-7) and an admonition to continue trusting in the Lord and to forsake idol worship. Vss. 8-10. The remaining verses 11-16 (not included in our reading) constitute a lament by God over Israel’s stubborn refusal to listen to these admonitions and her insistence on following her own counsels.
The psalm is likely a cultic hymn used in the feast of booths. This feast, also known as “Sukkot,” is the seventh and last festival on the biblical calendar, as recorded in Leviticus 23. Israelites observed this festival by living in temporary shelters for seven days as a reminder that, when their ancestors were in the wilderness, God provided them booths in which to dwell. Although this psalm and the festival of which it is a part harkens back to the past, it is forward looking in that it includes a promise on God’s part to fill the mouths of the people. The image here is of a mother bird placing food into the open mouths of her hungry nestlings. This is a powerful and moving image of Israel’s utter dependence on God’s motherly provision.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 81 in its entirety.
Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth deteriorated significantly between the writing of I Corinthians and II Corinthians. It appears that there were some individuals or groups within the church at Corinth that were challenging Paul’s apostolic authority, undermining his leadership and questioning his fitness as a preacher. Following his first letter, Paul made what he describes as a “painful visit” to the church. II Corinthians 2:1. This visit did not accomplish whatever it was he had intended. Not wanting to make another such visit, Paul wrote a “severe letter” to the church in Corinth out of “much affliction and anguish of heart.” II Corinthians 2:4. Though we cannot be certain, many commentators believe that at least part of this “severe” letter is contained in II Corinthians 10-13. E.g., Godspeed, Edgar J., An Introduction to the New Testament, (c. 1937 by University of Chicago Press) pp. 61-62. Whatever the case may be, it is evident that Paul was concerned about the effect his letter would have upon the church and so sent his associate, Titus, to Corinth in order to deal with the fallout. (It is also possible that Paul sent the letter along with Titus). Paul became so preoccupied with the problems at Corinth and the potential impact of his letter that he cut short a preaching tour in Troas and traveled to Macedonia in search of Titus. There Paul finally caught up with his associate who brought him a very favorable report from Corinth. II Corinthians 7:5-13. Paul’s severe letter had evidently done its work. The congregation gave its full support to Paul. Paul’s opponents were disciplined by the congregation so severely that Paul had to write and urge the church to reach out to them with forgiveness and “reaffirm” their love for these errant members. II Corinthians 2:5-11. It is this third letter from Paul to Corinth from which our lesson comes.
Paul makes the point in our lesson that the ministry of the gospel is not all about him-or any of us who minister in the name of Jesus. It is about witnessing to Jesus as Lord. The Greek word translated “Lord” is “kurios” which, in turn, translates into the Hebrew name for God, “YHWH.” Moreover, the term “kurios” in the Roman world was ordinarily reserved for the emperor, Caesar. Thus, the simple declaration, “Jesus is Lord” constituted a powerful claim under the Hebrew Scriptures as well as a seditious utterance under Roman law. Small wonder, then, Paul insists that only by the power of the Holy Spirit can one dare to make such a claim! I Corinthians 12:3.
Paul makes clear, as he does throughout his letters, that the message he preaches is grounded in the “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Vs. 6. Paul did not concoct the good news he proclaims. It was revealed to him. This is a reminder to all preachers and ministers that, again, it is not about us. I have been asked over the years by people skeptical of the church and its ministry what makes me think I have the right to stand up on a Sunday morning and tell other people how they ought to live their lives. The only response I can give is that I have no such right. I have been entrusted by the community to proclaim the life to which Jesus calls us. What Jesus promises and commands has its origins in the apostolic faith that is no less binding on me than the church as a whole. The minute I depart from that faith and begin pontificating on my own, I betray my calling.
Paul describes the church and its ministers as “clay vessels” in which the treasure of the gospel resides. A lifetime of ministry in the church has only confirmed that reality for me. Ministers (yours truly included) are an egotistical lot. It is difficult to handle the holy day in and day out without letting it go to your head. With our higher degree of theological education and pastoral training, we tend to become dismissive of the rest of the church to which the ministry actually belongs. We have a tendency to forget that the Holy Spirit speaks through all members of Christ’s Body and frequently through the lips of those we regard as the most bothersome.
Churches are frail communities made up of broken, flawed and sinful people. We have to come clean with people and stop leading them to believe that we are a utopian community where everyone is treated with equal dignity and all share a common commitment to the reign of God. We need to stop peddling the idea that the church is that warm, safe family where you can be accepted and loved the way you have always longed. The church is not a place to go for care, comfort and coddling. We have spas and yoga weekends in the Poconos for that. The church does sanctification. It is where you go to have the mind of Christ formed in you. That does not happen in a relaxed setting where all your perceived needs are met. It happens in a community of people who would not otherwise choose to be together, who might not get along very well and who may not even like each other very much. That is the setting in which patience, humility, forgiveness and genuine love are cultivated. Church is not for whimps.
The gospel complements our reading from the Deuteronomy which gave us the commandment to keep the Sabbath. Jesus is criticized on two separate occasions for violating the Sabbath. We protestants have often misused these stories to dismiss the Sabbath as belonging to the “old covenant” between God and Israel. As Christians, we are free to disregard the burdensome regulations governing the seventh day and do as we please. But this is nothing close to what Jesus is saying. So far from dispensing with Sabbath observance, Jesus calls his disciples to a deeper and more profound recognition of the holy day. He does that by calling his opponents back to the reason behind the commandment.
In the first instance, the disciples are passing through a field of grain. Being hungry, they take some of the grain to shill and eat. Taking grain sufficient to satisfy one’s immediate hunger from the field of another was not considered theft. But doing so technically constituted “harvesting” which was forbidden on the Sabbath day. On the face of things, there is no question but that Jesus’ disciples were violating the requirements for Sabbath observance. Yet the Sabbath was given to ensure that human beings receive rest, refreshment and renewal. It is nearly impossible for that to occur when one his hungry. Though one might ordinarily avoid such hunger by preparing food ahead of time, that is difficult for intinereant preachers who are always on the road. Thus, this technical violation of Sabbath law opened the door for the disciples to truly enjoy their Sabbath rest.
So, too, in the second example Jesus is called out for performing an act of healing on the Sabbath. Again, healing would have been considered work that ought to be set aside during the Sabbath. But how much rest can you get with a hand that is withered, useless and probably in pain? Jesus’ act of healing opened up the possibility of true Sabbath rest for a man who for too long had known no rest from illness and deformity.
