A Provocation: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Matthew 1:18-25

1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

1:19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

1:20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

1:21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,

1:25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

A Question or Two:

  • Why would Joseph be afraid to take Mary as his wife?
  • Really?  Afraid?

Some Longer Reflections:

So Mary was “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  My question is: what is the story behind this calm little report?  In particular, WHO found her to be with child?  It is clear that this is NOT about Mary discovering that she was pregnant.  You do not need a verb in the passive voice to tell that story.  And it will not do to miss the ominous tone that the passive voice brings.  She WAS FOUND to be with child.  We use the passive voice when we want to tell a story in which larger-than-life forces are active.  We use the passive voice to express the unseen but inexorable acting of God.  We call it the “Divine Passive,” and it leaves the audience to its own devices to imagine how the invisible hand of God has carried out its purposes.

This is not the Divine Passive.  If it were, the angel would not need to talk to Joseph in a dream.

Mary WAS FOUND to be with child.

Notice that English and Greek use a verb that implies “seeking and finding.”  That implies that someone was looking.  That fits with how patriarchal culture works: there is always someone looking to find women doing something that they do not approve of.  And this also fits with how holy people act far too frequently.  Holy people generally know that you are not anywhere near as holy as they are, and they are (in my experience) glad (too glad) to point out your flaws.

In this little scene, the Holy Baritones have FOUND a woman who is out of line.  Even worse, she is sexually out of line (though the Holy Baritones find a way that everything that women do is somehow sexual: remember, for as brief a moment as possible, the president-elect’s remarks about Megyn Kelly during the Republican debates).  Mary is pregnant, and she is FOUND.

In Matthew’s story, this is the first we know about any of this.

The storyteller has only just performed the genealogy, and Mary is found (this time, by the audience) to be with child.  There is no angel to tell Mary (and the audience) that she will bear a child after somehow being impregnated by God.  The stern, quiet tone of the passive voice leaves the audience to understand what had actually happened when she was FOUND, and to imagine what would happen next.  Joseph’s intended actions make it clear that something was going to happen.

Here is what was on the books as a way to respond to a woman who was FOUND untimely pregnant: she would be stoned to death, and her father was to throw the first stone.  What was to happen next was an honor killing.  And if her father could not bring himself to participate in the murder of his daughter, studies of honor killings (both ancient and modern) show that most families have another baritone who will act to defend the honor of his family.  There seems always to be a cousin, or uncle, or brother who will throw the stone that the father could not.

Who would have thrown the first stone at Mary?

We are not told.

And so the storyteller tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man.”  What a guy.  We are told that he is “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.”  What a GUY!  He plans to dismiss her quietly.  At this point, commentators generally begin to cheer for good old Joseph.  What an excellent guy.

Of course, that leaves him free and clear.  And it leaves Mary pregnant with an honor target on her back.  And there is always someone who will throw the stone that starts the murder that will protect the honor of the Holy Baritones.

How in the world would anyone call such a person “righteous?”

Do not answer too quickly.  Do not answer at all until you have listened silently and patiently to someone whom you respect talk about a daughter who was untimely pregnant.  When you listen, you may hear anger and verbal violence.  You might.  Or you might hear resignation.  Or you might hear tender love that is looking for a way to act.  Whatever you hear, wait silently and reflect.  How “righteous” would that mother or father think Joseph was when he had decided to abandon their daughter, all because she was FOUND to be pregnant?

The word translated as “righteous” is tricky.  The word is δίκαιος.  In biblical texts, the word is always, or at least nearly always, translated as “righteous.”  When Paul uses this word, Martin Luther cheers as loudly as he is able (which is somewhat limited, given that he is not yet born or terrified in a thunderstorm or ordained or persuaded of the gospel).  Paul understands the word δίκαιος to name a theologically granted righteousness before God.  Luther cheers.  Lutherans salivate.  

At this point, some older interpreters discover that good old Joseph is and has always been a faithful Lutheran.  What an excellent theological guy.

The word δίκαιος  is tricky, and you have to catch that. The word δίκαιος, in this scene, means that Joseph has a good name that he will defend any way he can.  He has a good reputation.  He protects it.  By putting Mary away quietly, he preserves his good name.  He is willing to say publicly (if silently) that HE has had NOTHING to do with making Mary pregnant.  Not a thing.  And that leaves Mary alone and exposed, whether he does it publicly or privately.  What a guy.  What a patriarchal guy.  He may not be singing loudly like a Holy Baritone, but he is acting just like one.  He’s just subtle.  

The scene suddenly reminds me of the scene between Tamar and Judah that is alluded to in the genealogy.  Tamar was also FOUND to be pregnant.  Tamar was also scheduled for execution.  She pushed back and was spared.  This willingness to push back links Tamar to Ruth and Bathsheba (and to Rahab, though we will have to think a little harder to see this, perhaps).  They all were pushed out of what was rightfully theirs by Baritones who thought they knew better.  These strong women all pushed their way back in.

In this scene, Mary does not push her way back in.

