A Provocation of the Gospel of Luke: October 19, 26; November 2, 9: A Collaborative Workshop: The Gospel of Luke: We had hoped…

Pam Faro (an incredible professional storyteller) and I are doing a workshop focused on the gospel of Luke. The details are on the flyer (below). We will be gathering on Zoom, so no airfare, no hotel, just four sessions of collaborative exploration of a fascinating story. Please join us!

A Provocation: Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 25 (29): October 17, 2021: Mark 10:35-45

32 They were on the road,
	they were going up to Jerusalem. 
	Jesus was leading them.  
		They were amazed.  
		Those who followed were afraid.  
He took the twelve aside;
	he began to tell them the things that were about to happen.  
33 Look, 
he said, 
		we are going up to Jerusalem.
		The son of adam will be handed over 
			to the high priests 
			and the scribes, 				
			They will condemn him to death, 
			and they will hand him over to the Gentiles.  
				34 The Gentiles will mock him 
						and spit on him 
						and flog him 
						and kill him.
				After three days he will rise.  
	35. Then James and John walked up to him 
		(they’re the two sons of Zebedee), 
	they walked up and said: 
		Teacher?  Okay: whatever we ask, you have to do it, okay?.  
36 He said to them:
		What do you want me to do for you?  
	37 They said to him: 
		Give us this: 
			in your glory 
			one of us sits on your right, 
			one of us on your left, 
	38. Jesus said to them: 
		You don’t know what you are asking.  
			Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?  
			Or the baptism I undergo, are you able to take that, too?  
	39 They said to him: 
		We can do that, no problem.  
	Jesus said to them: 
		The cup I drink, you will drink.  
		The baptism I undergo, you will undergo.  
		40 But sitting at my right or my left?16  
			That isn’t mine to give.  
			It belongs to those for which it was prepared.  
41 When the ten heard about this, 
	they began to be angry with James and John.  
42 Jesus called them,
he says to them: 
	You know: 
		the ones who seem to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them.  	
	You know: 
		their “Great Ones” push them around.  
	43 It is not to be that way with you.  
		On the contrary: 
			You want to be great?  
				Wait tables.  
			44 You want to be in first place?  
				Become everyone’s slave.  
		45 The son of adam, after all, 
			did not come to be served, 
			but to serve, 
			and to give his life, 
				a ransom worth many people.

A Question or Two:

  • Is this a comic scene, or a tragic scene?

A Few Longer Reflections:

			You want to be great?  
				Wait tables.  
			You want to be in first place?  
				Become everyone’s slave. 

The risk with this set of sayings is that we will imagine that we are being encouraged to wait on one table. Or maybe even to work an entire shift as a server in a fast food restaurant. One whole shift!

But masquerading as a service worker is likely to teach us nothing. We may have lovely nostalgic thoughts about back when we had to work such jobs. We might tell great stories about how little we earned in those days, and how hard it was to make ends meet. (I occasionally tell people about the week in grad school when we had 18 cents in our checking account. True story.)

But of course when we do this, we are not paid for our efforts. Such stunts are recreational. Were I to work a shift in a grocery store, hoping to express solidarity with people who live on wages like that, I would do it for free because I have a job and salary that lets me flex my schedule and work for free.

And that is precisely not the point in this scene.

My salary and my “status” have gone up from what they were in those days.

Jesus is aware that people with privilege and power need to remember that “essential workers” are, in fact, essential. And they are poorly paid. But he is not directing us to pose as people who wait table. Posing solves nothing. He is saying that only people who live on the wages of a fast food server have the credentials of greatness. Only people held as slaves can qualify as the true “elites.”

We do not believe that.

We find ways to read those words as somehow metaphorical, somehow a suggestion, not a directive. And sometimes people who see themselves as “servant leaders” do things that are useful and good. It is good that such things happen.

But Jesus’ words have a sharper edge than that. The reign of God (the “kin-dom” of God, or even the “kid-dom” of God) makes sense to people who are working two jobs just to make rent.

Maybe that is why the followers of Jesus included outcasts and sex-workers. I do not know many people who have been sex-workers, but I do know some. I do not know anyone who has been held as a slave, but I do know people who know they will never pay off their educational loans, people who work multiple jobs and still come up short some months. We all know people who face bankruptcy because of medical bills.

What would it mean to be led by these people?