The bottom line for Jesus is that the Sabbath, like all the commandments, is never an end in itself. The law was given to serve the needs of human beings, to create an environment in which human life can flourish. But when the law is being used to frustrate human health and wellbeing, it becomes a burdensome chain rather than an instrument of liberation. When the law is so interpreted, it is being distorted no matter how technically correct its application might be. Jesus points out that Sabbath observance is not done to please God. God is not impressed with how scrupulous we are in keeping the commandments. The commandments were given to aid us in serving one another. Thus, they cannot be interpreted or enforced in such a way as to harm a neighbor or place an obstacle in the way of God’s intent to bless him or her.
THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy and righteous God, you are the author of life, and you adopt us to be your children. Fill us with your words of life, that we may live as witnesses to the resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Every culture has its own way of living with the dead. As much as we might like to deny it, we are the products of past leaders whose decisions have shaped the world in which we have grown up, parents who, for better or worse, have shaped our character and peers whose unanticipated passing leaves holes in the fabric of our lives. Even if you don’t have a religious bone in your body, you can’t avoid reckoning with the dead. Welcome or not, they are a part of who you are and you ignore them at your peril.
Not long ago I had the opportunity to watch Coco, the animated film recently produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Walt Disney Pictures. The concept for Coco is based on the Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead. This multi-day celebration focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. The dead are permitted to return to the land of the living in ghostly form on this special day as long as their loved ones remember to post their picture among the “ofrenda,” a collection of objects placed on a ritual altar for the dead. For the rest of the year, the dead continue their existence in their own separate realm for as long as they remain in living memory. When the day comes that no one remembers them, they expire and become truly dead. In the movie, twelve-year-old Miguel, who lives with his extended family headed by his grandmother, Coco, dreams of becoming a musician. His dream leads him on a journey into the land of the dead where he encounters his ancestors and struggles with his conflicting loyalties to his musical aspirations and his family. That’s as much as I dare say. I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending for you.
I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. In addition to being thoughtful, clever and visually stunning, the story provides a powerful image of what we confess as the “communion of saints.” The commemoration of the Day of the Dead is not so very far removed from our All Saints Day. Just as relatives of past generations live in the shared memories of their living families, so through our lessons, hymns and liturgy, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Debera, David, Peter, Mary and Paul continue to visit us with their witness and teaching. Just as the celebrants in Coco are comforted with the conviction that their loved ones are present with them in their celebration, it is likewise comforting to know that our loved ones are in the company of the saints in light. Yet Coco leaves us with one troubling question: What about those who have no family? What about those no one remembers or cares about? What about the lost pregnancy? The still birth? The infant abandoned at birth and left to die? The unknown and nameless folk who parish from hunger and disease in the corner of some refugee camp?
The good news of Jesus’ resurrection takes us a step beyond Coco. Turns out that there is a life-giving memory far greater than our own. “God is not God of the dead, but of the living,” says Jesus. “For all live to him.” In fact, it is the forgotten, the neglected, the outcast and those with no one to remember them that are foremost in God’s mind and heart. The resurrection of the betrayed, abandoned and crucified Jesus is God’s pledge to bring to completion all lives that have been stunted by poverty and oppression or ruthlessly cut short by violence or illness. Just how that will occur is beyond comprehension. When the scriptural witnesses speak of that new heaven and earth in which the saints of all the ages participate, they must resort to parables, hymns, poems and graphic apocalyptic imagery. Though Jesus assures us that those we deem dead nonetheless live to God, he doesn’t give us any clues about what that life is like. As delightful as Coco’s fanciful depiction of existence beyond the grave surely is, like all human efforts at imagining the mysteries beyond death, it necessarily falls far short of the real thing.
I think Saint John says about as much as can be said in our second lesson for this Sunday: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when [God] is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” I John 3:2. As I have often said before, this isn’t as much as we might like to know. But it is enough.
Here is a poem by William Matthews speaking of the way the dead continue to interact with the living.
Living Among the Dead
There is another world,
but it is in this one.
First there were those who died
before I was born.
It was as if they had just left
and their shadows would
slip out after them
under the door so recently closed
the air in its path was still
swirling to rest.
Some of the furniture came from them,
I was told, and one day
I opened two chests
of drawers to learn what the dead kept.
But it was when I learned to read
that I began always
to live among the dead.
I remember Rapunzel,
the improved animals
in the Just-So Stories, and a flock
of birds that saved themselves
from a hunter by flying in place
in the shape of a tree,
their wings imitating the whisk
of wind in the leaves.
My sons and I are like some wine
the dead have already bottled.
They wish us well, but there is nothing
they can do for us.
Sebastian cries in his sleep,
I bring him into my bed,
talk to him, rub his back.
To help his sons live easily
among the dead is a father’s great work.
Now Sebastian drifts, soon he’ll sleep.
We can almost hear the dead
breathing. They sound like water
under a ship at sea.
To love the dead is easy.
They are final, perfect.
But to love a child
is sometimes to fail at love
while the dead look on
with their abstract sorrow.
To love a child is to turn
away from the patient dead.
It is to sleep carefully
in case he cries.
Later, when my sons are grown
among their own dead, I can
dive easily into sleep and loll
among the coral of my dreams
growing on themselves
until at the end
I almost never dream of anyone,
except my sons,
who is still alive.
Source: Matthews, William, Rising and Falling (c. 1979 by William Matthews, pub. by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). William Matthews (1942-1997) was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He earned his BA from Yale University and an MA from the University of North Carolina. He published eleven books of poetry during his lifetime, one of which earned him the National Book Critics Circle Award. Matthews served as president of Associated Writing Programs and of the Poetry Society of America. He was also a member and chair of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. At the time of his death from a heart attack at age fifty-five, he was a professor of English and director of the creative writing program at New York’s City College. You can learn more about William Matthews and read more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website. You might also want to check out his profile on poets.org.
This passage is part of a larger narrative that begins with Peter and John going up to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. Acts 3:1. The indication here is that the temple and its worship was an important aspect of faith and piety in the infant Jesus movement. Though the composition of Acts took place long after the temple had been destroyed and its worship traditions lost, there is no reason to discount Luke’s account of the early church’s worshiping and gathering there. This anecdote from the Book of Acts testifies to a reality that is hard to grasp from our historical standpoint, namely, that the Jesus movement that ultimately became the church originated as a reform movement within Judaism. Though Luke’s interest throughout the latter chapters of Acts is on the mission to the gentiles, he makes the point that the church’s origin was in Jerusalem, the heart of Judaism.
