A Provocation: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 16 (21): August 25, 2019: Luke 13:10-17

10     He was teaching in one of the synagogues
              every  Sabbath.
11     Look,
              a woman
                   a breath she has
                        a breath of weakness for eighteen years.
                   She was bent together.
                        She was not able to stand erect at all.
12     He saw her,
              Joshua did.
         He called to her
              he said to her:
                       You stand released from your weakness.
13          He placed on her his hand
                   suddenly she was straightened.
                   She glorified Elohim.
14     He answered
              the leader of the synagogue did
         he was angry
                   in the Sabbath
                   Joshua cured..
         He kept saying to the crowd:
              Six days there are
                   in which it is binding to work.
                        In these
                        you come and be cured
                             and not in the day of the Sabbath.
15     He answered him
              haShem did,
         he said:
                   Each of you,
                        in the Sabbath,
                   don’t you untie your ox,
                        or your donkey,
                   from the stall
                   and lead it out
                   and water it?
16          This is a daughter of Abraham.
                   whom the satan bound;
                        eighteen years.
              Is it not binding that she be untied
                   from this bondage
              in the day of the Sabbath?
17     When he said those things,
         all were ashamed,
              all those opposed to him.
         The whole crowd kept rejoicing
         at the glorious things,
              the things that happened by him.

I have written about this scene before. More than once. More than lots of times. You could check my book, Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary. You could read what I posted three years ago on this blog: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/07/01/a-provocation-fourteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-luke-1310-17/

This is something else.

The woman has a “breath of weakness,” at least that’s how I translate her condition. Most translators tell you that she has a “spirit that had crippled her” (NRSV). That’s a good translation. The word that I read as “weakness” is commonly used to refer to anything that cripples anyone. And πνεῦμα is often translated as “spirit.”

I have two problems with this translation. First, making it a “spirit” brings in an entire supernatural realm that doesn’t fit the world I think I live in. I understand that ancients lived in a world filled with invisible supernatural beings. I understand that a colleague and friend of mine, full-blooded Lakota, lives in a world in which there are “little people” who are always just out of your direct line of sight. But I also understand that I do NOT live in such a world, not even when my friend and I are in the same room. When you translate anything, you “carry it across” (trans-late) into your world. The world is wildly more complicated, and thus infinitely more interesting, than my own limited perception of it, but that does not mean I think it is helpful to set up audiences to read this as some kind of fairy tale.

And the second reason I have trouble with making this a “spirit” is that πνεῦμα also ALWAYS means “breath.” And breath is particularly crucial in this scene. The woman is “bent together,” bent double, perhaps, when she enters the scene and the synagogue. The storyteller informs us that she has been this way for 18 years. Before you go interpreting this scene, you should figure out what “bent together” means for her. So, stand up, bend double, hold that posture, and read the scene aloud. Notice what happens to your voice. That was the voice that this woman had, the only voice she had had for almost the entire time anyone in the synagogue had known her. Stay bent double. If she couldn’t just stand up, neither can you.

Sure this is a scene about Shabbat. Sure it is about Jesus and his ability to heal. But this is a scene about the woman whose breath was weak, and whose voice was stopped up, weakened. Even if she raised her voice, she couldn’t raise her head, and so people just over-looked her. Over—looked. Her.

What do you suppose her voice sounded like when she was finally able to raise it? The storyteller tells us she “praised Elohim.” That is the Name used for God, so say the rabbis, when God is acting to bring about justice. So this is a scene about justice? If so, the embedded statement is that NO ONE should be “weak in breath,” no one should have her voice stopped up, no one should be “bent together” so that she could be overlooked.

How many times have you heard this response the the #MeToo movement: “Why didn’t she say something at the time?” “Why do you suppose she waited until NOW to finally speak up?”

Good question.

Maybe this little scene gives a hint. In our world, ancient or not, there are people who, being “bent double,” are weak in breath and those of us who think all it takes to be successful is to “stand on your own two feet,” “stand up straight,” and “stand up for yourself.”

By the way, I didn’t tell you that you could stand up yet. Bend double. Stay that way.