A Provocation: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 23 (28): October 10, 2021: Mark 10:17-31

17 When he went out on a journey,
     one man ran up, 
          fell on his knees.
          He asked him: 
               Noble teacher, 
               What ought I do so that I inherit life of the messianic age?
          18 Jesus said to him: 
               Why are you saying that I am noble?  
                    No one is noble except one, 
               19  You know the commandments: 
                    do not kill, 
                    do not commit adultery, 
                    do not steal, 
                    do not witness falsely, 
                    do not refuse to return deposits, 
                    honor your father and mother.  
          20 The man said to him: 
                    all these things I guarded from early adulthood.
          21 Jesus looked at him;
          he was pleased with him. 
          He said to him: 
               One thing alone is lacking for you: 
                    whatever you have 
                         and give to the poor 
                              and you will have treasure in heaven 
                                   and come follow me.  
          22 He became sad because of the word.
          He went away full of sorrow: 
          He used to have many possessions.  
          23 Jesus looked around, 
          he says to his disciples: 
               How peevishly 
                    those who have what they need 
               will go into the dominion of God.
          24 The disciples were amazed because of his words, 
          so Jesus again answered, 
          he says to them: 
               how unpleasant it is to go into the dominion of God.
                    25 Easier it is that a camel go through the eye of a needle 
                         than that a rich man go into the dominion of God.  
          26 Those standing by were driven out of their minds. 
          They said to themselves: 
               So who is able to be rescued?  
          27 He looked at them,
          Jesus says: 
               By humans:
                    can’t be done.
               but not by God.
                    Indeed by God all things can be done.  
          28 Peter began to say to him: 
                         WE left everything.
                         WE have followed you. 
          29  Jesus said:
               I tell you the truth:
                    There is no one who left a house 
                         or brothers 
                         or sisters 
                         or mother 
                         or father 
                         or children 
                         or fields 
                              on account of me 
                              and on account of the good news, 
                    30 if they should not receive a hundred-fold now 
                         in this, the right time 
                              and brothers 
                              and sisters 
                              and mothers 
                              and children 
                              and fields 
                                   with persecutions, 
                         and in the messianic age coming, 
                              the life of the messianic age.  
                                   31 Many will be first who are last, 
                                        and last first. 

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

A Question or Two:

  • What is all this talk about rich people?

Some Longer Reflections:

“How peevishly….” There is a word I bet you have not said aloud, maybe ever.

The usual translation is “How hard….” That is a good translation. Mostly. But the word in Greek spends its energy thinking about picky eaters. Seriously. The word does not imply hard work and real difficulty. The word is as serious as my dislike for kale. Or some people’s distaste for broccoli. That’s it. That’s all of it. This isn’t even gluten intolerance. This is just some people, for some unknown reason, do not like oatmeal.

At first look, this seems to be a flimsy word for this situation. From one side, it is flimsy because we are talking about “going into the dominion of God.” No matter what this exactly means, it is a serious matter. Peevish? And from another side, we are talking here about “selling whatever you have” and giving it to the poor. The man is reluctant. Jesus uses a word he would use if the man had said, “But I just don’t LIKE kale.”

Stop and think about that. As I write this, I am sitting in the living room of our home, which we have paid off. Across the room is the rocking chair that belonged to my mother’s father, the chair that he painted with glossy black lacquer and traced oak leaves from the trees across from his house in Jamestown, NY, onto the arms, painting them gold. Behind the chair I see my trombone, a King 4B that I bought with my own money about 50 years ago. It is a good instrument, one that we almost sold once when we were very short of money while in grad school. Behind my trombone is the antique commode that was given to us by my wife’s great uncle who chose it specially for her out of a barn full of antiques and old stuff. And on the wall to my left are two small watercolors that my sister painted about a year before she was diagnosed with ALS.

“Sell whatever you have, and give to the poor.”

It seems to me that this goes beyond broccoli and oatmeal and pineapple on pizza.. This even goes beyond kale.

One key to this odd scene is found in the way the next line is usually translated. Mostly they have Jesus say that it is hard for “those who have wealth” to enter the kingdom. The Greek is more interesting than that. The phrase in Greek is οἱ τὰ χρήματα ἔχοντες: those having τὰ χρήματα. The word could refer to riches, but the stem refers to things that are needed, not things that are excessive. That means that even though I am astonished at the size of the Bezos fortune (if you can give away many millions of dollars and still have billions, astonishment is in order), Jesus is not talking about Jeff Bezos (at least not only him).

Jesus is talking about people who have what they need.

This is odd.

