A Provocation: Third Sunday of Advent: December 16, 2018: Luke 3:7-18

Luke 3:7-18
7 He kept saying 
to the crowds who came out to be purified by him:
     Birthing of snakes.
     Who warned you to flee from the dawning wrath?
8         Make,
          fruit worthy of mind-changing.
          Do not begin to say among yourselves:
               A father we have:
          For I say to you all:
               He is able,
                    Elohim (the God Whose Name is Regularity),
               out of these rocks,
                    to raise children to Abraham.
9         Already even the axe to the root of the trees is laid.
               Every tree not making good fruit is cut out,
                    into the fire it is thrown.
10   They kept asking him,
          the crowds did,
     they said:
          What should we do?
11   He answered,
     he kept saying to them:
          The one having two coats:
               Share with the one who has none.
          The one having goods:
               Do likewise.
12   They came,
          even tax gatherers,
     to be purified.
     They said to him:
               What should we do?
13   He said to them:
          Nothing beyond what is set to you.
               Beyond that, do nothing.
14   They asked him,
     they said:
          What should we do,
               even we?
     He said to them:
          Rob no one,
               neither be an informer,
          and let your wages be enough.
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. 

A Question or Two:

  • Interpreters often pay more to John’s words about vipers than to his specific instructions to people.
  • Why?

Some Longer Reflections:

Some odd little notes:

  • At the beginning of the scene, the storyteller refers to the people who came out to hear John as an ὄχλος, a “crowd,” an ungainly agglomeration of random people.  By the end, the term has changed.  The storyteller calls them a λαός.  The NRSV translates this as “people,” which is unfortunate because “people” in customary American usage means about the same thing as ὄχλος.  They are random humanoids, not necessarily anything more than that.  The word λαός refers to the called and chosen people of God, the host of Israel, a people charged with being salt and light in a world that needs hope and preservation.
  • The crowds came out to be purified.  From John’s response to them, it would appear that they imagined that this would involve feeling real contrition over their misdeeds, perhaps even feeling deep remorse.  John tells them to “bear fruit worthy of mind-changing.”  I translate μετανοία, not as “repentance” (which sounds entirely too pious and ineffectual to me), but as “mind-changing.”  My translation has the same problem as the NRSV: both can be read as simple inner matters, private feelings.  But νους (the noun behind the -νοία in μετανοία) refers to that active human function by which we aim all of our actions.  We plan with the νους, but we also carry out those plans by means of the νους.  The word refers to the life we act out.  And that is precisely how John uses it.
  • The crowds understand this.  After hearing John, they ask, “What should we do?”  Not, “How should we feel?”  Or, “What should we believe?”  They ask about doing.  And that is the question that John answers.  But notice the straightforward practicality of his answer.
    • The one having two coats: Share with the one who has none.
    • The one having goods: Do likewise.

Faithfulness consists in being aware of the needs of the people around you, being aware and then doing something about it.  Notice that John doesn’t suppose that anyone needs two coats.  Think about that.  This isn’t a call to become a minimalist, however.  John is simply saying that everyone needs a coat, and if you have to look like a “minimalist” to get that done, then share your extra coat.  We all need a coat.

  • John’s practical advice also applies to tax gatherers.  These people collected Roman tribute, the price of being a conquered people.  Their neighbors looked on them as traitors, and for good reason: they collaborated with the enemy.  John does not view them as enemies.  Here, as is the case throughout Luke’s story, the storyteller finds observant Jews where you’d least expect to see them.  John seems to imagine that these people, being observant Jews, must have been trapped into doing something they hated.  “What should we do?” they asked.  John’s advice is badly translated in the NRSV (and in almost all interpretation).  The translators have begun with the assumption that the tax gatherers are thieves as well as traitors, and that they therefore ought no longer to collect more than was due.  John assumes no such thing.  He tells them to do what was called (starting in the 1930s labor movement) “working to rule.”  “Only do what they tell you to do,” he says, knowing that this would make the vaunted Roman system of imperial domination grind to a halt.  “Force them to write an employee manual so long that they run out of paper,” he says.  “They believe that they are superior to you,” he says, “Act as if that were true.”  “If they don’t tell you to bring the tribute in money boxes or cash bags,” says John, “Don’t.  Turn in heaps of pennies.  If people pay you in chickens or goats, turn in the livestock.  Let the Romans figure out how to feed their tribute.”

Even the tax gatherers were enlisted to resist Roman domination.  Soldiers, too.  Everywhere you look in Luke’s story you see people who are waiting and praying for God to turn the world right-side-up.  John tells them to start the turning.

I will remember this the next time I feel the need to complain about political corruption or administrative blundering.

A Provocation: Second Sunday of Advent: December 9, 2018: Luke 3:1-6

Luke 3:1-6

1 In the fifteenth year of the hegemony of Tiberias Caesar,

when Pontius Pilate had hegemony over Judea,

Tetrarch over Galilee: Herod,

Philip (his brother) Tetrarch: over Iturea

and the region of Trachonitus

Lysanius: over Abilene, Tetrarch,

2 in the time of the priesthood of Annas (Gracious) and Caiaphas (Stone??):

It happened

a word of Elohim

on Yochanan

(MERCY is Gracious)

the son of Zechariah

(MERCY Remembers, or Remember MERCY)

in the wordless wilderness.