In this scene, a woman regains her voice. I wonder what it sounded like? I wonder if even she was surprised, after all those years? In this scene, a woman regains her voice. No wonder she praised Elohim. Whatever else is going on here, this is indeed a scene about justice. So, who else is bent double? Who else has a voice that has been stopped up? Who else is over-looked?

While you’re still bent double, look around. Who else do you see who is waiting, maybe for longer than 18 years, to be able to stand up straight? Sure, you should stand up for them. Sure. But it’s not justice unless they are able to stand up for themselves.

A Provocation: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 15 (20): August 18, 2019: Psalm 82

Psalm 82
82:1 God has taken his place in the divine council; 
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:

82:2 "How long will you judge unjustly 
and show partiality to the wicked? Selah

82:3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan; 
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

82:4 Rescue the weak and the needy; 
deliver them from the hand of the wicked."

82:5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding, 
they walk around in darkness; 
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

82:6 I say, "You are gods, 
children of the Most High, 
all of you;

82:7 nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, 
and fall like any prince."

82:8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth; 
for all the nations belong to you!

The gospel text assigned to this week is Luke 12:49-56. You can find my Provocation of this passage at: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/07/01/a-provocation-thirteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-luke-1249-56/

This week, Psalm 82 caught my eye. This song sings in the same key as the songs sung by the prophets, and the verbs are the same: Give justice…, Rescue…, Deliver…. This tune and these verbs matter. When we make religion a matter of how we feel and what we get and how we succeed, we are singing a very different tune. The tune of the psalms and the prophets is clear: faithfulness shows itself in the way we treat people who cannot defend themselves. Every time a child separated from her mother cries, God hears it, and God sings the one song all over again: Give justice…, Rescue…, Deliver….

It matters that this is comes in the form of a song. Last Thursday my family and I went to hear the High Kings. If you haven’t listened to them yet, you need to. They are Irish, and they sing old Celtic songs, contemporary songs from new writers. They sing songs from past uprisings against British dominance. Last Thursday they sang “The Town I Loved So Well.” The songwriter remembers growing up in Derry, and sees the destruction that came with “armored cars and bombed out bars.” I have been singing the last verse everyday since then. It goes:

Now the music's gone but they carry on
For their spirit's been bruised never broken
They will not forget but their hearts are set
On tomorrow and peace once again.
For what's done is done and what's won is won
And what's lost is lost and gone forever
I can only pray for a bright brand-new day
In the town I loved so well.

That’s the way it is with songs. They stick to you, and they focus your thought. They shape the way you live by shaping the way you hope. The High Kings have set me thinking about the people who “…will not forget but their hears are set / On tomorrow and peace once again.” I am a good enough historian to know how difficult that has been and will continue to be, but the song rings in me and becomes a prayer, not just for Derry.

May the song of Psalm 82 also ring in us and become a prayer. “Give justice…, Rescue…, Deliver….” This is a good song to sing, no matter how much Fox News makes fun of the ELCA for declaring itself to be a “sanctuary church body.”

And may we all find tomorrow and peace once again.


A Provocation: 9th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 14 (19): August 11, 2019: Luke 12: 32-40

32     Stop being afraid,
              little flock,
         because it pleases your father
         to give to you the Dominion.
33          Sell your possessions;
              give alms:
                   make for yourselves purses that do not age,
                   a treasure inexhaustible.
                        in the heavens
                             where a thief is not so close,
                             nor does a moth ruin.
34                    For where your treasure is,
                             there also your heart will be.
35          Bind up your hips;
              light your lamps.
36               You are like people expecting their haShem
                        when he should return from a wedding feast
                             so that
                                  when he comes and knocks,
                             they should open to him.
37                              Godlike in happiness
                                       those servants,
                                                 when he comes
                                            haShem will find keeping awake.
         Amen I am talking to you:
              he will bind up
              he will have them sit down
              he will come to them
              he will deacon to them.
38               And if even in the second,
                   or even the third guard
                        he should come and find it thus,
                             Godlike in happiness are those.
39                              This you know:
                                        if the master of the house knew
                                        in what sort of hour the thief is coming,
                                             he would not allow to dig through his house.
40          You,
              you become prepared,
                   because in an hour you do not suppose 
                   the son of adam is coming.

