A Provocation: The Seventh Sunday of Easter: May 28, 2017: John 17:1-11

John 17:1-11
17:1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you,

17:2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.

17:3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

17:4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.

17:5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

17:6 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.

17:7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you;

17:8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.

17:9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.

17:10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

17:11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

A Question or Two:

  • Does the only true God belong exclusively to your denomination of Christianity, or is monotheism more interesting than that?

Some Longer Reflections:

So, Jesus is giving eternal life to people whom God gave to him.  This seems customary enough.  Life we can make sense of, even if we have no proper sense of eternity.  We think of it in terms of time, which is precisely not the point, since we would then be thinking of extremely long periods of measurable time.  Eternity, however, is an attribute of God, who is not subject to measurable time.  So that’s a bit of a problem.

But there is actually another, more interesting, problem here.

When the NRSV has Jesus promise “eternal life” to those given to him, the Greek original promises αἰώνιος ζωή.  Life is promised, that is sure, but though it is customary to translate αἰώνιος as “eternal,” that is not exactly what it means.  The phrase αἰώνιος ζωή means, not “really, REALLY long life,” but “aeonic life.”  Life of the aeon.  

“Aeonic life” is not exactly a phrase that rolls off your tongue, but it does have discernible content.  In the phrase, “aeonic” functions as an adjective, it paints the noun, life, with a certain quality, a distinctive character: it is life that has the character of the aeon.

Whatever that means.

Though we use the word aeon (or eon) in ordinary English to refer to “really, REALLY long times,” that is not what it means in ancient Greek, especially when the ancient Greek text in question dances with Jewish apocalyptic notions.  In such texts, the aeon under consideration names a shift in the quality of existence.  In the present aeon, Rome has control, children starve to death, diseases hunt us, the past haunts us, and death finally limits life, making us subject to whoever has the power of the sword.  Jews in the ancient world waited for a new aeon, an existence in which Rome no longer washes the world in blood, all Creation flourishes, and Life rejoices.

This is what Jesus is promising in this scene: Life of the promised Aeon, unlimited by death, subject only to the God who gives life.

That’s why he describes αἰώνιος ζωή the way he does: aeonic life consists in knowing God, the only true God; aeonic life consists also in knowing Jesus who is the messiah.  

These two descriptions belong together, even for ancient Jews who were not convinced that Jesus was significant (at least except for the Jesus part).

The messiah was understood as the agent who accomplished the shift in aeons.  Though faithful people have disagreed (then and now) about whether Jesus has accomplished that shift, still Jews in every century recognize that “messiah” is a word that functions as code for one way of thinking about God’s balancing of Creation.  Aeonic life would erupt out of the restorative work of messiah.

But what I find most interesting is the recognition that the key step in living aeonic life comes with knowing God.  This is not a Christocentric statement.  Knowing God is accomplished by living a life shaped by Torah, and knowing God is the substance of aeonic life.  The key to living a life shaped by God’s promise of a new aeon is to live a life shaped by Torah, a life shaped by the stable and orderly love of the one true God.  This is the point of the statement made by Jewish writer, Ahad Ha’am: More than the Jewish people has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people.  Jews have long known this.  Christians ought also to learn this.

Of course, Jesus goes on to make claims that are only convincing to Christians.  But these claims only come after Jesus lays down a principle that is simply and straightforwardly Jewish: Knowing God (which happens through Torah observance) is what allows faithful people to live a life not dominated by death.

 

A Provocation: The Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 21, 2017: John 14:15-21

John 14:15-21
14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

14:16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.

14:17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

14:18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.

14:19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.

14:20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

14:21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

A Question or Two:

  • What do love and keeping commandments have to do with each other?
  • Aren’t we supposed to think that commandments can only kill?
  • Or did we misunderstand that one?

Some Longer Reflections:

There is much to love in this scene, just as there is much to love in the gospel as a whole.  It is not for nothing that John was my mother’s favorite gospel.  There are sweeping statements of love that sweep all of Time, all of Creation, into God’s promise of restoration and hope.

And there are jagged shards of sayings that puncture the tenderest stories.

This scene is one of the punctured stories.  In the midst of words about love and welcome and support, words intrude that split Christians off from the κόσμος.  The word is translated as “world” and Christians have become so accustomed to theologies that urge resisting “the world” that we don’t stop to ask what is meant by all of this.  “The world” has become religious code for the powers of Empire that oppose God, so it seems natural and normal that “the world” would be unable to receive the spirit of truth.

