A Provocation: The Third Sunday of Easter: April 30, 2017: Luke 24:13-35

Luke 24:13-35
24:13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,

24:14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.

24:15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,

24:16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

24:17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.

24:18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

24:19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,

24:20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.

24:21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.

24:22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,

24:23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.

24:24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

24:25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!

24:26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

24:27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

24:28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.

24:29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.

24:30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.

24:31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

24:32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

24:33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.

24:34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”

24:35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

First of all, I have written about this passage before.  You can find my reading of this scene at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1992

Working Preacher is a wonderful (and wonderfully useful) project.  Check them out!

Because the Working Preacher piece is a fairly comprehensive treatment of this scene, I plan to offer comments here this week that are shorter and more limited in focus.

Some scattered observations:

  • The two disciples in this scene walk to Emmaus, which is seven miles away.  That’s a two hour walk.  They arrive when the day is slipping into night.  And then they return to Jerusalem, another two hour walk. Even if they hurry, they arrive in the dark. Think about that.
  • As they walked, they talked with each other.  The words used by the storyteller imply that they talked with familiarity together, meditating on the words and analyzing them.  This is not simple chatting.  It implies a level of intellectual engagement that is crucial for understanding this scene.
  • When Jesus approaches them, he asks about the words they are “throwing back and forth.”  The curtness of their response might be rooted in his rather dismissive characterization of their theological conversation.  A little later he refers to them as ἀνόητοι, which means something like “numbskulls.”  Just from the context, this is probably bantering rather than insulting, but either way, it means that Jesus and the two disciples are presented as engaging in a conversation that expects intellectual engagement from the participants.
  • Notice, then, that there is a persistent tradition that the two disciples were husband and wife.  It is not surprising that women and men would engage in intellectual conversation (or the conversations around the supper table in my family would make no sense), but it is worth noting that Luke’s storyteller expects everybody to bring their brains when there are matters of faith and life to be figured out.
  •  The disciples refer to Jesus as “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.”  This is an important way of speaking about him, and it does not preclude them also thinking of him as messiah.  If anything, it is a more certain and solid way of identifying him, since “messiah” is a term with no single settled meaning.  “Prophet” puts Jesus in the company of Elijah, Moses, and Isaiah, which is a pretty good crowd to run with.
  • The storyteller points out that Jesus was handed over by “our chief priests.”  Notice that this way of speaking maintains a family link even to the people who were obliged (forced, even, by Pilate’s manipulation) to hand Jesus over to Rome as a potential troublemaker.  The storyteller is furious at what was done, but still understands the chief priests to be “our chief priests.”  Don’t miss either side of this complex identification.
  • And don’t forget that only Rome can crucify people.
  • Pay careful attention to the pain of the phrase, “But we had hoped….”. See the Working Preacher article for a fuller discussion of this important revelation.
  • Jesus is recognized first when they eat together.  Think about what this suggests.  Watch the people you eat with to see what might provoke this recognition.  They must have eaten together often for this to happen.  Remember that Jewish meals were (and still are) celebrations.  Pharisees, in fact, celebrated each meal as if it were being conducted around the altar in the Temple, which made the act of eating together into an act of remembrance and communal consolidation.  Several years ago, in the midst of a classroom exploration of the way Jesus is portrayed in each gospel, a student suggested that Jesus in the gospel of Luke was “a big guy, goes maybe 320, 330 pounds.”  Did I mention that this student was an offensive lineman, also a big guy?   When I asked why he saw Jesus this way, he said that in Luke’s story Jesus is always eating, and “it was like he didn’t look like himself unless he had a chicken leg in his hand.”  I like that understanding.  Ancient Jewish meals were occasions to gather lost and scattered Israel.  This meal in Emmaus was exactly that, and that’s how the disciples recognized Jesus.

That matters.



A Provocation: The Second Sunday of Easter: April 23, 2017: John 20:19-31

John 20:19-31
20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

20:20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

20:21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

20:22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

20:24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

20:25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

20:26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

20:27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

20:28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

20:29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.

20:31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


A few initial observations about “the fear of the Jews”:

  1. It is dangerous to read this scene as evidence of why you should be afraid of the big bad Jews.
  2. It is slanderous to read it as evidence of how fearful Jews were of the brand-new and tiny Jesus movement.
  3. It is vicious to read it as echoing the Exodus, and thus equating Judeans with Egyptians, replacing the “fear of the Egyptians” with the “fear of the Jews.”

It might be most productive to note that there was plenty of fear to go around in the aftermath of Rome’s repeated use of death by torture.  Judeans (which is how we ought to translate the Greek word, Ἰουδαίων) were afraid.  They had seen this before, and they knew that there was no reason to suppose that Pilate would stop with one crucifixion event.  This could be the start of something much worse.  Perhaps Pilate’s murderous act would lead to more murder.  Perhaps it would lead to a general uprising among the people.  Perhaps this in turn would lead to overwhelming Imperial violence.  The disciples were also afraid, and probably they were afraid of the same things.  There was plenty to be afraid of, then and now, without our having recourse to customary anti-Semitic readings of the fear in this scene.

The Fact of the Resurrection:

Most interpreters of this passage spend their time on the miracle of the resurrection.  That makes sense, of course.  The resurrection of Jesus after the Empire killed him is powerful and important in all sorts of ways.  Empire uses the fear of death to control the dominated population.  As long as people know that Rome can inflict intense pain on them, as long as they know that Pilate has no scruples about killing them, they will rein themselves in.  They will submit to Imperial power because they fear torture and death.  This is one of the technologies of domination that Rome had mastered.

Resurrection undercuts that technology of control, and that makes the story of Jesus resurrection dangerous.  To Rome.

The same thing happened when the Ghost Dance religion swept through Native populations, beginning in the late 19th century.  With the Dance came the Ghost Shirt, which had spiritual powers, among them the gift of being impervious to bullets.  This was one of the reasons white imperialists feared the Ghost Dance: it removed the fear of death; it undermined the technology of domination.

The Holy Spirit:

It is also worth noting the action of Jesus involving the “Holy Spirit.”  This has come to be imagined as a scene involving the Third Person of the Trinity.  And this, also, is good and useful.  Focused reflection on the Holy Spirit is helpful, necessary even.

But this scene begs for closer attention.  Jesus breathes on the disciples.  Jesus says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  The Greek for this is Λάβετε πνεῦμα ἅγιον, and it is worth reflecting on the translation.  πνεῦμα is regularly translated as “spirit,” and this is especially true when πνεῦμα is tied to ἅγιον.  But πνεῦμα properly means “breath” or “wind,” and only by extension does it mean “spirit.”  

It would be better to translate Jesus’ words as “Receive holy breath.”

Such a translation makes sense of Jesus’ act of breathing on the disciples.  The word for this breathing is ἐνεφύσησεν, and it means that Jesus “puffed” air into them.  The word is tied to using a bellows to puff up a fire.  It is the word you would use for rescue breathing for a young child.  And it catches something important about the way the phrase πνεῦμα ἅγιον is used in the New Testament: it is tied to resurrection of Jesus and implies that the Resurrection is to be understood in terms first laid down in Genesis 2 when God knelt over Mudguy (Adam) and puffed life into his nose (it is the same word, ἐνεφύσησεν, used in both John 20 and the Greek translation of Genesis 2).  God knelt over Jesus’ crucified corpse and puffed life into his body, and Jesus became a resurrected messiah.  

Jesus is puffing the breath of Resurrection into the disciples.  With this act, they are raised to new life just as he was.  Resurrection has spread beyond Jesus and all his followers have been joined to the person of the resurrected messiah.

So far everything in this little scene has been about Resurrection.

The wounds:

But the most important part of this Resurrection scene happens when Jesus shows them his hands and his side, when Jesus tells them all (not just late Thomas) to put their fingers into his wounds.  The wound in his side is large enough to accommodate a hand.  The wounds in his wrists allow a finger to pass completely through.

Why does John’s storyteller point this out?  Why does it matter?

Here is one possible reading of the persistence of the gaping wounds: Life leaves marks.

Against notions of religion that make faith into a magic release from mortality, John’s storyteller explicitly links the resurrected messiah to the fact of torture.  Resurrection does not erase the marks of torture.  Death is turned back.  But the marks that link Jesus with every victim of Imperial domination remain open and obvious.