See also https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/a-provocation-twelfth-sunday-after-pentecost-luke-1232-40/

I spent last week in Dayton, Ohio. My plane departed at 7:15 in the morning. That meant I left my hotel at 4:30, having gotten up at 3:45am.

That meant that I came down to the lobby and discovered that, only a few hours earlier, a murderer had killed nine people about a mile from where I was.

The murderer, according to Fox News, used a .223-caliber rifle and high-capacity magazines. According to the State Rep. Candice Keller (R-Middletown) the killing was caused by gay people getting married and snowflakes not liking the current president. This was reported in the Dayton Daily News.

Several of my friends had eaten in restaurants near the site of the murders in the days prior to the shooting.

The killings happened in the “second watch of the night.”

Events like this are sometimes made to dance with texts like the one from Luke 12, and the point is made to be: “You could die anytime, so be more religious.”

That is not the point, and it never was. This scene is about the arrival of the Reign of God, and the Reign of God does not come with murder or high-capacity magazines in the hands of killers.

The scene focuses on being prepared for action, with lamps lit. The scene urges anticipation and readiness.

The question for me, today, is: “Readiness for what, exactly?” The “Reign of God” is not the “Second-Coming.” It is not “dying and going to heaven.”

But what is it? Here’s what I say. Today.

The Reign of God overturns a system that sets a high value on the sale of high-capacity magazines and won’t consider limiting their use, though they are not necessary for anything except high-body-count murder. No one else needs 100 rounds ready to go. The Reign of God overturns a system that refuses common-sense management of the ownership and use of firearms on the basis of a clearly tendentious reading of the United States Constitution. I’ve never met anyone who thinks that their right to drive a car is “infringed” because they have to have a license, both in their pocket and on the car. My first encounter with the NRA was in the gun safety classes they offered. The NRA used to argue that ex-convicts and mental patients ought not own firearms, and supported permit requirements for concealed weapons, all this without imagining that this “infringed” on anything in the Constitution.

And the Reign of God overturns any person (president or not) who suggests what are called “Second Amendment remedies” as a response to the appointment of liberal justices to the Supreme Court. The Reign of God overturns any person (president or not) who calls Neo-Nazis “very fine people,” even if he later claims to condemn racism (he would have been more convincing if he hadn’t confused Toledo with Dayton, but that’s another matter). The Reign of God overturns any person (president or not) who smiles and jokes when a supporter suggests shooting migrants and asylum seekers.

This is the second watch of the night. A general election is coming, and before that, the primaries. Wherever you land politically, there are issues here that call for a moral response, and for readiness.

And even more important than the election, we are part of a system that accepts violence, tolerates racism, and makes a joke of sexual assault and harassment. Sometimes we (as part of that system) even celebrate violence, racism, and assault. Watch movies, watch sports, watch the ways women are customarily treated, and the way they are told that, “If you can’t handle some of the basic stuff that’s become a problem in the workforce today, you don’t belong in the work force. You should go maybe teach kindergarten.” (Donald Trump, Jr., on the Opie and Anthony Show, 2013).

Light your lamps. Be ready. This is going to be difficult. But it is necessary. The Reign of God is overturning our systems. Be ready.

Be ready.

A Provocation: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9 (13): August 4, 2019: Luke 12:13-21

13     He said,
              someone out of the crowd,
          said to him:
               Speak to my brother
                    to divide
                         with me
                    the inheritance.
14     He said to him:
                    who appointed me
                         as judge
                         or divider
                    over you?
15     He said to them:
                    Guard from all greed.
                         Not in the excess that anyone has
                         is his life,
                              nor out of his possessions.
16     He said a parable to them
         he said:
              Of some guy,
               it produced well,
                    the estate did.
17          He was considering it fully
                   in himself.
              He said:
                   What will I do?
                    I have nowhere to gather my fruits.
18          He said:
                   This I will do:
                         I will tear down my storehouses
                              and better ones I will build.
                              I will gather there
                                   all the grain and my goods.
19                    I will say to my life:
                                  You have many goods
                                   to be stored up for many years.
                             Be happy.
20          He said to him
              Elohim did:
                        In this night
                             your life,
                             they ask it from you.
                                  What things you prepared,
                                        whose will they be?
21          Thus is the one that stores up for himself,
                    and is not
                         into Elohim

Again, there is a Provocation from three years ago that you might want to check out. Go to https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/a-provocation-eleventh-sunday-after-pentecost-luke-1213-21/

One little thing: the parable that Jesus tells starts simply:

               Of some guy,
               it produced well,
                    the estate did.

