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: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 15 (20): John 6:51-58: August 15, 2021

     51I AM
     the bread,
          the one that lives,
          the one coming down out of the sky.
               Anyone who should eat of this bread,
                    will live into the aeon.
     The bread that I will give:
     It is my body
          for the sake of the life of the beautiful world.
52They kept fighting therefore toward each other,
          the Judeans did;
     they said:
          How is this one able to give his body to eat?
     53He said therefore to them
     Jesus did:
          Amen amen I am talking to you:
               If ever you do not eat the body of the son of adam,
               and do not drink of him the blood,
                    you do not have life in you.
               54The one gnawing of me 
                    the flesh 
               and drinking of me 
                    the blood
                         has aeonic life.
                              I myself will raise him in the last day.
               55For my body,
                    it is true: 
                         it is food;
               my blood,
                    it is true: 
                         it is drink.
               56The one gnawing of me 
                    the body 
               and drinking of me 
                    the blood
               in me remains
                    and I myself in him.
                    57Exactly as he sent me,
                         the living father,
                    so I myself live
                         through the father.
                    Just so the one gnawing on me 
                         that one also will live through me.
                    58This is the bread,
                         the one coming down out of the sky;
                         not like they ate,
                              your fathers did,
                         and died.
                    The one gnawing this bread will live into the aeon.

A Question or Two:

  • What gnaws?
  • What else?
  • Do living things get gnawed?

Some Longer Reflections:

Three years ago (the last time we worked our way through all the bread, all the time), a friend gave me an idea for provoking this scene that surprised me. I read it again this morning, and it surprised me again. To share the surprise, go to https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/a-provocation-thirteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-august-19-2018-john-651-58/

That is about as good a provocation as I can offer, so this year I will just ask a few odd questions:


Why does the storyteller inform us that the Judeans “kept fighting toward each other”? It could be, of course, just an odd idiom, but I never start there. If you begin by knocking the edge off every surprise, you will never discover anything new. So, what does this odd way of telling the story add? Maybe only this: the people who live in Judea (Southerners, not Northerners like Jesus and his main group of followers) are not fighting with Jesus about this. His words provoke a fight amongst the Judeans themselves. That means that some find his words supportable, and some do not. It is not surprising that people are shocked by what Jesus has said. It is, however, surprising that other people are not, and that the argument over his words is taking place within the community of Judeans. And maybe also this: Jesus provokes argument. This is not a flaw. This is a particular strength. Messiah strengthens the people by giving them occasion to argue about who they are and what responsibilities they have.

And Second:

The matter of living and dying is more complicated than it might first seem. The people who ate the manna died. No kidding. But if this is somehow a scene hinting at the sacrament of eating bead and wine as body and blood, then everyone who has ever eaten that food has also died, at least eventually. So what is going on? If the storyteller is making the Christian sacrament superior to the Jewish memory of being fed in the wilderness, I want no part of it. And I am joined in this judgment by other New Testament writers, Paul among them (read Romans 9-11, especially 11, slowly). I don’t mind disagreeing with arguments made by biblical writers. We do it all the time. But maybe something else is going on here. If my friend’s analysis from 3 years ago is right (follow the link above), then this scene is all about incarnation. And incarnation is all about limitation and even mortality. It is incarnation that makes the death of messiah significant. And possible, in John’s terms. If the Word somehow IS God, then when messiah dies, God experiences death. Just as we do. But that means that “living into the aeon” requires resurrection, and resurrection requires death. So that means that the “life of the aeon” is not a matter of simple undefeated life. So, perhaps resurrection is something that happens when messiah is killed? Or resurrection is something that is passed along to all of Creation when messiah is murdered for attempting to turn the Creation right-side-up, when messiah is a corpse that you could actually eat.

This is a different way to think about hope. Life-giving hope requires experiencing the deep loss of hope, even the death of hope. Resurrection and the life of the aeon are always on the other side of failure and defeat. This may have something to do with the experience of people who work for justice. Such work has always involved defeat. Justice requires resurrection, it would seem.