On their way into the temple, the two disciples encounter a lame beggar asking for alms. Peter tells the man that he has no money, but what he does have he will give him. With that, Peter commands: “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Acts 3:6. As the song we all learned in Sunday School goes, “He went walking and leaping and praising God.” Acts 3:8. This show of divine healing did not escape notice of the crowds in front of the temple, who were “filled with wonder and amazement.” Acts 3:10. At this point, Peter addresses the crowd in the words of our lesson.
“Why…do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made [this man] walk?” vs. 12. From beginning to end, Luke is determined not to attribute this or any other mighty work done among the apostles to the apostles. This miracle of healing has numerous parallels to healings Jesus performed in the gospels. The healing power of Jesus manifest throughout his ministry continues unbroken through the community of disciples. It is, in fact, Jesus who healed the man and Peter would have his audience know that.
“The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our Fathers, glorified his servant Jesus…” vs. 13. Again, probably for the benefit of his gentile readers, Luke makes the point that the God proclaimed by the church is not “the god of our common understanding,” a sort of lowest divine common denominator to which everyone short of an atheist can own. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is the God of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the God of the Exodus, the God of David and the God of the prophets. We do not all believe in the same God and it is not a matter of indifference where God is sought. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is not the anemic, placid and featureless deity of American civil religion. Prayers written with such a high degree of cultural sensitivity as to offend nobody are addressed to nobody. “Nonsectarian prayer” is simply pious slop.
Having said that, Peter’s sermon here alludes to the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush. There God reveals God’s self as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” Exodus 3:6. This affirms, as I said previously, that God is known exclusively through God’s word and covenant faithfulness to God’s chosen people. Moses, it seems, is not entirely satisfied with God’s self identification. “If I go to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I tell them? God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” Exodus 3:13-14. Depending on the rendering of the Hebrew which is not altogether clear as to the tense of the verbs, this declaration might also be interpreted, “I will be who I will be.” In either case, God will not be limited by any divine name. Surely, God’s saving acts on behalf of Israel are definitive in themselves and in our understanding of the New Testament witness to Jesus. Yet there is a difference between “definitive” and “limited.” A definition is capable of deeper understanding, interpretation and explanation. Only so can the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob possibly be understood as the God of gentile believers in Jesus Christ.
Luke goes further to say that Jesus, the one rejected, handed over to the imperial authorities and put to death is “the Holy and Righteous One,” “the Author of life” attested by God’s raising him from death. Vs. 12. It is the church’s claim that the promises made to Israel and to the world find their fulfilment in Jesus. What does this mean for Jews that did not find in Jesus the fulfilment of the covenant promises? What does it mean for believers of other faiths that do not know or acknowledge Jesus as Lord?
When I was in college I became well acquainted with a Taiwanese Buddhist woman who regularly attended our campus chapel worship and even sang in our worship choir. We discussed our respective faith experiences often, but I was never sure we were understanding each other well. I now know that views of divinity and godhood in the Eastern religions are quite different from orthodox Christian thought. Consequently, I believe we were probably talking past each other much of the time. I do recall, however, that in one of our last conversations she told me that learning about Jesus had helped her become a better Buddhist.
So I was left to wonder about the simple equation we make between salvation and conversion to orthodox belief in Jesus. Is evangelization always about conversion? My friend was never (to my knowledge) converted, baptized and received into membership of any church. She was not a Christian in any proper sense of the word. Yet she seems to have had an encounter with Jesus that deepened and expanded her Buddhist faith and practice. Can Jesus enable Jews to become better Jews, Buddhists to become better Buddhists and Muslims to become better Muslims-just as he enables Christians to become better Christians? Seems to me that disciples of Jesus need not choose between an absolutist position that denigrates all other faiths to the status of false or second class religion on the one hand and sappy, mindless drivel about a “god of our common understanding” on the other. It is enough to do just as Peter does in his sermon: preach Jesus Christ boldly, persuasively and faithfully. Then let that Word of God “multipl[y] the number of disciples” or work in whatever way the Spirit in her wisdom sees fit. Acts 6:7.
Peter goes on to emphasize that he and his fellow apostles are witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. This goes to my oft repeated quote from Rich Barger, President of Trinity Lutheran Seminary: “If the tomb wasn’t empty, we’ve got nothing to talk about.” Much of 19th and early 20th Century protestant theology and biblical scholarship has strained to explain the resurrection in terms that do not insult modernity’s creed of empiricism. Whether or not the tomb was empty, is irrelevant or so we are told. The church’s faith, we are assured, is based on the disciples’ encounter with the resurrected Christ. However that might be, it begs the question: was the resurrection an act by which God raised the crucified Jesus of Nazareth from death into life? Or was the resurrection a completely understandable response to the life and death of a person whose example and teachings proved greater than his mortal life?
As I pointed out five years ago in my Easter post of 2013, we need to be careful about asserting more than we know about the resurrection. Though Jesus appears to his disciples with a body that can be embraced, shares in meals and continues to bear the wounds of the cross, that body is clearly more than a resuscitated corpse. When Luke asserts that Jesus ascended to the right hand of God the Father, he does not mean to say that Jesus has gone away to some distant place. Rather, he is saying that Jesus is henceforth more intensely present than ever before. Jesus is God’s right hand at work in the world through his church. Saint Paul understands the church to be the resurrected Body of Christ. The empty tomb testifies that Jesus lives-not as a religious, theological or philosophical principle that outlasted him, but as God’s right hand bringing to completion Jesus’ work of salvation for all creation. Jesus was the face of God for humanity throughout his ministry and continues to be so with greater power and intensity as the resurrected Lord at God’s right hand.
Though Peter makes no citation to the prophets he claims foretold the suffering of the Messiah, his audience was well aware that God suffers along with the afflictions of Israel. See, e.g., Hosea 12:5-9. Isaiah 1:4-6; Isaiah 42:14-16. Whether a 1st Century Jewish audience would have recognized the Servant Songs (Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6, Isaiah 50:4-9a and Isaiah 52:13-53:12) from Second Isaiah as messianic is debatable. Nonetheless, they illustrate, as does the witness of the prophets generally, that prophetic faithfulness to the will of Israel’s God necessarily entails suffering, rejection and sometimes martyrdom. That the messiah should share in the suffering of both God’s prophets and God’s self is a legitimate interpretive step.
