A Provocation: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11 (16): July 21, 2019: Luke 10:38-42

38     When they were walking
         he went into some village.
              Some woman,
                   (by name: Martha)
              welcomed him into her house.
39     To this woman there was a sister;
                   (she was called Mariam).
                        She was seated at the feet of haShem;
                        she kept hearing his argument.
40     Martha was pulled around 
              by much deaconing.
                   She stopped,
                   she said:
                             it does not matter to you
                             that my sister abandoned
                             only me to deacon.
                                  Speak to her therefore
                                       so that she take hold with me.
41     He answered,
         he said to her,
              haShem did:
                        you are thinking earnestly on
                             and making an uproar 
                             on many things.
42                         One is a necessity.
                                  Mariam chose the virtuous portion,
                                  which will not be taken away from her.

A few words about my translation: first, I render Martha’s sister as “Mariam.” That’s just because that’s her name in the Greek. Why do we usually read it as “Mary?” That’s a good question. Second, and more important, you will be accustomed to seeing Martha bustling about, consumed by much serving. In my translation, she is “deaconing.” That’s not exactly an English word, but it catches something important about the Greek original. The word for Martha’s activity is  διακονίαν. If you were to sound it out, you would pronounce it “dia-ko-ni-an.” You can hear the word “deacon” in there, which makes sense, since that is the origin of the word. It can refer to “serving,” but more properly it refers to the work of a deacon in the early Christian movement. A deacon was responsible for connecting need with resource: if a person was out of work, the deacon was responsible to find them someone who was hiring; if a family was short on food or had lost their home, the deacon would connect them with someone with food, or a room they could share.

In this scene, Martha is deaconing, which could involve connecting need with resource (though the storyteller gives us no hints about the need, unless it involves Jesus’ teaching, though this seems a stretch). Deaconing could also simply involve enacting hospitality (which, after all, always connects need with resource, since guests need to be welcomed). This latter sense seems more likely in this scene, since the storyteller mentions that Martha welcomed Jesus into her house. (Note, in passing, that Martha owns the house, which gives her substance in the community, and makes her responsible to take care of the needs of visitors.)

So Martha is acting out hospitality for her guest. And Mariam is not. Mariam is studying at the feet of a teacher, in this case, Jesus. This is important: Jews have several basic responsibilities in life. One is to extend hospitality to people in need. Martha is doing that. Another basic responsibility is to find a friend to study with (read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen for a glimpse of this). Mariam is doing that. She is studying with Jesus. Perhaps Jesus is her teacher. That is tempting, especially for Christians who are accustomed to thinking of Jesus as Teacher and Master and Lord. Maybe that is how we are to read this story. But it is also possible that Jesus in this scene is the friend Mariam has found to study with. Jesus is her friend.

This actually fits with the way Mariam and Martha are presented in the gospels. These women are characters in their own right, independent and strong and (see the gospel of John) quite willing to challenge Jesus. That matters for how you assess Mariam’s activity in this scene. She is sitting at Jesus’ feet. That is a place for a student to sit. She listens, and keeps listening. That is a good thing for a student to do. The storyteller lets us know that she is listening to Jesus’s λόγον. Sometimes this is translated as his “word.” The NRSV translates it as “what he was saying.” Both of these translations work, more or less, because logos is linked with words, especially in translations of the gospel of John.

But λόγον is also linked with logic, and that matters, especially in a scene that involves teaching. I teach for a living. If all that happens during a class period is that I tell people stuff, that’s not teaching, and they don’t need me in the room for such a low-level activity. They could look all of that up. Wikipedia would do just fine. Teaching is not about telling people stuff, it is about thinking, arguing, exploring. At the least, I owe the people who come into the classroom a glimpse of how an educated person explores, critiques, and wonders about the material we are studying. At the least.

What I work for as a teacher are those occasions when students join the exploration. What I really want is for students to challenge me, to engage the material on their own. A proper lecture is one that gives students a reason and an opportunity to push back. A proper teacher crafts her teaching so that this happens.

I think Jesus was a proper teacher. I think Mariam was a proper student. I think she sits at his feet, listens to his logic, and challenges the way he has put things together. That is what it means to have found a friend to study Torah with. Study is not submissive or passive. Study requires a very particular kind of friendship, one that hopes for deep challenges that might lead to basic rethinking of everything.

That is what it means to choose the “virtuous portion.” Most translations tells us Mariam chose the “better” part, but this implies that study (traditionally figured as a male activity) is better than hospitality (often read by interpreters as woman’s work). Such a translation has obvious problems, but it also misses the point of the Greek. The word in question, ἀγαθὴν, does not mean “better.” There are perfectly good Greek words that render the idea of comparative good. This word means “honorable,” or “virtuous.” It refers to human excellence.

In this very Jewish scene, human excellence is expressed in the drive to learn something deeply, to engage another person in order to think more deeply together than either could think alone. This expresses human excellence because it makes it clear that one of the reasons for practicing hospitality is to welcome strangers who just might be able to teach you something. Every guest is an honored teacher.

But that means that BOTH Martha and Mariam are practicing hospitality in this little scene. Both are welcoming a guest into their home. Both are honoring the guest’s distinctiveness. And, especially if Mariam is indeed examining Jesus’s logic, not just dully absorbing his word(s), Mariam is giving Jesus the honor any proper teacher hopes for, works for, and values above all others. She is thinking with him.