3 He went into all the surrounding region of the Jordan

proclaiming a purification of mind-changing

into release of sins.

4 As it stands written in the book

of arguments of Yesha-yahu

(MERCY is Salvation)

the prophet:

A voice bellows:

In the wordless wilderness

Prepare the road of  MERCY

straight make his paths.

5 Every ravine will be filled

every mountain and hill will be humbled.

It will be:

the crooked things into straightness,

the rough into level roads.

6 They will see,

all bodies,

the deliverance of Elohim.

Translation from Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, by Richard W. Swanson

A Question or Two:

  • Why does the storyteller use both of the main Names of God, MERCY and Elohim?
  • Does it matter that the first Name (MERCY, YHWH) is the Name used when God shows grace to the people God has chosen?
  • Does it matter that Elohim is used, so say the rabbis, when God is revealed to Gentiles?

Some Longer Reflections:

This scene is full of names.  (In the formatted version of this posting, at ProvokingTheGospel.wordpress.com, has all the names in boldface.)  The first five are linked with Roman power.  In the outlying provinces (and all of the place-names are in the outlying provinces), Rome names and Roman power meant theft and brutality.

One thing you learn when reading Luke, or any Jewish biblical story, is that every name has a meaning that the storyteller expects you to know, a meaning that shapes the way the character acts and what they accomplish.  So Yochanan (John) means MERCY is Gracious.  That means that an attentive reader of the story should not just see camel’s hair and locusts and broods of vipers.  A proper audience member remembers to listen for MERCY, to hunt for grace.  Take a look at the text for next Sunday: John addresses the crowd, which includes traitors who collect Roman tribute and soldiers who enforce the will of the Empire, and he finds simple things that even Imperial collaborators can do in service of God’s Dominion.  And John’s father carries the name, Zechariah: MERCY Remembers, or Remember MERCY.  Read the song Zechariah sings when John is born.  “Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,” he sings.  (Luke 1:72)  Names create character action in Jewish biblical story.  And John quotes Yesha-yahu (Isaiah), whose name means MERCY is Salvation.  The storyteller has just told us that this entire story is about mercy even in the face of Roman domination.

It is therefore significant that, coming after a long string of the names of powerful oppressors, we are introduced by name to two High Priests, Annas and Caiaphas.  The name Annas means “Gracious.”  Caiaphas’s name is more difficult.  It might possibly mean “Rock,” which would give the High Priest the same name as Peter.

That gives me pause.  The storyteller in the gospel of Mark speaks of the High Priest without needing to mention his name.  The storyteller in Luke mentions TWO High Priests at the very beginning of the story, thus creating a puzzle that has occupied interpreters ever since.  Does Luke imagine that there were two High Priests?  (There weren’t.)  Does Luke think that there was a sort of tag-team arrangement?  (Nope, again.)  Is Luke historically confused, and thinks that Caiaphas was High Priest immediately after Annas?  (He wasn’t.)  Maybe we are simply to notice that these two names are Jewish names, and that they sing in the same key as the central characters: this is a story about rock-solid mercy, and even the High Priests who are forced to collaborate with the foreign overlords are part of this Jewish story about hope and grace and a God who remembers mercy.

If so, this fits tightly with the rest of Luke’s story.  John finds observant Jews even amongst traitors who collaborate.  Jesus eats with Zacchaeus, and the audience discovers that he ALREADY gives half of his possessions to the poor, and repays any improper collection fourfold (the verbs are in the present tense, not the future: he is already doing these things, not promising to start doing them: you can promise anything, but it’s what you actually DO that matters).  Jesus even finds an observant Jew nailed to the cross next to his, an observant Jew who acknowledges that he deserved to be condemned to death.

In a story like this, the storyteller wants you to remember that even those who are apparently enemies might turn out to be allies.  This seems a good moment to learn Luke’s lesson: in a complicated world, there are allies, and enemies, and opponents; not all opponents are enemies.  Some are, to be sure, but not as many as you might think from reading Facebook.

A Provocation: First Sunday in Advent: December 2, 2018: Luke 21:25-36

Luke 21:25-36

25 There will be signs

in sun

and moon

and stars,

and on the earth:

anguish of Gentiles with no way out

because of the roar and rolling of the sea.

26 When people faint from fear and expectation in the whole civilized globe,


the “powers of the heavens” will be shaken.

27 Then they will see the son of adam coming in a cloud

with power

and great glory.

28 When these things begin to happen:

Emerge from hiding.

Lift up your heads;

because it is so close,

your ransom.

29 He said a parable to them:

See the fig tree,

and all the trees?

30 When it sprouts already…

When you see this,

all by yourself you know:

already summer is near.

31 Thus also you:

When you see these things happen,


near is the Dominion of Elohim.

32 Amen I am talking to you:

This birthing most certainly will not pass away until everything happens.

33 The heaven and the earth will pass away.

My arguments certainly will not pass away.