“Times of refreshing” in verse 19 may be an intentional allusion to Isaiah 32 in which the prophet foretells the coming of “a king who will reign in righteousness.” Isaiah 32:1. At this time, “the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.” Isaiah 32:15. The “effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.” Isaiah 32:17. Peter means to tie everything that Jesus has accomplished into the most far reaching and wonderful prophetic promises growing out of Israel’s covenant with her God. With what other than prophetic language can one speak of the mystery of resurrection?
This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. The essential elements of its type are:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vs. 1.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vs. 2
- Expression of confidence, vss. 3.
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 4-8.
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. Using the categories employed by Professor Walter Brueggemann, this psalm falls under the collection of prayers characterized as psalms of “disorientation.” Such psalms insist “that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way.” Nevertheless, they also insist that all “experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 52. “It is a curious fact,” Brueggemann notes, “that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented.” Ibid. at p. 51. He goes on to say that:
“It is in my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come, not from faith, but from wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the large number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing ‘happy songs’ in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.” Ibid. at pp. 51-52.
This Sunday’s psalm does not begin with a lengthy, pious invocation. The psalmist begins his/her prayer with a demand for an answer! Vs. 1. In that respect, s/he is not unlike my son when he was just a toddler. Occasionally I was distracted with one thing or another when he needed my full attention. At those times, he would literally grasp my head and turn my face in his direction to make it clear where he thought my priorities should be. It is with that kind of forcefulness that the psalmist demands the attention of God.
The dilemma of the psalmist appears to be false accusation. “How long shall my honor suffer shame?” vs. 2. That was a very real question faced by the spouse of a friend, a teacher accused of molesting one of his students. During investigation of the allegations, which took several months, he was suspended from his job. Though the law presumes one innocent until proven guilty, the court of public opinion presumes guilt, often even after a court has declared quite the opposite. This is particularly so when the offense is one we view as the vilest of crimes. Turns out that my friend’s spouse was cleared of any wrongdoing and reinstated, but that could hardly compensate for the toll taken by living for months under such damning allegations. That may reflect what the psalmist is experiencing here.
“But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him.” vs. 2. The psalmist is confident that God, the final court of appeal, sees all ends and will render a just verdict. However heavily the deck may be stacked against him, no human judgment founded on injustice can stand.
“Be angry, but sin not; commune with your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” Vs. 4. The psalmist began with a call to God for an answer to his/her predicament. S/he then turns to address his/her accusers with the assurance that God will judge his/her case justly. Now the psalmist addresses his/her fellow worshipers with words of advice. “Be angry, but sin not.” The greatest temptation faced by persons undergoing false accusation is to become cynical and hateful. The question is whether one will be shaped by the conduct of one’s persecutors or by faith in the God upon whom one depends.
“There are many who say, ‘Oh that we might see some good! Lift up the light of thy countenance upon us, O Lord!’” vs. 6. It is, of course, easier to live thankfully when life is blessed and times are peaceful. But the psalmist recognizes that the true measure of a person’s soul is taken in times of trial. Thus, s/he can pray, “Thou has put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” Vs. 7. These fair weather worshipers have no understanding of the joy that comes from confidence in God wrought through bitter experience where such confidence is sorely needed. Thus, as uncertain and ambiguous as the psalmist’s situation is, s/he can nevertheless “lie down and sleep” in peace. Vs. 8.
For my comments on the First Letter of John generally, see my post for Sunday, April 8, 2018. You might also want to check out the Summary Article by Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul M.N.
The chapter begins with an affirmation of God’s love and promise that we are God’s children even now. Vs. 1. This relationship to God our heavenly Father is not something into which we grow. It is a relationship into which we are born through the waters of baptism. Yet, in a sense, it is something into which we grow. Verses 3-7 read in isolation from the rest of the epistle might suggest that believers in Jesus no longer sin. John already told us quite the contrary in last week’s reading. I John 1:8. The focus here is on the process described in verse 3 where John says, “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” Hope and trust in Jesus re-orientates life away from sin and toward a life of love for the sisters and brothers in Christ’s church. This new orientation is a process by which believers and the church as a whole are transformed into the image of Jesus. Sin is still a reality in the life of a disciple, but its power to enslave is broken by God’s promise of forgiveness.
The verse I find most meaningful among the many meaningful sentences tightly packed into this section is verse 2. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” We know from last week’s lesson that Jesus is the face of God that can be touched, looked upon and seen. So while much remains mysterious about resurrected life, we know that at Jesus’ appearing, we will be like Jesus. We will be the sort of creatures capable of living joyfully, thankfully and obediently under the gentle reign of God Incarnate. This is what needs to happen in order for us to receive the advent of God’s reign as good news. A kingdom in which all have enough might not look very attractive to those of us who have grown used to having far more than we need. A kingdom in which all are welcome might seem unwelcome to those of us accustomed to flying first class or living in gated communities. To those of us accustomed to being the center of attention, having all attention directed to the Lamb on the throne might prove an unbearable slight. Unless we finally become like Jesus, the kingdom of heaven isn’t going to be much fun.
Of course, the overall message of these verses and of the epistle generally is that God in Christ Jesus is even now working that transformation in us. We may not be aware of it. We might be tempted to doubt it when we try to measure our progress toward the goal of becoming like Christ. The best advice is not to try and measure. Like a tightrope walker, our eyes need to be fixed on the goal, on Christ who beckons us forward. The minute we take our gaze off him and fixate on the abyss beneath us and the distance we have yet to go, we are toast.
This is a scene at the tail end of Luke’s series of resurrection encounters throughout this chapter. By this time, Jesus has appeared to the women at the tomb, to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and apparently to Simon Peter as well. This resurrection appearance marks the climax in which Jesus appears to all the disciples, shares a meal with them and commissions them to be his witnesses to all nations beginning from Jerusalem. Vs. 47. If we were permitted to read a bit further to the end of the gospel, we would learn that Luke’s story concludes where it began, in the Jerusalem Temple. As I mentioned in my discussion of our lesson from Acts, Luke is concerned to anchor the good news about Jesus firmly within the covenant life of Israel while expanding its reach to all peoples.