A Provocation: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 10 (15): July 14, 2019: Luke 10:25-37

25     Look,
              some lawyer stood up,
              he examined him,
              he said:
                        Inheriting the life of the aeon involves doing what?
26     He said to him:
              Torah says what?
              How do you read?
27     He answered,
         He said:
              You will love haShem your Elohim
                   out of the whole of your heart:
                   in the whole of your life,
                   in the whole of your strength,
                   in the whole of your intellect.
                   Your neighbor as yourself.
         He said to him:
              Rightly you answer.
                   Do this.
                   You will live.
29     He wanted to be strictly observant.
         He said to Joshua:
              And who is my neighbor?
30         Taking up the discussion,
         Joshua said:
              Some guy was going down
                   from Jerusalem to Jericho.
              Bandits fell on him;
                   after they stripped him,
                   and beat him,
                        they went away
                        they abandoned him half dead.
31     By coincidence,
              some priest went down in that road;
                   he saw him;
                   he went past him.
32         Likewise a Levite,
              up against the place;
                   went past.
33         Some Samaritan journeyed,
                   came up against him.
                        He saw;
                        he felt it in the pit of his stomach.
34                    He came to him,
                             bound his wounds,
                                  poured on oil and wine,
                             placed him on his own donkey,
                                  led him into an inn,
                                  took care of him.
35                    And on the next day
                             he gave two denarii to the host
                             he said:
                                  Take care of him.
                                  Whatever you spend besides,
                                            when I come back,
                                       I will repay you.
36          Who of these three
                        (does it appear to you)
                        of the one fallen on by bandits?
37     He said:
              The one doing mercy with him.
         He said to him,
         Joshua did:
                   You do likewise.

Three years ago, I explored the conversation between Jesus and the Torah expert. You can find that Provocation at https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/a-provocation-eighth-sunday-after-pentecost-luke-1025-37/

A Question or Two:

  • What do you actually know about priests or Levites?
  • How much of that is simply stereotype, built up of generations of inattentive storytelling?

Some Longer Reflections:

This year I notice the story that Jesus tells, the one about “some priest…, likewise a Levite…, and some Samaritan….” This is a regular storytelling form: it’s not a particular priest, it’s just some guy who is a priest. Likewise the Levite and the Samaritan are not pictured as typical, or exemplary, or as anything special at all. They just happen to be on the road that one random, accidental day.

It does, however, matter that the priest and Levite have a painful responsibility: they must avoid corpse uncleanness, and as a result, they cannot touch the man lying on the road. It is possible that these two men are rats; it is possible that they would not have helped him if they could. But Jesus does not even hint at this sort of moral coldness. If anything, he presents them as being caught between their moral heart and their duties to the community. Otherwise, why introduce the whole rigmarole about a priest and Levite?

If that is the basic tension in the story, then the bite of this parable is that it is a darn good thing that there are Samaritans in the world: people of another community, another language, another religion, strangers pictured as enemies.

But no matter how you read these matters, the story is simply about becoming neighbor to the man lying on the road.

Becoming neighbor may well involve urging people to act as neighbor to people in need. The priest might well have done that, and the Levite, too. Becoming neighbor may also involve living a life shaped by warm and considerate observance of Torah, or of any proper religious practice of life. Again, both the priest and Levite might very well have lived lives shaped by the principles taught in the Torah and the prophets, even the prophet Isaiah (chapter 1) who taught that God did not care for religious ritual, opulently performed, but cared for how people treat widows and orphans, the poor an powerless among them. The priest and the Levite might well have protected widows and orphans, even while also guarding their religious duties to the community.

But this little story is not about what “might well” have been done generally. This little story is about what actually WAS done to the one man who actually WAS lying by the side of the road, left for dead. As the Torah expert wisely says: the one who became neighbor to the man lying on the road was the one who actually did mercy with him. Actual doing matters.

This puts a sharp point on this parable, especially these days when there are people lying by the side of the road, or dying in the desert, or washing up on the shore of the Rio Grande, these days when people who provide water or other help for such neighbors are faced with jail time.

This is a strange time for acting as actual neighbors. But that doesn’t change the point of the parable. It cuts through all our excuses about our customary practice, our usual public statements, and asks if we are doing mercy. Or not.

As Jesus says, you do likewise. So do. Actually.

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9 (14): July 7, 2019: Luke 10: 1-20

