A Provocation: Holy Week: 2021

A friend sent me a kind note concerning my exploration of the word “hosanna” and asked if I’d maybe do something like that for the days of Holy Week.

That is a good suggestion. Here’s a try.


Maundy Thursday:

ἐντολὴν καινὴν δίδωμι ὑμῖν, ἵνα ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους: καθὼς ἠγάπησα ὑμᾶς ἵνα καὶ ὑμεῖς ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους. 

John 13:34

Of course, anyone who has read the bible at all, or even once consulted the rabbis, knows that this commandment is not at all new. Read Micah 6:8. Read the scene in which a Torah scholar asks Jesus to specify the greatest commandment, and, in his reply, Jesus never once imagines that his answer is new. It is as old as Torah itself, and the Torah scholar knows that and says as much.

So I picked the word, ἀγαπᾶτε.

The word, of course, means “love.” It has been the focus of all sorts of sermonic reflection by Christians, most of which hears the word as revealing a powerfully one-sided love, the kind a perfect God can have for a deeply imperfect world. I might have preached a sermon (or five) on a theme something like that.

And then a few years ago I was working with a highly gifted Classics major, and she decided to do a thorough study of how the word ἀγαπη was actually used in the ancient world. Did I mention that she was gifted? And thorough? And HIGHLY diligent?

Turns out, the word is only one-sided in Christian sermons, and most of those are fairly recent.

In ancient usage in the mouths of people who learned Greek from their moms the word is decidedly reciprocal. Speaking of moms, it is a good word to use when you are imagining a mother breastfeeding her baby, the two of them lost in each other’s eyes.

The word ἀγαπη expresses the reciprocal delight of that powerful and tender moment.

But that means that theology that spends its energy imagining that we are “loathsome insects” in God’s eyes (and hands) are simply wrong. Sorry, Jonathan Edwards.

God takes delight in us, warts and all. Any mother who holds a baby who has had an explosive diaper incident understands this. Fecal surprises do NOT make our children less delightful. Not in the least. When my wife and I tell such stories on our children (generally not in their presence), we tell them with great joy.

I wonder why we seem not to imagine God the same way?


Good Friday:

καὶ ἀπ’ ἐκείνης τῆς ὥρας ἔλαβεν ὁ μαθητὴς αὐτὴν εἰς τὰ ἴδια. 

John 19:27

This scene also turns on the word ἀγαπη, only this time it is Jesus who is the subject of the verb, and he loves a disciple. This is the famous “disciple whom he loved” scene, and it is generally read to refer to John. Of course the reason for this reading is that John is mentioned elsewhere in the gospel as being a disciple whom Jesus loved, so it has seemed natural to interpreters (and translators) to locate him in this scene.

It is worth noting, however, that when the storyteller gives us the cast list for this scene, John is not mentioned.

The characters in the scene (along with Jesus, the others being crucified, and the soldiers doing the lynching) are:

ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἡ ἀδελφὴ τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ, Μαρία ἡ τοῦ Κλωπᾶ καὶ Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνή. 

By the way, even with this list we do not know how many actors to put onstage. There is Jesus’ mother, to be sure, and her sister. Mary the Magdalene is also there. The uncertainty comes with the mention of yet another Mary, who is translated as Clopas’s wife, though there is no “wife-word” in the Greek, which identifies her only as “Mary, the one of Clopas.” Is this Mary to be identified as the sister of Jesus’ mother? The Infancy Gospel of Matthew appears to read her that way, which would give us three women standing by the cross.

But it is also possible to read the Greek as naming her as the fourth character onstage: there is Mary the mother of Jesus and there is her sister, there is “Mary, the one of Clopas” and there is Mary the Magdalene. This reading might suggest that this mysterious Mary is the sister of Clopas, not the wife, since the unattached definite article (in the phrase ἡ τοῦ Κλωπᾶ) might tie back to the previous definite article in ἡ ἀδελφὴ τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ. Read this way, the scene includes the mother, the sister of the mother, the sister of Clopas, and the Magdalene, at least three of whom are named Mary.

But I wonder why the storyteller doesn’t mention John as standing at the foot of the cross, especially when he plays such a significant role in the climax of the scene.

It all hangs on the phrase τὸν μαθητὴν παρεστῶτα ὃν ἠγάπα: the one standing there was a disciple, and that disciple was one whom Jesus loved. At the end of the scene, this disciple (who is loved) takes the mother into his own home.

