A Provocation: Second Sunday of Easter: April 28, 2019: Revelation 1:4-8

Revelation 1:4-8
1:4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,

1:5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood,

1:6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

1:7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

1:8 "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

There is plenty to provoke around Easter. Three years ago, I found the resurrection scene in John 20 poking me, so I poked it back. You can read that Provocation at https://tinyurl.com/ProvocationSecondEaster

A Question or Two:

  • The final word in this passage is παντοκράτωρ, translated as “Almighty.”
  • Does it matter that the phrase “Almighty God,” in Jewish Scripture, translates the phrase “El Shaddai,” which is best translated as “God the Nursing Mother?” Asking for a friend.

Some Longer Reflections:

This year, the text from Revelation caught me. This text, and the call and response that I heard repeatedly on Easter, in church and all over social media: Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed.

The first thing I notice is that John speaks grace and peace from three interwoven sources: from God, from seven spirits in the Divine Presence, and from Jesus Christ. This origin is not simple.

The three-fold origin of the blessing will make Christians salivate: this must be the Trinity! And maybe we are right to respond this way. But three-step patterns are as much rhetorical conventions as they are theological doctrines: in either case the rhetoric emphasizes the wholeness and completeness of the bestowing of grace and peace. Besides, the traditional trinitarian pattern is lacking here: there is no reference to a Father or a Son, and there are seven spirits.

But this is still more complicated. The first step in identifying the source of grace and peace also involves a three-fold pattern: it refers (in the NRSV) to “him who is and who was and who is to come.” This looks like present, past, and future, but the Greek is better read as “the One who is, who was, and who is coming.” The last participle is in the present tense, and thus does not point to a future arrival, but to a practice of continuously arriving. This echoes an argument made years ago by C. A. van Peursen in his book, Him Again. The unpronouceable Name of God, van Peursen argues, is indeed a kind of verb form. But it isn’t some kind of “present tense,” which would identify God as the One who exists (“the One who is”), and it isn’t a kind of “past tense,” which would tie God with the Deity narrated in past stories (“the One who was”). The Name of God (YHWH) is a kind of “iterative tense,” used to name each new eruption of God in human history. As in “Oh, it’s Him again.” This intriguing interpretation actually works well in both the gospel of John and the revelation to John. God DOES keep popping up, after all.

But what the “seven spirits?” There is surely more to be said about them later in Revelation, but for now, it matters that πνευμα means breath, and in a Jewish context (like Revelation) it means the breath of life that God blows into every human breath. In a Christian context it means the breath of life that God blew into the crucified messiah, thus restoring life that had been murdered. Before the throne, there is the πνευμα, the breath of life and resurrection. Specifically, there are SEVEN breaths, one for each day, breath enough for all days, since seven is the number of totality.

After these complications, the reference to Jesus seems easy. Sort of. Customary popular theology spends its time waiting for the “Second Coming.” Of Jesus. But notice that the phrase “One who is coming” is not applied to Jesus. That probably matters. Jesus is identified as “the witness.” He is “the faithful one.” And he is the “the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” These identifications have their own complexity.

First of all, the NRSV makes it a three-fold (again with the threes!) identification by linking the first two terms, witness and faithful. This is surely workable, though not all editors of Greek testaments agree. If, as I read it, the terms are separate, Jesus is still a witness, but he is also faithful (πιστός) which, in a Jewish text means that he was Torah observant: he kept kosher; he lived an orderly life; he shaped his existence to point to the God who creates, redeems, and loves the Cosmos. I think this is important.

The next step calls Jesus the “the firstborn of the dead,” a clear reference to his resurrection. But it is more than that, of course. The reference to “first-born” implies that this is not simply a “one off” event, not a circus trick. Resurrection is what ALL of Creation waits for (“with eager longing” says Paul). Jesus begins the process of the return to life.

If you translate as I do, this leaves a fourth step to the progression. Jesus is also the “ruler of the kings of the earth.” This rhetorical structure (three steps leading to a climactic fourth), says Amos Wilder, makes the fourth step the consequence of the first three. Thus, Jesus is the Ruler of rulers because he is a witness, who is an observant Jew, who is the beginning of God’s restoration of life to all Creation.

This is why the Easter call and response (Christ is risen / Christ is risen indeed) caught my ear this year. These words do not proclaim the miracle of a single escape from death. They state that it was messiah who is the firstborn out of death. Messiah is not simply an individual. Messiah is the promise of Hope, the hope for Justice, the justice that lets us live together in peace. It is hope that dies. Indeed. Hope often dies. It is hope that rises. It is about time.

Grace and peace from the hope that rises even out of death.

A Provocation: Easter Sunday: April 21, 2019: 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

1 Corinthians 15:19-26
15:19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ,
we are of all people most to be pitied.

15:20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead,
the first fruits of those who have died.

15:21 For since death came through a human being,
the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;

15:22 for as all die in Adam,
so all will be made alive in Christ.

15:23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits,
then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

15:24 Then comes the end,
when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father,
after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.

15:25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.

15:26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.1

Three years ago I explored Luke’s story of the resurrection, including especially the impact of the women in the scene. You can find that Provocation at http://tinyurl.com/ProvocationEaster2016

This year, I chose to explore 1 Corinthians 15 and Paul’s understanding of resurrection.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is death the last enemy?
  • What are the consequences of a theology that treats mortality as an enemy? (Include good and bad consequences.)

Some Longer Reflections:

“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” This is a Christian argument, but Paul learned it because he was a Pharisee. Look back at verse 16. Note the order of his argument: If the dead (in general) are not raised to life, then Christ (in particular) is also not raised. Not the other way around. The argument is NOT that the resurrection of the Christ makes resurrection possible for the rest of Creation. That would be a customary enough Christian argument. But Paul was a Pharisee, and as such he holds that resurrection, along with the singularity of God, are the core of proper theology and all of life.