1     After these things
          he declared,
               haShem did,
          seventy different ones.
          He sent them by twos
               before his face
                    into every city and place
                    where he himself was about to come,
2     He kept saying to them:
          The harvest is plentiful,
          the workers few.
          Ask therefore of the haShem of the harvest
               so that he should cast out workers
                    into his harvest.
3        Go.
               I am sending you as lambs
                    in the midst of wolves.
4        Do not keep carrying a purse
               neither a knapsack
               neither shoes.
          Greet no one,
               not anyone along the road
5        Into whichever house you should go
               first say:
                    Peace to this house.
6        If ever there should be a son of peace
               it will rest on him
                    your peace will rest/regain strength on him
               If not
                    on you it will return.
7        In the same house remain,
               Eating and drinking the things before you.
                    for worthy is the worker of his wage.
          Do not shift out of a house
               into a house.
8        Into whichever cities you should go,
               and they receive you,
                    eat the things placed before you.
9        Cure these in the city who are weak
          keep saying to them:
               so close upon you is the Dominion of Elohim.
10      Into whichever city you should come,
               and they not welcome you,
          go out
               into the wide places of it,
               Even the dust clinging to us,
                    the dust out of your city,
                    the dust clinging to our feet we will rub off for you.
               Except keep knowing this:
                    so close came the Dominion of Elohim.
12                     I am talking to you:
                              for Sodom in that day
                              it will be more bearable
                                   than for that city.
13      Woe to you
          Woe to you
                    if in Tyre and Sidon
                    they happened
                         the powers that happened in you,
                    long ago
                         they would in cloth made of goat’s hair
                              and ashes
                              They would change their mind.
14      But to Tyre and Sidon
               more bearable will it be
                    in the time of separating
                         than to you.
15      And you, Capernaum:,
               You won’t be exalted to the point of the heavens?
                    To the point of Hades you will be brought down.
16      The one who hears you,
               hears me.
          The one who sets you aside,
               Sets me aside.
                    The one who sets me aside,
                         sets aside the one who sent me.
17      They returned,
               the seventy did,
          with joy, 
          they said:
                    even the demons are subject to us
                         in your name.
18      He said to them:
               I kept seeing satan,
                    as lightning out of the heaven,
19           Look,
                    I have given to you
                         the authority to walk on top of snakes
                              and scorpions
                                   and on all the power of the enemy.
                    No one will ever do injustice to you.
20           But 
                    in this do not rejoice:
                         that the breaths to you are subordinate;
                    rejoice that your name stands written in the heaven.

Again, I have written a Provocation of this scene before. You can find it at https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/06/23/a-provocation-seventh-sunday-after-pentecost-luke-101-11-16-20/

This time around, I noticed something in the verses that are omitted from the lectionary text, something that might matter more than usual this year.

Jesus has sent out the Seventy. He has sent them out with no way of supporting themselves: no purse, no supplies, not even any shoes. And then he talks about the cities and homes that will welcome them, and about those that will not.

They will not have been the only travelers on the road who had to rely on the hospitality of people who did not know them. The Seventy join the people who travel without resources, a group of wanderers and refugees, of aimless people and people who have a definite goal, whether it is asylum or escape or, like my grandparents when they emigrated, a chance to earn money to support the family at home. There have always been such people on the road, then and now, and they have always met with hospitality, and with hostility. And now the Seventy learn what that does to a person.

The next thing Jesus says is omitted by the Revised Common Lectionary. Jesus says:

                           I am talking to you:
                              for Sodom in that day
                              it will be more bearable
                                   than for that city.

Why does Jesus bring in the city of Sodom? Not because of “sodomy.” However excited people seem to get at the notion that a penis might go anywhere other than into a vagina, “sodomy” was not the sin of the people of Sodom. Throughout Jewish Scripture, with echoes also in Christian Scripture and in the Deuterocanonical literature, Sodom and Gomorrah are remembered as examples of horrifying destruction. Both Isaiah and Ezekiel identify the sin of Sodom as refusing to defend widows and orphans and not helping those in need. (You can find this indictment throughout Isaiah, but see especially chapter 1; see also Ezekiel 16:49f.)

According to these prophets, the depravity of the city of Sodom showed itself in their refusal to offer hospitality to the travelers who came to them needing shelter. Instead of feeding and protecting them, they demanded to be allowed to gang-rape them. Isaiah and Ezekiel say that by loving opulent religious ritual instead of caring for the poor and powerless, the people of God demonstrated deep depravity. Throughout Scripture the consistent analytic is clear: the real quality of a people is revealed by how they welcome travelers without resources.

Jesus says the same thing about the cities that do, or do not, welcome the travelers he sends out.

The connection to the problems we are currently trying to solve is obvious. The current U.S. president stirred fears that he would close the U.S.-Mexico border, and simultaneously announced cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the countries of origin of many of the immigrants, documented and otherwise, who seek entry into the U.S. This had a predictable effect: the flow of immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers exploded. Members of the administration noted that separating children from their parents would deter people from attempting to enter the U.S.

I have been following this issue for years. So have you, probably. If you have, you know that there are deep and tangled complications that go with solving the problem before us. Thoughtful people on all sides of the issue know this, and still commit to the search for a solution. Demagogues just yell until they are red in the face and their crowds howl for blood. Most of us are not demagogues. Most of us do not howl for blood. And most of us are frustrated with the enduring difficulty of solving this problem equitably.

All of that is true.

But Jesus and the prophets are clear on this point. I repeat: the real quality of a people is revealed by how they welcome travelers without resources. “For Sodom on that day it will be more bearable than for that city.”