Much of Christianity (especially American Christianity) focuses its attention on “going to heaven.”  As attractive, and useful, as this focus has been, it often has a particularly unfortunate consequence: it makes escape from the world into the central goal of the faith.  However understandable and useful this kind of faith might be, it is finally dangerous and even dishonorable.  It is typically used to allow us to ignore the gaping wounds around us.

And there are wounds of all sorts around us.  I am re-reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.  Baldwin, in a letter to his nephew, notes that black people die when they begin to believe the things that white people say about them.  Life leaves marks; life wounds people.

Every year I meet students who are at war with themselves because of things that have been said by homophobic friends, family, and preachers (ordained or otherwise).  These students have deep and dangerous wounds.  Some of the wounds are caused by direct frontal attacks.  Some (perhaps the most serious) are caused by offhand comments delivered in unthinking dependent clauses.  Life causes gaping wounds, some of which seem to be self-inflicted, though the real cause is general external.

When I cook I like to listen to old radio shows.  The other day my wife and I were cooking and heard a podcast of a radio show from the 1950s.  It was a good show, well crafted with an intriguing plot.  And it was deeply and casually misogynistic.  A central character, with the complete approval of the storyteller, told a female character to “shut up and sit on her brains.”  Then he slapped her because she was hysterical.  Life causes deep bruises, some of which can be seen.

And now the president has discovered the suffering of the Syrian people.  He has ordered a missile attack on an airfield.  He has not, however, said anything about allowing the people who are fleeing that suffering to seek safety in the United States.  Life leaves marks even half a world away.

Imagine the disciples’ reaction when Jesus directed them to stick fingers and hands deep into his wounds.  I imagine nausea.  I imagine shuddering.  And I see Jesus waiting it out and requiring the disciples to see and know his wounds.  The gaping wounds of Jesus in this scene make it clear that we cannot shut our eyes.

That may be the most important message of this little scene: resurrection and reality cannot be separated.  We cannot hope in the resurrection if we close our eyes to the wounds suffered by Creation.

Our reaction is crucial.  Now we will discover whether we want resurrection hope or just reassurance.  Now we will see if we just want to “go to heaven” and be done with it, or if we are willing to participate in God”s act of resurrection for all of Creation.

But it seems to me that if we shut our eyes, or focus only on our own salvation, the “heaven” we will “go to” will be a solitary, isolated thing with no hope, no resurrection, and no messiah, no God.  Seeing the resurrection, this scene suggests, requires seeing and knowing the gaping wounds of the Creation.  Resurrection is either for all of us, or we have no part in it at all.


A Provocation: Easter Sunday: April 16, 2017: Matthew 28:1-10

Matthew 28:1-10
28:1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

28:2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.

28:3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.

28:4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

28:5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.

28:6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.

28:7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

28:8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

28:9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.

28:10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

A Question or Two:

  • The women in this scene have watched Jesus as he was tortured to death.  Now they come to watch his tomb.  In between they observed Sabbath.  What must that Sabbath have been like?
  • Where are the men?

Some Longer Reflections:

Perhaps the first thing to notice in this scene is that the women did not just go to the tomb to look at it.  They did not go simply to see it, no matter what the translator says.  The word in Greek is θεωρῆσαι, which is the root of the English word, theory.  It implies a sharply attentive kind of looking.  It implies that the women went to the tomb to watch it, to observe it, to reflect on the fact of death and the fact of human connection, this time expressed in loss.  They had been at the tomb when Joseph of Arimathea placed the corpse, wrapped for burial, into it.  They had been there when the stone was rolled over the mouth of the tomb, and they had watched when the tomb was sealed and the guards had been given custody of the site.

After the Sabbath they had returned to wait and watch, observing the human custom of sitting with the dead, remembering them as members of the family.

This act reveals their courage.

The corpses of the crucified were generally left to rot, rejected by all.  That was part of the point of this mode of public execution.  If Rome had just wanted a death there were many ways to accomplish that.  Crucifixion was not just a means to execute someone.  It was an object lesson is submission to Roman authority.  The victim, selected because he represented some sort of threat to Roman imposed stability, was beaten and then paraded through the streets to the place of torture.  The perp walk on the way to Golgotha was intended to tempt family or supporters to step forward and defend the victim.  Of course if any fools DID step forward, they would be crucified along with the one they claimed as one of their own.  And, of course, no one would step forward.  No one dared.

That was the point of the perp walk.

Would-be supporters were made to discover their cowardice.  THAT was the point.  Crucifixion was intended to prevent rebellion by teaching would-be rebels that they were cowards who did not dare to defend their brother, their leader, their hero.  Such lessons, once taught, are hard to forget.  And thus the corpses of the crucified were left to rot, unclaimed.  The lessons continued.

But the women in this scene are not so easily defeated.  Jesus has been tortured to death, but that does not stop them from following his corpse to the tomb.  This is an act of considerable courage.  It was dangerous to be publicly associated with someone the Rome had decided to torture to death.  And as dangerous as it would have been to stand observing his death on Good Friday, at least then they were part of a public crowd, and there is some slight safety in a crowd.  In this scene, however, they are alone, going to the tomb in the nearly-dark of the just-dawned day.  And they knew that there was a guard set around the tomb.  They went anyway.  This is an act of notable courage.

When they arrive at the tomb, there is an earthquake, a big one, one that is caused, we are told, by an angel coming down out of the sky.  The storyteller describes the angel as being like lightning.  That raises the possibility that the audience is meant to imagine that the earth shook because of a too-close lightning strike: deafening, terrifying, blinding, shaking the earth and human will.  The guards surely quake (the root of the word for their “shaking” is the same as the root of the word for earthquake).  They faint from fear.

The women do not faint.

We aren’t even told that they are afraid.  The angel tells them to “stop being afraid,” so perhaps we are meant to imagine that they were indeed afraid.  But the storyteller pointedly has the guards faint dead away, while the women stand unmoved, committed to their mission of observing the rites appropriate to mourning for a dead brother or son.  This shows that their courage runs deep and constant.

A teacher of mine, Dr. Martin Brokenleg, told me that among Lakota people it is that that “The people is never defeated until the hearts of women are on the ground.”  The hearts of the women in this scene are clearly not on the ground.  That means that the Jewish followers of Jesus are not defeated, despite Roman power and cruelty.  Jesus is dead, and the women still hold their hearts steady.  Their strength is admirable.

The angel delivers God’s message: Jesus has been raised from death.  The women see the empty tomb, and run with fear and great joy to tell the disciples what they have seen and heard.  It is worth noting that this is the first time we are told that they are afraid, but this fear is mixed together with joy.  This is not the fainting fear of the poor guards, who are presumably still lying around like corpses.  This is overwhelming reverence in the presence of God (in the person of the angel, the messenger sent from God) and in the face of the resurrection of Jesus who had been tortured to death.  They had borne witness to his horrifying death.  They had come to sit observantly with his tortured corpse.  And now they had heard of his resurrection.  They react with joyful reverence.  I do not know what word I ought to use for their reaction.  Reverence is the best I can do for now.  It catches the spontaneous holy response to an act of Life that overwhelms the effectiveness of death.  But what word really catches that mix of fear and joy?  I do not know.  If you have the right word, please send it to me.

Notice that the women respond with reverence upon hearing the message and seeing the empty tomb.

Notice that the storyteller takes this erupting joy and raises it by several orders of magnitude.  As soon as the women begin to run, carrying the message, filled with fear and joy, they encounter Jesus.  He greets them.  They fall to his feet, not like corpses, but as people fully alive, made even more alive in the face of the resurrected Jesus.  Notice that they were alive before: they had the living, defiant courage to watch as Jesus was murdered.  They had the steady heart that led them to come back to the tomb after Sabbath had passed.  They had the furious joy that let them leave the poor fainting guards lying on the ground as they ran back to pass the message of resurrection to the disciples.  And now they erupt in worship of the act of God that raised the person of the Messiah out of death.  When the larger group of disciples meets Jesus in Galilee a little later, some of them doubt.  Interpreters react to their doubt with elaborate excuses.  “Who wouldn’t doubt?,” they say, “resurrection is impossible.”  They are correct.  Most people would react with skepticism.  Regular people would doubt.