But the word is κόσμος, Cosmos, and it refers, not to Empire but to the whole beautifully ordered Creation that God “so loved” back in the third chapter.  The notion of beautiful, orderly creation is essential to the word κόσμος (which is the root of the English word, cosmetology).  The word reveals that biblical understandings of Creation don’t picture God as a distant, disinterested creator.  Neither is God a slap-dash rough carpenter who lacks the skills of a real carpenter.  God is a cosmetologist, skilled at arranging hair and makeup in ways that would never occur to people who lack the skill and patience such work requires.  I work with actors.  I have witnessed what a skilled makeup artist can do.  It is rather remarkable.  Using the word κόσμος for the Creation implies that God does hair and makeup, not stopping until the Universe is not just functional but beautiful.

But this scene is punctured by a theology that seems blind to beauty, seems to imagine that the real point of religion is to escape the world.

It is time that we were clear: any theology that cuts itself off from the Creation is wrong and should be resisted, even if it is put into the mouth of Jesus.  And it is not just tree-hugging post-hippies that think such things.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said the same thing in his Ethics.  Our responsibility is not the members of our own sect, our own club, our own co-religionists, our own faith.  Following the lead of Christ, our responsibility is to the world that God entered in the Incarnation.  God did not become Incarnate as an Evangelical in order to save Evangelicals.  God did not become Incarnate as a Lutheran in order to save (the right kind of) Lutherans.  God did not even become Incarnate as a Christian.

Jesus is Jewish, after all.

But Bonhoeffer makes it clear that the Incarnation was an act of joining the world as it is, the real world, the world that remains the world (no matter how much we might wish it otherwise).  And we are answerable to (and for) that same whole world.  We will perform our responsibilities more faithfully if we cease separating ourselves off into pure little enclaves, little spiritual retreats that allow us to enjoy ourselves (a revealing phrase, it seems).

“Is not this the fast that I choose,” asks the prophet Isaiah (58:6), “to loose the bonds of injustice, to  undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”  It is a good question, but it is not one that can be answered if we imagine that Jesus, and the Spirit of Truth, came only for us and for those Christians who are extremely similar to us.  If we read this little scene in John and emerge glad that we are free from paying attention to the κόσμος, we are sure to fail at “breaking EVERY yoke.”  The vision of God is bigger than ours.

Sara Miles (in her fascinating book, the City of God: Faith in the Streets) says it clearly:

But there is no area of life from which God is shut out, and the “proper form” can’t be contained in a manual, limited to the actions of official priests, or contained in a service inside a sanctuary.  The blessing, as my neighbors and my neighborhood keep showing me, has been set loose: God has left the building.

It is time to open all the doors.

 

 

A Provocation: The Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 14, 2017, John 14:1-14

John 14:1-14
14:1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.

14:2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

14:3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

14:4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

14:5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

14:7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

14:8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

14:9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?

14:10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.

14:11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

14:12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

14:13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

14:14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

A Question or Two:

Some Longer Reflections:

First, some little things.

The verb and its tense:

The phrase in the first verse, “Believe in God,” has implications in American English that it does not have in Ancient Greek.  The verb, “believe in,” implies (in English) what it implied in the Wizard of Oz when the Cowardly Lion kept repeating, “I do believe in spooks, I do, I do, I do believe in spooks.”  The experience in the Enchanted Forest had terrified him and he now believed that spooks existed.

That is not what it means in John’s story.  For one thing, the verb phrase in Greek, πιστεύετε εἰς, is usually translated as a present imperative, “Keep on believing in God.”  This is a perfectly workable translation, maybe even preferable.  But the verb could also be a present indicative: “You (already) believe in God.”  Both versions begin by acknowledging the existing belief in God.  That matters.  If the verb is an imperative, Jesus is urging (or even commanding) the disciples to keep on doing what they are already doing.  Imperatives imply that there is a danger that they will cease doing that.  If the verb is an indicative, Jesus is acknowledging the disciples already established faith, in God, and also in Jesus himself.  Either way, faith already exists, and I think this is important to hear, especially for Christians who have been trained to expect that they are continually surrounded by unbelief.  

Not so much, it would seem.