Do not read this as evidence of Mary’s submissive mildness, at least not if any of the women in my family are in the audience.  The cultural odds are good that Mary is 10 years old, or 11, or 12, or 13.  Women of that age were understood (apparently) to be adults, or nearly so.  But even though she will have been an adult, she will not likely have developed the kind of strength you will see in Tamar or Ruth or Bathsheba or Rahab.  You need a little age on you to be strong like Tamar was.

That may explain why it is that God plays the role that has always be played by a woman before.  God sends an angel, and the angel does all the pushing that is needed.  The angel mocks Joseph for being afraid of a pregnant woman.  The angel gives the unborn baby a name and a task.  In fact, the angel gives two names to Jesus.  The other name comes out from the prophet Isaiah.  This also is a big deal.  And the name is, itself, powerful.  Emmanuel.  God is with us.  In passing, this is the important part of verse 23, not the part about Mary being a virgin.  That aspect of this scene is also of some importance, but if you spend your time arguing about the Virgin Birth, you will have little time (or credibility) to invest in the other things that are required of us.  And you will find yourself thinking that “God with us” is an argument about the Virgin Birth.

The scene is not primarily about impossible biology.

This is a scene about how God is in our midst.

The scene argues that God is among us as the son of a mother who was FOUND to be pregnant by people who were too holy for their own good, and who were FAR too holy to be of any use to anyone else.  God is among us as the son of a woman who came close to being murdered.  God is among us as a person who was, himself nearly murdered, as we will discover when we read just a little further.  Herod, an UN-Holy Baritone who defended his power by any means necessary, will shortly launch a campaign to slaughter any child who was two years old, or younger.  The news this year (like every year, to tell the truth) is painfully full of children who are hunted by genocide.  Aleppo is just the latest instance of such unholy slaughter.  When you see pictures of children facing death, remember that their faces look like the face of God-Is-With-Us in this scene.

But that means that God-Is-With-Us looks like the face of a child who is so terrified that she trembles.  God-Is-With-Us looks like the face of a mother who can no longer find a way to go forward because she can no longer protect her children.  God-Is-With-Us looks at the world with the thousand-yard stare that you see in the eyes of an old man who has nothing left, no resources, no strength, no hope.

This puts a rather different edge on the old, old chant, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.  As long as one child looks at the world in fear, that is how the face of God-in-our-midst will look.

This reminds me of a song you will have heard in every grocery store since Thanksgiving: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (introduced by Judy Garland in 1944 when it was not yet clear how, or when, the War might end).  You won’t likely be singing that song in church, but you might want to listen to the original words of the last verse:

Through the years
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow.
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

This little scene in Matthew’s story introduces Emmanuel as the one who must muddle through with us.  And this is a year for muddling, I would say.

A Provocation: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Luke 11:1-13

11:2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.

11:3 Give us each day our daily bread.

11:4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

A Question or Two:

  • Does it matter that Matthew and Luke have Jesus teach differing versions of the same prayer, and that these versions are (somewhat) different from the Lord’s Prayer that Christians pray in church?
  • Does it matter that this prayer strongly resembles Kaddish?
  • What might we all be mourning?

Some Longer Reflections:

Before we look at the details of this scene, we need to stop and observe a moment of silence in the presence of what this thing has become.  This is “The Lord’s Prayer.”  It is prayed by Christians all over the world, probably constantly.  It is prayed so widely and so steadily because it is from “the Lord.”  This is not just another piece of religious practice that could have come from anywhere; this prayer purports to come from Jesus himself.

The Lord’s Prayer(s)

Of course, we will have to stop also to notice that this prayer from Jesus comes to us in two rather different forms (from Matthew and from Luke) and that it has grown a doxology at the end that comes from neither gospel, though later manuscripts of Matthew have been altered to include the doxology that surely grew up in the midst of Christian worship.  Thus worship sometimes precedes Scripture, which also precedes worship.

But we will get to that.  For right now, just stop silently and pay attention to the prayer that Jesus taught, the prayer that comes to us from the Lord, the one that came to us from God.

First of all, notice how Jewish this prayer is.

That should not be a surprise, since Jesus is Jewish, and since God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but notice how VERY Jewish this prayer is.

It begins with the Sanctifying of God’s Name.  Many Jewish prayers devote energy to this act of “hallowing,” and stories of Jewish martyrs often include mention of living and dying for the Sanctification of the Name, but it may be most important to notice that Kaddish, in particular, also begins by calling for the Sanctification of God’s Name.  “May it be made great and may it be made holy, your marvelous Name.”  Jews pray this prayer at the death of a loved one, but you have heard it if you have attended Sabbath services with almost any Jewish congregation.  Because this is the prayer for the anniversary of a death, Kaddish is prayed weekly, as well.

And it is not just the “hallowing” of God’s Name that makes this prayer Jewish.  As a Jewish friend and colleague has pointed out to me, if it weren’t for the centuries of anti-Semitic theology and violence carried out by Christians in the name of Jesus, the entire prayer would fit nicely into Jewish life, without modification.  It is a deeply Jewish prayer.

Next, notice how impatient this prayer is.

When Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s “kingdom” will come, it is clear that we are to pray for a basic change in how things run.  If God’s kingdom were already here, we would not be told to pray for it.  And if things were just fine as they are, we would not pray for a change.  And the change is basic, radical, and thoroughgoing.  This is a prayer for radical regime change.

It is therefore never a prayer that simply baptizes any ideological position, or chooses one side over against another.

This is difficult.  “Kingdom” language, historically, has been attractive to rigid ideologues, to sub-groups who find themselves in conflict with the dominant culture.  It is easy enough to identify groups that have done this: the Posse Comitatus in Tigerton, Wisconsin; the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas; the Sicarii who took refuge on Masada.  There are many more.  Zealots in every century love to imagine the coming of the kingdom they are willing to kill for.  All such ideologues claim an exclusive alliance with the Kingdom that God is bringing into being.  The kingdom, they imagine, will wipe away their opponents.  God’s coming will make it clear that they, and they alone, have been right all along.  It is easy enough to view these groups as oddities, as extremists, and even as enemies.  They often are.

But they are not the only ones to claim alliance with God’s coming Kingdom.  Any time we pray this prayer and imagine that we know how the Kingdom will come we join the oddities, the extremists, and even the enemies.  That is the danger of the Lord’s Prayer.  When we pray it earnestly, we run the risk of becoming rigid ideologues who are awaiting their own kingdom, not the Reign of God.

In that vein, we would do well to listen as we pray for real change in the world, or when we yearn for the institution of social justice and societal change.  These prayers and yearnings come from some of the kindest and most earnest people that I know.  I share their prayers and their yearnings.  In the midst of our current conflicts, with law enforcement officers being murdered and also committing murder, such prayers and yearnings are widely shared.  And it is impossible for me to imagine that God does not share our reaction to the cycle of murders.

But the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray for the Reign of God, which will unsettle all parties, all ideologies, all who are committed to their righteousness.

That does not mean that we can have no idea about right and wrong in the midst of God’s Creation.  That would be a pernicious idea, indeed.  But it does mean that we ought to expect that God’s Reign will run deeper than we can imagine.  It does mean that our examination, for instance, of the role played by privilege in the current conflicts must cut deeply.  This is true no matter which subgroup you come from.  And it means that the need to listen is incumbent upon all of us, and not just some of us.  One of the defining characteristics of ideologues and extremists is that they are convinced that no one has listened to them, and that they therefore must be done listening to others.  Whatever the “Reign of God” might be, it will unsettle us all.  If it did not, it would just be another rigid ideology.

We ought also notice how practical this prayer is.

It prays for bread, daily.  The God to whom we are taught to pray is figured as being involved in sustaining our strength.  The Prayer recognizes that hunger is real, and persistent.  We would not be taught to pray for bread if all of us were adequately fed.  Real prayer, therefore, does not float off into the spiritual stratosphere.  It concerns itself with real people who need real food for their children.

The next petition continues the practicality of the previous petition.  We do not live together without offending each other, and that means that we cannot work together without forgiving each other.  This God to whom we pray is also involved in sustaining our community, because God is called upon to forgive us since we already forgive each other.  The argument of this petition, however, is surprising.  God is to follow the pattern we have already set up, forgiving as we forgive.  Why put things in this order?  Perhaps the point is that God is learning how to be part of human community, a delayed consequence of the Incarnation, perhaps?  Perhaps.  But the opposite is just as likely.  Perhaps God enters the petition in this way because we are quite capable of managing human communities under normal circumstances, forgiving and being forgiven and getting on with our tasks, but extraordinary tensions and conflicts reveal deeper offenses, hurts that we don’t dare address, or even understand how to begin addressing.  The current conflicts will require mending of complex wrongs, and perhaps bringing God into the business signifies this complexity.  The repair that is needed operates on the level of the re-creating of the world.

The petition that we be spared from trial makes more sense the more I consider the challenges of the current moment.

There is no life without trial.  But the earth-shaking trials of the present moment are tests that will shake us and change us.  It is an honest person and a community with integrity that prays for rescue from such trials.

A Provocation: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Luke 10:38-42

10:38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.

10:41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;

10:42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

A Question or Two:

  • Who owned this house?
  • What is the difference between the Many and the One?
  • Are you sure?
  • What is Torah, and why do we study it?

Some Longer Reflections:

Don’t miss this: It was MARTHA’s home.

She is not an auxiliary member of this household, present only because she is good at auxiliary tasks like cooking.  This is her house.  And she is acting out hospitality.  That is her responsibility because this is her house.

Don’t miss this: Hospitality is crucial.

It is a requirement.  In the ancient world (and in traditional communities today), extending hospitality to travelers is an absolute requirement.  According to texts in the Bible (and not according to homophobic biblical interpreters), Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because the people living there sinned against hospitality.  Martha’s busy-ness is therefore not a target for current critiques of our cult of Busy.  We have convinced ourselves that we must at all times be overworked, too busy, working as hard as we can.  Martha is not one of us and she does not share our cultic behaviors.  We make ourselves endlessly busy as part of our pathology.  Martha is busy with the essential tasks of offering hospitality to travelers.  There is a difference.

Shaming Martha

One of the dangers involved in interpreting this passage comes with a willingness to shame Martha for doing stereotypical woman’s work.

