A Provocation: Sixth Sunday in Lent/Palm Sunday: April 10, 2022 (first posted in 2016): Luke 22:14–23:56

Why is there no hosanna in Luke?

And, while we are at it, why are there no palm branches?

These seem rather odd omissions in a text assigned to Palm Sunday, the most hosanna-ed day of the the Christian liturgical calendar.

The absence of a distinctively Hebrew word in Luke may not be so surprising.  The other synoptics use Hebrew and Aramaic at key moments in their stories.  Luke does not.  Thus, Matthew’s Jesus and Mark’s screams out his abandonment as he dies, using a language that the Roman murderers are bound to misunderstand.  Perhaps it is only because Luke envisions the death very differently, with a Jesus fully in control of his faculties, but there is no Hebrew or Aramaic spoken from the cross in Luke.

Why does Luke skip the Hebrew?

  • An earlier generation of interpreters imagined that such omissions demonstrated that Luke was writing a Gentile-friendly gospel for a Gentile audience.  I imagine no such thing.  Luke’s story only makes sense to an audience that knows Jewish faith from the inside, whether or not they speak much Aramaic.
  • A more promising approach begins by noting that storytellers of all sorts insert foreign words for their effect as much as for their meaning.  Other languages function as magic languages, and many of the the “magic words” we use in English stories may well have migrated in from other languages and other traditions (e.g. Abracadabra and Hocus Pocus, perhaps).  Matthew, Mark, and John give the crowds a powerful magic word to speak: hosanna, which gives voice to an old demand.  “Now, LORD, now is the time to save,” says this little word, calling God by the Name that ought to remind God to be merciful to God’s people.

The intensity of “Hosanna”

The word, hosanna, ends with an intensifier (-na).

Some translate as “please,” but that translation is, to my ear, far too mild, far too submissive, far too polite to catch the way “-na” is used in Biblical Hebrew.

  • Say “hosanna” aloud.  Listen to it.
  • More important, feel it.
    • The sound  “-na” at the end of the word resonates from deep in your chest.
    • The sound takes the combination of the Divine Name and the plea for rescue and carries them down into your lungs.  When the apostle Paul talks about the Spirit interceding for us in sighs too deep for words, this is part of what he means.
  • The sound prays with a vibrating intensity that will have rung deep and solid along the streets and alleyways, sounding from the bodies of frail grandmothers and young, strong women equally well.  Young and old men will have felt it, too, and even men no longer accustomed to praying will have felt the profundity.  Prayers they had abandoned in their childhood will have come back to them as the “-na” resonated, reminding them of what they hoped for deep in their being.

But Luke skips the Hosanna.  Is he weakening the prayers of the crowd?

Older interpreters sometimes imagined that Luke was soft-pedaling the hopes of the community in the interests of a “delayed parousia,” a postponing of God taking effective action to help a Creation in pain.

I am no longer convinced

There is an intensity to Luke’s story that is missed if you read the story as urging satisfaction (or at least patience) with the status quo.  When the daughters of Jerusalem weep for the Pilate’s execution of yet another brother (23:31), Jesus says that this is only a “greenwood” fire, smoky and relatively low-intensity, compared to what is very shortly coming when Rome will incinerate the city and slaughter the people as they crush the First Jewish Revolt.

More significant than Luke’s omission of hosannas is his choice of what the crowds WILL say

In concert with the other three gospels, the crowds bless the one who is coming, and all include that this is “in the Name of the LORD,” whatever this exactly means.

  • Luke complicates this, perhaps, by inserting the phrase, “The king,” into the cries of the crowd.
    • That little phrase could simply be a quick identification of the one who is coming (“It’s the king.”) in the Name of the LORD.
    • But it could also mean that the blessed one who is coming will rule as the embodiment of the MERCY that is called mind for the rabbis whenever the Divine Name YHWH is used in the Bible.  The Divine Name “Elohim” (God) names the “Justice Attribute,” say the rabbis, the aspect of God that guarantees order and predictability will govern the cosmos.  The unpronounceable Divine Name, “YHWH” (the LORD), names the “Mercy Attribute,” the crucial activity of God always to be “slow to anger,” always to “abound in love.”
  • If the coming one is to rule in MERCY, then the Creation is on the brink of healing.

Luke’s other choices are even more breath-taking

Luke anchors this healing of Creation by the other choices he makes for the crowd.  The waiting, praying crowd sings of peace and glory in the highest realms of existence.

This song has been sung before

The words were a bit different (understandable, since the exact circumstances were also a bit different), but the force of the song was the same.  This is the song that the angels sang when they announced great joy to all the congregation of Israel.  They announced “Christos kurios.”  This announcement, usually translated as “Christ the Lord,” deserves careful attention.