And it’s not about resurrection as a circus trick. It’s not about the ultimate Houdini escape from actual death. For the Pharisees, resurrection was not magic, or even a miracle. It was a design feature of the Universe. For Paul, as for the Pharisees (and for Jesus, while we’re at it), resurrection sets the universe in the context of God’s Justice.

This theological understanding is a strange mix of ultimate hope and ultimate despair. The hope is easy enough to see, I suppose. All enemies, specifically including death, will be put under the feet of Messiah, who comes to turn the world right-side-up. According to this ultimate hope, justice is also a design feature of the Universe. Justice is not a pretty little daydream, not an adolescent imagining, nor is it a project for absolutists and other terrorists who aim to impose their idea of justice even if they have to kill the world to do it. The ultimate hope of resurrection which raises Jesus to life, not because he was messiah but because he was part of Creation makes justice real and inevitable because it is God who made the world so that death ends nothing. This is ultimately and supremely hopeful.

But this is ultimately desperate, and for the same reasons. Locating justice on the other side of death implies (strongly) that it can’t find real lodging on this side of death and eternity.

It is easy enough at this point to bring Karl Marx and his religious opiate onto the scene at this point, and then people can either love him or hate him. That is too easy.

Religion funds both revolution and reaction, restoration and repression. It will not do to pretend otherwise.

But the real problem is that the crimes that demand justice are both solvable and not. A proper theology of resurrection increases our awareness of the necessity of justice on this side of death, and it does this by revealing to us that we would much rather leave it all for heaven. If justice is only enacted after resurrection, our privilege is left fully in place until then. But any serious effort to carry out justice now faces us with complications that confuse us. We begin our effort to make justice a design feature of the Universe and find ourselves with questionable allies and compromised outcomes.

Make a list of situations that call for justice. Make it a serious list. Include geopolitical meat-grinders: alliances with known dictators (think FDR and Stalin against Hitler), peoples locked in vicious stalemates (think Palestinians and Israelis). Include historical assaults that have left marks that cannot be erased, wounds that do not heal: think genocidal slaughter of Native American nations; think the systematic enslavement of people stolen from Africa. Reparation and resurrection have to be wound around each other, or all we have left of Easter is bunnies and eggs. Alleluia.

So, reflect on resurrection and reflect on the real world. Paul wrote: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” True enough. But his argument implies also a corollary: “If only for the next life we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most useless.” Neither state prepares us to answer to Justice on the other side of resurrection.


A Provocation: Maundy Thursday: April 18, 2019: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,

11:24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

11:25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."

11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Two years ago I explored John’s story of the Last Supper. You can find that Provocation at http://tinyurl.com/ProvocationMaundyThursday

This year I am in the midst of preparing to write my next play. This play, a collaboration with a friend who is a theologian and a composer and with a student who is a dancer, will be called This Is My Body and will wind the words of the Sacrament around real life, and wrap real life around the Sacrament.

This small Provocation is part of my preparatory work.

Paul notes that when Jesus breaks the bread, he says, “This is my body.” The people who join us to commemorate Maundy Thursday may understand a bit about the fights pastors and other theologians have had over these words. They may have a sense of the real significance of those fights in their time. They are less likely to have read much about more recent rapprochement around such matters. Some of the people who join us would be willing to take up theological cudgels and join the old fights if we encourage them to do so. Others (perhaps a larger number) would be more likely to conclude that we think REAL theology is mostly about thinking we are right and about excluding people we don’t think are right. More than a few of that larger group will write us off as irrelevant and unhelpful.

I might be wrong.

But this year it might be wise to explore what Jesus’ words might connect us to.

It is not only in church that I have heard people say, “This is my body.” I have read it in the stories told by people in the #MeToo movement. “This is my body, not yours,” I have heard people say. “You do not have the right to act otherwise.” I have heard friends say those words when they describe the extra lessons they have to include when they teach their sons to drive: specifically the lessons that cover what to do WHEN the police pull you over, how not to get shot. “This is my Black body,” one mother said, “what are you going to do?” I have heard the same words from friends and students who find themselves in the midst of various gender transitions. “This is my body,” they say as they work to understand what those words actually mean to them and to the communities around them.

Jesus’ words point in at least two directions. They point through the bread to focus our eyes on his death by torture. And they point to the physical bread held in his very physical hand, and by doing so aim our eyes at the revelatory complications involved in the Incarnation. A Deity often imagined as the Ultimate Abstraction, knowable only in unreachable superlatives, holds bread in a simple human hand that will soon be nailed to an instrument of torture. Bodies can be tortured. Bodies can be murdered. These simple statements are true for all of us. They are true for anyBody.

Perhaps this Maundy Thursday these words link us, along with Jesus, with all those who have found themselves saying, “This is my body.” Reading it that way might put some teeth into the Mandate delivered in John’s gospel: Love each other.

A Provocation: Good Friday: April 19, 2019: John 18:1–19:42

John 18:1-19:42
18:1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered.

18:2 Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples.

18:3 So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons.

18:4 Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, "Whom are you looking for?"

18:5 They answered, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus replied, "I am he." Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.

18:6 When Jesus said to them, "I am he," they stepped back and fell to the ground.

18:7 Again he asked them, "Whom are you looking for?" And they said, "Jesus of Nazareth."

18:8 Jesus answered, "I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go."

18:9 This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, "I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me."

18:10 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave's name was Malchus.

18:11 Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?"

18:12 So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him.

18:13 First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year.

18:14 Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.

18:15 Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest,

18:16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in.

18:17 The woman said to Peter, "You are not also one of this man's disciples, are you?" He said, "I am not."

18:18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

18:19 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching.

18:20 Jesus answered, "I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.

18:21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said."

18:22 When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, "Is that how you answer the high priest?"