Luke takes special pains to emphasize that Jesus is not a “spirit,” but a resurrected human being. It is important that the tomb was found empty (Luke 24:1-3); that Jesus was recognized in the breaking of bread (Luke 24:30-31); and that Jesus could be handled by his disciples. Vs. 39. Perhaps, knowing his gentile audience, Luke means to emphasize the physicality of the resurrection to counter other near eastern beliefs such as re-incarnation, the immortality of the soul and transmigration to some eternal “spiritual” world. See Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Luke, (c. 1984 by John Knox Press) p. 376. Not mere survival of death, but a new heaven and a new earth is what the prophets proclaimed and what is inaugurated in Jesus’ resurrection.
Verse 44 makes reference to the tripartite “cannon” of Hebrew Scriptures as Law, Prophets and Writings (which included the Psalms). It should be noted that, at Jesus time and thereafter, these writings were not given equal weight of authority. The first and most significant was the Law of Moses consisting of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis to Deuteronomy). The second was the Prophets broadly consisting of Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and the Twelve (the Minor Prophets). Third, there were the “Writings,” the largest of which is the Psalms. Also included are Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, I & II Chronicles, Ruth, Song of Solomon and Esther.
Luke tells us that Jesus “opened the minds” of the disciples to understand the Hebrew Scriptures. Our minds are not blank slates when we approach the scriptures. It makes a difference how you read the scriptures and how you read the scriptures depends on what you bring to them. You can find support for incest, rape, genocide, slavery and all manner of beastly conduct in the Bible. Sadly, the Bible has been used in just that manner throughout history. The church’s hermeneutical principle, our way of making sense of the scriptures, is Jesus. Jesus opens up the scriptures to our understanding just as the scriptures testify to Jesus. When we depart from this hermeneutic, we wander into a morass of ethics devoid of compassion, doctrine devoid of faith and slavish bondage to the letter devoid of Spirit.
Taking the Bible back from the masses; a poem by Jacqueline Woodson; and the lessons for Sunday, March 25, 2018
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.
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the journey from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, through his betrayal, suffering and death and into the sunrise of the Resurrection. Holy Week, like the church year generally, was designed for a people familiar with and formed by the larger biblical narrative. The parallels between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the messianic prophecies of Zechariah and the triumphal entry of David with the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem should not be lost on such a people. Nor should the strong overtones of the Exodus and Passover at the Last Supper escape their notice. The refrains of the suffering servant songs and the tortured cries of the lamenting psalmists should frame the context for the cross, and the Resurrection should be grounded in the liberation of Israel at the Red Sea and informed by all of the ancient promises made to Israel from Genesis to Malachi. The problem, however, is that practicing Christians are increasingly deaf to these interrelated themes. They are like beginning piano students who, at best, can manage to pick out only the melody line of a complex musical score.
I think this problem goes far beyond mere biblical illiteracy. It is rooted in our protestant insistence that the Bible is a book for general consumption and that any fair-minded person can pick it up, read it and readily arrive at its meaning and significance. Witness the tireless work of the Gideons in assuring that every motel, hotel and resort suite throughout the United States is stocked with a King James Bible. It is as though evangelism were only a matter of getting the book into the hands of the unbeliever. In truth, however, the Bible is a complex, layered and nuanced collection of writings speaking in many voices. It is as much the testimony of Israel and the church as it is the testament of God. Its open-ended narrative is rich in frolics and detours. There are numerous rabbit holes down which one might venture, texts that confuse, terrify and serve as springboards for some of the most abhorrent forms of religious expression ever to appear on the world stage. I sometimes wonder whether placing the Bible into the hands of the common people was not one of Martin Luther’s biggest blunders.
This is not to say that the Bible belongs solely to the educated elite. I am convinced that many scholars armed with the tools of historical criticism are as inept as unlearned literalists when it comes to interpreting the Bible. As Professor Stanley Hauerwas has observed, “literalist fundamentalism and the critical approaches to the Bible are but two sides of the same coin, insofar as each assumes that the text should be accessible to anyone without mediation by the church.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Unleashing the Scriptures: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, (c. 1993 by Abingdon Press) p. 17. That is to say, the Bible cannot rightly be interpreted apart from the communities that gave birth to it and have been formed by it. Without Israel and the church, the Bible would have no more significance than the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It would be a fascinating literary relic, of interest perhaps to students of ancient religion, archaeology and art-but of no relevance to most 21st Century people. The Bible continues to speak to the world today only because it speaks directly to these two communities, Israel and the church, telling them who they are, why they are and how they are to live.
Unlike our sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, we protestants have nothing like a “teaching magisterium” to guide us in our interpretation of the Scriptures. Indeed, given our fiercely individualistic impulses, the very thought of such an institution makes us see red. We bristle at the notion that anyone should have the right to “tell us what to think.” Yet I believe the fragmented protestant experience has taught us that reliance upon the faculties of reason possessed by the common person (or the highly educated one for that matter) to arrive at the objectively correct reading of a biblical text is misplaced. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit which comes when we read the Bible together as a community of disciples following Jesus. Even when one reads the Bible alone, s/he does not read it in isolation, but in the company of St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., contemporary theologians, pastors, teachers, friends and mentors. Interpreting the Bible is a job far too important to be left in the hands of any one individual. It requires the shared wisdom of a community of disciples in communion with the whole church and grounded in that church’s rich and diverse historical traditions.
Holy Week should be a shared exercise in Biblical interpretation integrated with the disciplines of Lent and careful listening to the passion and resurrection narrative. Just as we cannot hope to follow Jesus apart from the communion of saints, so too, we cannot expect to understand the Scriptures apart from participation in that holy communion wherein the mind of Christ is formed.
Here is a poem by Jacqueline Woodson with a fleeting picture of what formation looks like within a community of faith.
On Sundays, the preacher gives everyone a chance
to repent their sins. Miss Edna makes me go
to church. She wears a bright hat
I wear my suit. Babies dress in lace.
Girls my age, some pretty, some not so
pretty. Old ladies and men nodding.
Miss Edna every now and then throwing her hand
in the air. Saying Yes, Lord and Preach!
I sneak a pen from my back pocket,
bend down low like I dropped something.
The chorus marches up behind the preacher
clapping and humming and getting ready to sing.
I write the word HOPE on my hand.
Source: Jacqueline Woodson, “Church” from Locomotion, (c. 2003 by Jacqueline Woodson, pub. by Puffin Books). Jacqueline Woodson was born in Columbus, Ohio, but grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of over thirty books for children and young adults. Her honors include the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Newbery Honor. She received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement, the St. Katharine Drexel Award and the Anne V. Zarrow Award for Young Readers’ Literature. You can find out more about Jacqueline Woodson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
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 6thCentury 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.