By now you might be accustomed to to odd way I translate Greek. I try to get the language to do in English what it is doing in Greek. In Greek, first we meet the guy, and then we discover that this random guy is rich. Only then do we get to the heart of the matter: “it produced well, the estate did.”

You don’t have to make the sentence this way. If this were a story about productive land, we would meet the land first. But this is not a story about productive land. It is a story about some guy, just a random rich guy, who thinks he comes first.

But consider the situation. There is this random rich guy, he has an estate. The land is productive. So far, so lucky. But productive land means there is a crop in the field. Do you suppose that this random trust-fund baby gets the crop in by himself? There were no John Deere tractors and no combines. Getting the crop in required workers. A lot of them.

Did you notice that the random rich guy never mentions them? He only talks about “my fruits,” “my storehouses,” “my grain and goods.” “I will tear down…,” he says. “I will build….” My bet: this boy has soft rich-kid hands that have never held a hammer, not even once.

His basic misunderstanding is that he can’t see the people who are actually doing all the work. Jesus tells us that this is a story about greed. But if that is true, then greed is not an inner desire, a coveting, or anything like that.

Greed comes down to not seeing the people who are doing all the work.

How are you with a hammer? Could you run the machines that are necessary in road-building? Have you ever taught a roomful of five-year-olds to do math?

Guard from all greed.

A Provocation: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 12 (17): July 28, 2019: Luke 11:1-13

1      It happened
             when he was in some place praying
       As he stopped,
            someone said
                 someone of his disciples
            said to him:
                      teach us to pray,
                           just as also Yochanon taught his disciples.
2     He said to them:
            Whenever you pray,
                      Be Holy,
                           your name.
                           your Dominion.
3                     Our Bread for the coming day
                           keep giving to us daily.
4                     Release for us our sins
                           For we,
                           we are releasing
                                to all owing to us.
                      Do not carry us into examining.
5     He said to them:
            Who of you will have a friend
            and walk to him during the night
            and say to him:
                      lend to me three breads
6                         since a friend of mine arrived
                                out of a journey to me.
                      I do not have what to set before him.
7          And that one inside answers,
                 Stop causing me trouble.
                      Already the doors have been locked.
                      My children,
                           with me,
                      we’re all in bed.
                 I am not able
                      to get up to give to you.
8     I say to you:
            Even if he will not give to him
                 (after getting up)
            because he is his friend,
            on account of his shamelessness
                 (after getting up)
            he will give to him as much as he needs.
9     I say to you:
                 it will be given to you.
                 you will find.
                 it will open to you.
10                  For everyone asking is receiving.
                      The one who is seeking is finding.
                      To the one knocking it is being opened.
11        Which one among you,
                 if he asks,
                      (you’re the father)
                 if your son asks
                      for a fish,
                           instead of a fish,
                                will give him a snake?
12         Or,
                  he will ask for an egg;
                       he will give to him a scorpion?
13        If therefore you,
                 slobs from the start,
            if you know virtuous gifts to give to your children,
                 how much more the Father,
                     the Father out of heaven.
                 will give holy breath to those who ask him.

Three years ago, I explored the Lord’s Prayer, both in Luke’s story and in its other contexts. You can read that exploration at https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/a-provocation-tenth-sunday-after-pentecost-luke-111-13/

For the present Provocation, I explore the story that surrounds the Lord’s Prayer in Luke’s story.