The basic meaning of the verb:

But more important is the meaning of the verb itself.  πιστεύετε εἰς in Greek does not so much express a belief that something (or someone) exists.  The verb πιστεύετε is more about trusting than it is about acknowledging bare existence.  

And this is a Jewish text, written by Jews for Jews who believed that Jesus was Messiah.  But they were all Jews.

That means that πιστεύετε would remind the audience of patterns of faithfulness, of Torah observance, of halakah, the practical application of the Torah to everyday life.  Torah observance is not something Jews do to earn God’s favor; it is a gift given to the Jewish community when God graciously chose to claim them and love them.  This usually surprises Christians, especially some kinds of Protestants, but it is crucial for understanding both Jewish Scripture and the New Testament.  Maintaining patterns of faithfulness is one way Jews bear witness to the lovingkindness of God.

And that is what Jesus is talking about in this scene.

He says, “You live faithful lives shaped by the love of God, and you live faithful lives shaped by the belief that I am the Messiah, the Logos sent to bring the world back into line, and back into love.”

And now some bigger things:

This way of translating sets up the next verses.  Jesus, when he talks about the “many rooms” reserved for the disciples in the “Father’s house,” is not suggesting that Christians have been given membership in some sort of Elite Lodging Club with an especially good Rewards program.  He is saying that, because they are Jews, they have rooms in the heavenly mansion just like all the other Jews.  If that were not the case, says Jesus, wouldn’t he have told them that he was going to prepare a place for them?

This is not the way this verse is usually translated.  Usually Jesus tells the disciples that there is a place for them in the heavenly realm, or he would not have told them that he was going on ahead to prepare that place specially for them.  This seems so comforting.  But of course, Jesus hasn’t told the disciples that he is going to prepare such a place.

Why is Jesus’ statement translated as a question?  After all, there are no question marks in the original manuscripts.  I think that translators liked feeling special.  They liked it that Jesus was preparing a special place just for Christians, even if John’s storyteller never says anything like that.  Maybe it was just left out by some sort of “scribal error.”  Or not.

I think a more natural reading renders Jesus’ words as a statement: “Of course there is room for you, as well.  Of course there is.  And even if there were not, wouldn’t I have told you that I was going to prepare one?  You belong together with all of God’s people.”

This more natural reading is also a more welcoming reading.

The point would be: God has a big house, bigger than you might imagine.  Because there is room for people who are not you, there is room for you, too.

You can find plenty of places in John’s story that are narrow.  You can find plenty of instances where John’s story rejects people that do not measure up.  But those passages stand in conflict with other places in the story (like this scene in chapter 14) where the doors are thrown wide open.  I think that the welcome is the basic message of John’s story, and of Christian faithfulness in a wider sense.  I think that the point of proper faithfulness is that the doors are wide open on God’s house because God is actively involved in making all things new, not in making all things narrow.  And if that is NOT the main point of faithfulness, it ought to be.

So what are we to make of the next verse?

Jesus, in verse 3, DOES talk about going and preparing a place for the disciples.  What’s up with that?

It is worth noting that this statement about “going” and “preparing” is in the subjunctive mood, as part of a conditional sentence.  A bony translation of the beginning of this verse would say something like, “And if ever I actually DID have to go and prepare a place….”  Jesus is picking up the rhetorical device that he introduced in the previous verse.  His words extend his affirmation that there is indeed room for everyone.  “Wouldn’t I have told you that I would go…?” flows straight into “And if I had told you that, wouldn’t I also have…?”

The thing that intrigues me about the way Jesus extended his words of welcome is the metaphor he uses.  “I will come again and will take you to myself,” he says in English.  In ancient Jewish practice, he is describing the process that flows from betrothal to intimate married life.  The husband-to-be goes away from the childhood home of the wife-to-be.  He prepares a place, and then he returns to “take [her] to himself.”  I remember the moment my wife and I, as a part of our marriage service, formally claimed each other and promised ourselves to each other.  I remember it warmly and with amazement.  That moment was the beginning of learning what it meant to love each other and to claim each other.

I think that Christians ought to resist imagining themselves as Jesus’ one-and-only.  That’s the problem with the marriage metaphor: because it is polyvalent it points to a great many things.  Exclusivity is one thing it can point to, and that can be trouble.  It’s time we quit patting ourselves on the back because we, and only we, have snagged us a heavenly husband.  This way of doing theology has us secretly proud that we succeeded in getting God to “put a ring on it.”  It gets ishy from there on.