So I will leave you with a picture you have already seen. This one appeared in The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jun/28/migrant-father-daughter-drowned-valeria-parents#img-1

A Provocation: Third Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 8 (13): June 30, 2019: Luke 9:51-62

51     It happened,
              when the days were fulfilled,
                   the days of his being taken up,
         He set his face to walk into Jerusalem.
52     He sent messengers before his face.
         They walked,
               they went into a village of Samaritans
                    so as to prepare for him.
53     They did not welcome him,
               because his face was walking into Jerusalem.
54     The disciples saw,
              Yaakov and Yochanon said:
                        Do you want
                             that we should speak fire 
                                  to come down from the heaven
                                  and destroy them?
55     He turned,
              he rebuked them.
56     They walked into a different village.
57     While he was walking
              in the road,
         he said,
              someone guy did,
         said to him:
              I will follow you wherever you go.
58     He said to him,
              Joshua did:
                        dens they have
                   and birds of the heaven,
                   The son of adam does not have anywhere to recline his head.
59     He said to a different one:
              Follow me.
         He said:
                   trust me to go away
                   to bury my father.
60     He said to him:
              Let the corpses bury their own corpses.
                         go away
                         give notice of the dominion of Elohim.
61     A different one said to him:
              I will follow you
              First trust me to again set in order
                   those matters affecting my house.
         He said,
              Joshua did:
                   No one laying his land to a plow
                        and looking backward 
                    is well-suited for the Dominion of Elohim.

I have explored this scene before, when it was the text for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost in 2016. You can read that Provocation at https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/06/20/a-provocation-sixth-sunday-after-pentecost-luke-951-62/

The urgency of this scene is often noted by interpreters. That is good and it is useful. But my problem with reading this as revealing a proper response in the face of apocalyptic urgency comes with the man who asks to be allowed first to bury his father. You learn a lot about the texture of a scene by watching what interpreters do. With this bit of the scene they have historically fallen all over themselves to find a way that this demand is not so severe as it seems. One of the most inventive readings notes that we don’t know if the man’s father was even sick yet. That is true; we do not. But interpreters go hunting for such game when they need to save Jesus from sounding radical.

But this demand is radical. Uncompromising. Excessive. Ferocious. It slices between parent and child. I judge it unwise to run from such texts. If Jesus is that radical, that wild, we must see it, and say it, plainly. Jesus makes an impossible demand, and follows it up with an insult about “the corpses burying their own corpses.”

I notice one thing. Whatever Jesus said on that day traveling to Jerusalem, Luke is telling this story sometime around the year 90 or 100 C.E. He has Jesus utter this hard word about corpses some 20 or 30 years after the Romans crushed the First Jewish Revolt in the year 70. In that Revolt, ancient sources say that something like 1 million Jews were killed. That means that there were corpses everywhere. That means that every family had buried fathers, and sons, and mothers, and daughters. Every family faced the agony of empty chairs at every meal.

With that many dead, in some families there was no one left to bury the corpses. I think Jesus’s words echo this reality. I think the harshness of those words comes from the horror of the aftermath of that vicious defeat. I think his extreme demand comes from the extremity of the moment when Luke tells the story. In the face of the overwhelming violence of the Roman Empire, Jesus offers no compromise. In the conflict between kingdoms, it is God or it is Rome. Rome piles the corpses high, so high that none can bury them. The Dominion of God raises the dead to life.

His words still frighten me.

A Provocation: Second Sunday after Pentecost: June 23, 2019: Galatians 3:23-29

Galatians 3:23-29
3:23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.

3:24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.

3:25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian,

3:26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

3:27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

3:28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

3:29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.

I have dealt with the “Legion” scene from Luke 8 before, on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost three years ago. You can read my Provocation at this URL: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/06/10/a-provocation-fifth-sunday-after-pentecost-luke-826-39/

This time around, I’d like to think about the text from Galatians.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Paul keep saying “Christ” so often?
  • Seriously: six times in seven verses.

Some Longer Reflections:

This passage ends with a ringing celebration of oneness, even in the face of very real differences. You may find a way to erase the difference between Jews and Gentiles (it’s easier if you don’t actually know anybody from the other group), but you would have a hard time convincing a someone who holds people as slaves that there is no difference between people held as slaves and other people. And women and men are, still and always, women and men. And everybody knows it. Gender and sexuality are, of course, more complex, and more interesting, than that, but women and men are women and men. More or less.

This past weekend the small city where I live celebrated its first Pride Parade. According to reports, over 10,000 of us showed up to walk and celebrate all the ways we are different and alike. And both things were true: we were different and we were alike. And it was the most joyous (and polite) parade I have ever been part of. That experience drew my eyes to Paul’s rhapsodic celebration of difference that does not divide.

Which brings me to what really caught me eye in this passage. Once again, I am grumpy about the way this thing is translated.

Despite Paul’s joy at being able to sing of a world in which Jews and Gentiles are not divided from each other, the translators clearly having none of it. They begin their work in this snippet (in vv. 22f) by talking about how “we” were “imprisoned” and “guarded” before “faith came.” This works if the only lexicon you use is one aimed at translators of the New Testament. Such translators are glad to find references to being held in prison under guard when they are talking about Jewish faith. That lets them make a sharp evangelistic contrast with the freedom of Christianity.

But the Liddell and Scott lexicon, a classic resource for translating the vast world of ancient Greek texts, sees neither prison bars nor prison guards. The word translated as “imprisoned” is generally read as “held closely together” or even “drawn tightly together.” The term is also used to speak of the way the shields in a shield-wall were locked together to protect the soldiers. This makes sense when you get to the “guarding” word, which is used generally to speak of guarding people against external threats.