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.
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” Numbers 21:5.
Lately, Facebook seems to have been inundated with nostalgia posts. These are video feeds that walk you down memory lane into friendly neighborhoods of yore where nobody locked their doors, kids played stick ball, hopscotch, hide and seek all day on the sidewalks, in the streets and in vacant lots without supervision and nothing bad ever happened to them. These were the days when you could get a popsicle for a dime that broke in the center so you could share it with a friend. Teachers exercised discipline without fear of being sued and kids were all better behaved for it. Everyone respected the flag, loved their country and did their jobs without complaining. It was a happier, simpler time. These feeds usually end with an invitation to share if you concur with such sentiments. I never do.
I will admit that there is a part of my psyche that enjoys these posts. I can be as nostalgic as the next person for the things I miss-the hiss and crackle of vacuum tubes you heard when turning on the old radio. The television shows we watched in black and white with the living room curtains drawn because that was the only way we could see even an outline of what was on the screen. I miss the sound of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard whistle that signaled the end of my Dad’s work shift, letting me know that he would soon be walking up the street from the bus stop. So naturally, I get warm and fuzzy feelings from being reminded of these relics of my past.
But there is a dark side of nostalgia as well. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” the people of Israel demand of Moses indignantly. Their frustration is understandable. They have been experiencing the hardships of the wilderness for years. They have seen war, hunger and thirst. So hard is their lot that they yearn for Egypt, the land of bondage from which they had so recently been liberated. In their minds, Egypt was a land of plenty. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic.” Numbers 11:5. They seem to have forgotten, however, the Pharaoh’s cruel edict requiring them to expose their male children and leave them to die. They seem to have forgotten the cruel bondage from which they cried out for four hundred years to be delivered. It is all reminiscent of the song made famous in my youth by Barbara Streisand in the movie, The Way We Were: “Memories, may be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.” Selective memory is a pernicious mental process that distorts the past, colors our perceptions of the present and darkens our outlook on the future. Nostalgia can tempt us to reject the day which the Lord has made in favor of what we deem to have been better days in the past. It can turn us away from the future into which God is calling us.
The nostalgia I see again and again on Facebook posts seems innocent enough on the surface, but it plays all too easily into the sinister myth of a golden age in America, an age to which we must return if we would prosper. It goes something like this: Once upon a time America was great. Once upon a time a man was the king of his castle, the master of his home. It was a time when doctors, lawyers, senators and state representatives were men-white men to be specific. There was a time when everyone knew what it meant to be a man and women knew-and accepted-what it meant to be a woman. There was a time when people of color knew their place in America-and were happy to stay there. It was a time when businesses closed on Sundays, sports leagues ceased their activities and the only people on the street were those on their way to church. There was a time when the way a man chose to keep his family in line was his own business and he didn’t have to concern himself with visits from the police, nosy social workers or child protective services. There was a time when just wars were the only ones America ever fought and America always won. This was an America where opportunities abounded for anyone willing to work and there was no explanation for failure or poverty except laziness and dishonesty.
You will object that, in fact, no such America ever existed. You are correct. But this is a myth and myths need not be true. They need only be credible and credibility requires a low standard of proof. Older white men like me who see their America slipping away, who see a new diverse generation of young people far more at home in a developing world of computers, cross-cultural relationships, a changing economy and a job market requiring skills we don’t have are particularly vulnerable to seduction by this toxic nostalgia for a country that never was. We feel as though we are losing control, that our knowledge and expertise is not valued, that our beliefs and convictions are being disregarded and our positions of privilege are slipping away. We sense that we are growing old, becoming less relevant and approaching death. All of that is true, by the way. God is doing a new thing-and we don’t like it!
The Trump campaign deftly exploited this white, male rage making the 2016 election into a referendum on the demographic future of America. It tapped into the white man’s visceral fear that his Norman Rockwell America is evolving into an increasingly feminist, multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-religious melting pot that he no longer recognizes as home. Trump’s handlers understood the deep-seated panic felt by white men when they hear that the white population will lose its majority status sometime between 2040 and 2050 and witness the increasing strength of women and people of color in business, entertainment and government. It should have come as no surprise that Trump’s berating women as “fat pigs” and “dogs” won him howls of approval from his white male base. Nor is it surprising that few in that base seemed at all concerned about their candidate’s sordid history of discrimination in his real estate developments or his derogatory remarks about Mexicans. To the contrary, they freely admit that his attractiveness stems from his willingness to say out loud what they are thinking.
Seen in this light, it is easy to understand the appeal of Trump’s claim that some “deep state” made up of liberals is really controlling the country. It is easy to see why universities are perceived as centers for “brainwashing” young people and scientists are regularly dismissed as white coated, God denying, America hating agents of the left. As preposterous as these notions might be, they make sense of the white man’s fears and put a face on the menace threatening him. Donald Trump validates the white man’s rage in a way that no other candidate in the field was able to do. He speaks their language and addresses their fears in ways that they can understand. His call for “making America great again,” taking us back to a simpler and happier time is understandably appealing to his base. In reality, however, this toxic nostalgia is the opiate ever threatening to derail the people of God and lure them back into captivity. Whatever direction America may take, disciples of Jesus must resist the temptation to look for salvation in the past.
We worship a forward-looking God. That does not mean that everything new, everything contemporary and everything promising change is necessarily good. It does mean, however, that today is the hand we have been dealt and we are not at liberty to throw it down and walk away from the table. It means that the future, however dark and threatening it can sometimes appear, is God’s future, the trajectory of which is determined by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The end of all things is the reign of God which, whether we like it or not, takes in peoples of every tribe, tongue and nation. Our movement must ever be forward toward that goal, journeying hopefully, faithfully and confidently-not in our plans, programs, politics or ideology, but in the promise that, as Christ has died and has risen, Christ will come again.
Here is a poem by Miller Williams about history and forward-looking hope eschewing the lure of nostalgia.
Of History and Hope
We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands—oh, rarely in a row—
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become—
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.
All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit—it isn’t there yet—
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.