But other aspects of the marriage metaphor are truly promising: supportive, life-giving intimacy with the Universe and its Creator who promises love and faithfulness.  The theology that flows from that source is warm and welcoming.

It is also truly transformative.

Most every Christian denomination has imagined that it alone had the REAL truth.  Most of us have gotten over that, mostly, and it has been good for us.  It is time for Christians to grow yet more.  God does, indeed, love and choose Christians and welcome them into the father’s house.  God has a great big house, after all.  But God’s promises have always been for the entire Creation that God knows and loves.  The entire Creation.

The rabbis tell stories of how God created the Universe by speaking God’s own ineffable Name.  This Name, the rabbis tell us, is the Name attached to the Mercy Attribute, that character of God that forgives and welcomes.  Think about that: God created the world as an act of Mercy.  That means that any theological separation between Creation and Redemption is an artificial distortion.  That means that this scene in John’s story about God’s really big house, and equally capacious welcome, is a scene about Mercy for the entire Creation.  It’s time we took that seriously.

 

A Provocation: The Fourth Sunday of Easter: May 7, 2017: John 10:1-10

John 10:1-10
10:1 Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.

10:2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.

10:3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

10:4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

10:5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

10:6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

10:7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.

10:8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.

10:9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

This week’s Provocation is excerpted from my commentary on the gospel of John (Provoking the Gospel of John: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2010).  The Provocation is long, but John’s story is so inter-woven that I thought it might be helpful to include the entire portion on this scene.  It would be nice if John 10 did not flow out of what Jesus says in John 8, but it does, and interpreters need to think about that.  My Provoking the Gospel commentary treats each text under four headings: Ritual Text, Intra-Text, Inter-Text, and Provoking the Story.  The first of these sections examines the scene as it appears in the flow of the life of a worshiping community.  The second examines the way the scene is woven into the larger story of the gospel.  “Inter-Text” looks at how the scene might connect with texts and situations outside the Bible, outside the Christian community.  And the final section considers ways that the scene might be explored through performance.

The John commentary, and other books in that series, can be ordered online  from The Pilgrim Press (www.thepilgrimpress.com).   You can also order them from Amazon, though you sometimes get sent to used-book sellers there.

Ritual text: The Life of the Worshiping Community

No matter which cycle of the RCL you are in, on this Sunday you are going to be reading a scene from John 10.  No matter which cycle you are in, you are going to be talking about shepherds, somehow.  Every year, you might very well find yourselves singing “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.”  This is Good Shepherd Sunday.  

This is the Sunday on which pastors (the title means “shepherd”) often talk about cute little sheep and fuzzy little lambs, thereby revealing to anyone in the audience that they know little or nothing about herding sheep, having never met one personally.  My uncle, who kept sheep, dislikes this Sunday because pastors tend to say things that simply are not true.  Suffice it to say that, to anyone who has worked closely with sheep, it is not a compliment to say that we are the sheep of God’s pasture.  Sheep will graze a pasture to the ground and will then eat the roots of the grass, making a desert, unless a shepherd moves them along.  Sheep will bloat themselves to death on green alfalfa, lacking the sense to stop eating even when their stomachs start to swell.  Sheep are rude, they smell bad, and leave a sticky slick coating on everything they rub up against so that you come away wondering what the attraction of lanolin in hand lotion might be.  

And in this passage, sheep sort themselves out of a mixed and milling mess of flocks gathered in a sheepfold, responding to and following the voice of their own shepherd and no other.  I have never seen this happen.  The flocks of sheep that I have been around are single flocks, not large mixed flocks massed together in a fold for nighttime protection.  But a colleague of mine claimed to have seen exactly this self-sorting take place when he was in Greece.  The shepherd came, called to his flock, and out of a milling multitude of sheep his sheep emerged and followed him out of the fold.  I find that hard to believe, but my colleague swore that he saw it.  

In a gospel that begins with a λογος, a word, an utterance, a voice, a story making order out of chaos, this ritual of sorting seems right at home.  In a mass, no one can tell one sheep from another, but the voice sounds and a sorting begins.  When the voice finishes calling, an individual flock has formed that is quite separate from the whole (otherwise indistinguishable) group of sheep.  What makes John’s community different from the rest of the Jewish community?  They sorted themselves out of the synagogue.  The story will have it that this sorting came as a result of responding to the voice that created the world by calling to it.  The implications are frightening.  