18:23 Jesus answered, "If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?"

18:24 Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

18:25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, "You are not also one of his disciples, are you?" He denied it and said, "I am not."

18:26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, "Did I not see you in the garden with him?"

18:27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

18:28 Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate's headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover.

18:29 So Pilate went out to them and said, "What accusation do you bring against this man?"

18:30 They answered, "If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you."

18:31 Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law." The Jews replied, "We are not permitted to put anyone to death."

18:32 (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)

18:33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?"

18:34 Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?"

18:35 Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?"

18:36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."

18:37 Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

18:38 Pilate asked him, "What is truth?" After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, "I find no case against him.

18:39 But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?"

18:40 They shouted in reply, "Not this man, but Barabbas!" Now Barabbas was a bandit.

19:1 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.

19:2 And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe.

19:3 They kept coming up to him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" and striking him on the face.

19:4 Pilate went out again and said to them, "Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him."

19:5 So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, "Here is the man!"

19:6 When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him."

19:7 The Jews answered him, "We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God."

19:8 Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever.

19:9 He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, "Where are you from?" But Jesus gave him no answer.

19:10 Pilate therefore said to him, "Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?"

19:11 Jesus answered him, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin."

19:12 From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, "If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor."

19:13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge's bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha.

19:14 Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, "Here is your King!"

19:15 They cried out, "Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!" Pilate asked them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but the emperor."

19:16 Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus;

19:17 and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha.

19:18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

19:19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews."

19:20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.

19:21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews,' but, 'This man said, I am King of the Jews.'"

19:22 Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written."

19:23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 

19:24 So they said to one another, "Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it." This was to fulfill what the scripture says, "They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots."

19:25 And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

19:26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son."

19:27 Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

19:28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty."

19:29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.

19:30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

19:31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed.

19:32 Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him.

19:33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.

19:34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.

19:35 (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)

19:36 These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, "None of his bones shall be broken."

19:37 And again another passage of scripture says, "They will look on the one whom they have pierced."

19:38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.

19:39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.

19:40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.

19:41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.

19:42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

In the last few years I have written some Provocations for Good Friday that I still think might be useful. You can find them at these URLs:

My Provocation for this year focuses on a very small bit of a very long scene. The long scene is from John, and it stretches from the arrest in the garden to the burial in the new tomb. The small bit is from chapter 18. Annas has examined Jesus and sent him along to Caiaphas. Caiaphas in turn sends Jesus along to Pilate.

The question is, Why?

Why did the High Priest send Jesus to Pilate? John’s narrative gives us an answer, of sorts. We are told that the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to Pilate because “[they] are not permitted to put anyone to death.” At that point commentators rush to make it clear that they did indeed have that authority. They couldn’t crucify anyone. Rome retained that horrifying right for itself, and used it to prove to the dominated population that Roman cruelty had no limits. Only Rome could torture someone to death on a cross, in public, over the course (usually) of six days, and Rome reserved this particular brutality to demonstrate what would happen to anyone who threatened Roman control. That was also the point of having condemned rebels carry the crossbeam to the place where they would be crucified. It wasn’t a matter of efficient transport. It was to prove to any potential supporters in the crowd that they lacked the courage to rescue their comrade.

The Jewish authorities could not crucify anyone, but they could execute. And the storyteller and any imaginable audience would have known this.

John’s narrative tells the story this way to place blame on the Jewish authorities. It’s time we stopped this. It is time we just stopped.

There is more than one voice telling the story in John’s gospel. I judge the older voices to be the ones that celebrate God’s all-embracing love for the Cosmos. The later voices are angry, vicious even. The later voices attack Jews as “children of [their] father, the devil,” even though the older storyteller had previously told us that these same Jews were faithful to Jesus.

It is time, long past time, that we stopped listening to growling, angry voices, whether in theology or in politics. We stop now.

Why did Caiaphas hand Jesus over to Pilate? He did it because Rome had created the priesthood as what I call the “organ of liaison.” Rome controlled its conquered peoples by identifying the key leadership group in each case and using them to control the population.

So Pilate went to the Chief Priests and made it clear that they were in charge of keeping the peace. Any potential troublemaker was to be handed over to Pilate, and Rome would take it from there.

I imagine that, at the outset, the priests thought of themselves as patriots, and sought to protect Jewish troublemakers from Roman torture. Pilate’s response was simple: he started killing random Jews until the troublemaker was identified and turned over. The Jewish population will have understood what was happening, and will have demanded that the priests turn over the next troublemaker before the round of murders started. And the priests will also have learned their lesson. The next time anyone gave even a hint of causing trouble for Rome, they will have found him and delivered him to Rome’s tender mercies.

Pilate will have publicly thanked the priests, and he will have rewarded them handsomely. The Jewish people will have noticed this reward. When Pilate rewarded them, he made them into rich traitors, and the Jewish public will thus have had two easy reasons to distrust them.

At that point, Pilate will have won. He had created a system that would deliver potential rebels, and he had undermined public trust in the priests.

That’s why Caiaphas turned Jesus over to Pilate. He had been made into the Roman organ of liaison. He had no choice.

If you want to think about the political background of all this, read Domination and the Arts of Resistance by James C. Scott (1990). If you want to think about the historical outcome of this practice, read Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews by Victor Tscherikover (1959).

If you want to think about the human effect of this policy, watch the final episode of M.A.S.H. in which Hawkeye suffers in the aftermath of surviving on a bus surrounded by the enemy. The people on the bus survived because a mother smothered her crying baby. Hawkeye ordered her to silence the child (1983).

Or, if you want to think carefully about the history behind John’s story, read John 18:14 again. This verse refers back to an argument in chapter 11. Jesus is causing an uproar. The members of the Sanhedrin note that if he continues, “the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” Caiaphas responds just as Hawkeye did: “It is better that one person should die….”

He had no choice.