It does matter that we notice when the scene valorizes Mary’s choice to engage in study with a teacher.  That means that Luke’s storyteller sees Torah study as being open to women, and not just to men.  This is important, and reveals something about the social world out of which this story comes.  This matters.

But it also matters that we not shame Martha, especially not for doing “woman’s work.”  Hospitality is the duty of the entire household, for one thing.  And tasks traditionally performed by women are as honorable as any other tasks.  Limiting women to only those traditional tasks and roles is NOT honorable, but the tasks themselves are crucial to our life together, no matter who does them.

The contrast in this scene is not…

The contrast in this scene is not between woman’s kitchen-work and man’s study, but between, as Jesus identifies it, the many things and the one.  The “many things” are a distraction, says Jesus.  This needs to be heard carefully.  The distinction between the One and the Many, important in ancient philosophical discussions, hands people the task of determining what is the one thing that holds everything together.  The world is a vast plurality.  Even an individual life is a mass of tangled complications and contradictions.  But in the midst of all of this everything, what holds it all together?

In this scene, Mary has chosen the one thing that holds everything else together.  She is sitting at the feet of the teacher who is the messiah.  And in Luke’s story, that means that she is studying Torah.  Luke’s whole story emphasizes the warmth of Jesus’ connection with the Jewish family.  In Luke’s narrative world, Torah and Temple are the heart.  This understanding of Torah is an enduring element of Jewish faith.  At the heart of every human activity is Torah.  All of human life is shaped by Torah.  In this scene, Martha’s many activities (all of them necessary for the central human responsibility to act out hospitality) represent the complexity of human life.  Mary’s study represents the core of what Martha is doing, the heart of hospitality, the one thing that connects everything we must do.

To hash two religious traditions, Torah is the Tao of the Jewish universe.

I’m not too happy with that cultural mishmash, but it catches what’s going on in this scene.  Martha is doing important work, and Mary has caught the heart of it all.

So, what is Torah?

It is not Law.

Law, at least in American life, is something people evade, bend, even break.  Law is something that punishes.  That is something that forbids and constrains.

And Law, at least in Christian theology, is something that (we imagine) God demands.  At this point, Law becomes either the price of entry “into heaven” or the force that kills all human aspiration.  In customary Lutheran theology, Law kills and/or drives us to Christ.  This is an illuminating, if limited, theology.  In rigid, masochistic forms of Lutheran piety, God takes great delight in killing us so as to raise us again to life.  There is not much illumination to be had in such an angry theology.

While you surely can find proof texts to support such extreme notions in Luther’s writings, such theological schemes are built on Luther’s pathological notion of a God who demanded perfection and hated anything, and anyone, who fell short of absolute perfection.  Luther later discovered a life-giving awareness of the sheer goodness of God, but we do well to remember that his mentors in the faith were urging him to trust the goodness and forgiveness of God long before he discovered what he called the gospel.

For today, I will leave it to the ideologues to fight that one out.  I am convinced, however, that it is dangerous to spend one’s theological time and energy focusing on the fury of God.

And none of this has anything to do with Torah.

Torah is the Tao of a Universe created by and loved by God.  As such, it gives us patterns that lend shape to our lives: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God, to name an extremely important pattern.  For Jews, observing Torah means living lives that witness to the God who loves us and all of creation and creates order in the Universe as part of that love.  The sun rises and sets, harvest follows planting, the food that gives us life also gives us delight: all of these are part of the order that God creates.

It is no surprise, to Jews or Christians, that there is brokenness and disorder also in the world, but that is what makes Torah study and observance crucial.  Jewish communities live orderly lives as an act of bearing witness against the disorder, and as part of the responsibility of faithfulness to testify to the fact of disorder.  To quote one of my favorite hymns from childhood:

This is my Father’s world

O, let me not forget

That though the wrong seems oft so strong

God is the ruler yet.

Both Jews and Christians recognize that we must name the brokenness of the world, and push back against the notion that the brokenness is somehow intentional.

Mary is studying this important truth.  She sits at the feet of Jesus and studies Torah, the grace that holds the Universe together.


A Provocation: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Luke 10:25-37

10:25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

10:27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

10:29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

10:37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does the Torah expert use the word “inherit?”
  • Who is my neighbor?
  • How are neighbors and inheritors related?
  • Or are they?

Some Longer Reflections:

Christians have real trouble with this scene.

To begin with, the Torah expert stands up to test Jesus.  Christian audiences therefore identify him as the enemy from the start.  Because we have an ideological commitment to Jesus (along with a constitutional dislike of argument), we assume that anyone who questions Jesus is actually attacking him.

But the storyteller doesn’t call this an attack.  It is a test.  And tests are good things.  Necessary, even.

Would you see a physician who had flunked out of med school?  Would you hire an electrician who had not bothered to take the certification exam?  Would you take your truck to a mechanic who had never before worked on a diesel engine?

Of course not.

Likewise, the Torah expert knows that a messiah should stand some testing.

His test is simple, though the exact terms are worth notice.