Some small things:

  • All this about asking and receiving is not about getting everything you pray for, no matter what prosperity preachers say. The asking and receiving, seeking and finding, knocking and opening is about ordinary experience.
    • Think about that: Jesus is linking God’s goodness to things that everybody does.
      • So, God is like regular people.
      • And regular people are good pictures of God.
    • And, while we’re at it, Jesus just said that seeking leads to finding.
      • That means that we can, indeed, try to figure things out, and that when we do, we generally succeed.
        • “The one who is seeking is finding,” he says.
        • So life is comprehensible, though it will take some study.
          • And, therefore, intellectual investigation (including science, philosophy, and practical ethics) leads to real knowledge.
          • So “worldly knowledge” is NOT an illusion. I’m looking at you, Colossians.
      • Notice, in passing, that Jesus builds this same theological assumption into the Lord’s Prayer: “Release for us our sins,” he says, and then points out (to God!) that we already do that for each other. All the time. Just saying.
        • This means that even the deeply theological matter of being forgiven over against God is presented, not as an impossible miracle, but as a simple sure thing. Think about this one slowly.
          • This does not make grace less of a gift. But it does make grace something you can simply count on. We let each each other off all the time. So does God.
  • And this whole scene is hilarious. Listen for the humor.
    • Fish=>snake?? Egg=>scorpion?? Seriously?
      • No, not seriously. The leap from normal to ridiculous is just plain goofy. Think about that. Jesus is telling dad jokes.
    • Which is why Jesus calls his audience “slobs from the start.”
      • I know that I’m the only one who translates it this way, but I have a reason. Mostly, interpreters has Jesus call the people in the audience “evil,” and once he does that, this is a theological scene about the gap between people (who are hopelessly evil) and God (who is hopelessly perfect).
        • But that doesn’t fit with the argument Jesus has been developing, which only works if ordinary human goodness is a fitting picture of ordinary Divine love.
        • It also doesn’t really fit with the Greek word Jesus uses: πονηροὶ. This word is generally translated as “evil” when theologians are translating the Bible, because theologians have been trained to think about absolutes, especially absolute Good and absolute Evil.
          A lot.
          • That’s maybe okay, because that training allows theologians to tackle the truly horrific things we do.
          • But it’s also troublesome, because it inclines us to imagine that everything is a contest between absolute Good and absolute Evil. And it is not.
        • When other translators, working on the whole expanse of ancient Greek texts, generally translate it as “worthless.” That’s not the same thing as “evil.” It can be a nasty charge, depending on the context. But it can also be a joke line.
          • Jesus just called the crowd (still laughing about the egg=>scorpion thing) “Ya buncha slobs!”
          • In the context, this is a laugh line.
  • And all of this leads to God giving “holy breath” to people who ask.
    • Of course this is the “Holy Spirit.” But don’t jump to that theological platform too soon.
    • New Testament texts, from Paul onward, mention  πνεῦμα ἅγιον. All this about asking and receiving is not about getting everything you pray for, no matter what prosperity preachers say. The asking and receiving, seeking and finding, knocking and opening is about ordinary experience.
    • When God created Mudguy in Genesis 2, Mudguy lay on the ground, an intricately beautiful being, utterly inert. And then God blew holy breath into Mudguy’s nose. And Mudguy became a living being, capable of reaching, loving, hoping, and creating, just like us all.
      • When the Messiah (God’s agent to turn the world right-side-up) lay dead in the tomb, God blew holy breath into him. And this time God was blowing the rebirth of hope into all of creation.
      • And just as the story of Mudguy makes your every inhalation a gift from God (who blew in your nose that time, too) and your every exhalation a sharing of that gift of life with the rest of Creation, so also the story of the Resurrection of the Messiah gives you life out of death and, with it, the responsibility to breathe hope back into people and communities and systems, even after they have given up.

But that means that every breath hands you a gift and a responsibility, and it all comes down to Resurrection. Oddly enough, in the context of this strange little scene, Jesus may just have implied that we bring each other back to life all the time. We actually do, you know. We bake muffins for a friend who just needs them, or a hotdish for a family at a rough time. We write and remember and recite poems that help people stand up against bullies (thank you, Maya Angelou). We sit silently and wait. And all of this amounts to a gift of holy breath. Because it is.

So get out there and breathe Resurrection, ya big buncha slobs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of that is true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His words still frighten me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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