A Provocation: Sunday of the Passion: April 14, 2019: Philippians 2:5-11

Philippians 2:5-11
2:5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

2:6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

2:7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,

2:8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.

2:9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,

2:10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

2:11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Once again, my Provocation for Palm Sunday from three years ago (look for it in the archives of this blog) is worth looking at this year, as well. There I reflect on the odd way the Palm Sunday story is told in the gospel of Luke. You can find it at http://tinyurl.com/ProvocationPalmSunday2016

I offer you this reflection on the passage from Philippians that is part of the lectionary for the Sunday of the Passion.

A Question or Two:

  • Why do so many singers and interpreters sing about domination and ultimate victory when they think about Philippians 2?
  • Why does Paul sing about humiliation and crucifixion, not power?
  • How does our love of power and victory and obvious happy endings distort Paul’s song?

Some Longer Reflections:

The Name above every name is not “Jesus.” This passage assigns to Jesus the Divine Name, the Name never pronounced so as not to drain it of its dynamic content. This song gives to Jesus the Name of the Mercy Attribute, the Name (the rabbis tell us) that is used when the storyteller is narrating God’s loving nurture for all of Creation, when God is claiming the Chosen People.

This Name is never spoken for reasons that make great sense to me. When my daughter (a professional now well-established in her career) wants to joke about manipulating me, she calls me “Daddy.” And then she asks me to do something she knows I would do without manipulation. That is the point of the joke. When one of the few people on earth who can call me
“Daddy” asks, the answer is yes. It just goes with having been given that name by your own child, just learning to talk. No one else can use that name, and it would be creepy if they did. It would empty it of the content and context that make it wonderful.

That is what “using God’s Name in vain” means, of course. “Vanity” draws its strength as a word out of the metaphor of hollow emptiness. Jews avoid with loving care any use of God’s Name that would hollow it out, empty it of the warm mercy that raises the Name above every other name.

The substance of that Mercy, in this passage, is the Incarnation, the emptying that transforms God into one who is NOT above it all, not exempt from mortality, not immune to death.

Stop and think about that. What does our fragile mortality contribute to our life?

  • A certain nagging fear, to be sure. When we drove away from the assisted living facility in which my parents spent their last years, we did it knowing that each parting might be a final parting. We know the same thing when our children get in the car to drive home, or when one of my students leaves my office.
  • An intense awareness of how precious time is. During the two years that my sister lived with ALS, we discovered that the delight of tree-ripened peaches was not diminished by her diagnosis. If anything, living in the presence of an invariably fatal disease made the taste wilder, more alive, more shockingly sweet.
  • A very real vulnerability that abusers know and exploit. Have you worked for a boss who reminded workers that it was easy to replace them? I have. “What are you going to do if you leave?” That’s a question abusers of all sorts ask of the people they have made vulnerable. We are murderable, and tyrants remind us of that fact to frighten us. That was the point made by Pilate’s crucifixion of Jesus. That is the point made by the current president of the U.S. when he mentions “Second Amendment remedies.”

So what is the impact of this embodied Mercy? First of all, God is now set in the context of real mortality, not above it. God learns what it means to be murderable. This transforms the way we are able to speak about God. And second, death is now set in the context of resurrection. “O Death, where is your sting?” sings Paul in another epistle. This is not a song to be sung lightly. We are no less murderable than we were before the Incarnation. We are no less fragile, and no less afraid. It will not do to pretend about this. But the resurrection of the murdered messiah directs our eyes to the teachers we need: Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Winona LaDuke. You can add to this list. You will think of people that I do not.

In a moment in history when “Second Amendment remedies” are mentioned by more people than the current president, when angry voices play at threatening civil war should an election go against them, remember that the life we need is often on the other side of death. That, unfortunately, has always been true. That is one of the points of giving the Name to the crucified messiah. That is one of the lessons taught to us by the children and students and grandmothers who faced fire hoses and police dogs on the way to getting an education or the right to vote. While you reflect on the murderable messiah and the Mercy of God, read the stories in Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. This is not the first time we have had to learn that death and resurrection are not nice little religious concepts; they are a matter of life and death.

LORD have Mercy.

A Provocation: Fifth Sunday in Lent: April 7, 2019: Isaiah 43:16-21

Isaiah 43:16-21
43:16 Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,

43:17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:

43:18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.

43:19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

43:20 The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,

43:21 the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

Three years ago, my Provocation explored John 12:1-8. I found myself thinking about the anointing scene, which appears (with intriguing differences) in all four gospels. In John alone does the Anointer have a name: Mary, the sister of Martha and of Lazarus. If you would like to explore that Provocation, search for it in the archives of this blog.

I have chosen to explore Isaiah this year.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does the LORD quench chariots and horses “like a wick?”

Some Longer Reflections:

“I am about to do a new thing.” The new thing springs forth, which is a growth metaphor, a crocuses-leaping-from-the-ground metaphor. It brings water, rivers, and drink to people who are dying of thirst in Exile.

These words could come from many moments in Jewish history, but they sound to me like words of hope in the desert of Exile, the hope that kept the people alive and gave them the courage to continue until Cyrus the Persian came to power and allowed them to go free. This freedom was not a simple thing, and the return home was not without crushing contradictions to both hope and freedom. Read Ezra. Read Nehemiah. Read the rigid rejection of outsiders, the fracturing of families, the forced divorcing of wives who were not descended from those who returned from Exile. Read the rejection of this rigidity, both Ruth and in the gospel of Matthew. Read it in Isaiah.