But the women do not doubt, and they do not faint from fear.  They bow in reverence before the eruption of life in the midst of a world regulated by death.  That phrase, “regulated by death,” I borrowed from Albert Camus.  He used it in his novel, The Plague.  He was describing the role death plays in creating boundaries and structure that control the ways we live and work and hope and dream.  Camus is correct, I think: life is ringed round by death, and cynical Imperial power uses that fact to hold people hostage.  Rome crucified people to make it clear that it held death and excruciating pain in its hands and used them gladly as tools, as technologies of dominance.  The women in this scene have looked Roman death dead in the face without flinching.  And now they look at God’s gift of life, and they worship.

Resurrection does not restore their courage.  The women in this scene never lost it in the first place.  And now they have seen Life.  Imagine what they will do next.

This imagining will explore the real force of Easter in a world that continues to be regulated by death.  Watch the women in this scene.  Observe them.  And reflect: just what IS this Easter?

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

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 my feet?”

13:7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

13:8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

13:9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

13:10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.”

13:11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

13:12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?

13:13 You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am.

13:14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.

13:15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

13:16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.

13:17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

13:31b When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.

13:32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.

13:33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’

13:34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

13:35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus take off his outer garment in this scene?
  • Really?
  • Why does he wash their feet?
  • Really?

Some Longer Reflections:

It’s a small thing, perhaps, but it might matter.  If you imagine the Last Supper with Leonardo DaVinci, with the whole group sitting around the supper table, you will imagine Jesus lowering himself, bending low before each of the disciples.  The scene, with its language about masters and servants helps you imagine this.

But here’s the thing: no one is sitting on a chair.

In the ancient world people reclined to eat, perhaps on a low platform, perhaps on the floor.  Under their left arm was a cushion.  Before them was a low table from which they ate with their right hand and only their right hand.  The translators obscured this eating arrangement when they had Jesus “[return] to the table.”  The Greek just says that he “lay back down.”  The Greek does not mention a table.

This might not matter.

But it might.

You might want to experiment with the physical arrangement of the scene before you interpret it.

For one thing, if Jesus is kneeling and the disciples are reclining on the floor, his head might well be higher than theirs.  The posture is rather uncomfortable, but his head would have been higher.

If they are reclining on a low platform, Jesus’ posture is not so awkward.  But even then, their heads are mostly on the same level.  That means that the radical sense of subordination and humility that people report when they wash people’s feet as part of a Maundy Thursday service is at least to be modified when reading this scene.

For another thing, if the disciples were sitting on dining room chairs, Jesus would have to get each of them to pull out from the table so he could reach their feet to wash them.  (Either that, or he would have to creep about under the table.  Not a pretty picture.)  But if they are reclining around a table, each person around the table will be at an oblique angle to the table.  Their hands would be much closer to the table than their feet would be, and Jesus would be approaching each of them from the rear.

Experiment also with this physical arrangement.

Maybe that is why Peter seems so surprised that Jesus is washing his feet.

Maybe he didn’t see him coming.

That’s probably not too likely.  In John’s story Jesus is pretty visible when he is in the scene, and he has been bustling around getting a basin and water.  But maybe Peter was preoccupied with eating, or talking, or something.  That would be a little Peter-like, even in John.  It would also explain why Peter speaks in the present tense (at least in the original Greek): “Lord,” he says, taken by surprised, “Are you washing my feet?”  The translators have moved the question into the future tense, which implies that Peter sees him coming and heads him off before he starts: “Are you going to wash my feet?”  That way of reading the scene could work, and it makes for some useful sermons.  But the Greek could imply that Jesus, having approached Peter (from the back?), has already begun to wash his feet.

Whatever you decide about Peter’s surprise, you are stuck with the present tense: “Are you washing my feet?”

There is another surprise in this scene, one that you will discover if you actually wash another person’s feet.

Ask someone who loves you, someone whom you love, ask them if you might wash their feet.  Adopt the postures that go with ancient dining: reclining and kneeling.  Wash their feet slowly.  Dry them.  Pay careful attention to your mutual reactions.  You are likely to discover what I have discovered: there are MANY nerve endings in hands and feet; even with heavy callouses you will be struck by the intensity of the feeling.  That may be why those of us who are ticklish are often ticklish precisely on the soles of our feet.

But you will discover, I think, more than who is, and is not, ticklish.

Washing feet is intensely intimate.  That is why I would encourage you to eplore this physical scene with someone whom you love.

That might be part of why Peter was so surprised.

That might be why this scene culminates in a discussion of love, not submission.

Yes, Jesus does indeed talk about servants and masters, but when the scene comes fully ripe he does NOT say: “By this they will know that you are my disciples, because you submit to each other.”  I have heard Christians imply something very like that, though they usually do not imagine reciprocal submission.  Usually when submission is under discussion, someone with a position of power (historically usually male) is telling someone (historically often a woman) to submit to authority.

But this scene comes to fullness with a discussion of mutuality and love.  Disciples will be recognized by the way they love each other.  On Maundy Thursday, that love starts, not with submission but with intimacy.

That is a good thing.  If intimacy started with submission it would scare me. Intimacy that requires submission is abusive and dangerous.

In this scene, touch and tenderness are mutual.  Love is reciprocal.

In this scene, intimacy leads to life.  This is an important truth in Holy Week and always.


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

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 spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

21:9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

21:10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

21:11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”



A Question or Two:

  • What does Hosanna mean?  Really?
  • Why are the crowds singing this song?  Really?

Some Longer Reflections:

Before you preach on this text, go find six or nine videos of people riding donkeys.  There are many, and a simple Google search will turn up more than you care to watch.

But watch several.

Many of the videos you will find feature people riding, people who have never met a donkey personally.  The videos are funny and the people fall off a lot.  I wonder if Jesus had ever ridden a donkey before?  Probably he had.  But maybe not.  That might be why the storyteller (in Matthew, anyway) tells us that Jesus is riding on BOTH a donkey and its foal.  Whether that means he was somehow doing circus tricks or that he alternated between riding a proper sized animal and then pretending to ride the foal, which would be far too small to ride.  Either way the video would have been funny.  Imagine Jesus crouch-walking as he pretends to ride the foal.

Some of the videos show people on donkeys who wade easily through flooding rivers where cars and pickup trucks have foundered.  These videos seem focused on the sure-footed strength of the donkey and its superiority to modern technology.  I wonder if Jesus might have been making a point like that, somehow.  Roman warhorses would, of course, crossed the same streams as easily as a donkey, so the story won’t work as a chuckle at the failings of modern technology.  But the point could be that you do not need a massive warhorse to cross dangerous waters.  The simple donkeys that you can find in any Jewish town will do that just as well, for far less money.  This also would make a good video.

Commentators have posited a possible parody of Roman military parades.  Instead of entering Jerusalem at the head of a parade that demonstrates power, riding a spirited warhorse, Jesus rides in (from the opposite side of town, on a borrowed beast of burden.  And its foal, just for good measure.  I wonder if the crowd caught the parody as well.  I wonder if the strange excess of laying their cloaks on the road was part of their entering into the humor of the situation.  This seems even more likely if you consider that the garment they are laying on the street is not a coat (sometimes “cloak” could imply that), but the regular outer garments that people wore.  But if τὰ ἱμάτια were outerwear, what people were left wearing was (by the principle of exclusion) underwear.  This undergarment was not BVDs, to be sure, but the people in the crowd are traipsing about rather less clothed than at the beginning of the scene.  It is customary to read this state of undress as evidence of their fierce devotion to Jesus and his cause.  That works.  But it also works if you read it as part of the parody of Roman pretension.  Imagine the crowd forming ranks and files and parading along behind Jesus, hailing him as the Son of David, the anointed one, the messiah.  A bunch of guys in their underwear marching as if they were an army.  

So what are we to make of the Hosannas?

At first glance, this HAS to be a sign of passionate devotion.  It is, after all, a call for deliverance, for rescue, for God to finally keep promises too long pending.

Since this seems such an obvious reading, I entertain the idea that this is part of the carnivalesque parody of displays of military power.  I figure that anyone can find her way to the usual reading.  I take it as my job to help people find odd readings, just in case they are productive.