“Eternal life” has become so freighted with Christian notions of heaven (mostly not originating in the Bible) that the test is skewed from the start.  In the original Greek, the Torah expert asks about inheriting ζωὴν αἰώνιον, life that is aeonic.  “Aeonic” is generally translated as referring to impossibly long extension in time, but the term more importantly refers to the quality of the aeon, not its length.  

So, what sort of aeon is this?  

The best guess is that the Torah expert is referring to the Messianic Age, the age when the world is finally turned right-side-up, where justice and kindness are the order of the day, and no children ever go to bed hungry.  This is the age that the Torah expert asks about.

And notice that the question is about inheritance.  He is not asking to escape to heaven as an isolated individual.  Inheritance is a matter of family connectedness, of resemblance and proper belonging.  The Torah expert is asking about the essential characteristics that mark a person as a member of the chosen people.

The problem is, the question is too simple.

Jesus throws it back.  As should be expected, the Torah expert knows that all of Torah comes down to loving God and loving neighbor.

The ball is now in his court.  If this test is going to amount to anything, he needs to throw another, better, question to Jesus.  He asks Jesus who his neighbor might be.

The storyteller informs us that behind this next question is a desire δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν, an effort to “justify himself.”  While there does seem to be some measure of embarrassment involved (the Torah expert had just given Jesus an elementary-level exam when something more advanced was clearly called for), there is a problem with translating δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν as “justify himself.”  That phrase comes out of the Reformation in 16th century European Christianity.  In the 16th century, the issue of being “justified” before God was a lively issue.  

But the Torah expert lives in the 1st century and he is Jewish.  He is not trying to “earn his way into heaven.”  He is serious about being Torah observant. That is how we should translate the verb δικαιῶσαι in an ancient Jewish text.  The Torah expert, somewhat embarrassed and maybe even defensive, still wants to observe Torah.  And he wants to test Jesus.

So he asks his second question: Who is my neighbor?

This one is much better than his first question.  It has a twist hidden in it.  If Jesus gives a quick, obvious answer (such as: “The person who lives next door to you.”), the test will continue along these lines: So, the closer a person lives, the more they are your neighbor? Is a block better than a mile, and next door beats all other options?

If Jesus were to agree that proximity is the key, the tester will ask him to imagine that his next-door neighbor needs help, and so does his mother, who lives (in this thought experiment) four houses down the street and around the corner.  Whose request has priority?  At this point, it doesn’t matter how Jesus answers.  This second, much better, question opens the issue of complexity into the discussion of Torah observance, and that is what any teacher hopes for.  When students learn how to deal with with real complexity, they have learned one of the key components of a real education.

But once again, Jesus is quick.  He introduces his own thought experiment (which is one good way to translate the word “parable”).  The parable of the Good Samaritan is a thought experiment that requires the listener to avoid false leads and cut to the heart of the issue, another key component of a proper education.

What are the false leads?

Well, for one, a listener could veer off the trail of the story by criticizing the man who was, unwisely, traveling alone down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  “He should have known better,” the listener could say.  “He’s got to take more responsibility for his own safety.”  That might even be true, but victim blaming is always a false lead, no matter who the victim might be.

Or, the listener could notice the priest walking down the road.  As soon as a member of the clergy enters the scene (no matter what the century), some listeners will leap at the chance to resent the clergy.  Images of hypocritical (or even criminal) members of the clergy will be projected on the priest and the Levite in this scene.  The ideal of the virtue of salt-of-the-earth ordinary people will stand up proud.

There are, of course, plenty of scurrilous clergyfolk, and there are vast numbers of ordinary heroes.  That is not the point.  And there are many heroes among the clergy and villains among the laity.  That is also not the point.  The point, first of all, is that we are all ordinary people.  But even this is a less-than-productive lead.

Of course, we could take the bait and bite on the fact that the central character is a Samaritan.  A preacher can spend time explaining what a Samaritan is, and can establish them as the oppressed outsider.  There are plenty of good sermons down that road, plenty of productive reflections to be had.

But the Torah expert’s response to Jesus’ simple question reveals the heart of the matter.  “Who proved to be neighbor in this thought experiment?” asks Jesus.  The answer given by the Torah expert reveals the depths of his faithfulness.  “The heart of the matter,” he says, “is the doing of mercy.”

This is the value of a good test: everyone involved learns something they did not know, or did not fully comprehend.  Every occasion that requires the doing of mercy is attended by endless complications, excuses to avoid doing anything.  And some of the complications are real, and ought to induce inaction, or at least caution.

But the heart of the matter is simple.

Do mercy.  Act kindly and sort out the details later.

The heart of the matter is kindness.

I once asked my grandmother what it meant to be kind.  I don’t remember why I asked.  I only remember her answer.  She told me that being kind meant treating other people as if they were the same kind as you.  I do not know if that is where the word comes from.  I do not care.  My grandmother was right.  She saw what the Torah expert saw.  The one who proved to be neighbor was the one who treated the injured man as if he were the same kind as he was.

“Go and do likewise,” said Jesus.  Indeed.  In deed.



A Provocation: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

10:4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.