 

Intra-Text: The World of John’s Story

In the scene assigned to this week, Jesus delivers a statement of metaphoric self-identification.  “I am the gate of the sheep,” he says, without making it entirely clear what he means.  Early in the scene he contrasts those who enter by the gate with those who climb over the wall.  The latter are thieves and bandits.  When he identifies himself as the gate, he states that all those who came before him were thieves and bandits, again without adequate clarification.  Just who all is included in the roster of thieves and bandits who came before Jesus?  Sometimes interpreters imagine that this is a reference to messianic pretenders who preceded Jesus, though this would be the only reference to these pretended predecessors in the Second Testament.  Sometimes interpreters find a reference to members of alternative communities in this statement, but that misses the temporal sequencing that the storyteller lays out.  

In John’s story, the one who came before Jesus was John the Purifier, and though it is hard to imagine Jesus dismissing him as a thief or bandit, he is a natural candidate.  Probably he is rescued by virtue of having been named in the prologue as giving certified testimony to Jesus as light.  

The other option hinted at by the storyteller would be all the characters of Jewish history, particularly Moses and Abraham.  These two characters are cited by people with whom Jesus disagrees.  In chapter 9, Pharisees who guard Shabbat are divided over whether Jesus’ act in healing the blind man on Shabbat is clear evidence that he is not allied with God, or whether it is evidence that he must be Torah-observant, regardless of appearances.  A schism develops.  After further investigation, they call the man who was healed and direct him to give glory to God for the healing.  This is an interesting development.  This group of Pharisees seems to have reached a sort of compromise regarding Jesus.  His non-observance is a problem, but the healing is clearly accepted as proceeding from God, so they have decided to recognize the healing as divine as long as the man is willing to recognize the source of the healing as divine.  Jesus remains a problem, but God is recognized as potentially able to work on Shabbat.  This comes close to accepting the justification that Jesus offered in chapter 5 after he healed the man who could not walk, again on Shabbat.  In that instance, as in the instance in chapter 9, the problem is Jesus, who insists on claiming God’s prerogatives for himself.  In chapter 9, pushed to the wall, the Pharisees who are willing to accept the healing of the blind man as divine work, Shabbat or no, state their position clearly.  “We are disciples of Moses,” they say, linking themselves to a long, continuous stream of faithful tradition.  God spoke to Moses, after all.  “This one, we do not know where he is from.”  And they are correct, and their care is proper.  Moses came before Jesus and had had more than a millennium to prove his worth.  Jesus erupted out of nowhere and acts in ways that disrupt faithful life.  They do well to wait and see.  

The case of the citation of Abraham is complicated.  All the citations are in chapter 8, unlike the citations of the name of Moses, which are spread throughout the story.  Despite the localization of the citations, they follow the same large arc as do the citations of Moses.  Again, the conversation partners are identified initially as Pharisees.  As the scene develops, the identification shifts, and the conversation partners are now called Judeans.  This does not necessarily imply that the speakers changed; it could imply only that the Pharisees in question came from Judea.  The conversation began when Pharisees reminded Jesus of a basic rule of jurisprudence: one witness establishes nothing in court.  Corroboration is necessary.  They ask Jesus for evidence that does not come from his own mouth.  This is a reasonable request.  Jesus replies with a strangely convoluted claim that his father stands as a witness to his identity and establishes his credentials.  His claim could be taken as an admission of guilt (“You’re right: I am the one who testifies concerning myself, no one else does.”), or it could be taken as a speaking of the Divine Name followed by the claim that God stands in the courtroom offering decisive testimony, perhaps in the person of Jesus himself.  This claim would be blasphemous or lunatic, and the questioners kindly do not take it so.  They decide to grant Jesus the benefit of the doubt and ask for him to produce his father.  This is not an incidental request.  For one thing, they demonstrate a willingness to accept testimony from the unmet father if he appears on the scene.  Further, they are doing, through this willingness, what traditional societies have done through the ages: they show themselves willing to tolerate the excesses of a son if they can see the kind of mature man he may be expected to grow up into.  Jesus’ response is again cryptic, amounting either to a refusal to produce his father as the witness he had promised to produce or an attack on the faithfulness of his questioners.  Neither option is good.  