What if the crowd cries Hosanna in a parody of the fervid intensity of the Zealots who haunt every religious tradition?  What if the storyteller wants her audience to reflect on the actions of the Zealots inside the walls of besieged Jerusalem: in an effort to impel more sudden, more immediate divine intervention, the Zealots burned the food supplies that would have allowed the Jewish defenders to hold out against the siege for perhaps six years.  I wonder if the Zealots chanted Hosanna as they lit the fires that would finally lead to starvation and defeat.  If so, then this scene could be a parody of bone-headed religious passion.

That is possible, but I still like this better when I read it as the revelation of the “hidden transcript” of Jewish resistance to Roman brutality.  When I read it this way, this scene opens the curtain on the hopes and demands that Jews carried (barely) out of Roman sight.

And of course, it could be both.

Sometimes resistance works best when it is stimulated to action by daring laughter.  Sometimes it is the very outrageousness of the jokes that reminds people of what they actually could, and should, hope for.  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?  Perhaps the healing of the world, the keeping of the promises, the coming of the Reign of God can never be brought into reality by the clash of power.  Perhaps Wilfred Owen was correct, Owen, the poet of the trenches of WWI, wrote:

Now men will go content with what we spoiled,

Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.

They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.

None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.

We do love bloody battle (at least from the safe distance of our religious observances), and will march “as to war,” good Christian soldiers that we long to be, but perhaps all such imaginings only spoil the world and leave it broken and ready for the next conflict.

Perhaps the old hymn by Harry Emerson Fosdick (written in 1930, which turned out to be a good time for the prayer Fosdick wrote into the song:

Cure your children’s warring madness;
bend our pride to your control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
lest we miss your kingdom’s goal,
lest we miss your kingdom’s goal.

What if the pageant in the streets of Jerusalem that we remember at Palm Sunday is actually an embodied prayer that hopes that the coming of the Reign of God will cure our warring madness?  If so, then Hosanna is my prayer, too.  Hosanna.  God Whose Name is Mercy, save us.  Save us now.  We are in danger of spoiling it all.  Hosanna to the highest degree.


A Provocation: The Fifth Sunday in Lent: April 2, 2017: John 11:1-45

John 11:1-45
11:1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

11:2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.

11:3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

11:4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

11:5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,

11:6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

11:7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

11:8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”

11:9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.

11:10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”

11:11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”

11:12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”

11:13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.

11:14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.

11:15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

11:16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

11:17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.

11:18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away,

11:19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.

11:20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.

11:21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

11:22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

11:23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

11:24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

11:25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,

11:26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

11:27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

11:28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”

11:29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.

11:30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.

11:31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.

11:32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

11:33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.

11:34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”

11:35 Jesus began to weep.

11:36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

11:37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

11:38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.

11:39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

11:40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

11:41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.

11:42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”

11:43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

11:44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

11:45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

A Question or Two:

  • Is it a good thing that Jesus knows that he can raise Lazarus from death?
  • Is his confident knowledge what leads him to scold two sisters who are mourning the death of their brother?
  • So, again, is it a good thing that Jesus is confident?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is a piece of complicated storytelling.

There is the complication that comes out of the choice that Jesus makes.  He did not have to delay, but he chose to, and Lazarus died during the delay.

There is the complication that comes out of the disciples response to his decision to go into Judea.  When told that they are traveling to Bethany where Lazarus lives (as he dies), they cease talking about Lazarus and direct their attention to the risk that Jesus is running by returning to Judea: the Judeans had tried to stone him, and now he is going back there.  Commentators often mock their lack of understanding, but their action is admirable.  “We might as well die with him,” they say.   In the midst of a strange interchange with Jesus about Lazarus who may be sleeping or dead, they know clearly that this is a matter of life and death, and they choose to move resolutely toward death.  This is the stuff that medals are made of.

And there is the complication of life and death and life and resurrection and resuscitation.  Martha does not care too much about the niceties of all this.  She sees to the heart of things: of course she trusts that the dead will be raised.  She is a faithful ancient Jew, after all.  She expects that God will regather all the faithful and balance all accounts, even if God has to recreate the cosmos to do so.  Resurrection is no difficult task, in her eyes, since that is what it would take for God to keep promises too long pending.  But she also knows that a general resurrection has no immediate impact on the fact of bereavement.  Lazarus, her brother is dead.  Trust in God’s ultimate balancing of accounts does not dull the slicing agony of losing him.  “If you had been here,” she says, “my brother would not have died.”  She is correct.  The storyteller shows us a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind, even to Jesus.  He delayed, and Martha points that out.

Mary does the same when she meets Jesus.

The women in this family speak directly and they do not pull their punches.


Jesus’ response to this (repeated) direct challenge is seldom translated directly.

The word in Greek is ἐνεβριμήσατο, and it is generally translated so that the audience is given a glimpse into the tender inner workings of Jesus’ heart.  He feels bad that Lazarus is dead.  He even cries.  What a guy.

But the word does not refer to tender inner feelings.

The word, ἐνεβριμήσατο, refers to the snorting of a warhorse.  It should generally be translated as “snorted in anger.”  Inner feelings, especially in the face of bereavement, are surely difficult to express, and even harder to translate, but the word will carry with it a note of anger disgust, even, and a proper translation will have to catch that or admit that it simply has decided to translate what the storyteller SHOULD have said, but didn’t.

Such choices always lead to bad translations.

They lead to even worse theology.


Jesus snorts in anger, maybe even in disgust.  Why?

One possibility is that, having been scolded by Martha (and my sense is that when Martha, direct person that she was, scolded you, you stayed scolded), being also scolded by Mary (who shares the family trait of forcefulness) drove him over the edge.  He was angry, and the storyteller shows us the anger.

Such a complicated reading will make most pious readers nervous.  Maybe they should be.

Another possibility is that Jesus is angry with himself.  Such a reading would catch the force of the prepositional prefix attached to the verb, ἐνεβριμήσατο, which directs the action inward somehow.  Such a reading would give us a Jesus who has just now realized the real-world, real-sister impact of his choice to delay,  It is a fine thing to do things so that “the Son of God may be glorified.”  It is another thing to crash two sisters hard into raw grief that he could have prevented.  Read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed for an unvarnished picture of the horrors of grief.  Everything is smashed to bits, even for a person who had made his reputation as a calm and rational representative for confident faithfulness.  Martha and Mary and Lewis will have shared the same sharp pains of bereavement.  When Lewis asks, intemperately, whether God must not  be judged to be a “Cosmic Sadist,” Martha and Mary will have good cause to join his complaint against God.  Jesus told the audience that he intended to delay so that Lazarus would die.  That is torture, and there is no other way to say it.

And perhaps it is both of these options.

People who are caught out in the open with their blamable actions all too visible often find a way to direct blame in another direction.  Politicians do this all the time.  So do children.  So do adults who should know better.

Perhaps that is why Jesus snorts.  The storyteller may intend such a reading, given that we are given a glimpse of a Jesus who snorts (or is indignant, or is furious) ἐν ἑαυτῷ.  The Greek means “in himself.”  That could mean that we are here seeing an inner view.  Or it could mean that he is angry with himself.  This would be fascinating.  This would also be a strong complication in the storyteller’s portrayal of Jesus.

Perhaps the strongest complication is revealed the last time Martha speaks in John’s gospel.

Before we hear her words, she is identified one more time.  She is the sister of the dead man.  She is Martha.  Her name comes last.  Her relationship comes first.  Her bereavement leads her identity.  That makes sense.  Two of my sisters have died.  My identity is decisively shaped by having known them, having grown up with them, and having attended their funerals.  Martha is the same, I suppose.

And then she speaks, directly as always.

“Already there is a stench,” she says.

Jesus’ response makes it sound as if her comment is evidence of her not having listened closely enough when last he spoke to her.  If that is his intention (given him by the storyteller), my reaction is beyond irritation.  Martha, the sister of the man lying inert in the tomb, has just said, simply, that her brother’s corpse has begun to decay.  There is a stench.  Removing the stone will release the stench generally.  The unmistakeable smell of decay will assault everyone.  Especially the two sisters.

Stop and think about this moment in the scene.  Ancient burial practices included wrapping the corpse with aromatic spices that would partly cover the smell of decay.  This was a kindness to the family.  But no spices could completely mask the smell, but they could soften it.  For a while.  But Jesus delayed for two days, and now Lazarus has been in his tomb for four days.