  • Christos” names the one anointed to turn the world right-side-up.  This is most often a king, sometimes a priest, but always this Anointed One acts to make it possible to call the world “God’s own Creation” without bitterness or irony.
  • Kurios” translates the Name of the Mercy Attribute, and thus echoes the note sounded by Luke’s crowd when they bless the king who will reign in Mercy.
    • Perhaps the angels sing, in the same way, of the Messiah who will heal in Mercy.
    • This reading of the Greek also solves a syntactical problem in the angel’s song.  “Christos kurios” parks two nouns next to each other without giving a clue what to do next.  Is it an appositive (“Christ, a Lord” or “Christ, the Lord,” for the squeamish)?  Is it a quotation of the Psalms of Solomon, where the same, rather surprising, phrase is used?  Is it a somewhat awkward colloquial expression?  Is it a consequence of the presence of poetry, which always gives syntax a real workout?
    • What if it is simply a Hebrew construct phrase?  Then the angel is singing straightforwardly about the “Messiah of the Mercy Attribute,” the “Messiah of MERCY,” God’s dedicated act of healing.

However you translate this, it matters that what the angels sang is now being sung by ordinary women and men in the streets and alleyways of occupied Jerusalem.  Luke does not use the word “hosanna,” perhaps because he does not need it.  What matters is that what started as a song sung in the highest realms by exalted angels has now become a song that anyone can sing.  That’s the way it is with a good song.  Good songs go viral.

But it gets even more intense

Pharisees come from the crowd (and that identification, that they, too, were “from the crowd,” implies that they were praying for the healing of the Creation right along with the common crowd).  These faithful Pharisees caution Jesus that such language gets out of hand far too easily.  Jesus answers (he does not rebuke, he answers) that if the little kids and old ladies in the crowd were silent, the rocks would sing in their place.

This is a decisive step.  The ancient Jewish world was a structural unity.  The design for the whole entity was set in the Heavens, where the angels were the key structural elements (angelic I-beams, if you will).  This orderly, reliable, stable structure proceeded from the presence of God outward, down through the realms where humans can never reach, even from the highest mountains, down to the human realm, and from there on to the ground we walk on and excavate to lay the foundations of the buildings we can make.

Jesus says that the song that the angels sang is now the song of the entire Creation

It is being sung even by rocks.  If Jesus had known anything about sub-atomic particles, he would have added that even quarks now echo the angels.

Now is the day of rescue.  The whole Creation sings it.

A Provocation: Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C: April 3, 2022: John 12:1-8

     before six of the days of the Passover,
came into Bethany,
     where Lazarus was
          (Lazarus whom he raised out of the corpses,
          Jesus had).  
2They made, 
for him a banquet there.
     Martha served as deacon;
     Lazarus was one out of those reclining with him;
3Mariam took a pound of ointment of nard
she anointed the feet of Jesus;
she wiped with her hair,
     wiped his feet.
          The house was filled out of the smell of the ointment.
4He says,
     Judah the Iscariot does,
          (one out of his disciples,
          the one about to hand him over):
     5On account of what is this ointment not sold
          at a cost of three hundred denarii, 
          nearly a year’s wages,
     and given to the poor?
          6He said this,
               not because he was concerned about the poor,
          but because he was a thief.
               (He had the money case
               He used to steal what was thrown in.)
7He said, then,
     Jesus did:
     Leave her alone,
          in order that into the day of my entombment 
          it will be treasured.  
     8The poor, 
     always you have with you;
     me not always do you have. 

This is a re-visiting of a Provocation from a few years ago. I hope it proves useful again.

Four gospels, four anointings

Three are in Bethany, the fourth might be anywhere, including Bethany, though Luke surrounds the scene with places in Galilee. Two definitely take place in the home of Simon the Leper, whoever that is. John’s anointing could also be in Simon’s house, but we would have no way of knowing.

A woman enters. In the anointing scenes, a woman always enters. In Luke, she is a sinner, though the word need not imply that she is anything more than a non-observant Jew. In Mark and Matthew, her act (but not her name) will be remembered for ever. Mark goes so far as to build a memorial to old What’s-Her-Name. Only John knows her name, but it won’t do to import Mary into the synoptic scenes. When a storyteller chooses not to reveal a name, we have no business pretending that we know a secret that we have not been told.

The varied details of these related scenes tie them together. All four gospels know of a woman who anoints Jesus. Sometimes she anoints his head (Mark and Matthew), sometimes his feet (Luke and John). Sometimes the ointment is pure nard (Mark and John); Matthew, Mark, and John specify that it is costly (though the exact word they use varies); in the Synoptics it is in an alabaster container. In Matthew, Mark, and John, Judas Iscariot makes an appearance, but only John brings him into the anointing scene itself. All four know that someone was criticized in the scene, though only Luke imagines that it was Jesus. Usually the woman is attacked.