Since no one arrests him for this excess, he goes further.  (This is the force of the word “therefore” in the sentence that marks the transition to the next speech.)  After hearing what Jesus says, his conversation partners worry that he might be suicidal.  This concern, though perhaps meant by the storyteller to be ironic, must also be taken as genuine.  No threat of suicide can be taken as idle and meaningless, and Jesus’ conversation partners seem to know that.  They are behaving in ways that would save Jesus’ life.  

Jesus responds with another rant about “above and below” and the κοσμος.  To members of the storyteller’s audience, Jesus is simply recapitulating themes that have been knotted together since the beginning of John’s story.  To the conversation partners in the story, however, the rant can only be confusing.  Out of nowhere, Jesus attacks these partners and tells them that they will die in their sins.  They respond by asking, again, who he is to be saying such things.  

Jesus’ answer rambles and is even more convoluted than what has gone before.  He again recapitulates key thematic threads and threatens again to speak the Divine Name.  Despite all the provocation, the storyteller informs us that many of those who listened to him became faithful to him.  Remember that these conversation partners have been identified as Pharisees and as Judeans.  Now the storyteller has Jesus turn to the Judeans who had been faithful to him.  Now Jesus goes further.  

In response to a somewhat cryptic statement about being made free, these faithful Jews respond by calling Abraham into the discussion and asserting that since the days when Sarah and Abraham roamed the land following God’s promise neither they nor their descendants have slaved to anyone (see the discussion of John 8:31-36 for Reformation Day on page 000 for a fuller consideration of these verses).  While this assertion carefully overlooks the time of slavery in Egypt and the years of Exile in Babylon, not to mention the current situation of living under Roman overlords, it is a statement of identity, not history.  Jesus responds by accusing them of trying to kill him.  Remember, he is speaking to Judeans who had been faithful to him.  While the storyteller has told us that there were Judean officials who sought to kill Jesus, this is not that crowd.  Jesus acknowledges their claim to be children of Abraham, but then contrasts their family of origin with his: he does what he has seen from his father, they do what they have heard from their father.  

The Judeans return to the last part of the conversation that might have made sense.  They repeat that they are children of Abraham.  Jesus (in a statement complicated in verb tense and modal structure) again charges that the faithful Judeans are seeking to kill him and alleges that this is because they have a father other than Abraham.  

The reply of the Judeans reveals that they have lost patience.  “We are not the product of fornication but of faithfulness,” they say.  “God is our father.”  This is the claim Jesus has made for himself earlier in the story.  It is the claim that any Jew can make with justification.  The storyteller has Jesus respond with perhaps the most unfortunate speech in John’s entire gospel.  All the ranting about Judeans seeking to kill him comes to a climax.  The Judeans standing before him are accused of slander and murder and deep dishonesty.  And then Jesus, directly contradicting his own storyteller (see verse 31), says that the Judeans before him are not faithful to him.  This is a strange development.  I can only finish the scene by concluding that the Judeans are justified in their reaction: they conclude that Jesus is either an opponent-outsider or demon-possessed, or both.  

Abraham enters the scene one last time when the Judeans ask Jesus who he thinks he is.  He has claimed powers greater than those of Abraham or the prophets.  Someone had to remind him that such a claim by a human being is ridiculous and dangerous.  At this point Jesus offers the final offense.  “Before Abraham was, I AM,” he says, clearly claiming the Divine Name and its eternality as his own.  The crowd reacts as they would to a mad dog.  They pick up stones to deal with the danger while keeping it at a distance.  The audience to John’s story may have seen their act as murderous and vile, but the storyteller has shaped the scene so that an attentive interpreter must ask what to make of Jesus’ insistent escalation of his offensive statements.  Deeper and deeper he goes until Judeans who started the scene as supporters finish the scene with stones in their hands.  