And Mary has to remind him that there is a stench.

Again, Jesus responds.  Again, his words sound rather like scolding, maybe even angry scolding.  “Did I not tell you…,” he begins.  Commentators typically have no trouble with his words.  And maybe they shouldn’t.  Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, and Lazarus is alive at the end of the scene.  But I find myself trying to make sense of  the impact of these words on people.  Martha-and-Mary-people, but also the theological impact on people who hear the story told to them.  I find myself wondering how many of them learn to associate Christian faithfulness with scolding, with a demand that they not be affected by death and other loss.  “Did I not tell you…,” says the voice of coercive faith, faith that expects perfect imperturbability from them.

The season of Lent may be a good time to reflect on this aspect of this scene.  If we imagine that we ought to be perfectly confident at all times (and that anything less than that is evidence of a flawed faith), then this Lent is a good time to repent of that dangerous notion.  Maybe this really IS the Lent to re-read Lewis’s A Grief Observed.  The flatfooted honesty with which Lewis writes about reactions that echo those of Martha and Mary.  Which means that the Jesus who shows up in this scene might also scold C.S. Lewis.  He surely would scold me.

That is why I like Martha.  Her honest retorts and reminders dare to risk being scolded.

And they reveal a real and faithful understanding of what it means to be human.  I am glad that she does not EVER apologize for telling the truth.


A Provocation: The Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 26, 2017: John 9:1-41

John 9:1-41
9:1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.

9:2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

9:3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

9:4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.

9:5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

9:6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes,

9:7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

9:8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”

9:9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”

9:10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”

9:11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”

9:12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

9:13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.

9:14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.

9:15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”

9:16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.

9:17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

9:18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight

9:19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”

9:20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;

9:21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”

9:22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.

9:23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

9:24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.”

9:25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

9:26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

9:27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”

9:28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.

9:29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

9:30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.

9:31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.

9:32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.

9:33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

9:34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

9:35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

9:36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”

9:37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”

9:38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

9:39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

9:40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”

9:41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

A Question or Two:

  • How many kinds of blindness are there in this scene?
  • Why aren’t people sure whether the healed man is the same man who had been a beggar?
    • “Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.'”  (v. 9)
  • It was as if people couldn’t see him because he was blind.
  • Did you miss this instance of blindness?

Some Longer Reflections:

This scene is complex.  Even for the gospel of John.

It is about blindness.

Actual blindness.  Blindness from birth.  Intractable.  Incurable.

It is also about blindness of the metaphorical kind, which may, or may not, be similarly intractable in the mind of the storyteller.

It is about sin.

“Who sinned?,” ask the disciples.  It is easy to dismiss their imagined connection between misdeeds and congenital blindness.  Too easy.  Imagine the parents holding their baby.  Imagine them realizing that their baby cannot see.  Imagine the gut-level reaction in the room.  Imagine.

When people are faced with something inexplicable, they cast about for some kind of meaning, some way to make sense.  Sight can be lost through disease or injury.  Of those losses we can make sense.  But blindness in a baby freshly born….

It is about ethical monotheism.

One of the great gifts given to the human race, given particularly by the Jewish faith, is the gift of ethical monotheism.  Ethical monotheism is committed to comprehensibility.  There is one world.  One system of organization.  One set of principles that govern events.  Ethical monotheism is committed to Cause and Effect, and this commitment prepares the soil for the development of the natural sciences centuries later.  Without a solidly established sense of the real connection between locatable cause and observable effect, events in the world are read as the inscrutable acts of capricious deities and human beings are reduced to imagining the whims of the gods as they try to make sense of a dangerous world.  A commitment to Cause and Effect frees us to study the world and know it.  It raises us to our strongest attempts to interact with the world, biologically, chemically, physically, and leads eventually to an ability to understand deadly diseases and cure them.

In this scene, such comprehension and such cures are millennia away.  Nevertheless, notice that ethical monotheism puts God on the side of comprehensibility.  God presides over a world of which we can make sense, and God cares how we act in that world.

That leads to some unfortunate theology along the way to the polio vaccine and the reading of the genetic code.  “Who sinned?,” ask the disciples, thoroughly committed to the principle that the world MUST be comprehensible and that ethics (not religious ritual) matter in that world.  This theology is put to rest in this scene, and not a moment too soon.  But do not scoff at the naïveté of the disciples with their painful question before you notice the gifts given us by ethical monotheism.

Notice also that Jesus’ theological response to the disciples might just be more troublesome than their question.  The man’s congenital blindness, says Jesus, exists “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

You can rough this theology up and twist it a bit, and it can be shaped into a  claim that existing disabilities offer occasions for God to act kindly in the world.

But that is not exactly what Jesus says.

His blindness, says Jesus, has a purpose (implying that God, therefore, caused the condition), and that purpose is to make evident the way God works in this world.  The world is comprehensible, says Jesus.  God caused this blindness just so the man could be healed after living life as a beggar.  I have blind colleagues and colleagues who cannot hear, and they are uniformly tired of being treated as if they are somehow “damaged goods,” as if they add up only to their minuses, as if their disabilities define them.  These colleagues might also want a go at this passage, and might choose to argue that a protest against the idea that God causes blindness is finally a protest against them and the way they live.

Point taken.

But the scene is also not making that argument.  The man is only blind, says Jesus, so that he can be healed.

Think this theology through carefully before you let Jesus ride in and save the day.  I might even prefer the theology put forward by the disciples.  Just saying.

And then there is the complication around the Pharisees criticizing Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.

It is clear enough that the storyteller wants us to cheer for Jesus and boo for the Pharisees who do not see the evidence that is right in front of their faces.

Again, point taken.

Congenital blindness is identified as a condition that no one had ever cured.  The ancient world was full of healers.  Some were charlatans.  Some were Elijah the prophet.  Jesus healed congenital blindness.  No one else had done that.  The storyteller wants us to notice that and to take it as evidence for the extraordinary status of Jesus.

It is not just a matter of being a bigger, better healer.  The storyteller has Jesus link blindness with a statement about light.  This link is rooted in ancient understandings of how perception took place.  Vision required a collaboration between light and eyes.  Light exists for eyes, and eyes exist for light.  Each implies the other, and each cooperates with the other.  They belong together.

And this is not the first time that light has danced through John’s gospel.  It’s not even the tenth.  And all of the references to light are tied back to the first chapter of the story, which is the anchor point for important themes in the story.  In the first chapter of John, light is knotted together with ζωὴ (life), and λόγος (word, or story, or Torah, or rational principle), and ἀρχῇ (beginning, or organizing principle).  These are the most important words in John’s whole story because all of them are tied to the central argument of the story: Jesus came into the cosmos from God, entering as messiah and more.  Seeing his signs amounts to seeing him (and the cosmos) for what it really is.  The man who had been congenitally blind sees this.  The Pharisees do not, though, in the eyes of the storyteller, they should have.  They should have seen that bringing light to the eyes of a man born blind is a task for the λόγος made flesh, the Act of God in the cosmos.

But be wise.

The Pharisees raise the question of healing on the Sabbath, not because they are blind, rigid, rejecting hypocrites.  They raise the question of the Sabbath because the Sabbath is part of the Logic (λόγος) of the universe, the λόγος that holds the cosmos together.  They are right to see it this way.  The fact that most Christians these days ignore the Sabbath completely, or nearly so, does not make it less significant.  Remember: It is not so much that the Jewish people have kept the Sabbath; what matters is that the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people (to paraphrase an important Jewish teacher).  Jesus did not come into the cosmos (in the gospel of John, anyway) to make the world safe for those who ignore matters of faithfulness.  Careless, heedless selfishness is not to be confused with faith.

Even if the storyteller strongly disapproves of the Pharisees, their question about Sabbath is justified.  Given the way Sabbath has preserved the Jewish people through all the millennia, they are right to ask whether anyone sent from beside God would drill a hole in the boat that kept faith afloat on the sea of raging chaos.  Even if the healing is truly extraordinary and should serve as evidence of the presence of the messiah, that messiah would not drill a hole in the boat below the waterline.  The Pharisees identify themselves as disciples of Moses, and they are.  And this matters.

And it should matter to us.

