A Provocation: Sixth Sunday in Lent/Palm Sunday: April 10, 2022 (first posted in 2016): Luke 22:14–23:56

Why is there no hosanna in Luke?

And, while we are at it, why are there no palm branches?

These seem rather odd omissions in a text assigned to Palm Sunday, the most hosanna-ed day of the the Christian liturgical calendar.

The absence of a distinctively Hebrew word in Luke may not be so surprising.  The other synoptics use Hebrew and Aramaic at key moments in their stories.  Luke does not.  Thus, Matthew’s Jesus and Mark’s screams out his abandonment as he dies, using a language that the Roman murderers are bound to misunderstand.  Perhaps it is only because Luke envisions the death very differently, with a Jesus fully in control of his faculties, but there is no Hebrew or Aramaic spoken from the cross in Luke.

Why does Luke skip the Hebrew?

  • An earlier generation of interpreters imagined that such omissions demonstrated that Luke was writing a Gentile-friendly gospel for a Gentile audience.  I imagine no such thing.  Luke’s story only makes sense to an audience that knows Jewish faith from the inside, whether or not they speak much Aramaic.
  • A more promising approach begins by noting that storytellers of all sorts insert foreign words for their effect as much as for their meaning.  Other languages function as magic languages, and many of the the “magic words” we use in English stories may well have migrated in from other languages and other traditions (e.g. Abracadabra and Hocus Pocus, perhaps).  Matthew, Mark, and John give the crowds a powerful magic word to speak: hosanna, which gives voice to an old demand.  “Now, LORD, now is the time to save,” says this little word, calling God by the Name that ought to remind God to be merciful to God’s people.

The intensity of “Hosanna”

The word, hosanna, ends with an intensifier (-na).

Some translate as “please,” but that translation is, to my ear, far too mild, far too submissive, far too polite to catch the way “-na” is used in Biblical Hebrew.

  • Say “hosanna” aloud.  Listen to it.
  • More important, feel it.
    • The sound  “-na” at the end of the word resonates from deep in your chest.
    • The sound takes the combination of the Divine Name and the plea for rescue and carries them down into your lungs.  When the apostle Paul talks about the Spirit interceding for us in sighs too deep for words, this is part of what he means.
  • The sound prays with a vibrating intensity that will have rung deep and solid along the streets and alleyways, sounding from the bodies of frail grandmothers and young, strong women equally well.  Young and old men will have felt it, too, and even men no longer accustomed to praying will have felt the profundity.  Prayers they had abandoned in their childhood will have come back to them as the “-na” resonated, reminding them of what they hoped for deep in their being.

But Luke skips the Hosanna.  Is he weakening the prayers of the crowd?

Older interpreters sometimes imagined that Luke was soft-pedaling the hopes of the community in the interests of a “delayed parousia,” a postponing of God taking effective action to help a Creation in pain.

I am no longer convinced

There is an intensity to Luke’s story that is missed if you read the story as urging satisfaction (or at least patience) with the status quo.  When the daughters of Jerusalem weep for the Pilate’s execution of yet another brother (23:31), Jesus says that this is only a “greenwood” fire, smoky and relatively low-intensity, compared to what is very shortly coming when Rome will incinerate the city and slaughter the people as they crush the First Jewish Revolt.

More significant than Luke’s omission of hosannas is his choice of what the crowds WILL say

In concert with the other three gospels, the crowds bless the one who is coming, and all include that this is “in the Name of the LORD,” whatever this exactly means.

  • Luke complicates this, perhaps, by inserting the phrase, “The king,” into the cries of the crowd.
    • That little phrase could simply be a quick identification of the one who is coming (“It’s the king.”) in the Name of the LORD.
    • But it could also mean that the blessed one who is coming will rule as the embodiment of the MERCY that is called mind for the rabbis whenever the Divine Name YHWH is used in the Bible.  The Divine Name “Elohim” (God) names the “Justice Attribute,” say the rabbis, the aspect of God that guarantees order and predictability will govern the cosmos.  The unpronounceable Divine Name, “YHWH” (the LORD), names the “Mercy Attribute,” the crucial activity of God always to be “slow to anger,” always to “abound in love.”
  • If the coming one is to rule in MERCY, then the Creation is on the brink of healing.