10:8 Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 10:9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10:10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 10:11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’

10:16 “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” 10:17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 10:18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 10:19 See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 10:20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

A Few Questions:

  • Why did they have to go barefoot?
  • Why does Jesus have to give his 70 apostles instructions in table manners?

Some Longer Reflections:

Those who are sent to announce the Reign of God begin by impoverishing themselves.  This must be heard carefully.
  • If the point is to pretend to poverty, this is manipulation and lacks integrity.  Everyone has heard stories of traveling evangelists who extract large contributions from people who had little to give.
  • Or, if the point is to give the 70 apostles a “mission trip” experience of “solidarity with the poor,” this just sounds like a ticket to misunderstanding.  If there is such a thing as “solidarity with the poor,” it requires a life-long commitment to listening and learning.
  • Of course, it could be the case that the 70 apostles are, in fact, poor.  If so, traveling without a purse or a bag would be not so unusual.  They would have had little to put in either the purse or the bag, in any case.  If this is the situation, Jesus is telling the apostles not to pretend to be rich, which is an interesting command.

Of course, that doesn’t explain the barefoot part.

Perhaps they went barefoot regularly.  If so, Jesus is, once again, telling them not to pretend to be rich.
Perhaps they did not go barefoot regularly.  In that case, the first several days of their mission would involve a lot of limping.
Perhaps that is the point.  It is hard to be too impressive when your feet hurt, and when, by the way, you have no money for supper.  And maybe THAT is the point: the Reign of God cannot be announced by people who are impressed with themselves, or who are hoping that others will be impressed with them.

But what about the instruction in table manners?

Eat what is set before you, says Jesus.


A guess (perhaps a little wild):

  • Perhaps the faithful Jews who will welcome the apostles and their announcement of the Reign of God are faithful, but not exactly observant.
    • Not every faithful Jew keeps anything that even looks like kosher.  As important as it is to observe kashrut, even keeping kosher is not as important as receiving hospitality.  
    • A gift is a gift. Receive it as such.  
    • So perhaps this is an exchange of gifts: both the announcement of the Reign and the sharing of hospitality, and Jesus’ instructions about eating are meant to emphasize that.

And perhaps this goes even further.

Yes, in this scene Jesus says that laborers deserve their wages.  But this is still a scene about the exchange of gifts.

At some level all work and all pay is a gift exchange.  We do the things that our community needs, and our community sustains us.

This runs hard against the notion, now often heard, that “it’s my money.”  Even when that phrase is not a strong distillation of selfishness (and it is not always that), it represents an economic misunderstanding.  Even the word, economy, makes that clear.  It means “household.”  Members of a household sustain each other, and they give each other gifts.  

Before we get too sappy and start singing Kumbaya (again), it is worth noting that living in a knit-together community is not simple. Sometimes it is nearly impossible. Communities always have entrance fees, and sometimes they make those fees so expensive that no one from the outside can afford to join. Sometimes that is the point.

And sometimes the exchanges are not so much the giving of gifts but something much more like theft.  

  • Think about kindergarten teachers, for instance.  People like to say that such people must be saints because they work so hard for so little money, but at least they (like all saints) enjoy their jobs. It is hard to spend compliments and projected job-satisfaction.
  • And those of us who work in the church have long ago learned that we do this work for love, and for God, and for less money than we would earn if we had followed almost any other career track that was open to us.

Many years ago now a member of the congregation I served calculated that I was actually earning a stupendous amount of money: after all, the taxes I didn’t have to pay on the parsonage should be counted as income, and the taxes I didn’t have to pay on the farmland that I would otherwise have to own should also be income, and I also should have to count the stability of my income as a further salary boost since I never got hailed out or suffered from drought (I didn’t exactly follow that last one, either).

The thing is, that congregant had a point: the economic web that holds a community together is complex and our economic ignorance is evidence that we would rather not live in a community and we would REALLY like to believe that “it IS our money” after all.

But Jesus sends the 70 out to be dependent on gifts.

We are always dependent on gifts. The older I get, the more I realize the ways my teachers (some of whom were even part of educational institutions) gave me the best that they had for free.

For instance, Gretchen Heath, my high school drama teacher, gave me much more than a couple of plays to be in. She opened up a way of understanding the world and human being that I would never have discovered apart from the theatre. The good stuff she gave for free because none of us could ever have afforded to pay for what she knew out of a life dedicated to literature and theatre.

Or Howard Hong, who taught me the history of philosophy, gave me the privilege of face-to-face exploratory conversation about questions that human beings have always had to ask. Yes, I learned all manner of details about Plato and Descartes and Kierkegaard. But far more important, he set before us a banquet beyond our barely-post-adolescent palates and invited us to sample and experiment. Even more, he respected our efforts. This was also a gift.

Or Joanna Dewey, a scholar of remarkable depth, insight, and reputation, offered also her generous friendship to so many of us as we struggled to ask pointy questions and develop coherent research agendas. Her friendship is a gift that makes it clear that community is always based on grace and generosity.

There are many, many more: the butchers who taught me to cut meat and manage profits and losses, the pastors who believed I might actually some day be worth something as a theologian, the students who have been willing to speak honestly about the very different world they live in and try to navigate.

