A Provocation: Ash Wednesday: March 6, 2019: Isaiah 58:1-12

Isaiah 58:1-12
58:1 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

58:2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

58:3 "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

58:4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

58:5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

58:6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

58:7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

58:8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

58:9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

58:10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

58:11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

58:12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
58:3 "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
58:5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

58:6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

58:7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

A Question or Two:

  • Is it right to mention oppressing workers in church?
  • If not, should we just sort of mumble when we read Isaiah (or Jesus)?

Some Longer Reflections:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?”

To make sense of this passage from Isaiah, we have to imagine why anybody would say this. The people are fasting. That’s easy enough. God does not see. That is more difficult. Given that God is frustratingly invisible, how could the people know that God doesn’t see their fasting? Perhaps we are to imagine that the people were fasting because the world was falling apart and it just kept falling apart. Or perhaps their situation was simpler: they understood that God wanted them to have an abundant life with an abundance of stuff and all God asks is that they fast (and, oh yeah, give selflessly to Life-Changing-Ministry.com). Or maybe the point is just that the people imagine that reality can be manipulated by religious dances.

And now the awkwardly invisible God speaks clearly through the awkwardly present prophet. And what the awkwardly present prophet says is awkward.

Isaiah the prophet brings people who are hungry into the room, along with people who live on the street. Isaiah brings in people who do not even have clothing. And, if I read the passage correctly, he identifies all of them as your own kin.

Read that carefully.

In part, Isaiah is reminding us that we do indeed have relatives who may not be food secure, or have housing that they can count on. But beyond that, the prophet is reminding us that the Creation is filled with all our relatives.

That is part of what “returning to dust” is about: many of us, perhaps even most of us, are one or two accidents away from becoming food or housing insecure. Most of us are a single catastrophic medical disaster away from bankruptcy. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we, along with all our relatives, are fragile. “Do not hide yourself from your own kin,” says the prophet. That is a good Lenten discipline, I think.

A Provocation: Transfiguration: March 3, 2019: Luke 9:28-45

28     It happened,
             after those arguments
                  (approximately eight days)
            he took aside Peter
                 and Yochanon
                 and Yaakov
            he went up into a mountain to pray.
29     It happened
             when he was praying:
                  the image of his face:
                  his cloak:
                       white, flashing.
30     Look:
                  two of them,
                  talking with him:
             men who were Moshe

  (might mean “Deliver”)
             and Eliyahu

  (means "My God is the God Whose Name is Mercy),
            Moshe and Eliyahu who were seen in glory,
                 they were recounting his exodus
                      which was about to be fulfilled
                           in Jerusalem.
32     Peter,
             and those with him,
        were burdened with sleep.
             They stayed awake;
              they saw his glory.
             They saw the two men who had stood with him.
33     It happened
             when they were separating from him,
                  Peter said to Joshua:
                            beautiful it is that we are here:
                                 we will make three tents
                                      one for you,
                                      one for Moshe,
                                      one for Eliyahu
34     While he was saying these things,
              it happened:
                   a cloud,
                   it overshadowed them.
              They were afraid when they went into the cloud.
35     A voice happened in the cloud,
             it said:
                  This is my son
                       the one who stands chosen
                  hear him.
36     After the voice happened,
             Joshua was found alone.
                  They were silent;
                  to no one did they report
                  in those days,
                       nothing of what they had seen.
37     It happened,
             in the following day
                  after they came down from the mountain,
             there met him
             a large crowd.
38               Look:
                       a man from the crowd bellowed
                       he said:
                                 I need you to look at my son
                                      because he is an only child to me.
39                          Look:
                                 a breath takes him:
                                 suddenly he screams;
                                 it tears him with foam;
                                 with difficulty it departs from him;
                                      it crushes him.
40                          I asked your disciples,
                                 that they cast it out.
                                     They were not able.
41                     Joshua answered,
                             He said:
                                  O birthing,
                                       unfaithful and standing twisted,
                                  up until when will I be with you
                                  and endure you?
                                      Lead here your son.
42               While he was still coming forward,
                        it shattered him,
                             the demon did,
                        it tore him in pieces.
                Joshua rebuked the breath,
                 the unclean breath.
                He cured the child.
                     He gave him back to his father.
43             They were panic-struck,
                     all of them,
                by the majesty of Elohim.
        When all were amazed by all the things he kept doing,
        he said to his disciples:
             Stick this,
                  you all,
             Stick these arguments into your ear.
             For the son of adam is about to be handed over
                  into human hands.
45     They were ignorant of this saying;
              it was veiled from them
                   so that they not perceive it.
        They kept being afraid to ask him concerning this saying.

A Question or Two:

  • If Jesus’ face became completely changed (which is implied by the word that is used: ἕτερον), how did they still know it was him?
  • And while we’re at it, how did they recognize Moses and Elijah?

Some Longer Reflections:

The Transfiguration story is pretty straightforward, in a weird sort of way. But what catches my eye this time around is the way this story flows into the scene that follows. In Luke’s performance of the story, it could be the case that Jesus, Peter, James, and John stay up on the mountain for an entire day. The next scene takes place “in the following day” and is identified as being “after they came down from the mountain.” While this could just mean, “And the next day. …,” it appears that Jesus has not yet rejoined the main group of disciples.

The really interesting thing, though, is that Luke uses this twist in storytelling to set up the Transfiguration as taking place simultaneously with the attempts by the main group of disciples to cure the man’s son.

Stop and consider that.

Jesus is changed in appearance, dramatically and absolutely. Moses and Elijah appear with him, likewise glorified, and they talk to each other with a deep familiarity. God speaks in the cloud that both obscured and revealed. The experience appears to stun Peter, James, and John, and they say nothing, not a single thing, about any of this.

At the very same time, a father finds the other disciples and begs them to intervene. The description of the effect of the “spirit,” the “breath,” the demon is terrifying. It rips the boy to shreds. It shatters him. It crushes him. And it does exactly that as the boy is brought to Jesus. The boy is the man’s only child.

Jesus, of course, demonstrates his mastery over the forces that attack people, but that is not what interests me. What interests me is that the disciples, in good faith, tried to do what Jesus had equipped them to do. And they had been unable to help. When the scene is concluded, the boy safely back in his family, Jesus speaks to the disciples and tells them that he will be handed over. When he was on the mountain, he talked with Moses and Elijah about the same thing, only then the storyteller called it his “exodus.”

This juxtaposition is fascinating.

On the mountain, everything is clear and glorious, and Jesus talks about his departure with two classic figures from Jewish story who departed (but, according to rabbinic understanding, did not die). Jesus talks about his exodus with the leader of THE Exodus. The world seems charged with promise and feels ready to be turned right-side-up.