Luke’s other choices are even more breath-taking

Luke anchors this healing of Creation by the other choices he makes for the crowd.  The waiting, praying crowd sings of peace and glory in the highest realms of existence.

This song has been sung before

The words were a bit different (understandable, since the exact circumstances were also a bit different), but the force of the song was the same.  This is the song that the angels sang when they announced great joy to all the congregation of Israel.  They announced “Christos kurios.”  This announcement, usually translated as “Christ the Lord,” deserves careful attention.

  • Christos” names the one anointed to turn the world right-side-up.  This is most often a king, sometimes a priest, but always this Anointed One acts to make it possible to call the world “God’s own Creation” without bitterness or irony.
  • Kurios” translates the Name of the Mercy Attribute, and thus echoes the note sounded by Luke’s crowd when they bless the king who will reign in Mercy.
    • Perhaps the angels sing, in the same way, of the Messiah who will heal in Mercy.
    • This reading of the Greek also solves a syntactical problem in the angel’s song.  “Christos kurios” parks two nouns next to each other without giving a clue what to do next.  Is it an appositive (“Christ, a Lord” or “Christ, the Lord,” for the squeamish)?  Is it a quotation of the Psalms of Solomon, where the same, rather surprising, phrase is used?  Is it a somewhat awkward colloquial expression?  Is it a consequence of the presence of poetry, which always gives syntax a real workout?
    • What if it is simply a Hebrew construct phrase?  Then the angel is singing straightforwardly about the “Messiah of the Mercy Attribute,” the “Messiah of MERCY,” God’s dedicated act of healing.

However you translate this, it matters that what the angels sang is now being sung by ordinary women and men in the streets and alleyways of occupied Jerusalem.  Luke does not use the word “hosanna,” perhaps because he does not need it.  What matters is that what started as a song sung in the highest realms by exalted angels has now become a song that anyone can sing.  That’s the way it is with a good song.  Good songs go viral.

But it gets even more intense

Pharisees come from the crowd (and that identification, that they, too, were “from the crowd,” implies that they were praying for the healing of the Creation right along with the common crowd).  These faithful Pharisees caution Jesus that such language gets out of hand far too easily.  Jesus answers (he does not rebuke, he answers) that if the little kids and old ladies in the crowd were silent, the rocks would sing in their place.

This is a decisive step.  The ancient Jewish world was a structural unity.  The design for the whole entity was set in the Heavens, where the angels were the key structural elements (angelic I-beams, if you will).  This orderly, reliable, stable structure proceeded from the presence of God outward, down through the realms where humans can never reach, even from the highest mountains, down to the human realm, and from there on to the ground we walk on and excavate to lay the foundations of the buildings we can make.

Jesus says that the song that the angels sang is now the song of the entire Creation

It is being sung even by rocks.  If Jesus had known anything about sub-atomic particles, he would have added that even quarks now echo the angels.

Now is the day of rescue.  The whole Creation sings it.

A Provocation: Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 27 (31): November 7, 2021: Mark 12:38-44

38 In his teaching he kept saying: 
     Beware of the scribes who want 
          in garments of honor 
     to walk around 
          and want greetings in the marketplaces 
          39 and first seats in the synagogues 
          and first places in the feasts, 
     40 They eat up the houses of widows 
          and on a pretext pray long prayers: 
               these will receive a far greater judgment.
41 He sat opposite the treasury;
he was watching how the crowd threw coins into the treasury.
     Many rich men threw in many things.
42 There came one woman,
     a poor widow.
     She came.
     She threw two coins 
          (worth about a quarter of a cent).  
43 He called to him his disciples;
he said to them: 
     I tell you the truth: 
          this widow, 
               this poor widow, 
          more than all the others she threw,
               more that all those who threw into the treasury.  
               44 For all those,
                    out of their excess, 
               they threw. 
                    out of her deficiency, 
               she threw all, 
                    as much as she had.
                    She threw the whole of her life.  

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

A Question or Two:

  • Who do you know that eats up the houses of widows?

Some Longer Reflections:

The first thing to notice is that Jesus DOES NOT tell his audience to beware of ALL scribes. We have, in fact, met scribes in the story who are “not far from the dominion of God.” Jesus is only warning the audience about those scribes who like to traipse around in long robes, sucking all the oxygen out of the room and taking advantage of people who cannot defend themselves.