I do not think it serves any useful purpose to try to decide which version of the story came first. The Synoptics share details back and forth with John, defeating any easy analysis. All four canonical storytellers are fascinated by the scene. Each uses it to embody key structural themes in the story being told. Apparently, this little scene can be used by anyone to make any point that needs to be made, so the crucial interpretive task is to analyze it as part of the weave of the gospel in which it now appears: in Matthew, the woman continues a pattern begun in the genealogy, where women take decisive action to move the story forward; in Mark, it is this woman who establishes the narrative warrant for calling Jesus the messiah, the anointed one; in Luke the issue is hospitality and wholeness, and the storyteller lets the woman’s act motivate Jesus to heal a rift in the people of Israel.

John’s weave

John’s weave is equally complex, and very different. We are introduced to Lazarus and his sisters in chapter 11. We discover that Lazarus is a sick man, and that he is from Bethany, from the village of Mary and Martha, his sisters. Before we learn anything more, the storyteller informs us that Mary was the one who anointed him (in the past tense, though it has not yet happened). When we meet them again in chapter 12, Jesus comes into Bethany (he had retreated into the wilderness); he is on his way to Jerusalem for Passover, along with the whole flowing stream of faithful Jews going to celebrate freedom in the face of foreign domination. Bethany is identified (unnecessarily, since it’s only been one chapter) as the place where Lazarus was, and Lazarus is identified as the one whom Jesus raised from death. Past is tied to future, the present moment is suspended in memories and actions that twist around each other, and the verb tenses can’t keep up. Time is always tangled in John’s story, but that probably should be expected, given that the story itself starts before time itself.

“They” gave a banquet

We don’t know who “they” might be, but since Lazarus, the no-longer-quite-so-dead one, is listed among those reclining to eat and not as the host of the event, the event clearly extends beyond a small family gathering. The narrative context probably gives good hints as to why the whole town gives a banquet: the story is surrounded by reminiscences of the raising of Lazarus and of the joy this caused in the area. Jesus probably never had to pay for drinks or a meal in Bethany ever again. Apparently Jesus was not the only person in Bethany who loved Lazarus.

Mary enters

She anoints Jesus’ feet. The entire action takes only one verse. This single verse is solidly concrete in the midst of John’s often ethereal story. Mary carries a container of nard, pure and costly. She anoints his feet. She wipes his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the smell of the ointment. These very specific, very concrete moments of sensation give this scene a remarkable solidity. The smell fills the house. The last time we met Lazarus, there was also a smell. Martha pointed it out that time. It was the smell of death. This time it seems to be the smell of rejoicing at the restoration of life, though Jesus turns it back to death in his commentary. Life and death dance together tightly in John’s story, and the smell links them.

The scene also involves feet and hair, customary elements that show up in various Synoptic versions. The elements are customary, and common, since most of us have feet and many of us have hair. But these feet and this hair bring an intensity to the scene that you can only discover when you perform the scene. Lazarus is reclining to eat. Presumably, so is Jesus. Mary therefore has to kneel to apply the ointment. That change of posture focuses the scene. By most accounts, we should image that women were veiled in ancient Jewish culture, and that their hair was coiled tightly, unseen except by her closest family members. Before she can wipe his feet, she has to remove her veil (whatever its exact nature) and unbind her hair. That action takes time, and during that time, the silent scene focuses entirely on her. The sight of her hair (which St. Paul describes as the “glory of a woman”) would have surprised, even frozen, the crowd. Then she has to bend deep down to wipe the feet with her hair.

Do this.

Find a pair of actors (or people simply willing to embody the scene), and do this.

The intensity of the scene will surprise you.

When the anointing is connected with the raising of the brother, Lazarus, Mary’s intense joy will overwhelm you. The act is powerful, intimate, astonishing, breath-taking. The entire community is gathered to celebrate the joy of (for once) receiving back from death an essential person who had died. Their joy is focused by the specific act of a sister who had lost a brother. The power of the scene makes sense. The intimacy makes sense. But you will be surprised by how powerful and how intimate if you actually play the scene.

Judas objects, but his objection now emerges as an even deeper offense. The mention of his thievery seems even beside the point, since he is really objecting, not to waste, but to joy and love. And because Jesus immediately links the anointing to his own entombment, Judas is also made to object to the resurrection. This use of the character, Judas, causes problems, especially given the history of interpretation, which connects (all too gladly) Judas with the Jewish people. At least one layer of John’s story (the latest and angriest layer, I argue) makes the same sort of connection. Interpreters ought step wisely along such trails, walking on them critically or not at all.

The whole story

But this little scene with its tight physical focus finally holds the whole story together. The characters, the aroma, and the purposefully distorted verb tenses link the anointing to the raising of Lazarus. This insistent distortion of time links it to the beginning of John’s story beyond the structure of time. The aroma also links this celebration of life to a memory of death, and Jesus connects this link, himself, when he reminds the audience of his entombment, a matter they could not forget. Life and death are linked back to life that rises from death.