Back on the plain, everything is messy and impossible, and Jesus talks about being handed over to Rome, the power that holds the world upside down. Before he mentions that, however, the storyteller reveals a scene that makes it clear how deeply difficult it is to turn ANYTHING right-side-up.

Before following those interpreters who scold the main group of disciples for failing to do what is SO EASY for Jesus, stop and think about all the things that are currently upside down. For today, I’m not talking about the political wrangles that never seem to get better, and never seem to get anything accomplished. I’m just talking about those things that all of us (or nearly all of us) agree are broken and need fixing: the suicides of veterans, families that are driven into bankruptcy by disease, drinking water that is contaminated, people who are swept into addiction when they are given medication to deal with serious pain, children who attend schools that are crumbling around them, parents who have to teach their sons elaborate rituals that they must be ready to perform when they are pulled over by the police for “driving while Black,” families who send sons and fathers and mothers and daughters off to risky deployments or to jobs as firefighters or police officers, jobs that can turn deadly without warning.

That’s just my list, and it’s incomplete. You know what things you would add.

Every single thing on the lists that we all have, and likely all agree about, is a thing that has proven impossibly difficult to address. There may be solutions, but we have not found them. It is very hard to turn the world right-side-up, even when we actually try. I can see why some Christians just give up on the whole Creation and try to escape into a religion that just wants to go to heaven. I can understand that temptation.

But the messiah did not come to sneak people out of the world. Back at the beginning of Luke’s story, when people asked John the Baptizer what they should do, he didn’t tell them to hide out until they could go to heaven. He told them to do the practical things, surprising as they are, that would function as signs that the world was starting to turn right-side-up. Jesus said the same kind of thing in the Sermon on the Plain. He didn’t just announce forgiveness and say that “rich lives matter, too.” Or something. He looked at people in the midst of insoluble problems (hunger, poverty) and promised that neither hunger nor wailing would be a final state. Neither would the overstuffed stay that way forever.

Jesus reminded people in the Sermon on the Plain that when God created the world with enough resources that EVERYONE could flourish. Not just every person, ALL OF CREATION. Messiah comes to turn the world right-side-up, and to remind all of us that we (as the Body of Christ) have responsibilities in that task. The idea that every child ought have enough food to eat and clean water to drink is not a pretty little daydream, it is a task we have been given by the God who created the world, by the Messiah who comes to the world.

In this scene, Luke’s storyteller reminds us that the task will be hard. That does not, however, make it any less our task.

A Provocation: Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany: February 24, 2019: Luke 6:27-38

27    But
           to you I am talking,
           to those who hear:
               Love your enemies,
               Do well for those who hate you.
28            Bless those who curse you.
               Pray concerning those who threaten to destroy you.
29                To the one who hits you
                       on the cheek,
                       offer also the other.
                   From the one who takes from you
                       your coat
                       also your undergarment do not refuse.
30               To all who ask you,
                  And from the one who takes your things,
                      do not ask for something back.
31               Exactly as you want the people should do to you,
                      do for them likewise.
32                       If you love those who love you,
                              what sort of thanks to you is it?
                                  For the non-observant love those who love them.
33                       For if you should treat worthily those who treat you worthily,
                              what sort of thanks to you is it?
                                  Even the non-observant do the same.
34                       And if you should lend money when you hope to receive
                              what thanks to you is it?
                                  Even the non-observant lend money to the non-observant
                                      in order to receive the same.
35                But
                       Love your enemies.
                       Do worthily,
                       and lend without expecting anything from it.
                           Your reward will be great
                               and you will be children of the Most High
                                       he is beneficial
                                           on the ungrateful and bad.
36                    Keep being merciful,
                           just as your father is merciful.
37                    Do not make divisions,
                           and you will not be divided.
                         Do not pass sentence,
                             and you will not be sentenced.
                             and you will be released.
38                       Give,
                              and it will be given to you:
                                  a good measure,
                                      having been pressed down,
                              will be given into your lap.
                                  With what measure you measure
                                       it will be measured to you.

A Question or Two:

  • How ridiculous is it to take off your underwear in court (v. 29)?
  • How ridiculous is it to sue someone for their coat?
  • What does it mean that the root of “ridiculous” is ridicule?

Some Longer Reflections:

The advice in this scene does not make simple sense. It may make sense if the presupposition is that the violence cannot be defeated. It may make sense if there is here an entire new ethic, but if this is the case, no one can claim this ethic in comfort, behind a wall of military protection, or even behind a stout door with a lock.

I sat with a former student, a former member of another country’s military. He told me that he carries a knife at all times. I told him that I do not. He told me that the world is more dangerous than I imagine. I told him that imagining danger makes the world more dangerous than it already is. I realized that my stout door and my white skin may together make it possible for me to ignore the real violence. It is also possible that he has stirred himself into an unjustified panic. As I read this scene from Luke, I realize that I do not know which of us is right, if only because I am not willing to abandon the things that prevent me from ever having to turn the other cheek.

I have, on occasion, walked away from physical threats. I have, on occasion, refused to return violent threats with violence. But on those few occasions I was surrounded by a community who would have, at least, contained the violence, had things got out of hand.

Perhaps it is the surrounding community that this scene depends on in its effort to offer a new ethic. But as a member of that surrounding community, this scene requires me to consider the ways that I might be required to return violence for violence in an effort to protect people who are vulnerable and threatened.

But if the surrounding community does not do its duty, this scene offers no comfort, and no reassurance, to people who have been made vulnerable.

But even then, the ethic in this scene is still complicated. It is important, when reading or hearing a story, to listen for the ethical physics of the narrative world. What are the forces that operated in this world? What are the structures that regulate those forces and make them (somewhat) predictable?

The ethical physics of this little narrative world are tense, twisted. The tension starts with the elements I first considered. Non-violent resistance relies on a surrounding community that restrains, or even fights back against the violence of the world. But the last line in this scene reveals another twist. Jesus says that the “measure you give will be the measure you get.” He is talking about acting with peaceful generosity, of course, but his statement lays out a physics that is recognizably Newtonian: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This makes some basic sense in the scene: making divisions leads to the making of more divisions, and anger breeds anger. But the scene begins with an entirely different understanding. Jesus directs his listeners NOT to return violence for violence, NOT to give back in the same measure as they were given. Jesus’ words contradict what he says at the end.

At least apparently.

There appear to be TWO physics operating simultaneously. One system expects violence for violence, and Jesus directs his listeners to break that system. The other system promises generosity for generosity, and justice for justice. These two systems do not fit together. These two systems actively resist each other.