34 Pay attention to yourselves,

lest they be weighed down,

your hearts,

in hangovers,

and in drunkenness,

and in cares of daily life,

and it come upon you unexpectedly,

that day.

35 For as a trap it will come upon all those living on the face of all the earth.

36 Be awake,

in every moment requesting that you be strong enough

to flee all of these things,

those things that are about to happen,

and stand before the son of adam.

Translation from

Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary

Richard W. Swanson

A Question or Two:

  • Is the world ending or is it beginning?
  • To whom would such a question make a difference?

A Few Longer Reflections:

“There will be signs.”  So says Jesus.  We are accustomed to Jesus (or religious people purporting to quote Jesus) saying such things, and they usually seem to be talking about things that are crazy, and apocalyptic, and wild-eyed. 

If that is what this passage is about, I’m not interested.  I distrust anything that yields the kind of apocalyptic certainty that I have seen too much of. 

I think the signs in this scene tell a different story.

First of all, look at the signs that will be seen, not in the heavens where things are controlled by transcendent powers, but on earth where we live and carry out our careers, raise our families.  The NRSV translates this sentence this way: on earth there will be “distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”  This is a workable translation, but it obscures more than it reveals (which is strange, since the passage is an apocalypse, a revelation).  To begin with, the roaring and rolling of the sea is metaphoric for the deep and dangerous chaos that the ancient Jewish world view saw surrounding and underlying all the world.  In Genesis 1, God forms a dome to hold the chaos back, and establishes dry land in the midst of the waters to make it possible for people to live.  But this picture of the world knows that chaos roils just under the surface of the most stable life.  Jesus, in Luke 21, adds nothing to this ancient understanding, and changes not a thing.  

The trouble starts with the phrase: “distress among nations confused….”  The word, distress, translates the Greek well enough, though I use “anguish” instead.  The first problem comes with translating ἐθνῶν simply as “nations.”  The word is consistently used in Jewish texts to refer, not to nations in general (though it COULD mean that), but to the Gentiles in particular, to people who did not (and could not be expected to) know God.  It is the Gentiles who are in anguish, and they are “confused.”  This is again a serviceable translation, but the Greek word needs more.  It reads ἐν ἀπορίᾳ, and the word “aporia” means more than “confusion.”  The stem, por-, refers to a road, a path, a route that a person could follow.  The prefix, a-, is an alpha privative, so the complex a-por-, means (in its metaphoric depths) that where there should be a road, there is none.  That is why I translate ἐν ἀπορίᾳ as “with no way out.”  That catches the metaphor better, I think, and it evokes a human situation that everyone recognizes.  

And it matters that the people who have “no way out” are Gentiles.  The stem, por-, is also used in Jewish texts to refer to following a path laid out by Torah, which is (says the psalm) is a “lamp unto my feet.”  Torah provides a route to follow that will allow Jews to find safe passage through a chaotic and dangerous world.

And Torah is precisely what Gentiles DO NOT have, and therefore do not follow.  Jews, ancient and contemporary, practice Torah, therefore, not to “earn favor” with God (a thoroughly un-Jewish notion), but to help Gentiles believe that, despite the chaos, there just might be a God.  There might be a way to live stable lives, even when surrounded by danger.  Jews have always known that the world needs signs of safety, and the argument for this has always been that Gentiles (who could not be expected to study Torah) are exhausted and driven to despair by a world in which there is no way out.

That means that when Jesus talks about “signs” he is not primarily pointing to apocalyptic oddities, but instead to ordinary reality.  The world wears you out.  Jews observe Torah in order to be a sign of hope for Gentiles who are worn out, and they observe it in order to preserve the world, despite destructive chaos.  This is the original meaning of being the “salt of the earth.”  It is an encouragement to Jews to do Torah as a way to keep the world from decaying into violence.

But that means that so far Jesus is not talking about anything crazy and new.  He is saying what he had learned as he studied for his bar mitzvah: the world (all of it created and loved by God) needs you to do Torah.  People need to see signs of hope and order if they are to dare to believe that meaning and truth and stability and safety are actually possible.

The next thing to notice is that the “powers of the heavens” will be shaken.

This is, as is clear enough, a reference to a world that cannot be controlled.  The “powers of the heavens” refer, sometimes to the signs of the zodiac, sometimes just to the steady stars and the wandering planets that together mark the predictable progression of the seasons.  But always the reference is to powers that are beyond your control.  You can no more prevent the onset of winter than you can change the way things run in the inescapably real world.

These powers, in this scene as in many others, are metaphors more than they are simply stars marking season.

Notice that the quotation marks catch the enormity of what is happening.  The basic order of the world, the powers that control our ordinary lives, are suddenly rolling and crashing like waves.  In order to make sense of this metaphor, you have to ask what was the power that dominated ordinary lives in the ancient world. 

The answer was Rome.

The Gentile world (especially Rome) has been driving the civilized world as it saw fit for centuries.  Its power has become a force of nature.  In the Roman home provinces, that meant that the pax Romana guaranteed a stable and prosperous life.  In the outlying provinces it meant something different. 

For the outlying provinces, the Roman Empire was an extractive industry.  The provinces were mined for minerals, and slaves, and tribute that were sucked away to make Rome great, to build Roman glory.  The process was brutal and remorseless.