When the Pharisees tell the man born blind to “Give glory to God,” they show that they are not opposed to the healing itself, not opposed to the good that has come to the man.  They are just cautious.  I am not opposed to caution.

When I am told by supporters of the president-for-now that I should be glad for the good that he has done (and his supporters clearly assume that he has done some good), I will wait for a chance to  check the whole balance sheet.  Isolated improvements surrounded by the loss of the EPA, Meals on Wheels, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting do not add up to any kind of a bargain.

Or when politicians and partisans point out that the newly proposed health care plan will increase the numbers of young healthy people with health care (though this is a point much disputed), I will insist on checking the total impact of any proposed replacement for ObamaCare.  If the repeal-replace proposal adds young healthy people and improves the balance sheet by raising health care premiums to impossible levels for the soon-to-be-elderly, that is not an improvement.  At such moments it is wise to be cautious.  The Pharisees have good reason to be cautious.

There is a lot at stake.

Wise interpretation remembers this.



A Provocation: March 19, 2017: The Third Sunday in Lent: John 4:5-42

John 4:5-42
4:5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.

4:6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

4:7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”

4:8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)

4:9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

4:10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

4:11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?

4:12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

4:13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,

4:14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

4:15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

4:16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”

4:17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’;

4:18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”

4:19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.

4:20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”

4:21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

4:22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.

4:23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.

4:24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

4:25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

4:26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

4:27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”

4:28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people,

4:29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

4:30 They left the city and were on their way to him.

4:31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

4:32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”

4:33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”

4:34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.

4:35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.

4:36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.

4:37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’

4:38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

4:39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.”

4:40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.

4:41 And many more believed because of his word.

4:42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

A Question or Two:

  • Did you notice that both Jesus and the woman are thirsty in this scene?
  • Why might that be important to the storyteller?

Some Longer Reflections:

This scene fascinates interpreters.  To put it more clearly, the woman in this scene fascinates interpreters.  And not always in a good way.

Some interpreters like to think about her as a “loose woman.”

They count up her husbands, noticing her current unmarried state, and they get excited as they imagine her “living in sin.”  (When baritone interpreters use that phrase, they seem always to be thinking of sexual sin.  Can’t imagine why.  Perhaps it’s a hobby of theirs.)  They then decide that the woman is at the well when she is because she is cut off from society because of her sexual shame.  That doesn’t fit too well with the situation later in the scene when the people of the town listen to her and believe Jesus to be the Savior because of her word.  People listen to her.  She seems not to be so shamed and shameful, after all.

And as to the parade of husbands: she has no control over such things.  Husbands die, leaving widows who may not have been able to own property or conduct their own affairs (historians argue about the exact arrangement of things).  And husbands could dismiss wives quite casually, for reasons that included “not finding delight in her,” perhaps because she burned supper.  And the fact that her current mate was not her husband only meant that HE would not grant her official status as a wife.  She again had no control or agency in that area.

Interpreters are also fascinated with the fact that she is a SAMARITAN woman

As a result, they invent all sorts of social practices for which we have precious little historical evidence.  Samaritans and Jews did indeed have a distrust for each other in common, but little else.

But if you begin at that point, you might well miss a main point of the scene

Samaritans and Jews are shown to have a great many things in common beyond distrust.  They have a key ancestor in common: Jacob, whose name was also Israel.  And with that significant name comes a shared history: they both wrestle with God, for one thing.

For another thing, they share the history that goes back nearly to the time of David.  That shared memory shows itself in the way they address each other.  She is a Samaritan.  She calls him a “Judean.”  The word in Greek is Ἰουδαῖος, which is often translated as “Jew.”  “Judean” is a better translation, especially in this scene.  Translating it that way makes it clear that she misunderstands him, at least in some measure.  Jesus is not from Judea, he is a Galilean, and that makes him culturally and linguistically somewhat different.  Judeans could hear the difference any time he opened his mouth.  Others could not.  Imagine not being able to distinguish a New Jersey accent from one rooted in Georgia.  My friends from Texas can tell the difference between West Texas and East.  I can distinguish Wisconsin English from Minnesotan.  Samaritans, apparently, might not be able to make such fine distinctions.

That, however, seems a little unlikely.

It might be more useful (interpretively) to focus, again, on what they share: the memory of the Assyrian Exile.  She is a Samaritan who lives in Samaria.  She remembers that “Samaria” is one of the names given to the old Northern Kingdom that was conquered by Assyria and destroyed in Exile.  This memory and this identification link her with the tribes who were lost forever when Assyria destroyed the old Northern Kingdom some 750 years earlier.  Ever since the Jews of the Northern Kingdom were conquered and scattered throughout the Assyrian Empire, Jewish faith has waited for their return.  Apocalyptic promises of the healing of the world regularly include mention of the re-gathering of the lost tribes.  The woman who meets Jesus in conversation at the well of Jacob/Israel in Samaria embodies a promise of this long-awaited return.

But “Samaria” was a contested symbol.  It was not just a reminder of the loss of 10/12 of the Jewish family.  It was also the name given to the people left behind on the land during the Babylonian Exile.  The name was given to them by Ezra and the other returnees who came to rebuild Jerusalem and re-establish the kingdom and culture that had been destroyed.  Ezra imagined that rebuilding the people required creating sharp separations from the people of the land.  The book of Ruth argues that Ezra was wrong.  Ruth argues that if such rigid rejection had been practiced in the really old days, King David would never have been born.  John’s storyteller agrees.

John’s storyteller, in fact, shows us a woman of Samaria who has real theological competence.

She knows how Jews and Samaritans worship, and knows that her practice is rooted in historical precedent.  The storyteller shows us even more.  The storyteller shows us that this woman expects Messiah (and that she expects Messiah in both Hebrew and Greek, just in case Jesus knows only one of the languages that Jews used to read Torah and to pray).  She is not a shameful, despised outsider, not according to the storyteller.  This woman shows the same deep awareness of the Jewish faith that we just saw in Nicodemus.

And it’s not only her.  At the end of the scene, her entire village is convinced (by her word and that of Jesus) that Messiah has come to rescue the world.  The people of Samaria are revealed to have been waiting along with the Judeans, waiting together with all of the cosmos for the promises of God to be kept.

As interpreters have long recognized, there is more than one voice speaking to tell John’s story.

Some of the voices are harsh and rejecting.  One of the voices has Jesus calling Jews (or Judeans?) the children of the devil.

We need to be done with such voices.  The voice that speaks in this scene tells the story of a world in which there are more allies than rigid rejectors would ever guess.  The voice in this scene sees signs of restoration loose in the cosmos, and expects this to be evidence of the love of God that also sings in the scene with Nicodemus.

And one of the voices that speaks in this scene is that of a woman who clearly understands all of this.

Maybe the fact that she has been pushed away by the patriarchy makes her able to hope for (and recognize) restoration.  Maybe the fact that she has felt the effect of rigid religious rejection has helped her to wait for Messiah.  (There are, after all, descendants of Ezra in every faith and in every community.)  Whatever it is, she gets it.  And the people of her town listen to her.  It’s time we did, too.


A Provocation: The Second Sunday in Lent: March 12, 2017: John 3:1-17

John 3:1-17
3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
3:2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
3:3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
3:4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
3:5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
3:7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’
3:8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
3:9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
3:10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
3:11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.
3:12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

A Question or Two:

  • What if you take Nicodemus’s questions seriously?
  • What happens if you recognize probing as a faithful act?
  • What is the real connection between spirituality and physicality?

Some Longer Reflections:

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  So says Nicodemus.

This simple statement carries enormous weight.  He calls Jesus “rabbi.”  That is not a title handed out casually.  Note that E.L. Doctorow has a character point out that the title means that “he has done the reading” (in City of God).  Jesus seems to be literate in John’s story, but even if he is not, he has studied the tradition deeply, and Nicodemus (who seems surely to be literate) recognizes that and honors it.

Do not condescend to him.

Do not join the ranks of Christian interpreters who call him “the best that Judaism had to offer” (as John Marsh does, unfortunately, I say).  Note also that the storyteller has Nicodemus mention that his recognition of Jesus’ credentials is not a private revelation that he alone has received.  “We know that you are a teacher sent from God” (and the Greek emphasizes the “from-Godness” of his status by the way it orders the words).