That sounds all promising and theological and Jesus-y. But the problem is that such happy little interpretive reactions only work behind stout doors with the protection provided by privilege. And if this scene is to be of any value, its physics have to function in the real world, in the face of real violence.

Before the last U.S. presidential election, far-right elements threatened violence if their candidate were not elected. In recent weeks, a political official in Michigan responded to violent protests in California by tweeting that the solution to such protests would be another Kent State. If you do not remember the Kent State killings, look them up.

Even if you do remember the Kent State killings (and I do indeed remember them, having been 17 at the time), listen again to the Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young song written in response. Listen to Ohio. “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground? / How can you run when you know?,” they sang. “We’re finally on our own,” they reminded us. And we were on our own, and I remember the tremendous sense of vulnerability that I felt, that maybe all of us felt, no matter our political allegiances.

You can only think about the ethics of this scene if you reflect on what it means to be finally on our own: no reason to trust or wait, no one you can certainly trust, nothing to lose. Now, tell me what Jesus means when he says, “The measure you give is the measure you will get.” Now, describe the impact of suffering violence and theft by turning the other cheek. And, while you’re at it, describe the impact of NOT turning the other cheek.

A Provocation: Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany: February 17, 2019: Luke 6:17-26

17    He went down with them.
       He stood on a level place.
           A great crowd of his disciples
           and a great multitude of the host
               from all of Judea
               and Jerusalem
               and the coast of Tyre to Sidon.
18       They came to hear him
               and to be healed from their sicknesses.
               Those troubled from unclean breaths were cured.
19      All the crowd kept seeking to seize him
             because power
                 from him
             kept going out
             and he was healing all.
20    He lifted his eyes
           into his disciples.
       He was saying:
           Godlike in happiness,
               the poor,
                   because to you is the Dominion of Elohim.
21        Godlike in happiness,
                the hungry,
                    because you will be satisfied.
           Godlike in happiness,
                the wailers,
                    because you will laugh.
22        Godlike in happiness you are
                whenever they hate you,
                    whenever people do,
                and whenever they cut you off,
                    and insult you,
                    and throw out your name
                        as bad
                            on account of the son of adam.
23        Rejoice in that day
           and skip
               for look:
                   your reward is in the heaven.
                       According to the same things
                       they were doing to the prophets
                           their fathers did.
24        But
               Woe to you,
                   the rich,
                   because you are receiving your summons.
25            Woe to you,
                   the filled up,
                       because you will be hungry.
                   the laughers
                       because you will mourn and wail.
26            Woe
                    whenever they speak well of you,
                        all of them,
                        all people,
                            according to the same things
                            they kept doing to the false prophets
                                their fathers did.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Matthew have a Sermon on the Mount when Luke has a Sermon on the Plain?
  • Why is that not the only difference between the sermons?

Some Longer Reflections:

Jesus is teaching and healing. And the people are seeking to seize him.

Their motivation would appear to lie in his restorative actions. They see in him the sign that God is acting to turn the world right-side-up.

The word that I’ve translated as “seized” needs a closer look. The word in Greek is ἅπτεσθαι, which is the root from which the word “haptics” on my Apple watch comes. In its mildest forms, it refers to the act of touching. It means “to lay hands on,” and thus I translate it as “seized.”

I was working with a group of pastors this past week, and one of them suggested that post-Super Bowl interviews offer the best look at what ἅπτεσθαι means. Key players are surrounded by reporters, players, fans, police officers, team staff: lots of people. Key players are surrounded (more significantly) by furious excitement. The Super Bowl is like that. Even if the game is dull, the event is a spectacle, and that spectacle if focused on the quarterback. In the interview, the pastor noted, people all around were grabbing at the quarterback, laying hands on him.

I think that pastor is right. Jesus was being mobbed.

And then Jesus delivers his Sermon on the Plain. The structure is interesting: three blessings are followed by an elaborate fourth blessing; three woes are followed by an elaborate fourth woe. These elaborate fourth steps are tied together in that they both refer to the prophets, true and false, and to the way people in the past received them.

This dance with the prophets of the past needs careful thought. It works well to imagine that true prophets announced woe and were therefore hated, which made them poor, hungry, and grief-stricken. And then, of course, false prophets announced blessings and were therefore spoken well of, which led to them being rich, well-fed, and filled with laughter.

That works.

But the prophets were more complicated than that. For one thing, the gospel of Luke (and all the gospels, in fact) is built out as midrash on the prophet Isaiah, who was held to be such a true prophet that at least two layers of later prophecy (named, not too creatively, Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah) were added to his life’s work long after his death. And Isaiah’s larger work is decidedly a mix of blessing and woe.

So the simple schema that links true prophecy with ringing denunciations will not hold. But neither will a retrospective schema that argues that true prophets were true because they were TRUE prophets. And we know they were TRUE prophets because they’re in the Bible and the being in the Bible makes them TRUE prophets.

Neither of these approaches is finally going to help.

So maybe the elaborate fourth steps are just conveniently linked by reference to the prophets, and maybe that doesn’t mean anything more. (Or, of course, maybe it does.)

The first three blessings and woes might be a better place to start. Even they are complicated, however. The last two in each series are clear reversals: people who are now hungry will be satisfied, those who are now stuffed will be hungry; people who now wail in grief will again laugh, and laughers will wail. These last steps are all anchored by the repeated contrast between NOW and a future reversal.

The first steps are a little different. People who are poor do not become rich; instead, Jesus says that the Dominion of Elohim is theirs. People who are rich do not become poor; instead, they are summoned into court.

This translation is atypical (as are many of my translations). The line is generally translated as relating to receiving consolation. But the Greek word, παράκλησιν, doesn’t exactly imply consolation or gentle comfort. The root of the word means “to call upon,” or even “to call out.” παράκλησιν means, properly, “to exhort,” which is not much like comforting.

I translate it as I do because of the story of the rich man and Lazarus. You know the story: Lazarus has a name, the rich man does not; the rich man has a home (a house with gates, actually), Lazarus does not; Lazarus has nasty sores and is thrown at the rich man’s gate. Both men die, Lazarus is gathered into Abraham’s lap, and the rich man is buried. From his torment, the nameless rich man tells Abraham to order Lazarus to bring him water. Assumption of privilege extends beyond death, apparently. Abraham notes that the rich man had received good things, and Lazarus had not. Traditional translations have him also contrast Lazarus’ comfort with the rich man’s agony. The word translated as “comfort” is παράκλησιν. I can’t read it as saying that Lazarus is now being exhorted.

But the word also means “called into court.” And if Lazarus has been called into court as a witness, then it makes sense that the rich man might be in agony. The storyteller notes that Lazarus was “thrown” at the gates of the rich man’s house. Perhaps Lazarus had been one of the rich man’s servants, and had been thrown out of the house because he had developed nasty sores. Maybe that is how the rich man knew his name, and imagined (even after death) that he could order Lazarus around.