This matters.

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus has a mother, but there is no mention of his father. None at all. We aren’t even given a name. He is never identified as Jesus Josephson. (Well, sure, they would have said “Jesus, bar Joseph,” but you get the point.)

That might mean something. Taking Mark’s story as the WHOLE story (at least for the moment), that could mean that Jesus simply has no father. That could be because his father was never in the picture in the first place. Or it could mean that his father (whoever that was) died early. (And, just for reference, notice also that Mark says nothing about a “virgin birth.”)

Based only on the story that Mark tells, Mary is a single mother. Perhaps she is a widow.

If she is a widow, perhaps she is one of those people whose house was eaten up by some scribe who was full of himself, but was still hungry enough to eat up Jesus’ childhood home.

I have used the word “perhaps” an awful lot. You should notice that, and you should withhold judgment as a result.

But what if Jesus’ knows what it’s like to have someone with power take advantage of your mother? That might go a long way to make sense of his concern for people who are poor or powerless.

It might also shape the way you read his reaction to the woman who throws her whole life into the treasury. The storyteller does NOT say that Jesus approves of her desperate generosity. He only notes that she has just thrown it all away.

On the one hand, if all you have in the world is two coins, you might as well give it away. You can’t buy supper in any case. That makes her a bit like the widow in the story from 1 Kings: she also decided to give her son one last meal and then die.

But on another hand, it is possible that Jesus sees the contribution system as abusive. Perhaps scribes who are unscrupulous tell poor people that God expects them to give all they have, and will reward them richly. Of course, such scribes first need to buy themselves a private jet or a new Mercedes.

And on yet another hand, maybe what is going on here makes sense only in a culture that practices give-away. My friends who are Lakota have told me about the practice of giving everything away after a death. This leaves the widow with no resources. No resources except for the resource of the family and community to which she belongs. Give-away makes it clear that, in the face of bereavement or other ordinary catastrophes, we need each other if we are to survive.

And, to add yet one more hand, perhaps the widow in this scene is one of the crowd of women that Mark’s storyteller points out as having always been around Jesus (see Mark 15). These women “deaconed” for Jesus, which means they connected need with resource. They will have brought people to Jesus who needed help. They will presumably also have connected people with needs with other people who could help them. After all, in the gospel of Mark it is not just Jesus who has resources to share. (“You give them something to eat,” says Jesus in chapter 6. Jesus then multiplies the resource, of course, but it all starts with people sharing food.)

But nothing says that the people in this ever-present-but-always-overlooked crowd were all people of independent means. Perhaps some of the women in this group were poor widows, and perhaps the woman in this scene was one of them. In that case, Jesus in this scene has to consider whether he has said or done something that left that woman without resources.

Of course, these are only exploratory questions, not judgments based on incontrovertible evidence. No kidding. But I am convinced that preachers (and all theologians) need more questions and fewer answers.

Answers tend to shut our eyes and ears, which is why Jesus speaks (and perhaps acts) so often in parables.

A Provocation: Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 26 (31): October 31, 2021: Mark 12:28-34