It was just the way the world was.

 All that will change when the world is turned right-side-up. The powers will indeed be shaken.

With this statement, this passage moves beyond ordinary rabbinic catechesis to the realm of long-awaited promise.  Jesus is now saying what his grandmother and mother will have taught him to hope for: the world is now finally being turned right-side-up.  “How long, O Lord?” asked the old prayer.  “Too long,” answered God’s people.  “Hungry ones God filled full of good things,” sang Mary, “Rich ones God sent away, empty.”  (Luke 1:53)

“You have been held hostage to a system that needed you to be needy,” says Jesus.  “Now your ransom will be paid and you will be free from the so-called ‘powers of heaven.'”

If that sounds disturbing, it may be because you just caught the spirit of Advent.

Be awake.


A Provocation: Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost: November 18, 2018: Mark 13:1-8

Mark 13:1-8

1 When he went out of the Temple

he says to him,

one of his disciples does:



What stones and what buildings!

2 and Jesus said to him:

You see these big buildings?

There will not be left here

stone on stone,

There will be nothing,

nothing not destroyed.

3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives

opposite the Temple

Peter asked him alone

and Jacob and John and Andrew:

4 Tell us,

When will these things be?


What is the sign

that these things are about to come to an end?  

5 Jesus began to say to them:

Look out so no one deceives you.  

6 Many will come on the basis of my name saying:


and they will deceive many.  

7 But whenever you should hear war and rumors of war,

do not raise an outcry.  

It is necessary to happen,

but the end is not yet.  

8 For nation against nation will be raised,

and dominion against dominion,

there will be earthquakes,

place by place,

there will be famines.  

These things are the beginning of the contractions of labor.  

A Question or Two:

  • Why did Jesus go to the Temple?
  • Answer slowly.

Some Longer Reflections:

The Temple.

The center of the Jewish world.

The place where God touched a finger to the world to create one still point in the midst of swirling chaos.  

The Temple: the building built by Solomon and obliterated by Babylon.

The Temple: rebuilt by people who returned from Exile, by all accounts a poor substitute for the original Temple: small, poorly built, at best a trigger for memories of what the Temple had once been.  But still it was the place where God held the world still and safe.

The Temple: enlarged, elaborated, improved, made glorious by Herod, the King of the Jews.  Herod, the murderer of his children.  Herod, the murderer of John the Baptist.  

“What stones and what buildings!!!”  And what a reminder of life under brutal domination by foreigners.

During the life of Jesus, the Temple was a conflicted place. 

It was the center of the world and the center of Jewish life.  The gospel of Luke lays down a pattern of regular observance under its Jesus story: Jesus’ family goes up to Jerusalem and the Temple for the pilgrimage festivals, “every year, as was their custom.”  The gospel of Mark may not imply such a pattern of observance (the disciples, at least, look like out-of-towners visiting New York for the first time, gawking at the big buildings), but still the Temple is the center of the world.  

And it was the Temple that Herod built to glorify himself (and, of course, God, etc.).  

In this scene it comes clear that there is yet another kind of tension underneath this story.  The Temple that is the center of the world and of the story that Mark is telling (read Don Juel’s Messiah and Temple), is also a heap of rubble at the time Mark’s story is composed in its current form.  That means that any imaginable 1st century audience for this story would listen to this scene and mourn for what had already been destroyed.  

We mistake this scene if we (following the lead of older interpreters) imagine that Jesus is pronouncing judgment on the Temple and rejecting it. 

He is not.

It does not matter who says differently.  He is not rejecting the Temple.  He is mourning for it.  When he says: “There will not be left here stone on stone…” he is not celebrating or simply making a prediction.  He is grieving.  He is a mother holding her baby’s little sweater, now never to be worn.  He is a grandfather trying to remember the things his father used to say, things that would be immensely helpful in the present moment, if only he could remember them properly.  When Jesus looks at the Temple and sees not a stone left standing, he is me.  He is me reading the last things my sister wrote before she died, the last incomplete things that point forward to a future she never got to see.  

And every imaginable 1st century audience would have joined him in that grieving.  Rome had knocked God’s finger off the world, and chaos reigned.  “And,” Jesus says, “this is only the beginning.”

Read the next things he says, read them carefully.  

There is a tradition of reading them as “signs of the end.”  You can see why people would read them that way.  And if you know history, or think about theology, you also know the mischief that this will always cause.  

I read them differently these days.  In fact, I read them in pretty much the opposite direction.  When Jesus says: “Nation against nation will be raised, there will be earthquakes, there will be famines,” I think he means more or less what Buddhists like my sister mean when the cite the first of the Four Noble Truths: There is suffering.  

The point is, I think, that even a catastrophe as great as the loss of the Temple is more common than we might like to imagine. 

There is suffering.  There is catastrophe.  That is no cause to be complacent.  The point is not that we should look at people whose lives have been swept away by fire or flood or earthquake or war and write them off.  You have heard it, and so have I.  “What do you expect?  Forest mismanagement!”  Etc.  Usually in capital letters.  Usually at 3:00am.  Or on Facebook.  Or at Thanksgiving dinner.  