It matters in this passage that hope enters as a crocus leaping from soil that was, only just yesterday, frozen concrete. In this passage, in this image of hope, I hear my grandmother’s voice. I see her on her knees, tending the flowers that she accompanied as they stretched themselves up into life. She accompanied them. “Oh I don’t grow flowers, honey,” she said once when I asked her about her garden. “I don’t grow them, they grow all by themselves. See how beautifully they grow, all by themselves? I just give them water when they ask for it, and fertilizer. They ask because they want to grow.” By the way, she told me that she called me honey because honey was a gift that bees give us. “You are a gift,” she said, “and that’s why I call you honey.”

I think Isaiah sounds like my grandmother. The hope Isaiah sings about springs up because it wants to grow. Even jackals and ostriches want to give gifts.

This would never have happened in the former times. In the former times, chariot and horse, army and warrior, came out to stomp on the earth until it obeyed. We seem all to share the imagination that sometimes things get so bad that we just have to kill them a little more to bring them to life.

I know that we have had sometimes to go to war. Many years ago, when I met with my draft board in reference to my application to be recognized as a conscientious objector, they asked me if we didn’t have to go to war sometimes, and I said to them what my father (82nd Airborne, 508th PIR, WWII) had taught me to understand: “We have indeed had to go to war.” The men on the draft board, all of them combat veterans, looked at each other. One of them said, “The really important thing is that we all have to work to keep anyone else from having to go to war. That’s what I learned on Iwo. That’s all I learned.” The others nodded. They granted me an exemption from military service, and assigned me to work for two years in a nursing home. Some of the residents there had fought in the trenches of WWI. Some of them said the same thing.

“Do not remember the former things,” says the prophet, speaking for the LORD. And then the LORD points to her flowers, just like my grandmother did. It matters in this passage that Isaiah speaks for the LORD. That Name for God is used when the Hebrew original has the unpronounceable Divine Name, YHVH. The rabbis say that Scripture uses the Divine Name when God is acting to create life through Mercy. Mercy is what creates life. Mercy creates the world. And Mercy creates the chosen people. Even in Exile. Even there, Mercy is the force that makes life.

Mercy is not the only option. Read Psalm 137, also written during Exile. Psalm 137 is raw. It is honest. It is scripture. It is angry. It hopes for a time when Babylon the devastator will have its babies smashed against rocks. I understand the anger. I understand the dreams of violence.

So does Isaiah.

But Isaiah identifies all of those dreams as “former things.” “Do not think of them,” YHVH says, and points to the flowers and the flowing water. Just like my grandmother did.

Near as I can tell, these days we are waist-deep in anger. The current president talks about how many bullets his followers have. His followers hint at impending civil war. And everywhere I listen, I hear anger and a demand for purity of ideology. I hear people appalled at the dysfunction of Congress, and I hear people dreaming of never needing to compromise with anyone from whatever “Other Side” they are currently imagining.

I remember once visiting my grandmother in early summer. She had planted beans. Every morning we went out to her garden, looking to see the first moment when they would sprout. “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” says Isaiah, speaking for YHVH. My grandmother said the same thing, though not in quite the same words. “See how the plant waves the bean seed at you?” she asked. “It is thanking us for planting the seed.”

I think my grandmother sounds like Mercy. I think Mercy creates life.

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 31, 2019: II Corinthians 5:16-21

2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (NRSV)
5:16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

5:17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

5:18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;

5:19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

5:20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

With this posting, I have completed a full three-year run through the lectionary. That affords me the possibility of provoking the same text for a second time, which I imagine I will do. Things do change, both in the world and in my reading, in three years.

It also offers the chance to explore other lectionary texts.

That is the option I am taking for this week. Three years ago, I played with the text from Luke 15, and explored the “unrepentantly real risks of life together.” I think that Provocation still stands on its own. You can find it in the archives, just search for the “Fourth Sunday in Lent.” Or you could just scroll to the very bottom.

This year, I have chosen to play with the text from II Corinthians.

A Question or Two:

  • What if this old favorite text is not about substitutionary atonement?
  • No, seriously. What if?

Some Longer Reflections:

Just so we are clear: I am starting to read this passage a bit earlier than the Revised Common Lectionary. I start at v. 11. Truth be told, I am starting three chapters earlier than that, but my comments start before the pericope begins and attempt to set the lectionary text in the midst of the flow of Paul’s argument.

Paul talks in v. 14 about the agape of Messiah (ἀγάπη τοῦ Χριστοῦ), and says that it “urges us on.” I suspect that translators are influenced by the force of Paul’s ongoing argument, which is indeed urging his readers onward. However, the verb in Greek (συνέχει) more naturally refers to the act of “holding together.” This more natural meaning fits better with what translators are now seeing in the word, ἀγάπη.

Theological translators used to read this as some kind of one-sided, unmerited love, which fit well with the theological ideology they presupposed. Good sermons came out of that reading.

The problem is that more recent studies have noted that ἀγάπη more commonly refers to love that is responsive, mutual, and reciprocal. In Paul’s argument, it would mean that God sees Creation (us included) and responds with delighted love. This love, in turn, creates in Creation a correspondingly delighted response. As a result, the rich and mutual love of the Messiah does indeed hold Creation together with God.

The image that follows (one dying for many) is generally read as soteriology, and is used to ground notions of a substitutionary atonement. But this is not the only way to read this image. I would argue that it is not even the best way to read it.

What if Paul is pointing, not to an “Atonement Theory,” but to a metaphor common in everyday life? What if the one that “dies for all” reminds the audience of a soldier who steps up to defend all in the city? What if the image reminds us of the young man who (a few years ago) jumped into a dangerous river to try to save a little boy who had fallen in? Anyone who thinks about such selfless sacrifice realizes that when one dies for the rest of us, we all share in that death.

Every time I stand by the rapids where the boy was saved but the young man and the boy’s sister both drowned, I realize that their remarkable act connects them to that little boy, to his family, and to all of us forever. And every time I sat with my father’s friends from the 82nd Airborne, I heard them re-membering the men in their unit who died in combat, in fire fights that they survived and now will always remember.