“We know,” he says, thus making Jesus’ status as rabbi official, since such titles only have value when the status is conferred publicly and by an official body.  No matter what degree I can buy on the internet, my Ph.D. had to be conveyed by an accredited school.  Period.  Jesus has done the reading, and “we” recognize this.

Noticing this is crucial, since John is conflicted on such points.

Sometimes John’s storyteller attacks all of Judaism in a spasm of Us-Them rejection.  And other times he has Jews with official standing (for instance, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and the “we” that shares his assessment) look at Jesus and gladly approve of him.  It is not simply that “some did, and some didn’t.”  The storyteller issues blanket statements in both directions.

I can only read this as evidence of a fracture in the history of the telling of this story.  I think that there are at least two distinct storytellers:

  • One rejects Jews as “children of the devil.”
  • The other notes that official Judaism sees Jesus as a teacher sent from God.

I examine this at some length in my study of John, Provoking the Gospel of John: A Storyteller’s Commentary.  For now, let me just say that any storyteller that is committed to calling Jews the children of the devil is not a storyteller I will welcome into my canon of inspired scripture.  I am willing to wrestle with complexity within biblical texts.  I have spent a great deal of time wrestling with biblical texts, in fact.  And I have concluded that there are voices, even in the gospel of John (my mother’s favorite gospel), that are simply wrong.  It’s time we simply said that.

So I do.

But Nicodemus QUESTIONS Jesus!

It has always puzzled me that people see this as an sign of disrespect.  I am a teacher.  I walk into the classroom HOPING that students will ask probing questions of me.  I can’t imagine thinking much of a teacher who was threatened by students who ask challenging questions.  That is what allows teaching and learning to happen.  Reciprocally.

Do we know what to do with a Pharisee of whom the storyteller approves?

We have become so accustomed to reading them as hypocritical opponents and villains that we may simply lack the imagination to see them any other way.  Such failures of imagination are the surest paths to poor interpretation.  In this scene, Nicodemus must be read as a sympathetic character, a perceptive student, as someone who offers Jesus the best gift a student can offer a teacher: a clearly stated deep challenge.  The next time we meet Nicodemus in John’s story, he still supports Jesus (John 7).  And the last time we meet him (John 19), he is carrying a (far-too-large) bunch of spices to wrap with the body of Jesus in burial, in order to hide the stench of putrefaction.  There is no scene that shows him having a revelation, much less a conversion.  Nicodemus is always presented as a distinctly Jewish character who is purposefully a supporter of Jesus.  This matters.

It also matters that Nicodemus is shown to be aware of real bodily facts.

In John 3 he knows that bodies are born once.  In John 19 he knows that dead bodies decay.  Both bits of knowledge are important.  Nicodemus takes seriously the body that God created us to be, and he honors the realities of the world that God created for us to live in.

Too many religious people, to quote an 80 year old man I met when I worked in a nursing home some decades ago, “are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.”

Nicodemus is NOT one of those people.  

Nicodemus is not a drifty religious dreamer.  He is not ready to leap into the spiritual aether whenever the occasion presents itself.  And he is not ready to believe any idea that comes with the label “spiritual” taped to it.

At the same time, he is a man of spiritual insight.  He demonstrates this insight when he recognizes the deeds of Jesus as “signs.”

The ability to recognize acts as signs (and not just circus tricks) is held up throughout John’s story as evidence of real participation in God’s dominion.  Jesus says as much when he responds to Nicodemus’s opening statement.  “Very truly, I tell you,” says Jesus, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Interpreters too often read this as a challenge to Nicodemus, even as a diagnosis that reveals the flaws of the Pharisee Nicodemus and the virtues of the Christian interpreter.

It’s time we stopped reading that way.

In the terms handed us by John’s storyteller, Nicodemus’s ability to recognize and name a sign when he sees one is evidence of his ability to “see the dominion of God,” and therefore evidence that he has been born from above.

This appreciative comment does not weaken his critical engagement in the work of the teacher he has come to study with (at night, the time that people were free to come and study).  “Physical bodies are real, and the biological processes that govern them are likewise unyielding,” says Nicodemus, and he is correct.  My scientist father would agree.

And he is not a MERELY correct; what he says is not trivially true.  Either the Creation is real as it really exists, or we are going to have trouble keeping religious fools from trying to rent space on clouds for their spiritual homes.

Nicodemus is also insisting that his insight came from slow, careful study, not from the kind of “revelation” that religious fakers are only too glad to claim.  I have seen too many religious charlatans, too many spiritual manipulators, too many “seekers” who are too impatient to seek, who want enlightenment all at once or not at all.  They have worn out their welcome with me.

Nicodemus knows that the study of Torah is the work of a lifetime and more.  We study in the company of all those back through history who have studied before us, and we study to prepare the way for those who will study after us.  There is no other path to insight and revelation, no other way to develop the durable comprehension that will allow us (and our communities) to survive the wreckage of history and still show up at the tomb with spices for burial, ready still to do what needs doing.

When Jesus begins to talk about being “born of spirit,” stop in the middle of the sentence and lose the word “spirit.”

Change it to the word “breath.”  That is a much better translation of the Greek.  The word is πνεῦμα, and it means breath, and then wind, and then (only if it is forced) spirit.  But that last forced translation has picked up too much baggage over the centuries, and the baggage weighs the story down.  It means breath and we should translate it that way until we are chased away from it.

The breath Jesus is talking about is blown first in Genesis 2, when God bends over the lovely, but inert, Mudguy lying on the ground newly formed but not alive.  God blows into his nose and gives the gift of life with the first breath, and with the second, and with the third, and with every single breath blown into the nose of every single human being (including you, including now).  Jesus is arguing for a twist in the understanding Nicodemus just asserted: real life really matters.  Jesus is saying: every single breath is a spiritual gift that makes possible the discoveries of a lifetime of studying Torah.  Every breath is a miracle.  In the long slog of life, every instant is shot through with Spirit (now is the time to use that word!).

And this is, I think, what the business about “God-so-loving-the-world” is about.  Hyper religious people want this to be about God really loving the sect that devotes itself best to Jesus.  Even the (later) angry storyteller in John thinks something like that.  But the world that God so loves is the κόσμος (cosmos), which refers to the whole, beautiful thing, not some ideologically pure subset of the world.

And that, I think, is the story being told by the oldest, most original, and most life-giving storyteller in John’s story.



A Provocation: The First Sunday in Lent: March 5, 2017: Matthew 4:1-11

Matthew 4:1-11
4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

4:2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

4:3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

4:4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,

4:6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

4:7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;

4:9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

4:10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”

4:11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

A Question or Two:

  • What does it mean to “worship the LORD your God?”
  • No, really, what does that really mean?
  • Hint: it has little to nothing to do with being the right kind of Lutheran (or Catholic, or Baptist, or fill-in-the-blank).  It doesn’t even necessarily involve being Christian or Jewish or Muslim.  Oh, this will be trouble.
  • Hint: remember that “LORD” is the word used when the Bible uses the Unspeakable Name of God, the Name that points to God’s inexhaustible Mercy.  Just a Lenten hint.

Some Longer Reflections:

The first thing we have to do with this scene is fix the translation.  While this could be a scene of “temptation” (and that is a possible rendering of the Greek, πειράζω), it is a far stronger scene if you read it as a scene of “testing.”  The difference matters.  If this is “temptation,” then interpreters will imagine that the tempter is fishing, looking for any moral weak spot, and all the customary theological notions of temptation will come into play.  

For instance:

Food: That’s a temptation we can imagine, and everyone still trying to lose the weight gained at Christmas time will sympathize with Jesus.  But Jesus has been fasting, on purpose, for a long time.  It is no surprise to him that he is hungry, and no sin to look ahead to the ending of the fast.  He can eat when he wants.  

Jumping: The thing about jumping off the  pinnacle of the Temple will be a little tougher to imagine since no one in her right mind would do something like that.  And the default interpretation, that no one should test God, seems a little beside the point.  Even if Jesus says it.

Kingdoms: The last temptation is even tougher to understand.  Some few people get a chance to exert worldwide power and show themselves ill-prepared for the task, but most of us do not. So far 45 men have been elected president of the United States.  Each was, in some measure, inadequate to the task.  Some have been more remarkably inadequate than others.  You can make your own determination on such matters.  