The point is, I think, that we should stop imagining that we will someday run out of disasters to respond to.  Even the coming of the Messiah does not change that.  At least not yet.  

The question that matters, I think, is if these are the contractions of labor, what is being born into the world in the messiah story that Mark tells?  

That is not an easy question to answer.  The shattered end of the story leaves us with silence and flight, and no sighting of an unambiguous Messiah who will make everything easy.  

Maybe that is what is being born into the world. 

Gershom Scholem, as I remember it, thought something like that.  The messianic age would not be, as he conceived it, an age in which we no longer had to care for each other.  Quite the opposite.  When you think of it, that makes pretty good sense.  If our dreams of “heaven” are dreams of easy perfection, it is worth asking whether we might just be wishing that we could be free from needing to care about separated children, families living in dangerous cities, crumbling schools, or people going broke when their pre-existing condition isn’t covered by insurance.  If we want to go to heaven to escape from the needs of other people, that’s not a heaven I think we would enjoy.  We can watch reality shows on TV to see self-absorbed people take advantage of each other.  

And it’s not just Gershom Scholem that sees Messiah that way.  Why did it matter to Martin Luther that we live as “little Christs?”  He, too, seems to see that messianism birthed a shared responsibility into the world.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer sees the same thing.  There is suffering.  There are earthquakes.  There is war.  Tragedy is frighteningly normal.  There will never be a day on which we do not have to love, protect, and care for each other.

Thanks be to God for that.  



A Provocation: Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost: November 11, 2018: Mark 12:38-44

Mark 12:38-44
12:38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,

12:39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!

12:40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

12:41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.

12:42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.

12:43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.

12:44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

This will be short.  It is already late, so why not be short?

The NRSV renders the beginning of the passage this way:

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces…

Punctuated this way, Jesus is saying that all scribes like to walk around in long robes, etc.

That is not true.  It is not true historically.  It is not even true in the rest of Mark’s gospel.  Look back at last week’s gospel.  That scribe is no one to beware of.  Jesus says that he is “not far from the kingdom.”

The punctuation is wrong, and leads to dangerous interpretation.

The passage should be rendered this way:

12:38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces…

Notice the difference: now Jesus says that there are scribes to look out for: the ones in long neck ties who demand to be embraced and admired, they are the ones who pretend to protect insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions.  They are the ones who devour the defenseless, and then say a long table-prayer to make it clear that they are great moral leaders.

Just saying.

A Provocation: Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost: November 4, 2018: Mark 12:28-34

Mark 12:28-34
12:28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

12:29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;

12:30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

12:31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

12:32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’;

12:33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ –this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

12:34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

A Question or Two:

  • Jesus and the scribe agree on a basic point of Jewish faithfulness.
  • Why do so many interpreters imagine that disagreements are more important?

Some Longer Reflections:

This scene begins with an offhand reference to the previous scene.  Jesus has been arguing with Sadducees.  They have been arguing about resurrection.  Sadducees thought of resurrection as a foreign intrusion into the faith.  Jesus and the Pharisees saw it as essential to a proper understanding of God, and of human life and hope.  Jesus finishes by simply dismissing the Sadducees and their objections.  “You are the ones who have wandered off,” he says.

The Sadducees intended to argue that speculation about some sort of afterlife would lead to drifty dreaming, and that this would weaken Torah observance in the real world.  This is an important argument.  I find it intriguing, and sometimes compelling.  But you have to remember who the Sadducees were: they were the group within 1st century Jewish society that Rome had selected to be their “organ of liaison.”  Because they were associated with the priesthood and the Temple, people would listen to them when they spoke.  Pontius Pilate used them, therefore, to be his mouthpiece, his puppet.  They did not have a choice in this matter, but they did have an advantage.  Pilate forced them to collaborate with Rome, but he also paid them very well for their services.

This Roman move is brilliant and cynical.  The very group that had the ear of the people (and who, thus, could organize Jewish resistance to foreign domination) was made into the voice of Rome.

Jesus’ offhand dismissal of the Sadducees reveals the success of the Roman action: Jews who might have followed them ended up resenting them.  The Sadducees were collaborators, and they were rich because of it.  It was easy for them to focus their hopes on the present world.  Their privilege protected them.  They may well have imagined that they were protecting the Jewish faith from Persian influences (resurrection seems to have roots in that culture) and from drifty dreaming, but their imagining was built on the foundation of their comfort, their Roman privilege.

The scribe (most likely associated with the Pharisees) is pleased to see Jesus reveal the defect in Sadducean theology.  He asks a question that is guaranteed to allow discussion of the heart of Jewish life.  “What is the core of Torah observance?” he asks.  “What does it mean to be faithful in a world where power seems to be more valuable than truth?”

Jesus’ answer is important.  He says, “Remember who you are.  You are Jews who wrestle with the God whose Unity holds all things together, even in political chaos.  Love that unifying God with everything that makes you human: your decisions, your life, your best analyses, and with your ability to transcend yourself.”