Miller Williams (1930-2015) was an American Poet, editor, critic, and translator born in Hoxie, Arkansas to a Methodist pastor. He was honored as the country’s third inaugural poet, reading the above poem at the start of former President Bill Clinton’s second term. Williams earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from Arkansas State University and an Masters in zoology from the University of Arkansas. He taught college science for many years before securing a job in the English department at LSU with the support of his friend, the noted author, Flannery O’Connor. Williams has written, translated, or edited over thirty books, including a dozen poetry collections. You can read more about Miller Williams and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Source: Some Jazz A While: Collected Poems, (c. 1999 by Miller Williams; pub. by University of Illinois Press).
Numbers is the fourth book of the “Five Scrolls” or “Pentateuch,” sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses. Its title comes from the English translation of the Greek title, “Arithmoi,” given to the book in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). I am guessing the name “Numbers” stems from the first several chapters of the book which narrate a census of each of the twelve Israelite tribes, family by family. The Hebrew Scriptures use the title “Bemidbar” which means “in the wilderness” and aptly describes the content of this book narrating Israel’s forty years of wandering between the Exodus from Egypt and her entry into the land of Canaan. During this period the generation of Israelites that left Egypt with Moses and Aaron died and was succeeded by a new generation. From the old generation, only Moses and Joshua remain alive at the close of Numbers. It is clear that Joshua, not Moses, will lead this new generation into the land of Canaan. Throughout this period, the people are faced with numerous challenges that put their faith in God to the test. Though the faithfulness of Israel is often less than adequate, God remains steadfast from beginning to end.
Our lesson begins with the people of Israel setting out on a new leg of their journey following a victory over the Canaanite king of Arad. Arad was a Canaanite city of the Negeb located in present day Tell Arad, Israel. Its ruins consist of a large mound containing potsherds indicating that Arad was first occupied in the 4th Century B.C.E. The site is about fifty miles north of Kadish where Israel remained encamped for extended periods of time.
After this battle, the people set out from Mt. Hor (precise location of which is unknown) and take the “way of the Red Sea.” The Hebrew actually reads “reed sea,” but it is likely that the Red Sea is intended here. This road, which begins at Ezion-geber at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, would have taken Israel to the west of Edom rather than through it, the objective set forth in the text. Vs. 4. It is at this point that the people become discouraged, complain against Moses and even against God. They go so far as to call the manna with which God has been feeding them “this miserable food,” food to which the Psalms refer as “the bread of angels.” Psalm 78:25. Vs. 5. God responds by sending “fiery serpents” among the people, translated by the NRSV as “poisonous serpents.” The assumption seems to be that the serpents are merely a species of snake with a bite that causes a burning sensation. That would comport with our 19th Century penitent for interpreting the scriptures in such a way as not to violate cannons of the Enlightenment. But despite these noble efforts at ridding the Hebrew Scriptures of primitive supernaturalism, the problem remains. Not only are we lacking any known species of near eastern reptile capable of inflicting such a bite, but we are also faced with the biological reality that no snake of any kind travels in large groups. (When was the last time you saw a herd of snakes?) Nor do snakes typically attack without significant provocation.
More likely than not, the serpents were understood by the narrator, not as any known species of snake, but as one of the many mythical creatures thought to inhabit the desert, such as the “flying serpent” referenced in Isaiah 30:6. In any event, the creatures, whatever they are, were sent by God to punish Israel’s faithless complaining. Recognizing their sin, the people repent and turn to Moses for aid. As he has so often done before, Moses intercedes with God for the sake of Israel. Vs. 7.
What follows is truly fascinating and, in some respects, difficult to understand. God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and elevate it on a pole-seemingly a direct violation of the First Commandment (or the Second, depending on how one numbers them): “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…” Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8. The serpent, though greatly feared, was nevertheless a common symbol of healing and fertility. One wonders why Moses would be instructed to create such a symbol as an instrument of healing where it could so easily lead to idolatrous worship. Indeed, according to II Kings this very consequence occurred necessitating King Hezekiah’s destruction of the very same bronze serpent centuries later. II Kings 18:4.
Of course, the Abrahamic religions have always had ambivalent feelings about images. Islam forbids absolutely any image of God (Allah) and discourages (in varying degrees) images of any creature. Similarly, Christianity has vacillated between the extremes of icon adoration and iconoclasm. The danger of images is nowhere better illustrated than in our consistent depictions of God as male. Though one would be hard pressed to make from the scriptures the case for a gendered God, Christian art could hardly lead you to any different conclusion. Our images invariably turn out to be limited by our own cultural, sociological and ideological biases and therefore limiting in their portrayal of the God we claim to worship.
That said, it seems we cannot do without images. When we are physically forbidden to make them, our imagination continues to manufacture images. Moreover, the doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14) and even that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God…” Colossians 1:15. Our liturgy urges us to adore the Word made visible in Jesus that we might learn to love the God we cannot see. We are imaginative creatures who comprehend our universe by means of images.
Some years ago, I was very taken with a painting of the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. The painting was by a Mexican artist whose depiction of the temple’s architecture along with the dress of Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna was with imagery drawn from his own cultural environment. I clipped a copy of this painting out of the magazine in which I found it. Some weeks later, I found the same biblical scene portrayed in an early Byzantine wall mural in National Geographic. I clipped this one also and put it into the same shoebox with the other print. I now have about half a dozen such portrayals of the Presentation. Singly, they are time bound, parochial and culturally circumscribed. In their plurality, they reflect from multiple dimensions a miracle too beautiful and magnificent for any single imagination to contain. They represent the impact of a marvelous narrative as it rolls through the ages gathering meaning as a snowball gathers mass. The difference between an icon and an idol is simply this: the idol points only to itself limiting the God it would represent to the confines of a single image, whereas the icon points beyond itself to that which is finally beyond imagination.
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 the United States of America. 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 don’t think Paul would be shocked to find African American neighborhoods patrolled by an overwhelmingly white police department that looks far more like an occupation force than a public service. 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 own.
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. As a result, our pastors, teachers and bishops remain largely blind to the dangerous, toxic mix of nationalism and deviant Christianity that constitutes so much of what has, ironically I think, been called evangelical Christianity and its insidious infiltration of our churches. See my post of July 26, 2017.
For some background on the larger context of this brief snippet from John’s gospel, my post from Sunday, March 16, 2014. 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.