My friends who are Lakota might disagree. They tell me stories about the practice of give-away. After a death in the family, people give away “whatever they have.” Because I am not Lakota, I understand this only in part, but my friends have told me that what is crucial about give-away is that it makes it clear that the bereaved family must now depend on the community if they are to eat or have chairs to sit on. In the aftermath of the death of a mother or a child, we need the people around us to hold us up because we do not have what we need. This was surely true when ALS killed my sister. She is present in my earliest memories and therefore I had always imagined myself as her brother. When she died, I lost something that I needed. Any social system that emphasizes “rugged individualism” will misunderstand grief. Bereavement teaches us that we need more than just ourselves. Give-away makes this internal truth visible.

If that is true, then give-away reveals an essential quality of the dominion of God: we have to depend on each other. And by calling us “peevish” when we object to the idea of give-away, Jesus makes it clear that we have not only misunderstood theology, we have misunderstood our life together. We need each other. And maybe that is part of what Jesus meant when he said we are to receive the dominion of God the way children do. Children must depend on the community to live. That is true for all of us.

A Provocation: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 22 (27): October 3, 2021: Mark 10:2-16

1He got up from there;
     he comes into the territory of Judea across the Jordan, 
    Again a crowd comes together;
        again it comes to him. 
            As he had been accustomed,
            again he was teaching them.  
            2When Pharisees came to him, 
                they kept asking:
                    Since it is allowed to a husband 
                        to release his wife… 
                            (They were testing him.)  
                3He answered,
                he said to them: 
                    What to you did Moses command?
                4They said: 
                    Moses permitted that we write a book of separation 
                        and that we release.
                5Jesus said to them: 
                    With an eye to your hardened hearts 
                    he wrote you this commandment.
                        6But from the beginning of creation:
                            “male and female he made them…”, 
                            7“On account of this a person leaves his father and mother…”
                            “the two will be one flesh…”, 
                                so that there is no longer two, 
                                    but one body.  
                    9Therefore that which God yokes together 
                        let no one separate. 
                10Back in his house, 
                the disciples kept asking him about this. 
                11He says to them: 
                    Whoever would release his wife 
                        and marry another 
                    commits adultery against her.  
                    12And if ever a woman should release her husband
                        in order to marry another 
                    she commits adultery.
    13They kept bringing to him children 
    in order that he would touch them, 
        but the disciples scolded them 
        14But when Jesus saw he was angry.
            He said to them: 
                Permit the children to come to me,  
                Stop hindering them.  
                    Indeed of such as these is the dominion of God.  
                15I tell you the truth:
                Whoever should not receive the dominion of God 
                the way a child does 
                    will surely not go into it.  
    16And hugging them, 
    he kept blessing them, 
    placing his hands upon them.  

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

I just now read my Provocation from three years ago, and I like it pretty well. You might want to start out by reading that one, even though it is old. You can find it at https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2018/10/01/a-provocation-twentieth-sunday-after-pentecost-october-7-2018-mark-102-16/

A Question or Two:

  • Why are there kids in this scene?

Some Longer Reflections:

Whatever you do, do not make Jesus into a baby-kissing politician. Ish. He is not making nice with the kids to impress the crowd. And the storyteller is not bringing in the kids to humanize Jesus. Whatever the storyteller might be doing, it’s not that. So the question remains: why are there kids in this scene?

The storyteller, who knows that she just concluded a scene about families, might possibly have brought in the children as a consequence. Maybe she is addressing any patriarch who feels his freedumb is limited by Jesus’ words about not turning “the little woman” out on the street, thus going over patriarchy’s head to remind the audience that kids matter even if they don’t get a vote in such situations.

The children might appear in this scene because the storyteller wanted the audience to notice that parents wanted to connect their children with the one whose task it was to turn the world right-side-up. They didn’t bring them because Jesus was a rock star. He was not some sort of ancient Elvis (to pick a rock star who was ancient even for me). Becoming responsible for children makes you powerfully aware of the ways the world is upside-down. Part of this awareness comes from the panic that parents feel when they realize (often at 3 in the morning) that this child needs protecting. Part of it comes, I think, from the fact that well-raised children see things that are not fair, and they protest. Yes, I know that some parents use such occasions to teach kids that they have to be tough and that they have to take what they want any way they can. We did not raise our children that way. In my opinion, kids raised like that grow up to be jerks. Even if they get elected to office sometimes. Jerks are jerks. These parents want to link their children to the project and process of turning the world round right.

I am intrigued by the way Jesus links the children to the reign of God. Translators have gone all around his words, looking for a way to translate them helpfully. The Greek is nicely ambiguous. It reads, first of all: τῶν γὰρ τοιούτων ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ. (“For of this sort is the reign of God.”). Whatever that means. And then it says that whoever does not receive the reign of God ὡς παιδίον will never enter it. Whatever that means.