A Provocation: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 14 (19): John 6:35, 41-51: August 8, 2021

35He said to them
Jesus did:
     I AM
     the living bread.
          The one coming to me will certainly not be hungry;
          the one being faithful toward me will not be thirsty 
               in any way.  
     36But I told you:
          you have seen me and you are not faithful.  
     37Everything that he gives to me,
          everything my father gives,
          to me it will have come.
     The one coming to me 
          I will certainly not cast out.
               38because I have come down from the sky 
                    not in order that I do my will 
                         but the will of the one who sent me.
                    39This is the will of the one who sent me:
                         that everything that he has given to me
                         I lose nothing out of it,
                              but that I raise it in the last day.
                    40This is the will of my father:
                         that everyone who see the son 
                              and is faithful toward him
                         should have aeonic life,
                         and that I should raise them
                              I myself 
                         in the last day.
41They grumbled therefore,
     the Judeans did,
concerning him because he said:
     I AM
     the bread,
          the one coming down out of the sky.
42They kept saying:
     Isn’t this one Jesus the son of Joseph?
     Don’t we know the father and the mother?
          How now does he say:
               Out of the sky I have come down?
43He answered,
     Jesus did;
he said to them:
     Don’t grumble with each other.
     44No one is able to come to me 
          if ever the father,
                the one who sent me,
          should not drag them.
          I myself will raise them in the last day.
      45There is a scripture in the prophets:
          They will all be taught by Elohim.
               who hears from the father 
                    and learns
               comes to me.
               46Is it not the case that no one has seen the father?
                    No one, that is, if not the one who is from Elohim;
                         this one has seen the father.
     47Amen amen I am talking to you:
          The one who is faithful has aeonic life.
          48I AM
          the bread,
               the living bread.
          49Your fathers ate in the wordless wilderness. 
               They ate the manna 
                    and they died.
          50This is the bread,
               the one coming down out of the sky,
                    in order that anyone who should eat of it
                        should also not die.
     51I AM
     the bread,
          the one that lives,
          the one coming down out of the sky.
               Anyone who should eat of this bread,
                    will live into the aeon.
     The bread that I will give:
     It is my body
          for the sake of the life of the beautiful world.

A Question or Two:

  • Why do interpreters think it’s funny that the people in Jesus’ hometown are puzzled (and disturbed) when a guy who was born just like anybody else says he “came down from the sky?”
  • Wouldn’t you be disturbed by something like that?

Some Longer Reflections:

      No one is able to come to me 
          if ever the father,
                the one who sent me,
          should not drag them.
          I myself will raise them in the last day.

Normal translations have God “drawing” people. That works. But the word in Greek is ἑλκύσῃ, and it has a vigorous physical metaphor in it. The word is used for dragging ships down to the sea.

Next to this image, “drawing” sounds so tame. It implies a mild attraction. One who is drawn to something is sort of interested, even intrigued. Someone who is drawn to something is intellectually interested. I like being intellectually interested, and being an academic, this interest goes deep and draws me with some real force.

But ἑλκύσῃ asks me to imagine a boat being dragged down to the water. People are hauling on ropes, synchronizing their strength and sweating. Their hands are calloused, their muscles are well-practiced in this essential act. The boat has to get into the water. If it doesn’t get dragged into the water, it is no more than an odd yard ornament. Life and livelihood depend on the vigorous act of dragging the boat.

This is more than even the most powerful experience of being intellectually drawn to some insight or complication.

No one connects with the work of the messiah (whose work, at its heart, is the turning of this beloved Creation right-side-up) unless God drags them to that work. God sweats. God has calloused hands and well-practiced muscles, and on this strenuous work depend both life and livelihood.

This is the place to begin reading this scene.

If you begin with Jesus’ statement that the people in the scene lack faithfulness, you will read this scene as marking, somehow, the faultline in the narrative world: some are faithful, others are not. The obvious sermonic conclusion is: Be Faithful!.

But remember, these are the people who have pursued Jesus across the Sea of Galilee because (as the storyteller has informed us) they saw Jesus’ act of feeding people as a divine sign. There is a faultline here, but it marks a fracture in John’s story itself. There is an earthquake going on. One layer of the story sees rejection everywhere it looks. One layer sees God dragging all people to the work of right-side-upping the Creation, which God “so loves.”

Start with the love. Start with the God who drags people, with all the considerable Divine energy available, to the work of the messiah.