At least in English.

In Greek the disciple takes the mother into τὰ ἴδια. There is no “his home” in the Greek, there is only the neuter τὰ ἴδια, which means that the disciple makes the mother part of the matters idiosyncratically tied to that particular disciple. Which may well imply that the mother relocated to the disciple’s home.

But what we do not have is a masculine pronoun.

There is no “his.” The “his” comes from translators who imagine that disciples are, naturally, men. And John, after all is identified as a disciple “whom Jesus loved.”

But so is Mary the Magdalene. Or at least she could be. If there are three women standing by the cross, one is the mother, one is the sister of the mother, and the third is Mary Magdalene. If there are only three people there, then one of them is the disciple whom Jesus loved. The storyteller would not have needed to say that about Jesus’ mother. And Jesus would not have told his aunt to treat her sister as her mother. That leaves only Mary Magdalene.

But what about when Jesus says,  Γύναι, ἴδε ὁ υἱός σου? I think the son in question is nailed to the cross. Jesus says to his mother, “Woman who gave birth to me, woman who taught me to walk and to keep kosher, look at your son now.” In the unspoken aftermath of this powerful moment, Jesus gives Mary Magdalene the responsibilities of a daughter, creating her as his sister. He loved her, after all.

The little oddities in John’s story of Jesus’ death may not make an enormous interpretive difference. Three women or four? Most of the women Jesus knows are named Mary? Mary Magdalene is the disciple who is loved? It may not matter much.

But what does matter is that interpreters and translators can only imagine one disciple who is loved. What matters even more is that interpreters and translators can’t imagine that a beloved disciple could be a woman.

Maybe our imaginations need to rise from the dead. There may be other things we can’t yet imagine.


Easter:

For this scene, only one word.

In English, “so.” In Greek, καὶ.

The women come to the tomb. They are performing the responsibilities they learned from their mothers and grandmothers. They are doing what women in many cultures do. They are preparing to bury the body of someone they love, someone who is family to them: washing away the struggle of death and wrapping the corpse in aromatic spices. They do this so that family members who come to the tomb to mourn will not be assaulted by the sweet and putrid smell of death. They see a young man, coded as an angel. He notes that Jesus is not in the tomb, and that he has been raised. He tells them that Jesus is going ahead into Galilee, instructing them in particular to inform the disciples and Peter, all of whom were last seen running out of the story, terrified. He tells them that they will see Jesus.

And then comes the key word, καὶ.

When students in my classes perform this scene, they know that silence follows the command to speak, and they say “but.” The women are told to tell the disciples, BUT they do not. The story seems to demand that. The narrative structure sets you up for an adversative conjunction, a word that renders the way the scene is knocked out of joint. That’s how the storyteller structures the story of the healed leper in chapter 1: Jesus commands him to silence, BUT (δὲ) he proclaims his healing to everyone.

But καὶ is not an adversative conjunction. It is a correlative conjunction. It correlates what just now happened with what happens next, linking the events in a smooth progressive flow. Event A happened, and (of course) it was followed quite naturally by Event B. They are commanded to speak, and so (quite naturally) they are silent.

Interpreters can’t resist solving this problem. Often we invent ways to make the silence temporary: they were commanded to speak, and they were silent…until they spoke. The Greek doesn’t support this, but the problem irritates us, so we (quite naturally) solve it.

I am a fan of our need to solve problems. I just worry about that need when we are trying to celebrate Easter.

We want Easter to solve everything. If death is the problem, we’ve got a resurrection ready to go. If hard hopelessness is the problem, we’ve got Easter hope. If a messiah who suffers Roman lynching is the problem, we’ve got a messiah who is vindicated by being raised from death. And if that doesn’t do it, we can bring in Gustav Aulen who will say the magic words, Christus Victor, three times and maybe we’ll throw in a quick Hoc Est Corpus for good measure.

If you have good friends who are Jewish, ask them if this does the trick. Ask them if Easter magic clears the way for Jesus to be acclaimed messiah. They will ask you about all the things messiah is meant to do, none of which have been accomplished. They will ask you if the world looks right-side-up to you.

Easter isn’t a circus trick, and everyone around us who is living with a relentless disease knows that. They have felt the pressure to be hopeful and healed, or at least heroic. Some of them dread Easter. Some have just learned to think of themselves as the exception that proves the rule: Easter hope makes everything good (at least for everyone else).