One dies for many, and the rest of us are connected with that death forever.

In Paul’s argument he is referring to Messiah, to Jesus who died and who was raised from death. He develops the metaphor to make the point that the resurrection, just like any “death for all,” connects us all together. We are still all in this together. And the togetherness is in Messiah and in world-changing resurrection.

And so we, from this particular “now” (v. 16), no longer know anyone as a mortal body, as one who dies (though of course we all do die). If indeed we have known Messiah as a mortal body, as an individual, as simply one man among other individual men, but not any more. He is not separate from us, nor are we separate from him. We are all wrapped up in the act of God to raise the Creation to life. And the result is that what was formerly simply an individual is, in Messiah, in fact, a new Creation. Not an individual, newly made, but, as one, as all, a new heaven and a new earth. This is the consequence of the theme of togetherness.

All of this, and this is a BIG all, is out of God (v.18). Which God? The one who καταλλάξαντος us to him. Read this carefully. “Reconciling” is too religious a translation. The word itself has two interesting parts: κατα-, which renders an “over-against-ness;” and a verb, -αλλάσσω, which has its roots in otherness that still recognizes similarity. An αλλος is an other, not an enemy. But still the difference between these others is real. The verb, καταλλάσσω, makes those who are over against each other into beings who could be friends, or even relatives.

But that means that God has, as part of the work of Messiah to turn the world right-side-up, made us somehow similar to God. This is what early Christian writers, Irenaeus for instance, understood to be the effect of the Incarnation: by becoming as mortal as we are, Messiah made us somehow to share the Divine Reality of God. And not just us, but all of the Cosmos.

And it means that we ought to be wise about the way we translate ἁμαρτία (“sin”) in v. 21. This word is set alongside παραπτώματα (“trespasses”) in v. 19, and this use of multiple terms suggests that ἁμαρτία ought NOT be taken as an established technical term. A flock of synonyms helps flesh out a rich metaphor. Synonyms crowd together to support the complexity of an idea that is worth further thought. The first term, παραπτώματα, comes from the combination of πίπτω and παρα-. The verb, πίπτω, is a word for falling. It sometimes is metaphorical, because pride goeth before a fall in Greek as well as it does in King James English. The prepositional prefix, παρα-, which names a place alongside. So this rough synonym to ἁμαρτία uses the metaphor of “falling alongside.” Even when the verb is a metaphoric action, it pictures the fall of failure as still being near to the proper path. A person who is engaged in παραπτώματα is not hopelessly lost, just somewhat off the path.

And ἁμαρτία suggests a failure, a missing of the mark. Together these terms do not suggest human depravity, but do point out that people can be counted upon to miss the point with some frequency, and that we all wander off any path we are on, and again frequently.

It matters at this point that Paul is a Jew writing to Gentiles who are newbies trying to make sense of belonging to a Jewish community that understands Jesus to be the Messiah. And in an ancient Jewish text written in Greek, ἁμαρτία refers to a moment of non-observance of Torah. Now Lutheran theology (for very good historical reasons that have yielded useful theological reflection) reads ἁμαρτία as “Sin” and figures it as an ontological condition with desperate consequences.

But Jewish theology is different. ἁμαρτία may indeed name a condition that all people share, but it is not the same kind of desperate problem. It is a normal human condition, and God knows all about it. It names the way humans miss the mark, or miss the point, the way we wander off any path we are on. Not many of us are able to walk a tightrope. Most of us stumble more than that. God is not surprised by this. That is why Jewish theology celebrates the fact that God is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Jewish faith is honest both about the human tendency to miss what we are aiming at, and about the reliability of God’s Mercy.

But that means that people who miss the path, or miss the mark, are linked together in this passage. The trait that links all Gentiles is woven together in this passage with Jewish honesty. And once again, we are all in this together.

Which returns our focus to the key metaphor in this whole section of this letter: καταλλάσσω. It could mean “reconcile,” but it really refers to an act by which beings that are deeply different are made to share a generative similarity. Earlier this involved God and Creation. Now it involves Jews and Gentiles. Those who have set apart, set over against each other, are now, through God’s act to turn the world right-side-up, woven together. God raises Creation to life, and the practical impact is that we are now ALL of us in it together.

So as I write this, yet another White Nationalist has murdered people who were praying to the God who alone is God. This week, like most weeks, the current U.S. president slandered people who seek asylum after fleeing gang violence in their Central American home. And this month, like every month, Millennials post memes that ridicule Baby Boomers who post memes that slander Millennials. And as the never-ending presidential election becomes more active, various people identify various candidates as “garbage,” or “white-haired,” or “empty suits,” or “moderates,” or “socialists,” or…. You get the picture.

This makes the matter of having a “ministry of reconciliation” complicated. I am a realist about political systems: harsh clash is normal, and maybe even necessary. But I also listen to lectionary texts expecting to encounter something that brings Creation to life. And in this passage from II Corinthians it is καταλλάσσω that creates real-world Resurrection.

What would it take to engage in this kind of real-world transformation?

A Provocation: Third Sunday in Lent: March 24, 2019: Luke 13:1-9

Chapter 13
1     They were present,
            some in the same moment,
            some who reported to him,
                 concerning the Galileans
                      whose blood
                      mixed with their sacrifices.
2     He answered
           he said to them:
                Does it seem
                     that these Galileans
                     were more non-observant,
                          more than all the rest of the Galileans,
                     because they have suffered these things?
3               No.
                I am talking to you:
                     Indeed, if you do not change your minds,
                     likewise you will be destroyed.
4               or those
                     the eighteen
                     on whom the tower in Siloam fell
                          and killed them.
                Does it seem
                     That they happened to be debtors
                           more than the people
                           who live in Jerusalem?
5                No.
                      I am talking to you:
                           Indeed, if you do not change your opinion,
                           in the same way you will be destroyed.
6     He was saying this parable:
           A fig tree
           someone had;
                it was planted in his vineyard.
          He came seeking fruit in it;
               he did not find any.
7         He said to the vineyard worker:
                    Three years I am coming
                    seeking fruit in this fig tree.
                         I do not find any.
               Cut it down.
                    Why is it using up the earth?
8         He answered,
          he says to him:
                    leave it also this year
                         until when I dig around it
                         and throw on manure.
9                   If it makes fruit,
                         so much the better.
                    If not,
                         you will cut it down.