But if παράκλησιν means “called into court” in the Lazarus and the rich man story, maybe it means the same thing here. Maybe the rich man has been called into court.

The Sermon on the Plain paints the world in black-and-white contrasts, not because (I think) the world is about bi-polar opposites, but because the world has both wailing and laughing in it, both hungry and stuffed people. The world also has both poverty and wealth, and always has had. But this is a Jewish story (not a surprise, since Jesus is Jewish), and Jewish interpretation of the Creation of the world understands that when God made the world, God created enough for all of life to flourish. Since the world has always had poverty and wealth, it is a human duty (in the faith of Jesus) to facilitate flourishing: people have to share so that everyone can bless God for creating so well and richly.

With that background in mind, Jesus has just said, “Woe to rich people: they will be called to answer in court for preventing the flourishing of Creation.”

Which is something like the prophet Isaiah said.

A Provocation: Fifth Sunday After The Epiphany: February 10, 2019: Luke 5:1-11

1    It happened
         when the crowd pressed upon him
             and to hear the argument of Elohim.
         He was standing beside the lake, Gennesaret
2    He saw two boats standing by the lake.
          (The seamen,
               going away from them,
          were cleaning their nets.)
3    He got into one of the boats
          (which was Shimon’s).
     He asked him to put out away from the land a little.
     He sat.
         Out of the boat he was teaching the crowds.
4    As he paused speaking,
     he said to Shimon:
         Put out into the deep.
         Let down your nets
             into a catch.
5    Shimon answered,
     he said:
             through the whole night
                 we worked.
                     Nothing we caught.
            At your word,
                I will let down the nets.
6    When they did this
          they enclosed a great multitude of fish.
              They were ripping their nets.
7        They motioned to their partners in the other boat
               in order that they came to help take hold together.
         They came.
         They filled both boats
              so that they were sinking.
8    Shimon Peter (Rock) saw,
     he fell to the knees of Joshua.
     He said:
         Go away from me:
             A man,
              I am,
9                 For amazement had seized him
                      and all those with him
                  at the catch of the fish that they took.
10                   Likewise also Yaakov and Yochanon
                          sons of Zebedee (Gift of Elohim)
                              (who were partners with Shimon)
         He said to Shimon
         Joshua did:
             Stop being afraid.
                 From now
                     people you will be taking prisoner

  (or brought back to life)
11    They brought the boat to the land.
       They left everything.
       They followed him.

A Question or Two:

  • What does teaching have to do with fishing?

Some Longer Reflections:

Three little things:

First: You probably noticed that I do not translate Ἐπιστάτα in v. 5 as “Master,” though this is the customary translation. That is a perfectly good translation, but it sounds awfully religious in my ears. And the “religious” aspect tilts interpreters toward reading Peter as deferring to Jesus’ better judgment. He is the savior of the world, after all.

I translate Ἐπιστάτα as “boss.” Hear the scene carefully. Peter earns his living by fishing. Jesus is the son of a builder, apparently, which means when the task at hand is fishing, he is the best carpenter in the room.

Jesus has just told Peter to do something pointless. Peter knows it because he knows his trade. Peter says, “Boss….”

Did you ever work for a boss who repeatedly told workers to do useless things? I have. More than once. When I made my living as a meat cutter, I heard old, experienced butchers respond to inexperienced store managers (rookie managers ALWAYS have great ideas). I have heard people who knew their trade say, “Whatever you say, boss, but that won’t work.”

You earn the right to speak that directly. And sometimes you get fired for it, even though you had more than earned the right.

In such responses, the word “boss” has a particular edge to it. If you’ve heard it, you know. “Sure thing, boss,” says the worker who only does stupid things when she is ordered to do them. “Sure thing,” says Peter. Listen for the edge in his voice. He knows what he is talking about.

Second: When Peter sees the amazing result of doing something impossibly stupid, he asks Jesus to go away, because he is (in Greek) ἀνὴρ ἁμαρτωλός. This is usually translated as “a sinful man.” That, again, is a workable translation. The problem arises because our imaginations ordinarily go wild when we hear that someone is sinful. To be sure, our imaginations traditionally get really wild when the “sinner” is a woman. We let men off easier, in my experience.

But even if we just engage in theological imagination, the word “sinful” drags unhelpful elements into the story. At the least, interpreters make Peter “by nature sinful and unclean.” At worst, we foam at the mouth as we visualize God’s implacable wrath in the face of inescapable human sinfulness. Sometimes we even imagine that God has to kill us because “he” loves us so much.

In my estimation, our theological imagination goes rancid whenever we fixate on imagining God’s anger.

The thing to remember is that this is a Jewish story. Jesus is Jewish. Peter is Jewish. Everyone in the scene is Jewish, including the storyteller. And in a Jewish story, ἁμαρτωλός is best translated as “non-observant.” That COULD mean that Peter is a notorious criminal, but it most commonly means nothing more than that he did not keep kosher.

A dear friend of mine, Murray Haar, tells the rabbinic story of a shopkeeper who was distraught because his business situation made it necessary to open his shop on sabbath. He apologized to his rabbi, telling him that he wanted to be fully observant, but he had Gentile customers who shopped on Saturday morning, and he had to be open. His family needed the money.

The rabbi asked him, “So you’re NOT open all day on sabbath?”

“No,” said the man,”only for four hours in the morning.”

“So,” said the rabbi, “on sabbath you work for 4 hours, and rest for 20. Maybe next week you can rest for 21 hours?”

My friend and colleague then notes that the rabbis sometimes ask why it is that God has given us 413 commandments.

When I first heard that there were not just Ten Commandments, but 413, I was a college student. My teacher, a notable Lutheran, explained that “Jews were in such terror of the wrath of God that they multiplied commandments to make a fence around the Commandments.” This explanation works best if you have never read the rabbis.

According to my friend, the reason given by the rabbis for so very many commandments is simple: there are 413 commandments so that, no matter who you are, there will be at least one that you can keep.

Think about that.

This is not a terrified theology. Behind such a theological understanding is a God who gets it: human beings are not perfect. No kidding. God’s grace does not look for perfection. But maybe there’s at least one thing you can do that will point to the lovingkindness of God? Good. Do that.

So why does Peter tell Jesus to go away?

That leads to the third thing: the amazing haul of fish is a not just a sign that EVERYBODY will be having fish for supper (and breakfast and lunch). The amazing haul is a sign, just as the amazing harvests in 2 Baruch are signs, signs that God is finally turning the world right-side-up, finally setting it free from futility.