A Provocation: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 13 (18): August 1, 2021: John 6:24-35

24When therefore the crowd saw:
     Jesus is not here;
          neither are his disciples;
they embarked into the little boats. 
They came into Capernaum,
seeking Jesus.
     25They found him
          across the sea;
     they said to him:
          when have you come here?
     26He answered to them,
     Jesus did;
     he said:
          Amen amen I am talking to you:
               You seek me, 
                    not because you see signs,
                    but because you ate of the breads 
                         and were stuffed.
                    not to earn the food that is destroyed,
                         but the food that remains into aeonic life,
                              the food that the son of adam to you will give.
                                   For this the father stamps with approval.
                                   This Elohim stamps with approval.
     28They said, therefore,
     to him:
          What ought we do,
               in order that we do the works of Elohim?
     29He answered,
     Jesus did;
     he said to them:
          This is the work of Elohim:
               In order that you are faithful toward the one whom that one sent.
     30They therefore said to him:
          What therefore are you doing, 
               in the way of a sign,
          in order that we see and be faithful toward you?
          What are you working?
               31Our fathers,
                    the manna they ate in the wordless wilderness,
                    exactly as it had stood written:
                         Bread out of the sky he gave to them to eat.
     32He said therefore to them,
     Jesus did:
          Amen amen I am talking to you:
               Not Moses has given to you the bread out of the sky,
               But my father gives to you the bread out of the sky,
                    the true bread. 
                         33For the bread of Elohim is the one that comes down out of the sky 
                              and gives life to the beautiful world.  
     34They said therefore to him:
               always give to us this bread.
     35He said to them
     Jesus did:
          I AM
          the bread of life.
               The one coming to me will certainly not be hungry;
               the one being faithful toward me will not be thirsty in any way.  

A Question or Two:

  • If Jesus is going to insist that the people who have followed him throughout this chapter are not seeking him because they saw signs but because they saw food, why does the storyteller inform us in the previous scene in chapter 6 that the people did indeed see signs. They involved food, but they saw them as signs.
  • Was Jesus not listening to the storyteller?

Some Longer Reflections:

Every pastor I know is weary: it is Year B, it is the middle of the summer, and we are sliding into yet another month-and-a-half of Bread of Life texts.

  1. Barley bread.
  2. Bread of life.
  3. Bread from the sky.
  4. Bread of life from the sky, like manna.
  5. Living bread that we gnaw on.
  6. More gnawing on bread from the sky.

It’s enough to put you on a theological paleo diet.

Many of the pastors I know best are living in Ephesians in order to think about almost anything other than bread. This reminds me (and dates me) of the Monty Python sketch from the 70s, only with bread, not spam. https://youtu.be/_bW4vEo1F4E

So, what can you make out of all this bread?

Here is a try: Why all this talk about living bread from the sky? The Jewish people in the wilderness were also fed on quails. Why not have Jesus identify himself as the Quail of Life, the living quail that comes from the sky?

That, of course, would be a little silly, but not a lot sillier than Jesus as bread. What is it about bread?

Bread is an agricultural product, and as such emerges as a regular food when people are getting their main food from planting grain and not from hunting and gathering. There is, of late, a kind of anthropological nostalgia for the period of human history before agriculture. Some people think of it as a golden age of peace and harmony.


But the development of agriculture also provides a more stable source of food, and thus allows settled communities. That suggests that the Bread of Life carries a different metaphorical message than would the Quail of Life. Quails you might find, or might not. Bread is more reliable. For all the very real risks of farming, it is more trustworthy than hunting for food.

So maybe one way to look at all this burgeoning bread is to read it as a source of life that can be trusted. “I am the living bread,” says Jesus. “You can trust that you will not be hungry, and never be thirsty.”

And if the beginning of his sentence is a sneaky reference to God’s self-identification to Moses (“I am that I am”), then I should translate it as “I AM the living bread….” If this is a reference to the Divine Name, then (reading with the rabbis), this is a reference to the Mercy Attribute of God. In this case, Jesus’ words come into English as “I AM, the God Whose Name is Mercy, is the living bread, you can trust God’s durable Mercy like you can trust the grain crop and the bread that comes from it. Mercy will certainly keep you alive.”

I kind of like that reading.