And all of this is held in Mary’s hand with the container of ointment. All of this is held in her powerful actions: kneeling, unveiling, unbinding, bending, and wiping. And the entire story is bound up in the joy that Mary embodies. This ties Mary to the disciples at the end. This ties Mary also to the God’s joy at the beginning of creating and loving the cosmos. Mary embodies John’s whole story.

A Provocation: 4th Sunday in Lent: March 27, 2022: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

1	They were to him so close,
		all the tax gatherers
			and the non-observant,
				to hear him.
2	They grumbled,
		both the Pharisees
		and the scribes.
		They said:
			This one
				welcomes the non-observant
		and eats with them.
3	He said to them this parable.
		He said:
4	What person among you
				has one hundred sheep
				loses out of them 
			and does not abandon the ninety-nine
				in the wordless wilderness
			and walk to the lost one	
				until he should find it?
5			When he finds it
				he places it on his shoulders
				he rejoices.
6				He comes into the house;
		he calls together the friends
					and the neighbors.
		He says to them:
			Rejoice with me
					because I found my sheep
						the lost one.
7		I am talking to you:
			Thus joy there will be in the heaven,
			Joy in the case of one non-observant 
who has a change of mind,
				more than in the case of ninety nine strictly observant
					who have no need of change of mind.
8		Or what woman,
		she has drachmas
				ten of them.
		If ever she should lose a drachma
				(just one)
		doesn’t she light a lamp
			sweep the house
			seek carefully
				until when she should find it?
9			(When) she finds it
			she calls together the friends
					and neighbors
			she says:
				Rejoice with me
			because I found the drachma that was lost.
10		Thus,
	I am talking to you,
		it happens:
			joy before the messengers of Elohim
			on one non-observant person 
                        who has a change of mind.
11		He said:
			A person
				some guy had two sons.
12			He said,
		the younger one of them did,
		to the father:
				Give to me the proper portion of your being.
			He divided to them his means of making a living.
13			After not many days
			he gathered everything,
		the young son did,
			he departed into a distant region.
			There he sowed around his being
				he lived without saving.
14			When he spent all,
			it happened:
			a famine
					a strong one
				against that region.
	He began to be in want.
15			He traveled.
	He was glued to one of the citizens of that region.
		He sent his into his fields
				to feed pigs.
16				He longed to be stuffed
		out of the carob pods
				that the pigs ate.
				No one was giving anything to him.
17			Into himself he came
			he said:
		How many hired workers
					of my father
		have too much bread?
				But I,
			by a famine here, 
I am being destroyed.
18				I will stand up.
		I will walk
					to my father.
		I will say to him:
			I sinned
				against heaven
						and before you.
19					No longer am I worthy
		to be called your son.
	Make me as one of your hired workers.
20			He stood up;
		he went to his father.
			While still he was far off,
he saw him,
				his father did.
			He was moved;
			he ran;
			he fell on his neck;
			he kissed him.
21			He said
				the son did
	to him:
		I sinned against heaven
					and before you
		No longer am I worthy
				to be called your son.
22			He said,
				the father did,
		to his slaves:
				Bring out a robe
					the first
				clothe him.
				Give a signet ring
					into his hand.
				And shoes on his feet.
23				Bring the calf,
		the grainfed one.
	Kill it.
		We will eat;
		we will be happy.
24			There was
				his son,
		the older one,
	he was in the field.
		He came.
			He was so close to the house.
			He heard music and dancing.
26			He called one of the children/servants
	He questioned him
			what might these things be.
27			He said to him:
			Your brother has come.
			He killed,
				your father did,
			the calf,
				the grainfed one,
			because he received him as healthy.
28		He was angry;
		he did not want to go in.
	His father came out
			he was calling him.
29		He answered,
		he said to his father:
			so many years I am a slave to you.
		Not one commandment of yours did I neglect.
			To me,
		not once did you give a kid
		so that
					with my friends
				I should be happy.
30			When your son,
				this one,
		the one who ate up your means of making a living
						with prostitutes,
		when he came,
			you kill
				for him
			the grainfed calf.
31		He said to him:
		you are always with me.
			Everything mine is yours.
32			To be happy
			and to rejoice
			is binding:
				Your brother,
					this one,
				a corpse he was.
					He lives.
				Lost he was.
                                        He is found.

This is my Provocation from several years ago, but it seemed useful to repost it for this week. I have included my translation of the entire fifteenth chapter, just in case that is helpful. Explore! Enjoy!

This scene is difficult because it is too easy.

Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees and scribes grumble. The fact that the tax collectors were collaborating with a brutal enemy (Rome) only leads interpreters to claim this as an instance of radical grace. And at the end, the scene becomes a simple contest between law and gospel, a contest gospel always wins.