I find myself thinking of these things differently. I have come to read miracle stories as irritants. Properly read, they point out what God has NOT done in the majority of cases. And that provokes protest. Miracle stories spark protest to God for healing people in stories, but not in regular life, and we are provoked to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome those marked as strange, and sit with prisoners while we wait pointedly for God to do what God has promised to do.

Stories of resurrection are the most provocative of all. Death and decay we see all too easily. Stories of life even out of death recreate us as people who refuse to settle for the play of power and privilege that passes for reality.

And the word καὶ is where the provocation begins.

A Provocation: Maundy Thursday: April 13, 2017: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

This is a scene about love, not submission. That matters, especially because some people keep telling us that we’d be more lovely if we just submitted more. Ish.

provokingthegospel

John 13:1-17, 31b-35
13:1 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

13:2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper

13:3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God,

13:4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.

13:5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

13:6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash…

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A Provocation: Good Friday: March 30, 2018: Isaiah 52:13-53:12

“The Servant’s weakness is the same as our weakness; even the diseases are the same.” Isaiah 53:4, more or less.

provokingthegospel

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
52:13 See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.

52:14 Just as there were many who were astonished at him–so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals-

52:15 so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

53:1 Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

53:2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

53:3 He was despised and rejected by others; a man…

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A Provocation: Easter: April 1, 2018: Isaiah 25:6-9

A Provocation from 2018, reflecting on Resurrection. It is STILL not a circus trick.

provokingthegospel

Isaiah 25:6-9
25:6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

25:7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.

25:8 Then the LORD God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

25:9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

A Question or Two:

  • Why are the women in Mark…

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A Provocation: Palm Sunday: April 9, 2017: Matthew 21:1-11

Wouldn’t it be something if a bunch of goofy guys in their underwear, parading to songs of Hosanna, could actually be the vanguard of the healing of the world?

provokingthegospel

Matthew 21:1-11
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

21:2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.

21:3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

21:4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

21:5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

21:6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;

21:7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

21:8 A very large crowd…

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A Provocation: Sunday of the Palms: March 25, 2018: Mark 11:1-11

provokingthegospel

Mark 11:1-11
11:1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples

11:2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.

11:3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'”

11:4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it,

11:5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”

11:6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.

11:7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he…

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A Provocation: Third Sunday in Lent: March 4, 2018: John 2:13-22

A posting from three years ago. This is a side of zeal I need to think about these days. There is vicious, violent zeal, and there is the sort of zeal that leads to real change. I am currently imagining Jesus on the Edmund Pettus bridge with John Lewis. That sort of zeal might help us read this scene.

provokingthegospel

John 2:13-22
2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

2:14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.

2:15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

2:16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

2:18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

2:19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

2:20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under…

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A Provocation: The Baptism of Our Lord: January 7, 2018: Mark 1:4-11

Turning the world right-side-up is, now as always, the task at hand.

provokingthegospel

Mark 1:4-11
1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

1:10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw…

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A Provocation: The Epiphany of the Lord: January 6, 2019: Matthew 2:1-12

Another Provocation from 3 years ago reflecting on (in the words of an old hymn) “Man, at war with man….” The old hymn asks us to “hear the angels sing.” This year I wonder what that means, especially in the midst of the activity of groups like the Boogaloo Bois who imagine that this is the moment to start a second Civil War.

provokingthegospel


1 When Jesus was born,
in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of Herod,
the king,
Look:
Magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem.
2 They said:
Where is the one who was born King of the Judeans?
For we saw his star in the East,
and we came to worship him.
3 After the king, Herod, heard this
he was shaken
and all Jerusalem with him.
4 After he gathered all the high priests,
and scribes of the people,
he inquired from them
where the Messiah is born.
5 They said to him:
In Bethlehem of the Judeans
For thus it stands written through the prophet:
6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judea
you are not least among the leaders of Judea,
for out of you will come one who leads,
one who will shepherd my people, Israel.
7 Then Herod,
after secretly calling the magi,
learned exactly from them…

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A Provocation: Third Sunday of Advent: December 17, 2017: John 1:6-8, 19-28 

“Make a straight road for the God whose Name is Mercy, make it in the wilderness, make it in chaos, make it in our imaginations so that we can bear the hard, chaotic work that lies ahead of us,” so says the prophet.

provokingthegospel

John 1:6-8, 19-28 
1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

1:19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”

1:20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”

1:21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.”

1:22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

1:23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the…

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