By the time of Jesus, Jews had been expecting God to finally turn the world right-side-up for many generations. Peter knows that his great-great-grandmother had looked for the Creation to be freed from futility. He knows that her great-great-grandmother had died looking for that liberation. Such long waiting makes hope holy. Peter’s immediate reaction makes perfect sense. All of his grandmothers had waited and waited, aching to see justice and flourishing. He sees the haul of fish as the eruption of their hopes in the midst of his very ordinary life. His first words are: “This is too holy for a regular guy. My grandmothers should see this, not me.” I get that.

So this scene starts with a regular guy who knows his trade reacting to a rookie suggestion. “Whatever you say, boss,” he says. But then he sees a sign that old hopes are suddenly blooming. And this regular guy is overwhelmed. I pay attention when regular guys are overwhelmed. I trust them.

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany: February 3, 2019:Luke 4:21-30

21        He began to say to them:
                 Today it has been fulfilled,
                      this writing,
     in your ears.
22   Everyone was bearing favorable witness to him.
           They were amazed regarding the words,
                the gracious words,
                those coming out of his mouth.
           They were saying:
                Isn’t this one a son of Joseph?
23   He said to them:
           Certainly you will say to me this parable:
                     cure yourself.
           What things we heard happened into Capernaum,
                do also here in your hometown.
24   He said:
           Amen I am talking to you:
                No prophet is acceptable in his hometown.
25       On truth I am talking to you:
               Many widows there were,
                    in the days of Eliyahu,
               in Israel,
                    when it was locked,
                         the heaven,
                    upon to three years and six months
                    as it happened:
                         a great famine
                         on all the land.
26                 To not one of them
                    was sent Eliyahu
                         if not into Zarephath of Sidonia,
                              to a woman
                                   a widow.
27            Many lepers there were
                    in Israel
                         on Elisha
                              (Elohim is salvation)
                         the prophet.
               None of them was cleansed,
                    if not Naaman the Syrian.
28   They were filled,
      with anger,
           all in the synagogue
      when they heard these things.
29        They stood up;
            they threw him out,
                out of the city.
           They drove him up to the cliff
                 on which their city was built
            so as throw him down.
30   He came through the middle of them
      He walked.

A Question or Two:

  • Did you read the scene from last week?
  • Did you notice the warmth of the welcome?
  • If not, go back and read it slowly again.

Some Longer Reflections:

Last week, we noticed that Jesus was gladly welcomed in synagogues throughout Galilee and (in fact) in Nazareth. That means that the scene this week takes place in the context of warm reception, not rejection. This matters. Some interpreters read this scene as a story of how Jesus “came to his own, and his own received him not,” revealing that they would be happier reading the gospel of John than the gospel of Luke.

Everywhere Jesus turns in Luke’s story he meets an observant Jew who welcomes him. Whether it’s Zacchaeus or the thief on the cross, Jesus finds faithful Jews everywhere. John the Baptist finds the same thing: tax collectors and soldiers are presented as reluctant representatives of Roman authority, and John gives them simple tasks that will allow them to live as Jews even if they are trapped into working for Rome.

This context of warm welcome is crucial for reading the scene for this Sunday.

I read this sabbath as being tied to Yom Kippur (see my Provocation for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany for the more detailed argument), and that means that the focus of synagogue worship that day is on the gracious welcome of God and on the importance of healing the hurts that you may have caused in the preceding year. When Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, the congregants hear God’s gracious promise: in the Book of Heaven are written the names of people who have been crushed, exiled, imprisoned.

The audience, both in Nazareth and in Luke’s later time, will have known a great deal about crushing and exile. They will have remembered the Assyrian Conquest in 722 B.C.E. They will have remembered the Babylonian Conquest in 586 B.C.E. They will have remembered the crushing persecution of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. And the audience listening to Luke will have remembered how Rome crushed the First Jewish Revolt in 70 C.E. In that disaster, some 30 years before Luke’s story was first composed in the form we now have, perhaps 1 million Jews had been killed, Jerusalem had been sacked, and the Temple had been destroyed.

When Jesus read from Second Isaiah, the congregants will have heard God’s words of healing and comfort directed to people whose world had been smashed to bits.

By Gentiles.

That matters. Each disaster, each crushing devastation, had been inflicted by outsiders who acted as enemies. The audience will have known that and will have heard Isaiah’s words as a promise like the one you can hear in the Christian hymn, This Is My Father’s World: “That though the wrong seems oft so strong / God is the ruler yet.” You can understand why they were pleased.

What happens next is complicated. Jesus’ words, “Healer, cure yourself,” come out of nowhere. No one has suggested anything of the sort. It is, of course, a common experience. I can get away with thinking of myself as an international expert when I am invited to a conference in Italy, but if I tell the story of that conference to one of my teachers from high school, they still remember me as a goofy kid who was (more than occasionally) a little annoying as a student. Everyone learns sometime that, to the people at home, you are still a little kid.

But, to say it again, NO ONE have suggested anything like this. If the fight is about a prophet in his hometown, Jesus picked that fight on his own. That is strange.

Jesus’ next words take the fight in a different direction altogether. All of a sudden he is talking about a widow in Sidon and a commander in Syria. Those places are not just places on a map, they are the homes of enemies. The armies of Syria had attacked the people of Israel, and Elisha healed Naaman anyhow. And the people of Sidon, in the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, had gladly joined the brutal persecution of Jews. This last bit of history is, of course, out of order: Elijah had met the widow centuries before Antiochus came to power, but both Jesus’ audience and Luke’s will have known Sidon as the home of violent oppressors.

Maybe now the reaction of the congregants in Nazareth makes sense. They weren’t nationalists who hated all outsiders. They were people who had just heard God’s words of tender comfort to people who had been crushed at the hands of enemies (some of whom came from Sidon and some from Syria, among other places). And now Jesus had hijacked those words and had applied the comfort to the enemy.

Think about that slowly. If Jesus’ words don’t offend you, think more slowly still.

If Sidon and Syria don’t trip your trigger (I use the cliché intentionally), substitute Harvey Weinstein. Substitute the KKK. Substitute anyone who has harmed you, intentionally and gladly.

Probably now you are offended. You should be.

What in the world is Jesus up to? Don’t excuse him too quickly. Maybe don’t excuse him at all. You can make up all sorts of safe ways to read this: maybe Jesus is saying that there are sad Romans, too; maybe Jesus is making the point that God is the God of the WHOLE WORLD, not just us; or maybe Jesus is saying that there are good people on both sides of those boundaries. Think slowly. And pay attention to the offense, especially the offense of each of these “safe” ways of finding the “gospel” in this text. It also could be that Jesus is picking a fight that he should have left alone.