(Translation from Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller's Commentary)

“The Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices…”

Who in any imaginable Jewish audience would imagine that this death was their fault?  Pilate was a known quantity with a well-known tendency to kill Jews in new and offensive ways.  

“Those eighteen who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them…”

Who would think that the tower aimed itself at them (and only them), and did so only after the Universe had moved them around the chessboard-world until they were all within range of the falling tower?

Well, actually, I know some people who say things a little like that.  On purpose. Which is too bad.

And those people take their lead from Jesus’s injunction that “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  It sounds as if his point could be that EVERYONE deserves random death, so EVERYONE should get busy repenting because there are towers and tyrants just waiting to take a shot at them.  And the Universe never misses when it aims to take out sinners. It is all your fault, after all.

If that were what Jesus means, he would seem to have contradicted himself, or at least he has undercut his main point, that great disaster is not tied to great sin.  Perhaps worse, it would mean that even Jesus is so infatuated with assigning blame for disaster that he gets sucked into the black hole created by the eager theologians who gladly make sense of things beyond the scope of their revelation or insight.  

I think Jesus was brighter than that.

The key to a different reading of this scene is in the word μετανοῆτε, which is generally translated as “repent.”  That is a fairly defensible reading of this word in most circumstances, but even when it works it narrows the word and alters it.  μετανοῆτε means, rather more simply and broadly, “change the way you think.”  As in, “Unless you change the way you think, you will all die as they did.”  

So, how are we to change the way we think?

Perhaps the point is that it is high time we quit imagining that we actually understand why such things happen.  Or perhaps the point is that we do real damage to each other when we rush to explain an invariably fatal disease as somehow planned by God.  Or perhaps the point is that Pilate is not so rare as one might hope, and that pointless death steadily haunts the world we live in, as it always has.  As much as we might wish to understand all of this, we do not, and we ought to be honest about that.

Since we do not understand such things, our task is not to exhaustively explain death and disaster.  I am glad that medical researchers devote entire careers to curing dread diseases. And I am glad that shoddy construction is prosecuted.  But when Divine Intention is used to avoid the shock that our sisters and brothers feel, it is clearly an attempt to preserve our comfort at the expense of those whose safety has been stolen.  

And even when we DO understand the disease process that leads to death, we have no warrant to imagine the Universe hatching this disease so that it will attack this family at this moment in all the rolling millennia of human history.  We do not know anything of the sort, and we do badly when we pretend that we do.

We are in charge of something much simpler, and more important.  We may not be able to control the falling of towers, but we have some significant control over what we are doing when the tower falls on us.  

When our eldest son was in the 7th grade he broke his arm during football practice.  Badly. He describes the experience: “When I got up off the ground, I noticed that my fingers were touching my elbow.  I thought: I am going to pass out. Then I thought: If I am going to pass out, I should probably be walking toward the coach when I do.”

So he did.  

Towers fall.  Tyrants slaughter.  Stopping such events is an important human activity.  But until we end pointless death, we have other work to do.  The prophet Micah made it clear: Do justice; love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  Those would be good things to be doing when the tower lands on you. Because it will.

A Provocation: Second Sunday in Lent: March 17, 2019: Luke 13:31-35

31     In that hour they came,
             some Pharisees did.
                  They said to him:
                       Go out.
                       Walk away from here.
                            Herod wants to kill you.
32     He said to them:
              You walk away.
              Say to that fox:
                        I am casting out demons,
                        healings I will complete today

  and tomorrow.
                             In the third day I am finished.
33                Except it is binding
                        that I
                             today and tomorrow
                             and in the next day
                   Because it is not fitting
                        that a prophet be destroyed
                             outside of Jerusalem.
34                          Jerusalem,
                                  the one who kills the prophets
                                  and stones the ones sent to her.
                            How many times I wanted
                                 to gather your children
                                 the way a hen gathers her brood
                                      under her wings.
                                           You were not willing.
35                         Look,
                                 It is released to you,
                                      your house.
                            I am talking to you:
                                 You will not see me,
                                      until you say:
                                           the one coming
                                           in the name of haShem.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Herod want to kill Jesus?
  • What does it mean that Pharisees want to protect Jesus?

Some Longer Reflections:

Take a slow, deep breath.

This scene is difficult. It begins with Pharisees protecting Jesus against Herod. It ends with Jesus attacking Jerusalem. There are many traditional ways to read this, most of which don’t take the Pharisees very seriously. They are treated as an anomaly, or are painted as somehow insincere. Many traditional readings think they understand the attack on Jerusalem.

I do not think that they do.

The tensions of the scene do not work unless you remember (with all your might) that Jerusalem is the center of the world. It is the home of the Temple. It was the memory that people in Exile held as the fixed star in a chaotic Babylonian sky. Read Lamentations. Read Psalm 137: O Jerusalem, if I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not set you above my highest joy. And when the exiles returned, they returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple.

But the Temple that stood in Jerusalem in Jesus’ time had been enlarged and elaborated by Herod, who did indeed murder the prophet, John the Baptist.

But still Jesus’ family went up to the Temple, “every year, as was their custom.” Presumably this custom continued throughout Jesus’ whole life. I have not yet been to Jerusalem. By the time Jesus was 30, he might well have been there as many as 90 times, since there are three pilgrimage festivals every year. And his family went up, as was their custom, for those festivals.