The Essential Condition for Announcing the Reign of God:

And maybe that is the essential condition required for those who will announce the Reign of God: they have to acknowledge the gifts they receive from all sides in order to announce God’s Reign.  If they begin to imagine that they are the ones giving gifts to their audience, then they are no longer announcing the Reign of God.  Receiving gifts is essential.  


A Provocation: Third Sunday After Pentecost: Luke 7:11-17

7:13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”  14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”

A Few Questions:

  • Is it a good idea for translators to make Jesus the obvious subject of every sentence?
  • What happens if the focus in this scene (and others) is on the people around Jesus?

Some Longer Reflections:

The turning point in this little scene comes when Jesus approaches the dead young man, speaks to him, and he rises from death.  But this turning point takes place because Jesus sees the mother, has compassion for her, and speaks first to her.

This is true in the English translation and in the Greek original.

But English translators have taken pains to emphasize Jesus’ centrality.

This is not particularly surprising, I suppose.  This scene comes to us from a Christ-ian gospel, and is read in Christ-ian congregations, by and for CHRIST-ians.  One ought expect the spotlight to be focused on the Christ.

And Jesus, at least for Christians, is the only Christ, and therefore the only proper theological focus.


If you only read the NRSV, you would imagine that the main verb of the sentence was “saw” and that the simple sentence in this verse was: “The Lord saw her.”

But the Greek is a little more interesting than that.  In Greek, Jesus is indeed the subject of the main finite verb in verse 13, but that verb is the word for “having compassion.”  The simple sentence in the verse, therefore, is “The LORD had compassion on her.”  You can tell that is the main action in this verse because the subject of the sentence (“the LORD”) sits right next to the main verb (“had compassion”).

The whole business about seeing the mother is, in the original Greek, expressed with a circumstantial participle, which sets the main action of the verse (expressed in the simple sentence at the heart of it all) in its decisive context.  So, the verse is best translated as “Upon seeing her, the LORD had compassion on her and he said to her, “Do not weep.”
This may seem to be a picky little point, but notice that the participle ties the simple sentence back to the visual scene of the previous verse.  The storyteller tells us that the scene takes place in Nain, that traveling with Jesus are disciples and a large crowd of other followers, and that they are approaching the gates of the city.

Then the storyteller says: “Look…”

This is a sure cue for the audience to pay careful attention to what we see.  “Look (in Greek, ἰδοὺ),” says the storyteller: “he is being carried out, a dead man is being carried out.  He is the single son born to his mother.  She is a widow.  A sizeable crowd from the city is with the widow.  Upon seeing (in Greek, ἰδὼν) her, the LORD had compassion on her.”

The one we are supposed to see is the widow.  That is who Jesus sees.  But the translator only sees Jesus, which may explain why the word, ἰδοὺ (which is the command to “Look”) is not translated.  It is always interesting when translators omit words.

But it is the widow that Jesus sees.  And it is to the widow that the storyteller points.

I have noticed that supposed “faith-healers” make sure that you see them.  This is not surprising.  If they aren’t the center of attention, no one will know to come to their next crusade, their next miracle festival.

I have noticed that acquaintances of mine have developed ways of pointing to themselves even when they claim to be pointing out the accomplishments of others.

I have noticed that I am susceptible to the same thing.  Maybe we all are.

But the storyteller notices the mother, the widow, the woman.  So does Jesus.  So should we.

And, while we’re in the neighborhood, that is who the prophet Isaiah notices when he speaks the prophecy that the storyteller clearly sees as the background for this little scene.  Look ahead to verses 19-22.  John has sent two of his disciples to determine if Jesus could be the “one who is to come,” or not.  Jesus’s response is straight out of Isaiah (chapter 35, for instance).  There, too, the words focus on the people who need healing and wholeness, not on the “one who is to come.”  The prophet sees the people who are blind, the people who cannot walk, the people who cannot hear, the people whose hearts are broken.

This matters.

Jewish hope, as revealed in these scenes, is not focused on the coming of a miracle worker, no matter how flashy  those miracles might be.  Neither is the focus is not on the amazing ability of that miracle worker.  The focus is on the human need.

And Jesus sees that need and responds.  In particular, Jesus sees the woman, the widow, the mother.

And he “had compassion” on her.

The word in Greek for having compassion is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη, which implies that he felt the need of the mother in his gut (σπλαγχνα).

Years ago, I invited Judith Rock, a dance-theologian who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York to speak as a part of an event I was organizing at Augustana University, where I teach.  Rock argued that no one should interpret the Bible until they had been to the circus.  That caught people’s attention.  She meant, in particular, a circus with a high-wire act.  She noted that sometime in every performance the tightrope walker would bobble, just for a moment.  At that moment, the entire audience would gasp, thus revealing the most important truth of human being: we are all linked at the gut.  That is what the Greek verb, ἐσπλαγχνίσθη, means.