For the rest of us, we do our jobs; we carry out our responsibilities, but there are no splendorous kingdoms hanging in the balance.  If this scene is meant to spur our reflection on resisting temptation for the sake of Lenten discipline, it doesn’t really hit the mark.  We’re not among the 45 presidents, and mostly won’t be, so “presidential” tempting doesn’t attract us.  

But if this is not random tempting, but sharply focused testing, the scene reads differently.

Testing is different.

I am a teacher.  Testing is part of my regular work.  Testing always has a purpose, and the purpose is NOT to keep deans and registrars happily supplied with grades to figure into my students’ GPAs.

Testing, first of all, serves to show students what they have not yet understood, and thus spurs future learning.

Testing also, and just as importantly, shows me what I have not succeeded in teaching yet.  Sometimes a test shows me that certain people in a class have not caught what I have been trying to teach.  Do those people share characteristics that led to them not mastering the material?  I will want to know that so that I can teach such people more effectively.  And sometimes I discover that most everyone has missed a key point.  Which means, of course, that I, myself, have missed the point and need to find a way of teaching that actually works.  Back to the drawing board.

Testing also provides an occasion for candidates to demonstrate that they are ready to practice the profession for which they have been preparing.  Nurses must pass the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination) before being allowed to begin work as a Registered Nurse.  As someone who has been in the hospital, I am glad for this.  I am also glad that the physician who is diagnosing and prescribing had to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination.  And as a homeowner I am glad that anyone practicing as an electrician had to pass rigorous licensing exams.  That guarantees that no one will ever look at the wiring in my house and use the words “creative” and “electrician” in the same sentence.

Testing matters.  It keeps the world safe.

This little scene in Matthew’s story presents Jesus’ licensure exam.

It’s a short exam.  My comprehensive exams at the end of my Ph.D. program involved 4 8-hour exams, one each Thursday for a month.  They were epic.  Jesus’ exams were shorter than that, but no less difficult.

The first exam, involving bread, is not as simple as it seems.  He could, indeed, eat any time he chose, breaking his fast when its purpose had been served.  The purpose of this exam is very like the purpose of observing kosher customs for my Jewish friends and colleagues.  Some years ago, one of my colleagues reported that his daughter (who was just approaching the age of her bat mitzvah) had demanded to know what was so wrong about pepperoni pizza.  She had come home from a sleepover at a friend’s house, and the pizza had smelled (and presumably, tasted) excellent the night before.  With the date on which she would become a “daughter of the Commandment” approaching fast, she insisted that her father tell her why keeping kosher made any difference at all.

My colleague was too good a father to simply answer with a prohibition.  His daughter already knew that Jews who keep kosher do not eat pepperoni pizza.  So he turned the question back to her.  After she got over grumping at him for refusing to take her challenge, she began an extensive period of research.  Every weekend was another sleepover.  Every sleepover involved pepperoni pizza.  Many sleepovers ended with a breakfast of bacon and eggs, sometimes without the eggs.  It was research.  Intensive research.

At the end of the research period, his daughter came and reported her findings: there was nothing wrong with either pepperoni pizza or bacon.  Especially not bacon.  Emphatically not bacon.  And, she declared, that if God had a problem with pork, God ought never to have created it in the first place.

This was, for all its theological forcefulness, a disturbing report for my colleague.  He had imagined that he was raising a Jewish daughter.  She had just declared that bacon was a divine creation.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with pepperoni pizza,” she repeated, “but there is a great deal that is right about self-control.”  She had decided that every time she smelled pepperoni or bacon (especially bacon) she would remember that she was Jewish and she could learn to control her appetites.

The rabbis would agree.

The rabbis see the same thing in the story in Genesis 3, which is also a testing scene.  The rabbis argue that when human beings go off the tracks, it is because we lose our balance in two key areas: aspiration and appetite.

When Eve is given a chance to “be like God,” she is reaching for something that will lead to ruin.  But it is not the fact of aspiration that is the problem.  Eve is right to aspire, to hope that her reach will exceed her grasp.  Human beings MUST aspire, or we would never have developed a vaccine for polio or found one possible genetic cause for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  But some aspirations are foolish, or destructive, or simply impossible.   I sometimes tell my students that I aspire to become the second baseman for the New York Yankees just to watch them try to swallow their chuckles and smother their smirks.  Nearly chokes them, sometimes.  I am no athlete; I never was graceful; and I am over 60 years old.  If I actually aspired to play professional baseball, it would be a kindness if someone were to help me get back into balance before I ruined my family’s finances and my own health by trying to do something that stupid.  Eve’s failure is a regular human failure: aspirations are powerful, but they must be balanced.

The rabbis notice that Adam was apparently standing next to Eve the whole time because when she handed him the fruit, having herself considered all the reasons it was desirable to eat it, Adam reflected not at all.  He just ate it.  Adam, in Genesis 3, is all appetite.  No questions, no pondering, no hesitation.  Gulp.  He ate it.  And then he went back to watching the game on TV.  Or something.

In Matthew 4, Jesus is also being tested for his ability to balance appetite and aspiration.  Can he control his appetite?  Yes!  He shows himself capable of the basic self-control expected of a 12-year-old Jewish girl.  So far, so good.

The test on the Temple top is a test of aspiration, but it is a specially focused test.  It is not a test normally given to a 12-year-old of either gender.  It tests, in the first place, whether the candidate is possessed of a pointless faith.  There are such religious people.  They find little random verses in the Bible (“On their hands they will bear you up….”) and they decide that this little metaphorical promise is now the one and only test of really true faith.  Sometimes they declare themselves cured from a dread disease and suspend all medical care.  Sometimes they don’t die when they do this.  Sometimes.  Other times they give away all their property and sit waiting for the end of the world, the delay of which is also a test of true faithfulness.  Sometimes their neighbors return their things when Jesus, yet again, fails to show up.  And sometimes they just send money they don’t have to the rich guy on TV who challenges them to give sacrificially so that they can receive abundantly.  It sounded so plausible on TV somehow.

But this test goes beyond all this.  Jesus has been presented as the messiah.  These tests are determining whether he has the balance to carry out that dangerous task.  An unbalanced messiah is a danger not only to himself, but also to the entire world.  That’s why the tester directs him to jump off the Temple.  Imagine a messiah who was not subject to the law of gravity.  Imagine a messiah who was not subject to any human limitation.  Imagine the theology that would flow from such a messiahship.  If the body of the Christ is not subject to gravity, is the Body of Christ (as in, Christians, all of them) also not subject to gravity?  And if we are not subject to the laws of nature, are we also not subject to moral laws?  This will get ugly fast.  “Don’t test the LORD your God,” says Jesus.  Good advice.

The last test is clearly a messiah-specific test.  The messiah carries the task of turning the world right-side-up.  Imagine a messiah who has the sheer power to do this.

Seriously, imagine that.

Stephen Miller, a White House policy advisor, announced recently:

“Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”

This is a minor case, but notice the assertion that constitutional arguments need not be advanced, that evidence need not be presented, and that opposition will not be tolerated.  On what grounds?  Power is enough.  Power will not be questioned.

We have often imagined that the best peace-maker is a bigger bomb.  And we have often found ourselves in the midst of desperate warfare which did indeed call for bigger and more destructive weaponry.  But WWII was followed by Korea, which was followed by Vietnam, which was followed by a flurry of proxy wars, one after an endless other.  No one would pretend that the world is currently right-side-up.  A broken world will go to war again and again, out of tragic necessity.  But it will not bring peace.

Now imagine a messiah who believes that it will, that power to control and destroy will restore the world to the peace for which it was created.

Come to think of it, we imagine such a messiah with great frequency.  This morning in church we sang a contemporary praise song that praised Jesus for having power that none could oppose.  And in my childhood “The Son of God [went] forth to war, A kingly crown to gain…,” over and over, Sunday after Sunday.  For all of our reflection on the reality of the crucified messiah, we still seem to be fixated on the notion that our God (an awesome God, we are assured) is the biggest and baddest GOD of them all, never noticing the idolatry of power involved.  We rotate the hymns, we rework the religious language, but Power is still the god we worship in the end.

This could be an interesting Lent, I think.  This Provocation implies a discipline that I will find difficult.