It could be that Luke is telling a story in which Jesus is wrong. Or at least clueless. That interpretation, at the least, makes sense of his petulant words about being a prophet in his hometown.

Or it could be that this scene reveals that finding observant Jews everywhere is not simply (and not ever) a pretty little greeting-card-gospel. If Jesus and John the Baptist find faithful Jews everywhere, even among Roman collaborators, it may be because the miracle of turning the world right-side-up has already begun. If that is what is going on in this story out of Nazareth, it is your task to figure out how we participate now in the right-side-up-ing of the world. That is not a simple task, but it is essential. The hyper-partisanship of our current situation is prime evident that the world is upside down. We will die of that partisanship. We will die.

A Provocation: Third Sunday after the Epiphany: January 27, 2019: Luke 4:14-22

14   He returned,
           Joshua did
                in the power of the breath
      into Galilee.
      Fame went out
           through the whole of the surrounding region
      concerning him.
15   He was teaching
           in the synagogues
                being glorified by all.
16   He came into Nazareth
           where he was brought up.
      He went in,
           in accord with his custom
                in the day of the Sabbaths,
      into the synagogue.
      He stood up to read.
17        It was given to him:
                a book of the prophet Isaiah.
           He opened the book;
                he found the place where it stood written:
18                  A breath of haShem upon me
                          because of which he anointed me
                               to bring good news to the poor.
                     He sent me,
                          to proclaim
                               to exiled captives:
                               to blind people:
                                    seeing again;
                          to send those who have been crushed into release,
19                    to proclaim a year of haShem acceptable.
20        He rolled the book.
           He gave it back to the attendant.
           He sat.
                The eyes of all in the synagogue
                     were staring at him.
21        He began to say to them:
                 Today it has been fulfilled,
                      this writing,
     in your ears.
22   Everyone was bearing favorable witness to him.
           They were amazed regarding the words,
                the gracious words,
                those coming out of his mouth.
           They were saying:
                Isn’t this one a son of Joseph?

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus go to synagogue?
  • Why does ANY Jew go to synagogue?
  • Did you ask a Jewish friend, or did you just guess?
  • Just wondering.

Some Longer Reflections:

The first thing to notice is that Jesus meets a warm welcome in synagogue after synagogue. This glad reception extends also to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. The storyteller makes it clear: he is “glorified by all;” everyone “[bears] favorable witness to him.” They are “amazed” by his words, and the word used by the storyteller implies that they see in him a sign of the working of God in their midst.

Interpreters often forget this, distracted, perhaps, by the violence with which the larger scene ends. That violence matters, to be sure. The violence matters, but so does the warm welcome. This is not a story about “The Rejection of Jesus in Nazareth,” no matter what my HarperCollins Study Bible says (HarperSanFrancisco, 1989). It is the story of Jesus being accepted throughout Galilee, including in Nazareth. And then it is the story of the synagogue congregants in Nazareth rising up against Jesus.

Both reactions happen, and your task as an interpreter next week will be to explore what leads to this drastic change from glad acceptance to angry expulsion.

But this week the task is to notice, first of all, their welcome.

The next task is to notice that Jesus reads from Second Isaiah. This could be the haftorah, the selection from the prophets tied to the Torah portion assigned to the day. If so (and if the current lectionary was in use in ancient Galilee), the congregation might also have heard a passage from Exodus detailing the Tabernacle, the forerunner to the Temple. If this is the context being suggested, then Luke’s ancient audience would have been remembering that Rome had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem when they heard the storyteller speak Jesus’ words about good news and restoration.

Or the passage from Second Isaiah could have been the haftorah passage for Yom Kippur. In that case, the synagogue in Nazareth would have been filled with people who were completing their celebration of the High Holy Days. This actually fits with an oddity in the Greek that is not often translated: Jesus is in the synagogue “in the day of the Sabbaths.” If this is a reference to the “Sabbath of the Sabbaths,” then this is certainly a Yom Kippur scene. The Book of Heaven has been open since the beginning of the High Holy Days on Rosh Hashanah, and God is engaged in determining who is included in that Book.

In the context of the making of that Divine Determination, the haftorah from Second Isaiah speaks a particularly gracious note. Who is included in the Book of Heaven? It is the poor, the crushed, the outcasts and the overwhelmed. The High Holy Days sing a song of gracious acceptance to set the backdrop for the crucial activity of making amends for wrongs done during the past year.

If you are not familiar with the practice of making amends as part of Yom Kippur, think of Ash Wednesday, think of Maundy Thursday, think of the tasks proper to Lent. During the High Holy Days, Jews seek to heal relationships that might have been broken in the past year. Those who have injured others ask, face to face, for forgiveness. Those who have been injured have the freedom to grant forgiveness, and if the injury was too great, they have the freedom to decline. (You can hear echoes of this crucial freedom in Jesus’ words elsewhere in the gospels about binding and loosing.)

Jesus says that the healing of the crushed and the exiled is taking place on that very day, in that very synagogue. The people in Nazareth, who will have known plenty about such injuries, react with joy. “Isn’t this one a son of Joseph?” they ask, thus giving a compliment both to the father and to the son. I come from a small town. Anytime anyone said, “You’re Vera and Heimer’s son, aren’t you?” it made me proud and humble. My parents told me that they felt something similar.

That is the thing to notice this week: the crushed and the broken have their names recorded in the Book of Heaven. God is at work healing the Creation.

Everyone in Nazareth, every in all of Galilee, they all heard the promise of God coming out of the mouth of Jesus. And they welcomed him gladly.

A Provocation: Second Sunday after the Epiphany: January 20, 2019: John 2: 1-12

1   In the third day it happened in Cana of the Galilee:
        it was the mother of Jesus there.
2      She was called
           (and also Jesus
               and his disciples)
        into the wedding feast.
3       When they ran out of wine,
        she says,
            the mother of Jesus does,
         to him:
             wine they do not have.
4      He says to her,
       Jesus does:
           What’s this to you and to me,
           My hour has not yet come.
5      She says,
           his mother does,
        to the deacons:
           Should he say something to you,
                do it.
6      There were there stone water jars,
           six of them,
               according to the purification of the Judeans,
           standing there,
               each holding two or three measures.
7      He says to them,
        Jesus does:
           Fill the water jars with water.
        They filled them.
8        He says to them:
             Draw now and bring to the feast master.
         They brought.
         When he tasted,
9            when the feast master tasted the water
                 (become wine),
         he did not know whence it is.
                 The deacons knew,
                  the ones who drew the water.
             He calls to the bridegroom,
                 the feast master does;
10          he says to him:
                 All people first set the beautiful wine,
                         (whenever they are drunk),
                     the wine not yet aged.
                  You have saved up the beautiful wine until later.
11        This he did,
                the first of the signs,
            Jesus did this,
                in Cana of the Galilee:
            he made visible his glory.
                They were faithful toward him,
                     his disciples were.
12  After this he went down into Capernaum,
         and his mother
         and his brothers
         and his disciples.
     There he stayed not many days.