I would bet that this is not the way you thought of the “guarding” word when first you read this snippet. I would bet that you thought of prison guards who keep the inmates from escaping to freedom in the outside world. The word in Greek is aimed the opposite way. The words together speak of protecting and preserving the people who are “drawn tightly together.”

A famous Jewish writer has said that, through all the years of Jewish faithfulness, it is not so much that Jews have kept the Sabbath. It is more true to fact that the Sabbath has kept the Jews. The same could be said for Torah (here translated as “law”). Torah has protected Jews like a shield-wall in a world that is often dangerous.

Paul would agree, despite what Christian translators make him say.

And I think Paul would be puzzled by the choice to translate παιδαγωγὸς as “disciplinarian.” The word παιδαγωγὸς is where the English word “pedagogy” comes from, and teaching requires instilling discipline. I’m a teacher. I know this. But in English “disciplinarian” implies punishment, at least to me. The word in Greek, however, refers to the tutor who educated the children, shaped them as they grew. It might also refer to the slave who conducted the children to their lessons, protecting them as they traveled to their teacher. Someone will point out that education in ancient Greece was harsher than it is in the average kindergarten class in the U.S. No kidding. EVERYTHING was harsher in ancient Greece than in the average kindergarten class.

But Paul’s metaphors point to protecting and shaping, not imprisoning and punishing.

So why have the translators read it the way they did? Because they don’t believe that there is no separation between Jews and Greeks. Or maybe it’s because they think that there is no difference because Jewishness is obliterated “in Christ.”


For one thing, if Paul is talking about obliterating difference, then is the difference between women and men, free people and people held as slaves, also obliterated? Good luck making THAT argument stick.

And besides, why assume that it is Jewishness that is obliterated? It might actually make better sense, if we HAVE to obliterate something, to see Paul arguing that Gentile difference (along with its assumption of privilege and power, and its practice of violent domination) is obliterated. (For a detailed discussion of this, see Mark Nanos’s illuminating book, The Irony of Galatians.) And since we are in the neighborhood, if we are obliterating, is it women or men who are obliterating? Answer carefully, and pay attention to the implications.

So I go back to the lovely little walk 10,000 of us took together last Saturday. We were so intriguingly different from each other: gay people, straight people, trans people, non-binary people, old grandmothers and little kids, pastors in what Sara Miles (in her book, City of God) calls “full clergy drag” and people in full drag queen drag, all of us together. We were different. And our delightful difference did not divide us.

Paul sees this connection-through-difference as the result of the coming of Messiah, who turns all things right-side-up. The differences that he notes are still present and very real. That is why he points to paired binary opposites in his argument: Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, women and men. But Paul sees the messianic change in the fact that these differences no longer divide us. Now, because of the work of the messiah, our differences connect us, and the Creation works the way it was made to work.

I think it’s kind of like one big Pride Parade. At least it is that joyful.

A Provocation: Pentecost: June 9, 2019: Romans 8:14-17

Romans 8:14-17
8:14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
8:15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery 
to fall back into fear, 
but you have received a spirit of adoption. 
When we cry, "Abba! Father!"
8:16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit 
that we are children of God,
8:17 and if children, 
then heirs, 
heirs of God 
and joint heirs with Christ--
if, in fact, we suffer with him 
so that we may also be glorified with him.

Just a short note.

“…you did not receive a spirit of slavery.” The point of this passage is probably clear, but it is worth noting that there were a great many people held as slaves in the ancient world, some sources say as many as 50% of the population.

Stop and think about that.

And even those who were not technically held as slaves had relatively little control over their lives. Power and wealth were concentrated in the top 5% of the population, and they managed the social system so that the 95% stayed subservient.

As I write this, I am preparing to lead a session at a Theatre Camp focused on Les Miserables. My task is to explore the history of the French Revolution and of the story told in Les Miserables. I had forgotten that it was Louis XVI who abolished serfdom in France. It had been several years since I had read “What is the Third Estate?” by the Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, so I had not thought about how the First and Second Estates (the Church and the Nobles) paid little or nothing in taxes. Taxes were paid by the 95%. Slave labor was done by the least powerful members of the Third Estate, and the prison system was managed so as to guarantee an adequate supply of prisoners to man the galleys and do other essential tasks. I had forgotten.

It had been years since I had read the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” a remarkable document to which Thomas Jefferson made significant contributions (without ever imagining that his words applied to the people he himself held as slaves).

Maybe this Pentecost we ought to take Paul seriously, and not imagine the gift of the Spirit, the holy breath of God, as a religious experience. Maybe we ought to add a hymn to the Pentecost section of the songbook. How about this one:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

That might make Pentecost a little different. Maybe it is time.