But he doesn’t stop there, which is good.  Had he stopped there, he would have implied that the only solution to anger and division is to retreat into other-worldliness.  Jesus does not stop.  “Love the people next to you,” he says, using the word (Ἀγαπήσεις) that implies mutuality and eager responsiveness above all.  “Don’t let anger isolate you.  You are not alone.  You have a neighbor.  Let the pressure of the present moment drive you together, not apart.”


You are not alone.

Love your neighbor.


A Provocation: Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost: October 28, 2018: Mark 10:46-52

Mark 10:46-52
10:46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.

10:47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

10:48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

10:49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

10:50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.

10:51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”

10:52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

A Question or Two:

  • What did Bartimaeus know about Jesus that he called him “son of David?”
  • How did he know this?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is a simple little scene.  A blind beggar shouts at Jesus, calling him the “son of David.”  Jesus has him called, though it is not clear why he did this.  Why not just walk up to him, himself?  It’s the sort of thing that Bartimaeus would have had to ask, since he couldn’t see to find him otherwise.

And so the blind beggar is brought to him, stumbling, perhaps, as he is led clumsily through the large, boiling crowd.  Hosannas are ready to erupt.

And Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?”

As if it weren’t obvious.  He’s blind, after all.

But he is also a beggar, so perhaps Jesus is asking to see which of his two presenting problems he wants to be treated for: blindness or poverty?  The scene is starting to sound like an old story with a genie in it, only the man only gets one wish.

If this is a genie story, then perhaps we are to notice the virtue revealed by the man’s answer.  He could have asked for wealth.  That would have made him comfortable despite his blindness.  Maybe this is even a “bootstraps” story, since the man asks for his blindness to be removed so that he can earn his own living, comfortable or not.

Or maybe the key is that the man asks to see AGAIN.  The storyteller presents Bartimaeus as a person who had LOST his sight, not as someone who had been born blind.  That might signal that this healing was considered to be easier than giving sight to a man born blind.  At least the storyteller in the gospel of John sees it that way (John 9).  Or it might add an ache to the story: Bartimaeus knew what he had lost, and perhaps was asking to be allowed to go back to the kind of normal life that had allowed him to work for a living, and walk home to his family admiring the sunset.

But what I notice as I read the scene this time is that Jesus asked.

People who think of themselves as saviors do not always ask, and they seldom listen.  Saviors generally assume that they “just know” what needs to be done.  That might be a good place to begin interpreting this scene.  It might be a good place to begin trying to solve the complicated problems any community faces just now.  Some of what you hear might be shouted through a bullhorn, or chanted by an unruly crowd.  Everything you hear will crystallize out of the chaos of a complicated history.

“What do you want me to do for you?”  That is a good question.  It begins by assuming that people who have been stopped and frisked might have something to tell you about the role played by law enforcement in their town.  It begins by assuming that someone who says “#MeToo” might be the best person to identify the nature of the public conversation we are all tangled up in.  Is this a conversation about safety or autonomy?  Is it about intimacy or about advancement?  We won’t know until we ask.  And listen.

“What do you want me to do for you?”  This might be the question that makes all the loud-mouthed posturing finally irrelevant.

Bartimaeus’s answer also deserves a close look.  The word “again” is not in the Greek.  He asks that he might ἀναβλέψω, which could mean “see again.”  It could also could mean “lift up his eyes.”  That might mean that he was asking to be able to again look people in the eye, and not be required to humbly beg for sustenance.

Or, it might matter that the idiom “lifting up” is used in Hebrew to speak of doing something intensely: if you lift up your voice, you shout so as to be heard at a great distance; if you lift up your eyes, you are attempting to see far into the distance, or to see deeply into the heart of things.  Maybe Bartimaeus is asking for actual insight.

In any case, it matters above all that Jesus asked.  And listened.

A Provocation: Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost: October 21, 2018: Mark 10:35-45

Mark 10:35-45
10:35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

10:36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”

10:37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

10:38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

10:39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;

10:40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

10:41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.

10:42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.

10:43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,

10:44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

10:45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Right hands.  Left hands.  My grandfather, a carpenter, was fully ambidextrous.  I am not.  Before going to grad school, I was a butcher, and I’m good with a knife in my right hand.  My left hand is a good place to keep my watch.  It gives me a place to keep my other glove.  Many people are more like me, and less like my grandfather.

This was also true, I imagine, in the ancient world.  Left hands are the “other hand,” and this becomes more important when you use the “other hand” for personal hygiene.

This recognition makes the request in this scene a little awkward.  James and John want to sit on the right hand and the “other hand” of the anointed king in the Messianic Age.

They use the word for “right hand” (δεξιῶν, from which the word “dextrous” derives: it implies expertise).   When it’s time to talk about the “other hand,” they say ἀριστερῶν.  The word means “noble,” or “worthy of honor,” or “excellent,” or “best.”  It is a euphemism that allows them to avoid thinking about personal hygiene.  With this circumlocution, James and John reveal what they are really asking.  They want to be recognized (in front of the cosmic audience of the Messianic Age) as being dextrous experts, supremely honored.

Probably every preacher knows that, or something like that.  And surely everyone knows that Jesus is having none of it.  Sitting at his right and left hand is for those for whom those places are prepared, whatever that means.