18 And they came, 
toward him, 
     (those who say there is no resurrection), 
and they kept asking him; 
     they said: 
          19 Teacher, 
          Moses wrote to us: 
               If someone’s brother should die 
                    and leave a wife 
                    and should not discharge a  child, 
               his brother should take the wife 
                    and raise seed to his brother.  
               20 Seven brothers there were.  
                    And the first took a wife. 
                         He died;
                         he did not discharge seed.  
                    21 And the second took her,
                         and died without leaving seed, 
                    and the third the same way
                         22  None of the seven discharged seed.  
                    Last of all, also the woman died.  
                    23 In the resurrection 
                         (whenever it is that they would rise) 
                    of which of them will she be wife?  
                         for the seven had the same wife. 
      24 Jesus said to them: 
          Isn’t it on account of this you are deceived:
               you know neither the scripture nor the power of God?  
          25 For “whenever it is that they would rise” out of death 
               neither will they marry or be given in marriage.  
                    But they are like angels in the heavens.  
          26 Concerning the dead, 
               that they are raised, 
          don’t you read in the book of Moses 
               (the part about the bush) 
          how God said to him: 
               I AM the God of Abraham 
                    and the God of Isaac 
                    and the God of Jacob?
                         27 God is not God of the dead but of the living.  
          You are very much deceived.  
28 One of the scribes approached. 
He heard them arguing;
he saw how beautifully he answered them; 
     he asked him: 
          Which is the commandment, 
               the first of all?  
     29 Jesus answered: 
          First is: 
               Hear Israel: 
               The LORD your God, the LORD is One, 
                    30 and you will love the LORD your God 
                         out of the whole of your heart
                         and out of the whole of your life 
                         and out of the whole of your mind, 
                         and out of the whole of your strength.  
          31 Second, this: 
               You will love your neighbor as yourself.  
          There can exist no commandment greater than these.
     32 He said to him 
     the scribe did: 
          Beautifully done, Teacher, 
          based on truth you spoke: 
               “One there is, 
               and there cannot be another 
                    except God,” 
          33 and 
               “to love God 
                    out of the whole of the heart 
                    and out of the whole of the understanding 
                    and out of the whole of the strength…”
               “to love the neighbor as oneself…”
          This exceeds all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.  
34 Jesus, 
seeing that he answered rationally, 
     said to him: 
          Not far you are, 
          not far from the dominion of God.  
And no one any longer dared to question him.  

A Question or Two:

  • So, was Jesus a Pharisee?
  • He surely is NOT a Sadducee.

Some Longer Reflections:

For a longer exploration, see my Provocation on Mark 12:28-34 from 2018: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/a-provocation-twenty-fourth-sunday-after-pentecost-november-4-2018-mark-1228-34/

Just one thing catches my eye this year.

               Hear Israel: 
               The LORD your God, the LORD is One,

Observant Jews recite the Shema every morning and every evening, and hope to speak these words again at the moment of death. And it all starts with the words that Jesus says in answer to a question about Torah. This is not surprising since, as Paul Fredriksen notes, Jesus is himself an observant Jew.

Of course, behind the word “LORD” is the Divine Name, which is used to indicate the activity of the Mercy Attribute, that key aspect of God that calls, chooses, nurtures, and forgives. The first phrase in this affirmation makes it clear: for Jewish faith, the God that regulates the world is a God whose Name is Mercy.

And then comes the part that catches my eye: The God whose Name is Mercy is One.

Read this carefully. This does NOT mean that only the chosen few have access to God’s Mercy, no matter how often this is asserted by narrow ideologues (many of them Christians). The Oneness of God reveals God’s centrality, not exclusivity. The Jewish affirmation of God’s Oneness makes the point that God is a Singularity. Think of the attractive power of a black hole. All matter and all energy is drawn to the singularity. The Shema says that God is the same: for all the differences in the ways we speak of God (even among just Jews!), still God is One, and that Oneness consists in Mercy.

This understanding has deep roots in Jewish faith. The Noachide Covenant (made between God and Noah) does not expect people who are not Jewish to convert. This Covenant simply expects non-Jews not to act like idiots: no idolatry, no cursing God, no murdering, marital unfaithfulness, no stealing, and don’t eat meat torn from a living animal. And, while you’re at it, establish courts of justice. These are sensible and accessible requirements for people who have no real idea what keeping kosher might entail. And the hopes rising out of the work of Second Isaiah point to the gathering of all people, Jews and non-Jews, all of us together gathered by the Mercy of God. This is even the substance of the song sung by the sky-ful of angels at the birth of Jesus (gospel of Luke):

Δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ 

καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας. 

Glory in the highest [places] to God; and on earth peace among people who are either characterized by good will or who approved by God. Or it could be both, and that would make sense, given the Noachide Covenant: people of good will don’t act like idiots and are thus approved by God. The angels do not expect that this peace will only come to some small group. The angels sing peace to all people of good will. Their song, by the way, also replicates Jesus’ words about Torah: both God and neighbor are included.

But if the God who is One is a Singularity, a power of Mercy that attracts all of Creation, then our task as people of faith is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the God whose Name is Mercy. It seems I have heard that somewhere before.