Upon seeing the mother, the widow, the woman left without support, Jesus gasps, experiencing the deepest truth of our life together: we are all linked at the gut.  This is good news.  This is always the good news.  Even for Christ-ians, the point is seeing and healing people who are part of a broken Creation, not that we see the Christ.   (This, by the way, is also the point that Jesus makes in Matthew 25, where both the sheep and the goats report that they never did see Jesus among the sick, naked, or imprisoned people that surrounded them.)

May it be said of us and of our communities that we saw, and acted on, the human need around us.  May it be clear that we knew that we are all linked at the gut.  And after we have lived out our lives and responsibilities, may it be said of us all (Christ-ian or not): “God has looked favorably on his people.”




A Provocation: Second Sunday After Pentecost: Luke 7:2-10

Luke 7:3 …he sent some Jewish elders to him…

Luke 7:6 …the centurion sent friends to say to him…

Luke 7:8 …I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me…

Some Questions:

  • Who is this guy, that he can SEND Jewish elders wherever he wants?
  • Who is this guy who SENDS even his friends?
  • Why don’t translators actually translate the words?

Some Longer Reflections:

The centurion gives orders.  Even to his friends he gives orders.  That is the point of him SENDING people to Jesus.  He doesn’t ask them to go, he sends them, which implies ordering.  I know military people like this.  It is understandable, and it can work well.  Sometimes it does not, but it can.

But when he gives orders to Jewish elders, it catches my attention.

If the scene ended with a rebuke to those elders, I would assume that this was another scene that criticizes Jewish authorities who collaborate with Rome.  You could read the end of the scene that way, but it would take some serious work.  It looks more like Jesus approves of Rome and its authority.  Just like the elders in the scene.

But there are stranger things than that in this little scene.

In verse 6 the NRSV tells us that, when Jesus “was not far from the house,” the centurion sent friends to talk to Jesus.

This is rather odd.

For one thing, people who SEND and ORDER are not, in my experience, much troubled by questions of worthiness.  Give an order or don’t, but dithering over worthiness just gets in the way.  The military people I know best do not dither very much.

For another thing, it is odd that the centurion feels the need to stop Jesus in mid-journey.  Even if he feels unworthy (for some odd reason), he has just compounded his disturbing of Jesus.  He orders the elders, who pass on what Jesus also takes as an order, and then he orders him, awkwardly, to stop and speak.  The awkwardness makes his interaction with Jesus more complicated than it needed to be.

If Jesus were the one issuing the orders, interpreters would have developed a tradition of how Jesus was teaching his student a lesson about the deeper truths of authority.  “You only need to speak,” Jesus would be interpreted as teaching, “God’s power is not dependent on physical proximity.”  And then we would be told that Jesus understands authority better than anyone.

Presumably the storyteller does not assume that the centurion understands faithfulness and authority better than Jesus does.


But the truly odd thing is that the translators have omitted a word.  We are given a view of Jewish elders responding to orders, of Jewish elders urging Jesus to respond as well, and of Jesus responding quickly in his own right.  And then, while Jesus is hurrying to heal the servant, the centurion halts his motion and tells him only to speak, all this because he is not worthy.  This is indeed odd.

But take a look at the Greek.  A word is missing in the English translation.  The storyteller informs us that the sending of the friends took place: ἤδη δὲ αὐτοῦ οὐ μακρὰν ἀπέχοντος ἀπὸ τῆς οἰκίας.  Jesus is not far from the house.  That much is clear.  The translator has, however, chosen not to include the word ἀπέχοντος.

The word implies that Jesus, having traveled toward the centurion’s house, had stopped.  In fact, he was “holding himself apart from” that house.  That is what ἀπέχοντος implies.

Why was Jesus holding himself back from the centurion’s house?

This little word matters.  It is a participle, and it identifies the activity in which Jesus is engaged when the centurion does his next act of sending: Jesus has stopped himself and seems to be unwilling to enter the centurion’s house.  But why?

  • Perhaps he doesn’t know which is the right house, but that wouldn’t make much sense.
  • Perhaps he is not so sure that consorting with an officer in the Roman military is a good idea for a Jew living under occupation.
  • Perhaps it’s just that the officer is a Roman gentile, a pagan.

The last two options make some sociological and historical sense: Jews did hold themselves back from the Romans who occupied their country.  But such a reading will make a mess of the way Christians usually like to read this passage, which usually involves Jesus and the centurion admiring each other.  Such a reading will make a mess of the way we like to make Jesus the open-minded hero of every scene he enters.  It will make of this little scene a parallel of sorts to the scene with the Syro-Phoenician woman in the gospel of Mark (Mark 7).  In that scene, Jesus learns a lesson about faith from the little girl’s mother.  If the scenes are parallel, then Jesus learns a lesson here, as well, but this time from the centurion.  If Jesus is learning yet another lesson, then his words at the end are not some kind of veiled criticism of Jewish unfaithfulness.

“Don’t skin yourself over this,” says the centurion (literally), “just speak.  I care about my servant, not about your uneasy religious scruples.”  Faith is not about guarding the border between Us and Them.  Neither is faith a matter of giving and responding to orders.  Faith simply responds to human need.

Jesus’ words indicate that he never thought of faith that way before. “Not even in Israel have I found such faith,” he says.

Jesus sounds a little embarrassed.  Probably he should be.