And perhaps the customary readings of this scene are exactly what is needed.

One could do worse.

But the scene is stranger than its customary interpretation, and I am convinced that strangeness provokes productive reading.

For instance:

  • The storyteller does not begin by saying that the son repented, but only that he “came to himself .” That could imply that he experienced a deep, life-changing realization that remade him completely. Maybe. But it could also merely imply that he did the math and realized that, on his current trajectory, he would crash and burn in a short time.
  • The translators of this scene have papered over a clue to the son’s moral state. They tell us that the son says that his father’s hired servants have “bread enough and to spare,” this in the face of his own starvation. That is a workable translation of the Greek, but a much more natural reading would catch a very different note. The son says that the hired servants not only have enough bread, they have too much. That difference matters. He contrasts himself with mere hired servants, and judges that it is not right that they should have more than he, as a beloved son, has.
  • If he had made a contrast with his brother, the flavor would be different. In that case the contrast would be between his location and his brother’s, between his choices and his brother’s, and one might expect him to return home and try to live more like a son and less like a leech. The fact that he contrasts his situation with that of servants (who should be glad just to have a job) suggests that he believes his status entitles him to more food. Does this sound like life-changing repentance?
  • Though the son’s rehearsed speech could seem to imply that he has learned his lesson, and that he is, in fact, ready to surrender his status and sense of entitlement, I am strongly inclined to read it as revealing the opposite. Years ago, Donald Juel suggested a reading of this scene that recognized what older siblings have sometimes learned about younger siblings: they have the advantage of waiting, watching, and learning how to manipulate their parents. I find that reading persuasive. I think the son knows that the father, who gladly agreed to go along with the legal fiction that he was dead so that the son could inherit the death benefit, would melt at the suggestion that he treat him now as a servant. The father’s soft point (as the young son knows) is that he is far too willing to treat him as a beloved son, even when the outcomes are decidedly negative.
  • Notice that it is only when the son plans what he will say to his father that he evinces a willingness to surrender his status. When he speaks to himself, he notes that the servants have more food than they should rightly have, given their status. Internal monologue reveals the heart, and this revelation is disturbing.
  • If the young son is finally a selfish manipulator, what will he do in the future? The storyteller leaves this crucial question without an answer.

What if these oddities are the key to the story?

  • If the oddities are the interpretive key, then this well-loved scene is not a bland endorsement of hospitality and welcome, but an acknowledgment of the real risks that go with actual grace.
  • It even raises the question of whether grace is such a good idea after all. Deep in the heart of my theological marrow I have a commitment to the notion that grace is a radical, creative force that remakes even the deepest corruption. I have found that notion comforting, and preachable, many times. But this strange little scene requires me to stop and wonder, requires me to notice that the father, who says that his dead son is now alive, has been wrong before.
  • We do not know how the story turns out, and the storyteller must have intended it that way. Is the son re-made, or just re-shoed, restored, and rested for his next caper? How do things turn out next week? We do not know. And we have to ask.
  • If the oddities are the key, then I find myself thinking, not about the amazingly successful resolution to this scene, but about the risk with which it ends. Perhaps only grace could redeem the young son. Perhaps so. But it is also clear that we do not know that he is redeemed. As I said, the father, ever overly optimistic, has been wrong before.
  • Perhaps this strange scene shines its brightest light, not on the beauty of a gracious (but abstract) theology, but on the unrepentantly real risks of life together. Welcoming the stranger into the home sometimes ends with a knife between the ribs. It just does.
  • If you pretend that such things never happen, people who prefer fear and anger as motivators will win the argument every time, and faithfulness will be left looking like a sentimental artifact of a charming childhood.
  • Perhaps the point is that the risks are as real as the love. And then the point is that the love is indomitable. Perhaps. And indomitable love might indeed re-create the world.

But perhaps one ought tremble when reading this scene.

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A Provocation: Second Sunday of Advent: December 9, 2018: Luke 3:1-6

The Provocation from the last time through Year C is worth revisiting. What if Luke’s story is more interesting, and more complicated, than we have assumed?


Luke 3:1-6

1In the fifteenth year of the hegemony of Tiberias Caesar,

when Pontius Pilate had hegemony over Judea,

Tetrarch over Galilee: Herod,

Philip (his brother) Tetrarch: over Iturea

and the region of Trachonitus

Lysanius: over Abilene, Tetrarch,

2 in the time of the priesthood of Annas (Gracious) and Caiaphas (Stone??):

It happened

a word of Elohim

on Yochanan

(MERCY is Gracious)

the son of Zechariah

(MERCY Remembers, or Remember MERCY)

in the wordless wilderness.

3He went into all the surrounding region of the Jordan

proclaiming a purification of mind-changing

into release of sins.