What is interesting, though, is that Jesus changes the euphemism.  He refers to his right hand the usual way,  δεξιῶν.  But he walks around the issue of personal hygiene by a different path.  He calls that hand εὐωνύμων.  This word means something like “lucky.”  

Why shift from talking about honor to luck?  Maybe it is a (not-so) subtle shot at the pretension displayed by James and John: “You want to be publicly honored?” Jesus says, “Good luck with that.”

I think that there is more here.  Jesus asks if they can drink the same cup he drinks, if they can be washed just as he is.  They assure him that they can.  “Drinking the cup” is a regular image used to talk about taking on the challenges that a person faces.

The matter of the “washing” is a bit more complicated.  The Greek word is βάπτισμα, which opens our imaginations to Christian baptism.  It may be a useful way to imagine what Jesus means, especially if we decide that Jesus is quoting Paul, who wrote (some 30 years after Jesus’ career ended) that when we are baptized, we are “baptized into [Jesus’] death.”  That may well be something like what Jesus means in this scene, but it is a bit awkward.  Jesus would be talking about his death in Roman hands that he has now announced for a third time, the death toward which this story is going.  Christian baptism is generally more religious, and sanitary, than Roman torture.

Whatever Jesus means, this “washing” is not sanitary, nor is it safe.

At the beginning of Mark’s story, John appears in the wilderness, announcing that Isaiah’s old promises were on the verge of coming true: Creation was going to be rectified, and all life would be brought to healing and wholeness.  Rome had no interest in allowing Jewish hope to turn the world right-side-up.  The struggle would be real, not sanitary, and not safe.  People came out to washed in preparation for the struggle that would precede this healing.

This was the washing that Jesus had undergone.  In Mark’s story, he came to join that struggle, he just like all the others who had been waiting too long, whose hopes had been withering.  If this is the washing to which Jesus refers, he is asking James and John to be sure that they know what they are signing up for.

They do.  They actually do.  They know that there is a terrible struggle coming.  They are right.  But they seem a little too ready to imagine themselves safe on the other side of that struggle.  They seem to imagine, as green recruits are too prone to do, that they will emerge on the other side of the struggle untouched, unchanged, essentially the same people they were before they enlisted.  They are wrong to imagine this.  They may not emerge at all.  Not everyone does.  Green recruits do not know what this means yet.

And there are people who avoid the fight because they can’t be bothered, because they imagine that the change in the world will happen in any case.  They imagine that they can slide through it all, wrapped in their comfort.  Such people have no idea what Jesus is talking about.

I read an editorial in the New York Times the other day.  The writer, Thomas L. Friedman, looked hard at the nature of public life in the United States, which he judges (along with many others) to have moved beyond partisanship to tribalism.  He wrote, “In a tribal world it’s rule or die, compromise is a sin, enemies must be crushed and power must be held at all costs.”

You can draw any political conclusions that you choose.  It’s not as if I could stop you, in any case.

But I think that the struggle we face in public life (and not just in the United States) is a struggle related to the struggle Jesus is talking about.

Perhaps you agree.  Perhaps not.  In either complicated case, read Friedman’s editorial.  And read Jesus’ words in this scene.  This is the cup that we must drink.  This is the struggle that we have to prepare for.  It is not clear how we will come out of this.

A Provocation: Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost: October 14, 2018: Mark 10:17-31

Mark 10:17-31
10:17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

10:18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

10:19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'”

10:20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”

10:21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

10:22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

10:24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!

10:25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

10:26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”

10:27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

10:28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”

10:29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,

10:30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age–houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life.

10:31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

A Question or Two:

  • Can you read this scene without attacking the young man?
  • Try.  Seriously.  Try.

Some Longer Reflections:

Jesus said to the young man, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor….”

Interpreters generally spend their time  on the impossibility of this demand.  That makes sense: the storyteller has Jesus acknowledge that such things are impossible for people, but possible with God.

But the danger of taking this scene to be about an impossible demand is that this makes it simply an illustration of how God’s grace does what human effort cannot do.

That’s fine.

But what if Jesus mean what he says?  (What a concept!)

What if Jesus actually means that God is intensely aware of the state of people who live in poverty?

Jesus’ demand reveals something important: the needs of people living in poverty unsettle us.  We expend considerable effort to defend ourselves against their needs.  Sometimes these defensive actions involve accusing people living in poverty of “making poor life choices.”  Unlike us, of course.  Sometimes these defensive actions involve arguing that doing what Jesus commands in this scene would actually be bad for people living in poverty.  “Bad” in a Darwinian sense: if the young man were to actually sell his possessions and actually give them to poor people, he would actually weaken them, since it better for people to have their children educated in schools with tattered books and catastrophically bad conditions because this will spur them to become neurosurgeons and move to the Upper East Side.

Or something.

What if Jesus means what he says?  What if we (all of us) actually have a responsibility to make it possible for all people to look at God’s Creation and say (with God), “Oh, how good!”?