Perhaps the storyteller (in chapter 10) means to have Jesus charge that both Moses and Abraham were thieves and bandits, after all.  This would indeed be a most disturbing development.  Add to the mix the fact that translators generally read οι ιουδαιοι in chapter 8 (and throughout the story) as “the Jews” and translate ο διαβολος not as “the slanderer” but as “the Devil” and things become much worse.  With these words John’s storyteller nourished a vile theme in the relations between Christians and Jews, a theme that has borne bitter fruit.  To taste how bitter, read The Devil and the Jews by Joshua Trachtenberg.  Or you might visit one of the death camps set up by people who, because they had been carefully taught who the enemy was, knew that the solution to all of humanity’s problems was to eliminate “the Jewish problem” by digging it out, root and branch and little children, and consigning it to the fire that Jesus lights in chapter 15 (in one of the next “I AM” sayings).  

If this were only disturbing, things would be easy.  It is worse than that.

 

Inter-Text: The World We Think We Live In

As I write this, another American political campaign is finishing its run.  With only a few weeks to go, the campaign is increasingly characterized by bitterly dishonest attacks, attacks that would be avoided earlier in the slander season because there would be time to fact-check them.  With only days remaining, the gloves come off and the worst in people comes out.  

This year has been particularly bad, it seems.  Perhaps I would say that during the late stages of every campaign, but this year seems worse.  The politics of anger stalk through the crowds at rallies, and not at the edges or in the dark shadows.  Voices in the center of the crowd have called out for the opposing candidate to be beheaded.  I am reminded of the violent political rhetoric that we heard in Israel concerning the Oslo Accords (1993) and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  In Israel a violent argument raged, and extremists said publically that the Accords represented a danger to the nation that justified murder.  Perhaps no one expected the shouting to end in shooting, but it did when Rabin was assassinated in 1995.  

I read the rhetorical excesses in John’s story with a deep sadness, and painful apprehension.  No matter who the storyteller means to attack as “thieves and bandits,” the language is frightening and violent.  Thieves had their hands cut off and bandits were crucified by the Romans.  And in chapter 8 the storyteller has Jesus attack the children of Abraham as children of the devil.  

It is time for such language to stop.

 

Provoking the Story

There are thieves in the world, and there are bandits, real ones who pose real dangers.  Play this scene with such real and present dangers visible and threatening.  Such terms were applied to the rebels who incited the worst excesses of the Jewish Revolt against Rome, the Zealots who burned the food that was stored inside the walls of Jersualem because they wanted the defenders to fight with more rabid zeal.  

But there are also religious leaders from every conceivable kind of faith community who have used violent language to speak of their political opponents.  Priests have called people who work in abortion clinics murderers.  Rabbis have called those who seek negotiated settlements traitors.  People at political rallies have called Barack Obama, at this moment the Democratic candidate for President of the United States, a terrorist.  Play this scene with these people yelling out “thieves and bandits” from the middle of the crowd listening to Jesus.  Play the scene with someone yelling something about “children of the devil.”  

Now play the scene with Jesus saying those same words.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some scattered observations:

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

That matters.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear:

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

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

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

The Fact of the Resurrection:

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

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

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

The Holy Spirit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wounds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

This act reveals their courage.

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

That was the point of the perp walk.

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

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

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

The women do not faint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13:6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

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

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

This might not matter.

But it might.

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

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

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

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

Experiment also with this physical arrangement.

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

Maybe he didn’t see him coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That might be part of why Peter was so surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

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

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

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

 

 

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

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

But watch several.

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

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

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

So what are we to make of the Hosannas?

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

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

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

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

And of course, it could be both.

Sometimes resistance works best when it is stimulated to action by daring laughter.  Sometimes it is the very outrageousness of the jokes that reminds people of what they actually could, and should, hope for.  Wouldn’t it be something if a bunch of goofy guys in their underwear, parading to songs of Hosanna, could actually be the vanguard of the healing of the world?  Perhaps the healing of the world, the keeping of the promises, the coming of the Reign of God can never be brought into reality by the clash of power.  Perhaps Wilfred Owen was correct, Owen, the poet of the trenches of WWI, wrote:

Now men will go content with what we spoiled,

Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.

They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.

None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11:35 Jesus began to weep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question or Two:

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

Some Longer Reflections:

This is a piece of complicated storytelling.

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

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

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

Mary does the same when she meets Jesus.

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

 

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

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

But the word does not refer to tender inner feelings.

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

Such choices always lead to bad translations.

They lead to even worse theology.

 

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

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

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

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

And perhaps it is both of these options.

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

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

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

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

And then she speaks, directly as always.

“Already there is a stench,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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