4As it stands written in the book

of arguments of Yesha-yahu

(MERCY is Salvation)

the prophet:

A voice bellows:

In the wordless wilderness

Prepare the road of  MERCY

straight make his paths.

5Every ravine will be filled

every mountain and hill…

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A Provocation: Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 27 (31): November 7, 2021: Mark 12:38-44

38 In his teaching he kept saying: 
     Beware of the scribes who want 
          in garments of honor 
     to walk around 
          and want greetings in the marketplaces 
          39 and first seats in the synagogues 
          and first places in the feasts, 
     40 They eat up the houses of widows 
          and on a pretext pray long prayers: 
               these will receive a far greater judgment.
41 He sat opposite the treasury;
he was watching how the crowd threw coins into the treasury.
     Many rich men threw in many things.
42 There came one woman,
     a poor widow.
     She came.
     She threw two coins 
          (worth about a quarter of a cent).  
43 He called to him his disciples;
he said to them: 
     I tell you the truth: 
          this widow, 
               this poor widow, 
          more than all the others she threw,
               more that all those who threw into the treasury.  
               44 For all those,
                    out of their excess, 
               they threw. 
                    out of her deficiency, 
               she threw all, 
                    as much as she had.
                    She threw the whole of her life.  

Translation from my commentary, Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller's Commentary (The Pilgrim Press, 2005)

A Question or Two:

  • Who do you know that eats up the houses of widows?

Some Longer Reflections:

The first thing to notice is that Jesus DOES NOT tell his audience to beware of ALL scribes. We have, in fact, met scribes in the story who are “not far from the dominion of God.” Jesus is only warning the audience about those scribes who like to traipse around in long robes, sucking all the oxygen out of the room and taking advantage of people who cannot defend themselves.

This matters.

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus has a mother, but there is no mention of his father. None at all. We aren’t even given a name. He is never identified as Jesus Josephson. (Well, sure, they would have said “Jesus, bar Joseph,” but you get the point.)

That might mean something. Taking Mark’s story as the WHOLE story (at least for the moment), that could mean that Jesus simply has no father. That could be because his father was never in the picture in the first place. Or it could mean that his father (whoever that was) died early. (And, just for reference, notice also that Mark says nothing about a “virgin birth.”)

Based only on the story that Mark tells, Mary is a single mother. Perhaps she is a widow.

If she is a widow, perhaps she is one of those people whose house was eaten up by some scribe who was full of himself, but was still hungry enough to eat up Jesus’ childhood home.

I have used the word “perhaps” an awful lot. You should notice that, and you should withhold judgment as a result.

But what if Jesus’ knows what it’s like to have someone with power take advantage of your mother? That might go a long way to make sense of his concern for people who are poor or powerless.

It might also shape the way you read his reaction to the woman who throws her whole life into the treasury. The storyteller does NOT say that Jesus approves of her desperate generosity. He only notes that she has just thrown it all away.

On the one hand, if all you have in the world is two coins, you might as well give it away. You can’t buy supper in any case. That makes her a bit like the widow in the story from 1 Kings: she also decided to give her son one last meal and then die.

But on another hand, it is possible that Jesus sees the contribution system as abusive. Perhaps scribes who are unscrupulous tell poor people that God expects them to give all they have, and will reward them richly. Of course, such scribes first need to buy themselves a private jet or a new Mercedes.

And on yet another hand, maybe what is going on here makes sense only in a culture that practices give-away. My friends who are Lakota have told me about the practice of giving everything away after a death. This leaves the widow with no resources. No resources except for the resource of the family and community to which she belongs. Give-away makes it clear that, in the face of bereavement or other ordinary catastrophes, we need each other if we are to survive.

And, to add yet one more hand, perhaps the widow in this scene is one of the crowd of women that Mark’s storyteller points out as having always been around Jesus (see Mark 15). These women “deaconed” for Jesus, which means they connected need with resource. They will have brought people to Jesus who needed help. They will presumably also have connected people with needs with other people who could help them. After all, in the gospel of Mark it is not just Jesus who has resources to share. (“You give them something to eat,” says Jesus in chapter 6. Jesus then multiplies the resource, of course, but it all starts with people sharing food.)

But nothing says that the people in this ever-present-but-always-overlooked crowd were all people of independent means. Perhaps some of the women in this group were poor widows, and perhaps the woman in this scene was one of them. In that case, Jesus in this scene has to consider whether he has said or done something that left that woman without resources.

Of course, these are only exploratory questions, not judgments based on incontrovertible evidence. No kidding. But I am convinced that preachers (and all theologians) need more questions and fewer answers.

Answers tend to shut our eyes and ears, which is why Jesus speaks (and perhaps acts) so often in parables.