A Provocation: Seventh Sunday of Easter: June 2, 2019: John 17:20-26

20     Not concerning these am I asking only,
              but also concerning those who are faithful 
                   through their ordered utterance 
                        (faithful toward me),
21          in order that they all should be one,
                   (exactly as you,
                    in me 
                         also I in you),
              in order that also they in us should be,
              in order that the beautiful world should be faithful:
                   you sent me.
22     I, also, 
              the glory that you gave to me,
              I have given to them,
                   in order that they should be one,
                   exactly as we are one.
23          I in them and you in me
                   in order that the beautiful world should know:
                        you sent me and you loved them 
                             exactly as you loved me.  
24     Father:
         what you have given to me,
              I want:
                   that where I am
                        there also they should be with me,
                   that they should see my glory 
                        that you have given to me:
                             you loved me 
                            before the founding of the beautiful world.
25     Father,
         observant father:
              the beautiful world did not know you.
              I knew you
                   and these knew that you sent me,
26               I made known to them your name,
              and I will make it known,
                   in order that the love that you loved me 
                        in them should be
                             I also in them.  


Just a short note this week. (This is End of Semester/Final Exam/Graduation season, and this enforces brevity, even on an academic nerd like me.)

In v. 24, Jesus mentions that his Father had “loved [him] / before the founding of the beautiful world.”

That is a simple little statement; it seems so charming, so parental and obvious. But every word in this little statement is charged with energy.

Love is a word that wraps its arms around the Cosmos in the gospel of John. It dances, to be sure, with notions of fathers and sons, but it finally sings of God’s deep reciprocal love for the entire Cosmos, the love that establishes all true mutuality. That mutuality is rooted in the verb that John uses: ἠγάπησάς, which springs from the noun αγάπη, which does NOT refer to one-sided “theological” love, no matter who says that it does. It refers to a responsive love that takes delight in the other. This kind of love echoes the mutual love created in the Origin Story told in Genesis 2: Mudguy and the Mother of All Life are created side-from-side so that they will live side-by-side and have each other’s back. That is what it means to be human in the Jewish story that John is re-telling. And that is what it means to be loved by God in this story: delight, joy, response, creative mutuality.

And since this is a re-telling of the community’s Origin Story, the reference to a time “before the founding of the beautiful world” has a particular poignance. The storyteller told us that before that founding, there was with God the λόγος, the logic of life. In John’s story, that λόγος is identified with Jesus, and Jesus has just told us that his Father has loved that λόγος. John’s story spins around these swirls of words: love, logic, father, son, Cosmos. This last word (which is usually translated, dully, as “world”) refers to Creation as a beautifully ordered whole, decorated with delight by One whose eye loves beauty. If you have a friend who uses cosmetics (same root), ask them how and why and what they are after. Listen when they speak, even if you never use cosmetics. I have a dear friend who is always well put-together. His skin is carefully moisturized. His hair expresses the playful (and serious) way he lives. By referring to Creation as a Cosmos, John’s storyteller is saying that God is like my friend: a good eye and a sure hand and a love of put-together beauty.

And if Jesus is the λόγος of the Cosmos, the logic that God loves from a time prior even to existence, then it matters that Jesus is, in this story, the messiah. That means that the λόγος of Creation is messianic. That means that the logic of the Universe (you might even call it the physics of the Universe) is embodied in the drive to turn things right-side-up. That does not mean (or even suggest) that the way things are is proper and correct. Quite the contrary. You know, and everybody who will hear you preach knows, that the world is upside-down. Children starve every day. People born into poverty are kept there by a system that surrounds their neighborhoods with jobs without a livable wage, with food stores that are expensive and loaded with foods high in fat, salt, and calories, with schools that erode the dreams of both children and teachers. Clods with power slander anyone who opposes them.

The world is upside-down.

But the logic of the Cosmos, loved by God, opposes that.

This has implications. Especially if you are a Christian, a messianist. If you are not involved in turning the world right-side-up, you are not a messianist. If you are really mostly hoping that you can just wait for things to get a little better, you are not a messianist. If your ideology tells you that your every action is simply and easily justified, and that self-criticism is for snowflakes and liberals, you are not a messianist. Or if you imagine that only people on the other, ignorant, side of things need to be self-critical, you are not a messianist. Ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer (read his discussion of the dangers of ideology in his Ethics, for starters).

Ideology will not turn the world right-side-up. It is not ideology that the Father loved before the founding of the world, it is justice. And doing justice (along with loving kindness and walking humbly with God, to bring Micah 6 into the discussion) is the logic of God’s Creation.

A Provocation: Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 19, 2019: Revelation 21:1-6

Revelation 21:1-6
21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; 
for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, 
and the sea was no more.
21:2 And I saw the holy city, 
the new Jerusalem, 
coming down out of heaven from God, 
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
21:3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 
"See, the home of God is among mortals. 
He will dwell with them as their God; 
they will be his peoples, 
and God himself will be with them;
21:4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. 
Death will be no more; 
mourning and crying and pain will be no more, 
for the first things have passed away."
21:5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, 
"See, I am making all things new." 
Also he said, 
"Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."
21:6 Then he said to me, 
"It is done! 
I am the Alpha and the Omega, 
the beginning and the end. 
To the thirsty I will give water 
as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

A Question or Two:

  • Why will God wipe away every tear?
  • Who do you know that is weeping?

Some Longer Reflections:

When I was thinking about the scene from John for last Sunday, the scene set at the time of Hanukkah, I noticed that the word for the Rededication of the Temple is ἐγκαίνια, and that at the heart of this verb of dedicating is the stem, …καίν…, which means “new.” I wondered about that a little.