A Question or Two:

  • If the wine is somehow a symbol of the messiah, or the Dominion of God, or some such thing, does it matter that it is identified as older than the poor wine (τὸν ἐλάσσω, v. 10: “the younger”) that is usually served later, after people are too drunk to tell the difference?
  • Wouldn’t that reverse the usual sermonic cliche about “new wine?”

Some Longer Reflections:

Near the beginning of the story, Jesus puts his mother off: he tells her that his hour has not yet come. At the end of the story, the storyteller informs us that the thing with the water and wine was the first of Jesus’ signs.

And in between, Mary hears Jesus’ refusal, and ignores him.

It matters that she ignores her son addressing her as “Woman.” Interpreters sometimes argue that this is not disrespectful (though I’m guessing they wouldn’t talk to their own mother that way), and they point to other instances in ancient texts were women are so addressed. I have read those same texts. Some, to my eye, are actively disrespectful. Others are indeed not obviously insulting. But as I read those texts, that way of speaking to women reveals a way that a patriarchal culture had developed to brush women aside. Which suggests (to me, at least) that even if Jesus’ words were not an angry insult, still what he is saying carries in it a subtle slam: “Why should I do what you say? A: It’s not my time; and B: Women don’t tell men what to do.”

I was just now watching an episode of Doctor Who from last year, the episode involving Rosa Parks. Mrs. Parks asked a young man a question, and he answered, “Yes.” She replied, with a quiet ferocity that was inspiring to see, “Who taught you your manners? I’ll have a ‘Yes, ma’am’ from you.” To which he gave the only possible reply, “Yes, ma’am.” Both my mother and Jesus’ mother would approve, I think.

That’s not all that Mary ignores. She pays absolutely no attention to Jesus’ refusal to help. “Should he say something to you, do it,” she says. This has to be the best “Whatever” reply in history. And then she vanishes, leaving Jesus with the servants looking expectantly at him.

I’m guessing that this was not the first time Mary won an argument with Jesus.

She did not tell him what to do, though her words make it clear that she assumes it will be enough to identify the problem and leave him to draw his own conclusions. You can play this as a kind of passive-aggressive manipulation. That works. But it also works if you play her words as a straightforward delivery of relevant data, a necessary task when a delicate or complex problem needs solving. I have heard nurses and physicians talk like this. I heard my boss in the butcher shop talk like this, too, especially during Christmas rush times. “We’re out of Swedish sausage,” Amos would say. “I’m on it,” I’d reply. By the way, it didn’t occur to me to say to my boss what Jesus said to his mother.

After she speaks, Jesus performs the first of the signs of his messiahship: he helps the family celebrate the wedding feast. That’s worth thinking about: wine for celebration is a sign that the world is being turned right-side-up. Sounds like Isaiah 25, the feast on the mountain for all peoples.

But maybe even more: think about the narrative fact: Jesus refused to do this sign, and his mother declined his refusal. Her declining is also part of the first sign that the messiah did in Cana in the Galilee. In fact, it wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Think about that.

A Provocation: The Baptism of the Lord: January 13, 2019: Luke 3:15-22

15   Because the host was expecting
          and discussing all in their hearts about Yochanon
              whether he might be the meshiach,
16   he answered,
          he said to all
              Yochanon did:
                      with water
                  I purify you all.
                      He is coming,
                          the one who is stronger than I.
                              I am not adequate to loose
                                  the thongs of his sandals.
                      He will purify you all
                          in breath
                          and in fire.
17   His winnowing shovel in his hand
          to cleanse his threshing floor,
              to gather the grain into his storehouse,
                  the chaff,
                       to burn in fire,
                            unquenchable fire.
18   Many things
           and others
      he called to witness.
      He kept speaking good news to the host.
19   Herod
          the Tetrarch,
              having been accused by him
                   concerning Herodias
                       the wife of his brother
                   and concerning all the things he did,
                       all the vile things
20        he added all this on top of them all:
               he locked up Yochanon under guard.
21   It happened
          when all the host was purified
          also Joshua was purified.
              He is praying,
                  opened, the heaven
22               came down, the breath
                      the holy
                          (in body it looks like a pigeon)
                  on him.
                  A voice
                      out of heaven
                      you are my son,
                          the beloved.
                      In you I am well pleased.

A Question or Two:

  • Why was the faithful host anticipating the messiah?
  • No, really. What does this mean?

Some Longer Reflections:

Herod has power. Herod does vile things. This is not a new phenomenon. People with power often do whatever they want, and they get away with it. They get away with it because they have the power to punish anyone who challenges them. The current president of the United States reportedly looks for ways to use the federal government to punish those who oppose him. That, of course, would be illegal. Not impossible, but illegal. He would not be the first president to try such a thing.

They get away with it because they have recognized something crucial in their devoted followers. A significant number of them wish that they had the power to do whatever they wanted. Perhaps they don’t want to be free to sexually assault women, but some of them dream of the “good old days” when “women could take a joke.” Ish. And some of them do indeed want to assault people. Some of them want very much to “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody.” We have seen the impact of this in the rise in hate crimes in recent years.

Luke’s storyteller knows this about Herod and his supporters. And the storyteller twists the story so that Herod’s violence is forced into the foreground. John is standing in the water, baptizing. Jesus is coming to be baptized by John. But the storyteller has Herod lock John up before Jesus is baptized. This could mean that Jesus was baptized by someone other than John, but that creates an even more twisted story, and the extra twists don’t seem to have a point.

It seems more likely that we ought to read the story as twisting Herod’s future crime into the middle of the baptism scene. This means that Jesus enters the scene with Herod’s violence still ringing in the audience’s ears.

That hands interpreters a problem. Is Jesus entering the story as the king who was crowned in Psalm 2, the king who is claimed by God as a son, the king who will presumably bring the battle to Herod (and all violent rulers)? Or is Jesus entering as the son, the Servant, of Isaiah 42, the son in whom God is well-pleased, even in the midst of defeat and suffering?

It matters.

Both trails are there to be followed, and it may well be that the world will never be turned right-side-up without deadly conflict. But if the messiah enters this story to meet Herod’s power with his own countervailing power, the danger is that this messiah will feed in his followers the desire to have the power to do whatever they wish. Such people come to power and declare that compromise is impossible. Absolutists of all sorts love a messiah who offers the power to do whatever they wish.