A Provocation: Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 26 (31): October 31, 2021: Mark 12:28-34

18 And they came, 
toward him, 
     (those who say there is no resurrection), 
and they kept asking him; 
     they said: 
          19 Teacher, 
          Moses wrote to us: 
               If someone’s brother should die 
                    and leave a wife 
                    and should not discharge a  child, 
               his brother should take the wife 
                    and raise seed to his brother.  
               20 Seven brothers there were.  
                    And the first took a wife. 
                         He died;
                         he did not discharge seed.  
                    21 And the second took her,
                         and died without leaving seed, 
                    and the third the same way
                         22  None of the seven discharged seed.  
                    Last of all, also the woman died.  
                    23 In the resurrection 
                         (whenever it is that they would rise) 
                    of which of them will she be wife?  
                         for the seven had the same wife. 
      24 Jesus said to them: 
          Isn’t it on account of this you are deceived:
               you know neither the scripture nor the power of God?  
          25 For “whenever it is that they would rise” out of death 
               neither will they marry or be given in marriage.  
                    But they are like angels in the heavens.  
          26 Concerning the dead, 
               that they are raised, 
          don’t you read in the book of Moses 
               (the part about the bush) 
          how God said to him: 
               I AM the God of Abraham 
                    and the God of Isaac 
                    and the God of Jacob?
                         27 God is not God of the dead but of the living.  
          You are very much deceived.  
28 One of the scribes approached. 
He heard them arguing;
he saw how beautifully he answered them; 
     he asked him: 
          Which is the commandment, 
               the first of all?  
     29 Jesus answered: 
          First is: 
               Hear Israel: 
               The LORD your God, the LORD is One, 
                    30 and you will love the LORD your God 
                         out of the whole of your heart
                         and out of the whole of your life 
                         and out of the whole of your mind, 
                         and out of the whole of your strength.  
          31 Second, this: 
               You will love your neighbor as yourself.  
          There can exist no commandment greater than these.
     32 He said to him 
     the scribe did: 
          Beautifully done, Teacher, 
          based on truth you spoke: 
               “One there is, 
               and there cannot be another 
                    except God,” 
          33 and 
               “to love God 
                    out of the whole of the heart 
                    and out of the whole of the understanding 
                    and out of the whole of the strength…”
               “to love the neighbor as oneself…”
          This exceeds all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.  
34 Jesus, 
seeing that he answered rationally, 
     said to him: 
          Not far you are, 
          not far from the dominion of God.  
And no one any longer dared to question him.  

A Question or Two:

  • So, was Jesus a Pharisee?
  • He surely is NOT a Sadducee.

Some Longer Reflections:

For a longer exploration, see my Provocation on Mark 12:28-34 from 2018: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/a-provocation-twenty-fourth-sunday-after-pentecost-november-4-2018-mark-1228-34/

Just one thing catches my eye this year.

               Hear Israel: 
               The LORD your God, the LORD is One,

Observant Jews recite the Shema every morning and every evening, and hope to speak these words again at the moment of death. And it all starts with the words that Jesus says in answer to a question about Torah. This is not surprising since, as Paul Fredriksen notes, Jesus is himself an observant Jew.

Of course, behind the word “LORD” is the Divine Name, which is used to indicate the activity of the Mercy Attribute, that key aspect of God that calls, chooses, nurtures, and forgives. The first phrase in this affirmation makes it clear: for Jewish faith, the God that regulates the world is a God whose Name is Mercy.

And then comes the part that catches my eye: The God whose Name is Mercy is One.

Read this carefully. This does NOT mean that only the chosen few have access to God’s Mercy, no matter how often this is asserted by narrow ideologues (many of them Christians). The Oneness of God reveals God’s centrality, not exclusivity. The Jewish affirmation of God’s Oneness makes the point that God is a Singularity. Think of the attractive power of a black hole. All matter and all energy is drawn to the singularity. The Shema says that God is the same: for all the differences in the ways we speak of God (even among just Jews!), still God is One, and that Oneness consists in Mercy.

This understanding has deep roots in Jewish faith. The Noachide Covenant (made between God and Noah) does not expect people who are not Jewish to convert. This Covenant simply expects non-Jews not to act like idiots: no idolatry, no cursing God, no murdering, marital unfaithfulness, no stealing, and don’t eat meat torn from a living animal. And, while you’re at it, establish courts of justice. These are sensible and accessible requirements for people who have no real idea what keeping kosher might entail. And the hopes rising out of the work of Second Isaiah point to the gathering of all people, Jews and non-Jews, all of us together gathered by the Mercy of God. This is even the substance of the song sung by the sky-ful of angels at the birth of Jesus (gospel of Luke):

Δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ 

καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας. 

Glory in the highest [places] to God; and on earth peace among people who are either characterized by good will or who approved by God. Or it could be both, and that would make sense, given the Noachide Covenant: people of good will don’t act like idiots and are thus approved by God. The angels do not expect that this peace will only come to some small group. The angels sing peace to all people of good will. Their song, by the way, also replicates Jesus’ words about Torah: both God and neighbor are included.