The young man asked about living as an inheritor of the life of the aeon.  He wasn’t asking how he could earn his way into heaven.  You don’t earn what you inherit, after all.  And the reference to inheritance is significant for another reason: those who inherit the family fortune are those who have been raised in the family.  They show themselves, by every deed and every attitude, to be members of the family.

The young man is asking what sort of a life goes with being a member of the family that inherits the “life of the aeon” (a phrase that refers to the life of the “messianic age,” the age when everything is turned right side up).  He is asking how to live so that anyone looking at him would see the family trait (as deep as genetics) that works to turn the world right-side-up.

Jesus says that a sure sign of sharing the life of the aeon would be that the rich do not even imagine that we ought to defend ourselves against the needs of people who are poor.

Think about that slowly.




A Provocation: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: October 7, 2018: Mark 10:2-16

Mark 10:2-16
10:2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

10:3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”

10:4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”

10:5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.

10:6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’

10:7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,

10:8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.

10:9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10:10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.

10:11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;

10:12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

10:13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.

10:14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

10:15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

10:16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

A Question or Two:

  • Why do the Pharisees ask this particular question?
  • Are you sure?  Think further.

Some Longer Reflections:

This scene is strange and complicated, not least because it has been the favorite of heartless people who needed to hurt divorced people in the name of God.
A friend asked me to make sure I poked at this scene in an effort to make some sense.

So, here’s a try:

  • The first thing that matters is that marriage now is not the same thing as marriage then.  That is at least mostly a true and significant statement.
  • Second, reading the prohibition of divorce and/or remarriage as SIMPLY a prohibition of divorce and/or remarriage misses the point almost completely.
  • A warning: there will be some crude language in this Provocation.

I think the task, first of all, is always to figure out the aim of such ancient prohibitions.

This is complicated by millennia of reading and interpreting these texts, but that only makes it more important to discern the purpose.
In the deep ancient world, marriage was an alliance between clans.  The woman and the man may not even have met before they were married.  Even when they were well acquainted, still marriage was a clan affair, not an individual love story, or even an individual survival story.  Paying attention to the role of clans answers some questions and creates a whole bunch of others.  Divorce was, from this point of view, a matter for diplomatic negotiation between powers with a stake in the stability of the relationship.  Not necessarily a stake in the health or safety of the relationship, but the stability, since the relationship was itself the result of negotiation.

And sometimes this wasn’t exactly the case.

It’s complicated.  even when clans had negotiated the relationship, still it seems to have been common for men to divorce their wives.  The halakhic standard was: “a wife may be divorced if her husband finds some indecency in her.”  Some schools of thought read this as meaning a woman who was unfaithful could be divorced.  Other schools said that “indecency” meant only that the husband was displeased with the woman.  When those schools went on to specify what counted as grounds for such “displeasure,” they said that, for instance, if a woman burned supper, her husband could divorce her.

Of course, the thing to hear in this is that male privilege is more important even than clan stability.

Clans (governed by men) found ways to reinforce the patriarchy.  The ancient texts chuckle at the whole matter, and thus make it clear that “boys will be boys” is not a modern innovation.
And, behind all of this hangs the fact that in most ancient Mediterranean cultures women could not own property.  Thus a woman who was cut off by her husband was placed in existential peril.  Women in such a position sometimes found themselves needing to marry anyone, on any terms, just to stay alive.  Some women in such a position found themselves forced to accept living with a man who refused to marry them, but was glad to sleep with them and eat the food they had to prepare (think here of the woman at the well, who is not an “adulteress”.  She is a person forced to accept such shelter as she could get on any terms the patriarchy set.).  And other women in such a position could only survive through prostitution (this situation is not unique to the ancient world: read Sula by Toni Morrison).  Patriarchy is pleased with this situation, since men seem always to have worried about those poor, poor men who can’t get laid, and so the system is glad to create social conditions that guarantee that there will be women who must allow them to masturbate in their vaginas (please excuse the crude language, but it seems appropriate: that kind of abuse surely isn’t “making love.”  It isn’t even sexual intercourse, since there is no equitable intercourse, just self-gratification at the expense of the woman).

Against that social background, the prohibition of divorce isn’t a “blue law” at all: it is an attempt to counteract some of the abuses of free-range patriarchy.

In some circumstances, adultery was an allowable grounds for divorce since it was understood as a breaking of faith.  Under such circumstances, it was accepted that women could be exposed to the very real danger of life without a patriarch to protect them.

While I can make some sense of this last practice, it is still nasty, and tilted in the favor of patriarchs.

But none of this deals with women who escape abuse through divorce.  The ancient world does not seem to have imagined that women could do this.  When this matter is considered at all, it comes out the way it does in the Tamar story: her first and second husbands “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and God killed them.”  That recognizes the reality of abuse, and it condemns it.  But women are left waiting for Divine thunderbolts, which are rare in the best of times.

So, some tentative conclusions:

  • I think that this passage in Mark only makes sense as a prohibition of abusive structures that leave women defenseless so as to take advantage of them.
  • And I think that this passage has no idea of what modern marriages are.  It simply doesn’t apply.
  • And I think that the scene ends with little children to make it clear that the real principle that matters is that we ought to care tenderly for each other.  Anything else is dangerous and abusive.
That’s a start, anyhow.