I worry that messiahs of power become the next Herod. That also has happened many times. The solution is never simply to submit to whoever is currently starring as Herod. Hope grows, I think, from listening carefully to Isaiah 42. God’s servant will not break a bruised reed. God’s servant will not quench a candle that no one can imagine could continue to shine. But this gentleness does not imply that Creation simply has to put up with whoever is Herod in this reality show. Isaiah establishes the kindness of the servant, and then makes it clear that the servant will not grow faint or be crushed before establishing justice in the earth.

Can persistent, unflinching gentleness turn the world right-side-up? Think about that question before interpreting this scene.

A Provocation: The Epiphany of the Lord: January 6, 2019: Matthew 2:1-12

1   When Jesus was born,
       in Bethlehem of Judea,
       in the days of Herod,
          the king,
          Magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem.
2            They said:
                Where is the one who was born King of the Judeans?
                    For we saw his star in the East,
                       and we came to worship him.
3            After the king, Herod, heard this
                he was shaken
                   and all Jerusalem with him.
4            After he gathered all the high priests,
                and scribes of the people,
             he inquired from them
                where the Messiah is born.
5            They said to him:
                 In Bethlehem of the Judeans
                    For thus it stands written through the prophet:
6                      You, Bethlehem, land of Judea
                          you are not least among the leaders of Judea,
                             for out of you will come one who leads,
                                one who will shepherd my people, Israel.
7            Then Herod,
                after secretly calling the magi,
             learned exactly from them the time when the star appeared.
8            After he sent them into Bethlehem
                he said:
                   After you go, inquire exactly about the child.
                      As soon as you find him,
                         report to me,
                            so that even I might go and worship him.
9            After they heard the king they traveled.
                the star,
                   the one they saw in the East,
                it led before them
                   up until,
                      as they came,
                    it stationed itself over where the child was.
10          After they saw the star,
                they rejoiced a joy exceedingly great.
11          After they came into the house,
                 they saw the child
                     with Mary his mother
                they worshipped him.
             After they opened their treasuries they brought to him gifts:
                gold and frankincense and myrrh.
12          Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
                by another road they departed into their own region.
13   After they departed,
            a messenger of haShem appeared
               in a dream
            to Joseph.
            He said:
               Get up,
               take the child,
                  and his mother,
               and flee into Egypt
                  and be there until I should speak to you.  
                     For Herod is about to seek the child
                        in order to kill him.
14      He got up;
         took the child and his mother during the night
            and departed into Egypt,
15         and he was there until the end of Herod,
               in order that the word might be fulfilled,
                  the word from haShem,
                  the word through the prophet,
               which says:
                  Out of Egypt I called my son.  
16   Then Herod saw that he was ridiculed  by the Magi.
          He was furious.  
          He sent;
             he killed all the children in Bethlehem
                and in all her region,
             all the children from two years old and down,
                according to the time which he had discovered from the Magi.  
17   Then was fulfilled the word through Jeremiah the prophet which says:
18       A voice in Ramah is heard,
             wailing and great mourning,
          Rachel shrieking for her children,
             and she will not be comforted:
                they are not.
19   After the end of Herod,
               a messenger of haShem appears in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,
               he says:
20               Get up,
                  take the child and his mother
                     and go into the land,
                 They are dead,
                    those who were seeking the life of the child.  
21              He got up
                 and took the child and his mother
                    and went into the land, Israel.  
22              But after he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea
                    instead of his father Herod,
                 he was afraid to go there.
                     After he was informed in a dream,
                        he departed into the area of Galilee,
23                        he came
                           he made his home in a city called Nazareth.
                              Thus was fulfilled the word through the prophets:
                                  He will be called Nazarene.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Matthew’s storyteller have these strangers from the east enter his story with gifts?
  • Why do they vanish?
  • What do they add to the story?
  • What does Herod add?

Some Longer Reflections:

I have extended the usual text for the Epiphany. I extended it because the revelation of the Messiah involves more than just the recognition of the birth of Messiah by people who read the rhythms of the universe.

If you stop with the usual text, you have a royal Messiah, ready to ascend to his throne. The universe has revealed him, and all is in harmony.

Matthew is telling a more complicated story.

In Matthew’s story, the Messiah is recognized both by Magi who bring gifts and by Herod who brings death into every family in Bethlehem. You know this, but read it carefully. I distrust interpretive lines that wind themselves around the opposition. The notion of a “War on Christmas” makes me nervous, no matter what flag the warriors are flying. Such interpretive structures work by catering to resentment and anger, and they foster our reliance on the notion that what God offers in the world is an intervention with apocalyptic heavy weaponry.

Perhaps such an intervention is appropriate, or even necessary, but still I distrust such approaches. Any theology with its roots in anger leads to bloody fights. I distrust such theologies, even when I am angry.

What I notice as I read the scene this time is that Messiah enters the world, and the world does not change. Brutality is still in charge after Jesus’ birth as much as it was before. And I notice that brutality is in charge even now. Read the news. Read the tweets. Not just from the current president.

Standard Christian interpretation has adapted to this by making Christianity into an intense form of inner spirituality. “Jesus came to save our souls,” we are told, “not our bodies.” “How silently, how silently,” sings a carol that I love, and goes on to say, “So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.” I understand this interpretive move. And I distrust it as much as I distrust theological anger. Such theological dodging leaves injustice untouched, just as long as we all get to go to heaven.

Messiah enters the world and his family in the clan-city of Bethlehem suffers violence and murder. Interpreters sometimes demonstrate their prowess as scholars by pointing out that we have no record of such a slaughter. Such tone-deaf interpretation ignores the normalization of violence in human life together. We may have no certain record of this particular slaughter, but children are killed everyday. We go to war gladly (at least those safe at home with bone spurs are glad). The story told in Matthew knows this, and has the Messiah born into the middle of it all.

As I read this scene this year, I am reflecting on the radical way this story is told. This is indeed “God With Us.” In Matthew’s story Messiah is not with us as a conquering hero. Instead, God is with us as a neighbor who also lost a child to Herod’s angry attack. Most troublesome of all, God is with us as a victim of our anger, our vengeance.

On the way to our family’s Christmas celebration, we filled the 4-hour drive by singing. We had brought along the old Lutheran hymnal of my childhood, the Service Book and Hymnal (often called “the other red hymnal”). In that hymnal (published in 1958), the carol, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, has a third verse that has since vanished. This verse, part of the original 1849 poem, reads as follows:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

This Epiphany I am reflecting on what it might mean that Messiah was born into the midst of “man, at war with man.” I am wondering what I might do to “hush the noise.”

I do not expect an easy answer.