Some translators, for good reason, make the first bit to say that the reign of God “belongs to” children. And therefore some interpreters speak of the “kin-dom” of God, or even the “kid-dom.” That works, and I like the implications, though the notion that the reign of God “belongs” to anyone is complicated. The Greek does not exactly say that, either. If the Greek was to be read unambiguously as being about “belonging to,” the phrase would probably be in the dative. It is in the genitive case, and genitives express relationship or origin (and about a dozen other things). With this in mind, the saying could mean something like: “When you think ‘reign of God,’ think kids.” Or: “The reign of God flows out from kids.” I’m not sure this clears anything up, exactly, but it does aim your eyes at children.

I like that as long as I am not expected to sentimentalize them. Kids are people: complex, lovely, petty, hopeful, talented, awkward, bold, timid, generous. And many more complicated things.

  • Maybe what matters is that children are the mystery that makes us into parents: children re-create us as protectors and dreamers.
  • Maybe what matters is that children change continually. Maybe that’s why so many pictures of our kids are blurred. Even when they stand still they don’t stand still.

If any of this is the point of reference for the reign of God, then the identifying sign of God’s reign is change and development that spur dreaming and require tender care.

So what might it mean to receive all this ὡς παιδίον? I do not know. The ὡς in the phrase would not naturally suggest a temporal referent. (Huh? I mean it does not mean that the receiving has to happen before a kid’s 3rd birthday.) The ὡς would naturally suggest that there is something implied about the manner of receiving. Read that way, ὡς παιδίον means that Jesus is talking about receiving (or even welcoming) the reign of God the way a child does.

So, how does a child welcome all this? Again, no sentimentality, please. In my experience, children do not believe more easily or more passionately than adults. Such notions (when they are not simply trivial and sentimental) may well arise from the experience of catastrophic disillusionment. Things happen, horrifying things, and people are changed. And people think of those experiences as marking the dividing line between childhood and adulthood. What concerns me is that we avoid misconstruing these catastrophes. Catastrophe is not the price of admission to adulthood, though any “adult” who does not recognize the reality of devastating damage seems immature in dangerous ways. Catastrophe is the reality that makes us realize our responsibility to care for each other. We are fragile. We need protecting. (And children are often the occasion for us to discover this as a visceral truth.).

But how might a child welcome the reign of God? Maybe it’s just the children in my extended family, but in my experience children welcome any new thing with probing questions, sometimes questions impossible to answer. Children welcome new things skeptically and gladly. They eye them carefully and then they play with them. And the play is both goofy and serious. This seriously goofy play is how children learn to live and work in the world. They practice the roles they will have to play: mother, teacher, physician, welder, truck driver. They experiment with the qualities they will need to exhibit: courage, honor, honesty, craftiness, diligence. They try out different ways of being themselves, looking always for new ways that help them become people of quality.

Maybe that is why the reign of God flows out from children: they teach us to think beyond the things we know so far. That is to say, they teach us this if we watch them. Maybe the reign of God involves experimental play with new ways of being, new ways of living together, new ways of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly and goofily with God.

That might be worth a try.

A Provocation: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 30, 2018: Mark 9:38-50

A brief exploration from three years ago, still relevant. Cynical power is more nervous than ever.


Mark 9:38-50
9:38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

9:39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.

9:40 Whoever is not against us is for us.

9:41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

9:42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

9:43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it…

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A Provocation: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 21 (26): September 26, 2021: Mark 9:38-50

38 John said to him:
          we saw someone 
               (in your name!) 
          casting out demons 
          and we tried to stop him.  
               because he was not following with us.
39 Jesus said: 
     Stop hindering him, 
          for there is no one who will do a deed of power in my name 
          who will be able 
          to speak evil of me
               40 for who is not against us, is for us.
                    41 For whoever should give a cup of water to you 
                         in a name 
                         because of Christ you are, 
                    I tell you the truth: 
                         that one will not lose his  wage.
                    42 and whoever should scandalize one of these little ones who are faithful 
                         better and more beautiful it is for him  
                         if a millstone were placed around his neck 
                              and he were thrown into the sea.
                    43 and if ever your hand scandalize you, 
                         cut it off.  
                              beautiful it is that you go 
                              into life 
                                   having two hands 
                              to go off into Gehenna, 
                                   into the unquenchable fire.
                    45 and if ever your foot scandalize you, 
                         cut it off 
                              beautiful it is that you go into life 
                                   having two feet 
                              be thrown into Gehenna
                    47 and if ever your eye scandalize you,
                         throw it out.  
                              beautiful it is that you 
                              enter into the dominion of God 
                                   having two eyes 
                              be thrown into Gehenna,
                                   48 where their worm does not come to an end 
                                   and the fire is not quenched.
                                        Everyone will be salted with fire.
                                             Salt is good.
                                                  If salt becomes unsalty
                                                  How will you contrive it?
                                             Have salt among you, 
                                                  and be at peace with each other.