A Provocation: Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 25 (30): October 24, 2021: Jeremiah 31:7-9

7For thus says the LORD: 
     Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, 
     and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; 
     proclaim, give praise, and say, 
          "Save, O LORD, your people, 
               the remnant of Israel."
          8See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, 
          and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, 
               among them the blind and the lame, 
               those with child 
               and those in labor, 
          together; a great company, they shall return here.
               9With weeping they shall come, 
               and with consolations I will lead them back, 
                    I will let them walk by brooks of water, 
                    in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; 
               for I have become a father to Israel, 
                    and Ephraim is my firstborn.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is Jacob mentioned?
  • Yes, I know that Jacob and Israel are the same narrative character, and I know that this is poetry so I should expect such renaming, but what does bringing Jacob in contribute to the statement of prophecy?

Some Longer Reflections:

Jeremiah and Isaiah are the prophets that always have names. The other prophets get allusions, or even quotations, but they aren’t named. I do not remember a single instance where Paul or any gospel storyteller says, “As it stands written in the prophet, Habakkuk….” And when Jesus asks who people say that he is, no one says, “Zephaniah.” At best, he shows up in the catch-all term “one of the prophets of old.”

Jeremiah, like Isaiah, was a prophet from the Babylonian period, when “Judah [had] gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude” (Lamentations 1:3). And that is why we have to notice that Jeremiah is talking about Jacob, about Israel, about the Northern Kingdom that had been scattered in exile by Assyria nearly 200 years before Jeremiah spoke these words.

Why bring in Jacob?

It is an important question. It means that Jeremiah and his audience have raised their eyes higher than their own predicament. They are together looking for something bigger than the easing of their pain. They are together remembering the earlier disaster, the Assyrian onslaught that obliterated 10/12s of the Jewish people. When I read such passages with my students, they notice that the Babylonian Exile was not the first rupture in the history of the Jewish people, nor was it the last. They notice, also, that trauma has left deep marks on the Jewish faith, and by extension on the Christian faith as well.

This might be a week to remember that. We misunderstand the problems of the present when we forget the traumas of the past that have marked us and shaped our lives and our hopes. Jeremiah’s words make it clear that healing in the present moment will require the healing of past losses. The relatives scattered by the Assyrians will have to be returned.

This, of course, would be impossible. Two centuries of dispersion would have made those people untraceable. Other ancient Jewish texts imagine that the voice of Messiah would call all these lost and scattered relatives home to Mount Zion. Some even imagine that God would use birds to send out the call to return. The birds would find the descendants of the exiles just like the doves in the old Aschenputtel (Cinderella) story picked the lentils out of the ashes. But returning all those who had been lost would have been impossible, and this impossibility is part of the prophecy. Jeremiah and his audience knew that very well.

Life leaves marks. If we forget that, we misunderstand our reactions to pain and disruption. People (and peoples) who have experienced trauma cannot just “get over it.” It continues the trauma to demand that they do. When we demand that people “just get over it” we are making it clear that what we want, what we demand, is that we not be disturbed. And when other people remind us of the event that changed everything, that damaged everything, we are annoyed. We don’t think of it as annoyance. We think of it as realism, as tough love, as good advice. But what we really want is to avoid any disruption in our world. “After all,” we say, “everybody has troubles. You’re no different.”

But my trouble does not cancel out your trouble. The fact that my relatives left Sweden because the economic system collapsed on top of them does not cancel out the trouble that was caused when they settled on the hereditary land of the Anishinaabe in northern Minnesota. The Anishinaabe live there still, and the dominant culture created by my relatives and their descendants is a reminder of the loss of their relatives and the loss of their hereditary land.

In the late 19th century the Ghost Dance emerged among Native Americans, beginning with the Northern Paiutes and spreading widely. People performed the Dance hoping that it would bring about the return of the bison, the return of all the relatives lost, and the return of the sacred hereditary land. These hopes were crushed at Wounded Knee when Spotted Elk and the people following him were massacred. James Mooney spoke with Lakota people after this catastrophe and they told him that they would no longer speak of the Ghost Dance to him or to any other European. (see Mooney, The Ghost Dance Religion). Trauma upon trauma left indelible marks.

Jeremiah’s words remind me of the hopes expressed in the Ghost Dance. Jeremiah’s words remind me of the marks left by trauma. Jeremiah’s words make me wonder if his audience also resolved never to speak of their hopes to the Babylonians. And then I remember Psalm 137, and I realize that the trauma of lost relatives and lost land may be the same in any century.

May all those who must remember losses become God’s firstborn.

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.