The city that murders the prophets is also the center of Jesus’ world. Luke’s story starts in the Temple and ends there.

The city that murders the prophets is also the center of Jesus’ world. Luke’s story starts in the Temple and ends there.

So maybe this time when you explore this text, begin by imagining the center of your own world, the place you have traveled to perhaps 90 times. Think of the place that is your fixed star in all of the chaos, all of the complication.

Which prophets were killed in that place?

This is a difficult scene.

A Provocation: First Sunday in Lent: March 10, 2019: Luke 4:1-13

Chapter 4
1     Joshua
           full of breath
       returned from the Jordan.
       He was driven,
            in the breath,
        in the wordless wilderness,
2           days,
             He was examined by the slanderer.
                  He did not eat,
                       not a thing,
                  in those days.
            When they were completed
                  he was hungry.
3      He said to him,
             the slanderer did:
                  Since son you are
                       son of Elohim.
                  speak to this stone,
                       in order that it become bread.
4      He answered to him,
             Joshua did:
                 It stands written:
                      Not on bread only
                 Will a person live.
5      He drove him up.
        He showed him all the kingdoms of the connected world
             in a point of time.
6      He said to him,
             the slanderer did:
                  To you I will give this authority,
                       all this
                       and all their glory,
                  because to me it has been handed over
                       and to whom I choose/wish

                            I give it.
7                To you,
                            if you should bend the knee in front of me,
                            it will all be yours.
8       He answered,
              Joshua did,
             he said:
                  It stands written:
                      To haShem your Elohim
                      you will bend the knee;
                           to him
                           you will be enslaved.  
9      He drove him into Jerusalem;
        he stood him on the peak of the Temple.
             He said to him:
                  Since son you are,
                       son of Elohim,
                 throw yourself
                      from here
10                          For it stands written:
                                   To his messengers he will command concerning you
                                         that they guard you
11                          and:
                                   On hands they will lift you
                                        so that you not strike
                                             against a stone
                                        your foot.
12      He answered,
          he said to him,
               Joshua did:
                    It is said:
                         You will not examine haShem
                              your Elohim.
13      When he completed all examining,
          the slanderer went away from him
               until the moment.

Translation from Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller's Commentary

A Question or Two:

  • Why did God’s breath drive Jesus into the wordless wilderness?

Some Longer Reflections:

Two words matter first of all: “examined,” and “slanderer.”

The second word, διάβολος in Greek, is generally translated as “devil.” That translation makes sense, especially since the word διάβολος flows directly into the English word, “diabolical.” But the second word,  πειραζόμενος, means “tested,” not “tempted.” I translate it as “examined” because that makes it clear that this is not an enticement, but a qualifying exam, and the διάβολος is the satan (not Satan, but a member of the heavenly court who inspects the integrity of God’s entire Creation; see the book of Job).

So why translate διάβολος as “slanderer?” Because, though he is something like the Cosmic Building Inspector, the storyteller knows that building inspectors are always resented by carpenters, plumbers, and contractors, and the storyteller knows that sometimes they are right. Some inspectors are insufferably self-important.

This one is definitely insufferable.

So, what is the purpose of this examination? The storyteller makes this clear: Jesus is identified as the messiah, the one anointed to turn the world right-side-up. If every electrician and cosmetologist and pediatrician has to pass a qualifying exam, so should the messiah.

The nature of the exam is interesting. On the one hand, the tests fit the role of messiah. Look at the first two tests. A messiah cannot right the world while stuffing his face. A messiah cannot establish justice with a power-grab.

But these two elements repeat the exam given to the human beings in the Garden of Eden. Mudguy (which translates the Hebrew, adam) sees food and he stuffs it in his head: See Food, Eat Food. He thus demonstrates that he cannot balance his appetites, which is one of the main ways human beings fail. Havvah (the mother of all life) reaches for the stars: Your Reach Should Exceed Your Grasp. But when you forget that “reaching for the stars” is a hyperbolic metaphor, you waste time and energy that no one has. This is another way we fail.

The messiah has just been given the basic tests that all humans face again and again. That might be the best place to begin considering the third examination. Jesus is given the opportunity to claim an exemption to the limitations that make human life dangerous. If we fall, we break hips, or shatter wrists. The law of gravity serves as a metaphor for our fragility, our mortality. We suffer pain, we break, and we can be killed. Jesus has just been offered a chance to be above all that. He refuses, and that refusal bears reflection. The task of turning Creation right-side-up will not be carried out by a messiah who can fly, or glow in the dark, or rise above pain and mortality. The resurrection that comes at the end of the story is not a “well-of-course” consequence of Jesus being somehow divine. It is a gift from the God that is working to raise ALL of Creation to life again.

Of course, this raising applies to people who have lived and then died. Of course. But Luke’s story is being told (in the form we now have it) in the aching aftermath of the crushing of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome. Ancient sources say that a million Jews were killed. Whether that number is altogether accurate or not is beside the point. Family members had died. Dreams had died. Even hopes that somehow lasted through the disaster were now sliding toward death. That’s how it is with hope. That’s how it is with dreams. That’s how life goes.

Luke tells the story of a messiah who isn’t above it all, who shares our actual life, who is as breakable as we are. That doesn’t fit with some of the ways we think about God and the world. But it draws its life from the Servant Songs in the later chapters of the book of Isaiah. In those Songs, God’s Servant is (to use the old phrasing) “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” But to know sorrow and be acquainted with grief requires that you be breakable. That may not be what we expect when we think about God, but it is exactly what I look for when I am again reminded of my own vulnerability, my own inescapable mortality. I don’t look for people who imagine that having “all the answers” makes them above it all. I look for a friend who has been through it, and will walk with me while I go through for myself.

That appears to be what Luke’s story is looking for in a messiah.