 In November of 2008, for the first time in history, an election was not decided principally by white men. In the first election in which a major party candidate was an African American, the white vote went decisively in favor of John McCain over Barak Obama to the tune of twelve percentage points. But this clear win in America’s still biggest demographic could not offset overwhelming support among Hispanic, African American and Asian voters coupled with a substantial edge among women and the near unanimous support of the LGBTQ communities. The hope of white voters that the Obama victory was an historical fluke that would soon be erased once the panic generated by the recession of that era faded was dashed by Mr. Obama’s substantial electoral and popular victory over Mitt Romney in 2012. Though Mr. Romney won the white vote by ten percentage points, Mr. Obama’s support among minorities and women again carried the day. The electorate twice defied the will of the white man to put an African American in the White House-and white, male America was mad as hell about it. See Roper reports for 2008 and 2012.
The Ten Commandments are not for everybody; a poem by Adrienna Rich; and the Lessons for Sunday, March 4, 2018
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.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Exodus 20:2.
The prologue to the Ten Commandments reminds us that these commands are not for general consumption. They are not a set of eternally valid, absolute moral principles meant to be binding on everyone. They are not given to the human race in general. The Ten Commandments presuppose a community united by the saving act of a gracious God who is committed to making them thrive. This community began as a tribe of escaped slaves fleeing oppression from the Egyptian empire at the close of the bronze age. The newly freed refugees are given to understand that they, who were no people, have been rescued from the jaws of imperial bondage to become God’s people in the Land of Canaan. Accordingly, the Commandments are given to protect their new life of freedom, justice and peace under the covenant with their God and to prevent them from evolving into another Egypt. Israel must not become one more oppressive kingdom among many. Israel is to be a light to the nations, an alternative way for human beings to live out their humanity.
For all of these reasons, stripping away the prologue identifying the “Who” and “why” of the Commandments, chiseling them into stone apart from their narrative context and placing them in front of a courthouse trivializes them. Unless we understand that the God who will not tolerate any rivals is the God of oppressed slaves; unless we understand that the sabbath was commanded for a people who knew no relief from work under the whip of the task master, unless we know that the commands protecting the sanctity of life, property and family were given to slaves who were themselves property, whose lives were cheap and who could be worked literally to death, we cannot begin to appreciate what these commands meant for Israel and what they might mean for us. The Ten Commandments were given to create, nurture and sustain a community of faith in the God who liberates slaves in the midst of a culture that routinely enslaves and oppresses. They must be understood as an emphatic “no” to imperial oppression, nationalism, hierarchy and war characterizing the present regime while pointing forward to the peaceable kingdom where humans live in peace with each other and in harmony with the earth and where God’s Spirit is poured out generously on all flesh.
It is also important for us to acknowledge that the Ten Commandments are, in part at least, the product of the same hierarchical and patriarchal culture that enslaved the people of Israel. We need to recognize and accept that they reflect many of the same oppressive assumptions underlying imperial civilization. For example, the Commandments deem women to be the property of their men. Consequently, adultery was not so much a sin between husband and wife as it was a sin by one man against another with the guilty wife being an accessory. While men are warned not to covet their neighbor’s wife, there is no similar prohibition against women coveting each other’s husbands. That is because there was nothing to covet. Women had no ownership rights to be coveted. Slavery, too, was a given in ancient Israel. Male and female slaves belonging to one’s neighbor are among the items of property one is admonished not to covet. There is no escaping the obvious. No reasonable person would want the Ten Commandments interpreted and enforced as they were originally promulgated.
As many womanist Hebrew scriptural scholars have pointed out ( e.g., Valerie Bridgeman, Irene S. Travis, Phillis Bird), we need to recognize the scriptures as time bound, contextual narratives reflecting and sometimes acquiescing in the oppressive assumptions of their age. Rather than rationalizing or explaining away its limitations, we need “to look a text squarely in what it actually says and then make ethical decisions about how it may function in the community.” Bridgeman, Valerie, “Womanist Approaches to the Prophets,” printed in The Oxford Handbook of the Prophets, edited by Sharp, Carolyn, J. (c. 2016 Oxford University Press) p. 487. Additionally, we are called upon to examine these texts “from the vantage point of the marginalized, the oppressed, the silenced, or the voiceless in current society and in the ancient texts.” Ibid p. 483. In so doing, stories like those of Deborah, Haggar, Tamar, Ruth, Esther and many other narratives in which women act out of character come into sharper focus. These narratives challenge the perceived patriarchal norms, illustrating how the texts are not static givens, but living theaters within which the liberating desire of God is striving to break through the oppressive strictures of our present existence. Although the Commandments stand as a watershed against imperial oppression, they also testify to the need for further prophetic resistance.
In sum, the Ten Commandments exhibit the patriarchal and hierarchical assumptions that hold human beings in bondage as much as they point beyond them to a better way. They should therefore be seen not as the final word on morality but rather as a profound crack in oppressive imperial ideology that must invariably widen. They stand as “a mark of resistance, a sign,” as poet Adrienna Rich puts it. As such, they must be understood always first and foremost as God’s covenant provisions given to Israel in a concrete historical context that was very different from our own. We gentile believers must understand that they come to us only through Jesus’ gracious invitation into that covenant relationship with Israel’s God and must be interpreted always with reference to his obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection. The Commandments must be construed in ways that strengthen our covenant communities, build relationships of trust and cooperation between us, further protections for the most vulnerable among us and form us into a people of resistance, capable of testifying to the sovereignty of our gracious and liberating God over all other claims of power and authority.
Here is the rest of that poem by Adrienna Rich about resisting.
A Mark of Resistance
Stone by stone I pile
this carin of my intention
with the noon’s weight on my back,
exposed and vulnerable
across the slanting fields
which I love but cannot save
from floods that are to come;
can only fasten down
with the work of my hands,
these painfully assembled
stones, in the shape of nothing
that has ever existed before.
A pile of stones: an assertion
that this piece of country matters
for large and simple reasons.
A mark of resistance, a sign.
Source, Poetry Magazine, August 1957. Poet and essayist Adrienna Rich (1929-2012) was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a pathologist and professor at Johns Hopkins; her mother a former concert pianist. She graduated from Radcliffe University and married in 1953. She had three children with her husband, but the marriage ended with their separation in the 1960s. Rich’s prose collections are widely-acclaimed for their articulate treatment of politics, feminism, history, racism and many other topics. Her poetry likewise explores issues of identity, sexuality and politics. Rich’s awards include the National Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship and a MacArthur “Genius” Award. You can read more about Adrienna Rich and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
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 lengthypsalm 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.”