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

A Question or Two:

  • Who are the “little ones who are faithful?”
  • Wouldn’t they be scandalized if someone were thrown into the sea with a millstone around their neck?
  • Wouldn’t all this hand-chopping and eye-gouging scandalize them?
  • And, while we’re at it, just how does a hand or a foot scandalize a person? Don’t answer too quickly. There are many thoughtless answers out there.

Some Longer Reflections:

The violence of this language is striking. Be careful not to tame it.

And when you feel the urge to tame it, ask yourself where that urge comes from. Are you, for good cause, simply always afraid of religious extremism? Are you just convinced that Jesus could never say such things and actually mean them? Are you cleaning Jesus up so he fits into polite society?

Pay attention to your motives. In some detail. Fixing Jesus is a regular cottage industry for those of us who interpret scripture. Jesus has belonged to every denomination, voted for every candidate, gone to every private school that you can imagine. And more. And every time we fix him so he fits in.

And at the end of the day, Jesus is a brown man, Jewish, who lived in a region dominated brutally by Rome. He lived there in the first century of the Common Era and probably spoke Aramaic, but though I read Aramaic just fine, I probably would not have understood him as he spoke. That many centuries will change any language. For that matter, if Shakespeare and I went bowling, I would surely not understand much of anything that he said, and that would have nothing to do with the noise of the pin-setters.

At the end of the day, Jesus is not necessarily controllable or comprehensible. He might have meant every word about hand chopping. Just saying.

But then you actually have to decide what you do about that.

Are you going to default to something like: “Jesus said it. That settles it.”? I hope not, if only because a couple centuries of arguing about EXACTLY what Jesus said has made it clear that claims of exhaustive knowledge in this area are foolish. Worse than foolish. And besides that, most people who say such things are the most active “Jesus-fixers” of all of us.

Your honest responses to these violent words is important for any audience that finds itself listening to you. No matter what you make of Jesus in theological terms, your honest response is crucial. Crucial, because the people who listen to us also have encountered religious extremists and Jesus-fixers. They are waiting to see what you do.

However you go, go honest.

Let me offer you two windows you could climb in through.

First of all, when Jesus says “Whoever is not against us, is for us,” he is rejecting everything that religious extremists stand for. Just ask one. It does not matter what ideological hill the extremist has fortified, convinced that “God” wants them to defend to the death (usually imagined as YOUR death, by the way). These words of Jesus are poison to them. They will insist that Jesus never said such a thing. Watch them and wonder about where their desperate urges come from. (This can be good cheap entertainment, but the question is worthy of serious analysis.)

The second window was opened for me by a dear friend of many years. Steve Martens, a pastor of real skill (now retired) reads these words as mocking and ironic. “So you are scandalized by your hand?” asks Jesus. “Great. Cut it off if you think that will do any good.” “Yes,” he says in response to a stupid (but ever-so-earnest) question about feet. “Yes, that goes for feet, too. If you think cutting off your foot will fix everything, go for it. I mean it. Go for it.” he says, rolling his eyes. When he sees the spiritual super-athletes practicing hopping on one foot, or tying their shoes with one hand, just in case, he says, “Quick, someone, get me a spoon so I can gouge my eye out.” And immediately regrets it when he sees people taking spoons out of their pockets and trying them out on their own eyes. “Was there a sale on stupid this morning?,” Jesus asks, though only in a now-long-lost manuscript, known only as the I-D-10-t manuscript. (Wait for it. The name of the manuscript might make sense in a while.)

I like this way of reading the scene against itself. This reading critiques all sorts of religious extremism, and enlists Jesus in the activity. If in the end Jesus is unwilling or unable to serve, this reading critiques him, as well. Each of the gospels (and maybe especially Mark) presents scenes in which the audience is expected (REQUIRED!) to ask sharp questions of the way the messiah carries himself. Midrash does the same thing for Abraham, and even goes so far as to present a scene in which Moses shows himself pretty much unable to follow the Torah discussions in a yeshiva. “Don’t worry,” says a 4th grader. “If you study harder, I bet you will catch up. Eventually.” (This is, to be sure, “Moshe Rabbeinu,” Moses our rabbi, our teacher.)

It’s a good idea to ask questions of a messiah. They can do a lot of damage, particularly when followed by religious extremists.