Then I looked at the gospel assigned for this Sunday (which I wrote about three years ago; see: https://tinyurl.com/ProvocationFifthEasterJohn ), which also focuses on newness, specifically a new commandment, ἐντολὴν καινὴν. And then I looked at the text from Revelation. Again, newness; again the stem, …καιν….

So I thought about Hanukkah again. It is a feast of Rededicating, of Restoring the Temple after Antiochus IV had polluted it, of Renewing the Holy of Holies in order to stabilize the world. Being a word nerd, I noticed that the prefix “re-” is followed by “-dedicating,” which is a verb form. I noticed that “re-” is also followed by “-storing,” another verb.

That would seem to imply that the third translation I just offered, “renewing,” should also be based on a verb. Now, I verb nouns with the best of them. Just ask my students. So did John Steinbeck, so I don’t feel too bad about it. When someone gets nervous about using “gift” as a verb, I find myself remembering the word “present,” which is both noun and verb . Or the word “display.” Or “exit.” Oh well.

What if “new” is also a verb?

It turns out that it is, at least in Greek. The stem …καιν… shows up not only in the adjective, καινη, but also in the verb καινοω, which means “to make new,” or “to restore.”

So, for the sake of provoking reflection, what if the “new commandment” in John 13 (which is just plain old Torah, as every Jew knows) is a commandment that reNEWS you? That is also something that every Jew knows: Torah renews you, your community, and the Creation. Since, as the rabbis say, God created the Cosmos in accordance with Torah, living in accordance with Torah makes you new, just like sunrise in the spring.

And, to push the provoking further, what if the story of a “new sky and a new earth” also reNEWS? We live in the midst of politics and privilege that do their best to train us to be cynical and hopeless. The people with power hold on to it, in part, by training you to say, “Nothing will ever change, so why bother?” Every time anyone says that, power and privilege are cemented in place, and the world stays old.

What if the story of newness is actually the power that makes the world new? What if when God says, “See, I am making all things new,” it causes the birth of hope, and erodes the power of dry cynicism? Michael D. Jackson, in his book The Politics of Storytelling: Violence, Transgression, and Intersubjectivity, argues that reclaiming the power to tell our own stories is the means by which human beings resist oppression, and that it is the means by which we recover from abuse. As an anthropologist, Jackson has seen it happen.

You have, too.

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday of Easter: May 12, 2019: John 10:22-30

John 10:22-30
22    It happened then:
           the Rededication (Hanukkah)
               among the Jerusalemites       
                   winter it was.
23    He kept walking around,
           Jesus did,
       in the Temple,
           in Solomon’s colonnade.
24    They encircled him, therefore,
           the Judeans did;
       they kept saying to him:
           When will you stop teasing us?
           Since you are the messiah,
               speak to us publicly.
25    He answered them
           Jesus did:
               I spoke to you
                   and you are not faithful.
              The works that I do
                   (in the name of my father),
                       these testify concerning me.
26           But you,
                  you are not faithful:
                  you are not from my sheep.
27                   My sheep hear my voice
                          and I know them and they follow me.
28                           I give to them aeonic life.
                             They will not be destroyed into the aeon.
                                 No one will seize them out of my hand.
29                                  My father,
                                         the one who has given to me,
                                     is greater than all things.
                                         No one will seize them
                                             out of the hand of the father.
30                                  I and the father,
                                         we are one.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is Jesus in Jerusalem?
  • Why is he in the Temple?

Some Longer Reflections:

Three years ago, I explored this same scene from John. You can read that Provocation at https://tinyurl.com/Provocation4EasterJohn10

This year I am looking at a very small part of this same scene, just the opening words, in fact.

The NRSV informs us that this takes place at the time of “the festival of the Dedication.” I translate it as “the Rededication.” Both of these translations are fine, but not so many Christians listening to these translations will know that this festival is Hanukkah. And that matters.

What is being rededicated, of course, is the Temple. And to understand this, you need to understand Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

You can start with the last part of his name, which he chose for himself. Antiochus followed in the line of the Seleucids, capable rulers descended from one of Alexander the Great’s generals. They had ruled Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and the eastern end of the Mediterranean successfully for generations, but now they faced a threat from the Ptolemies (other descendants of one of Alexander’s generals) who ruled Egypt.

In the face of this threat, Antiochus IV saw the long-standing Seleucid practice of tolerating diversity and difference as a weakness in the face of a unified Egypt. He needed glue to hold his crazy-quilt of an empire together, and he judged that the best glue is religious glue.

He announced to his polyglot and polytheistic subjects that, commencing immediately, all would agree that he was a Deity. And he remodeled his name to make that clear: he was henceforth to be called Antiochus IV The God Revealed (Epiphanes).

For most of his subjects this was no great problem. Polytheists with a dozen or so gods already on the bus can always find room for one more, even if he has to sit on someone’s lap.

And then there were the Jews. Monotheists can be SO troublesome. Jews heard his announcement, considered it carefully, and responded with the Shema: Shema Yisroel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad (Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One). Put simply, a central Jewish confession, then and now, is “God is God, and you are not.” And that goes for any “you.” Including Antiochus.