But if the God who is One is a Singularity, a power of Mercy that attracts all of Creation, then our task as people of faith is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the God whose Name is Mercy. It seems I have heard that somewhere before.

A Provocation: Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 25 (30): October 24, 2021: Jeremiah 31:7-9

7For thus says the LORD: 
     Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, 
     and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; 
     proclaim, give praise, and say, 
          "Save, O LORD, your people, 
               the remnant of Israel."
          8See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, 
          and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, 
               among them the blind and the lame, 
               those with child 
               and those in labor, 
          together; a great company, they shall return here.
               9With weeping they shall come, 
               and with consolations I will lead them back, 
                    I will let them walk by brooks of water, 
                    in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; 
               for I have become a father to Israel, 
                    and Ephraim is my firstborn.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is Jacob mentioned?
  • Yes, I know that Jacob and Israel are the same narrative character, and I know that this is poetry so I should expect such renaming, but what does bringing Jacob in contribute to the statement of prophecy?

Some Longer Reflections:

Jeremiah and Isaiah are the prophets that always have names. The other prophets get allusions, or even quotations, but they aren’t named. I do not remember a single instance where Paul or any gospel storyteller says, “As it stands written in the prophet, Habakkuk….” And when Jesus asks who people say that he is, no one says, “Zephaniah.” At best, he shows up in the catch-all term “one of the prophets of old.”

Jeremiah, like Isaiah, was a prophet from the Babylonian period, when “Judah [had] gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude” (Lamentations 1:3). And that is why we have to notice that Jeremiah is talking about Jacob, about Israel, about the Northern Kingdom that had been scattered in exile by Assyria nearly 200 years before Jeremiah spoke these words.

Why bring in Jacob?

It is an important question. It means that Jeremiah and his audience have raised their eyes higher than their own predicament. They are together looking for something bigger than the easing of their pain. They are together remembering the earlier disaster, the Assyrian onslaught that obliterated 10/12s of the Jewish people. When I read such passages with my students, they notice that the Babylonian Exile was not the first rupture in the history of the Jewish people, nor was it the last. They notice, also, that trauma has left deep marks on the Jewish faith, and by extension on the Christian faith as well.

This might be a week to remember that. We misunderstand the problems of the present when we forget the traumas of the past that have marked us and shaped our lives and our hopes. Jeremiah’s words make it clear that healing in the present moment will require the healing of past losses. The relatives scattered by the Assyrians will have to be returned.

This, of course, would be impossible. Two centuries of dispersion would have made those people untraceable. Other ancient Jewish texts imagine that the voice of Messiah would call all these lost and scattered relatives home to Mount Zion. Some even imagine that God would use birds to send out the call to return. The birds would find the descendants of the exiles just like the doves in the old Aschenputtel (Cinderella) story picked the lentils out of the ashes. But returning all those who had been lost would have been impossible, and this impossibility is part of the prophecy. Jeremiah and his audience knew that very well.

Life leaves marks. If we forget that, we misunderstand our reactions to pain and disruption. People (and peoples) who have experienced trauma cannot just “get over it.” It continues the trauma to demand that they do. When we demand that people “just get over it” we are making it clear that what we want, what we demand, is that we not be disturbed. And when other people remind us of the event that changed everything, that damaged everything, we are annoyed. We don’t think of it as annoyance. We think of it as realism, as tough love, as good advice. But what we really want is to avoid any disruption in our world. “After all,” we say, “everybody has troubles. You’re no different.”

But my trouble does not cancel out your trouble. The fact that my relatives left Sweden because the economic system collapsed on top of them does not cancel out the trouble that was caused when they settled on the hereditary land of the Anishinaabe in northern Minnesota. The Anishinaabe live there still, and the dominant culture created by my relatives and their descendants is a reminder of the loss of their relatives and the loss of their hereditary land.

In the late 19th century the Ghost Dance emerged among Native Americans, beginning with the Northern Paiutes and spreading widely. People performed the Dance hoping that it would bring about the return of the bison, the return of all the relatives lost, and the return of the sacred hereditary land. These hopes were crushed at Wounded Knee when Spotted Elk and the people following him were massacred. James Mooney spoke with Lakota people after this catastrophe and they told him that they would no longer speak of the Ghost Dance to him or to any other European. (see Mooney, The Ghost Dance Religion). Trauma upon trauma left indelible marks.

Jeremiah’s words remind me of the hopes expressed in the Ghost Dance. Jeremiah’s words remind me of the marks left by trauma. Jeremiah’s words make me wonder if his audience also resolved never to speak of their hopes to the Babylonians. And then I remember Psalm 137, and I realize that the trauma of lost relatives and lost land may be the same in any century.

May all those who must remember losses become God’s firstborn.