Antiochus was not amused. He made it illegal to be Jewish. He forbade circumcision. He punished distinctive Jewish practices, like observing Sabbath or keeping kosher. And he sacrificed a pig on the altar in thee Temple and erected a statue there, which made it impossible for the priests to bring the universe back into balance.

This is a serious matter, more serious than people who live without a Temple are likely to be able to imagine. The practice of sacrifice balanced the wobbling universe. This truth was embodied in the notion that God’s finger touched the world in the dark silence of the Holy of Holies, the safest, most Jewish place on earth. When Antiochus broke the Temple, he made the world deeply unsafe.

Which is exactly what he intended to do.

When the Jewish forces, under the leadership of Judah Maccabeus, defeated Antiochus, one of their first actions was to rededicate the Temple in order to heal the world. Hanukkah remembers that victory, and that act of re-balancing.

Jesus remembers Hanukkah. So do the Jerusalemites who gather round him in the Temple. That’s one of the reasons they ask Jesus to declare publicly that he is the messiah (the Greek sentence is a “condition of fact,” not a “condition contrary to fact,” in case you were wondering). If Jesus is, indeed, the one appointed (and anointed) to turn the world right-side-up, Hanukkah would be an apt time to make that clear, and the Temple would be exactly the right place.

Jesus’ response is odd, but that is quite normal for Jesus in the gospel of John. To sort it out, go back to chapter 6 and read slowly, tracking what Jesus says to and about the people who, the storyteller informs us, ate the miraculous bread Jesus provided and saw it as a sign. The tangled story will require slow, attentive reading.

For now, ask yourself what Hanukkah has to do with the Fourth Sunday of Easter. That is worth wondering.

A Provocation: Third Sunday of Easter: May 5, 2019: Psalm 30

Psalm 30
30:1 I will extol you, O LORD,
for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me. 

30:2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me. 

30:3 O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. 

30:4 Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name. 

30:5 For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning. 

30:6 As for me, I said in my prosperity,
"I shall never be moved." 

30:7 By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain;
you hid your face; I was dismayed. 

30:8 To you, O LORD, I cried,
and to the LORD I made supplication: 

30:9 "What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness? 

30:10 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me!
O LORD, be my helper!"

30:11 You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, 

30:12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

For a Provocation of John 21, go to https://tinyurl.com/Provocation3EasterJohn21

A Question or Two:

  • If this is a psalm for Easter, why does it not sound like most Easter hymns?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is the first time I’ve aimed a Provocation at the Psalm for a Sunday.

I am struck by the multiple reversals in this song: …you have drawn me up, …you have healed me, …you brought up my soul from Sheol, [w]eeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. This is a song about surprise, about dismay. What seemed fixed and firm suddenly falls away. Hopelessness seems the sun break over the horizon; problems without solution yield to sudden insight or to slow, stubborn effort.

Both kinds of reversals make this a song worth singing during Easter. We misunderstand (and misrepresent) Easter if we make it into a happy little miracle, an obvious and easy reversal of death that lets life loose. The singer in Psalm 30 knows that reversals go both ways. So do we, but we use religion to pretend that we don’t. At least sometimes.

Listen to the desperate honesty of verse 9: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?”

Listen slowly.

This is a voice we all know. We have heard this voice at 3:00am. We have heard it out of the mouth of dear friends who know us well enough to dare to say such a frightening thing. We have heard it also in the anger that surprises us, or the tears that fall silently, or the mouth that smiles when the eyes dart to the side and sink.

In the Psalm, this painful question is aimed at “the LORD.” You know that this word, LORD, stands in for the unspoken Name of God, YHWH. English translations use LORD because Jews tradition reads “Adonai” in place of the Divine Name. And Adonai refers to lordship.

The problem with this ancient practice is that it substitutes hierarchy for a personal Name. Have you watched Downton Abbey? Have you watched any show that has lords and ladies in it? Mr. Carson calls Robert Crawley, “Your Lordship.” He cannot call him by his personal name. Only another noble can call Her Ladyship by her first name.

The rabbis note that Jewish Scripture uses Elohim (the other most common Name for God) to identify God working to establish justice, order, and reliability. YHWH, they note, is used to point to God acting in Mercy to claim, nurture, and rescue Creation. This is not an act of lordship, but of love.

That’s why these cries of painful honesty call out God’s personal Name, and expect Mercy. The practice of not speaking God’s own Name makes sense to me. But calling God Lord establishes a distance that seems false to me, regardless of ancient practice. It is also the practice of observant Jews to read YHWH as “haShem.” I sometimes translate it this way, but that only really works for people who know Hebrew, and thus already know that haShem means “the Name.”

We need a way of reading God’s Name that does not create hierarchical distance where the singer expects tender closeness. These days I generally translate YHWH as “the God Whose Name is Mercy,” but that is too long for a proper name, let alone a proper Name. Today I challenged my students to imagine a new way to translate the Name. I offer you the same challenge.

The Name needs to know that “joy comes with the morning.” But it needs to know the weeping that lasts all night long. The Name needs to know the reversals that make Easter part of real life, not just part of religious playacting. The Name needs to be warm and soft enough to hear our frank questions without becoming defensive. The singer asks, “What profit is there in my death?” She expects an answer. Mercy does not defend itself against that demand.

I would very much love to hear your translations for the Name.