A Provocation: 1st Sunday after Christmas: January 1, 2017: Matthew 2:13-23

Matthew 2:13-23

2:13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

2:14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,

2:15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

2:17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

2:19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,

2:20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”

2:21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

2:22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.

2:23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

A Question or Two:

  • How long did Joseph, Mary, and Jesus have to hide out in Egypt?
  • Why did the angel not know about Archelaus?
  • Why did the warning in a dream take place after Joseph had already seen the danger?

Some Longer Reflections: 

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Listen to these words slowly.  Listen for the sound of a mother’s wailing.  Remember how many times you have heard that sound.  Listen to these words from Matthew yet again.  Slowly.

Matthew also listened.

He listened to Jeremiah (31:15), who listened to the wailing at the time of the deportation to Babylon.  But Jeremiah also listened to Rachel, wailing out of the old stories in Genesis (35:18).  Jeremiah listens, and hears in Rachel’s wailing the shrieking of mothers who had survived the siege of Jerusalem, compassionate mothers who, perhaps, had boiled their own children and had eaten them when the starvation was at its worst (Lamentations 4:10).

Matthew listened to Jeremiah and to Rachel.  But Matthew is listening also to the shrieks and wails of those who saw the destruction of the Second Temple, who survived the Roman siege of Jerusalem, who knew the wretched depths to which human beings can be forced under imposed extremity.

Matthew listens, and then tells us the story of messiah, of Emmanuel, of God-is-with-us.  Listen to how Matthew tells the story.  This messiah, this God-is-with-us, hears the same shrieks, hears them as his family runs for their lives in the middle of the night.

I sometimes have listened to this story with some irritation, angry because Jesus escapes while all the rest of the toddlers are killed.  My anger is not directed against Matthew, nor is it directed against Jesus.  My anger is directed against biblical interpreters who hear this story as a tale of Divine Providence and can only see the escape.  Some even hear in it a promise of rescue acted out by a God who is a very present help in time of trouble.  I am angry with such heedless interpretation because it is glad as long as it gets to save Jesus.  It does not care about the other toddlers, two years old and younger, who were killed even though their mothers and grandmothers, fathers and big sisters died trying to protect them.

But Matthew listens, even when his interpreters do not.

Matthew knows that refugee stories often tell us of desperate midnight escapes.  Matthew knows that sometimes even parents and children get separated in the dark and never again find each other.  Because Matthew listens, he tells a story of messiah that does not pretend that the world is pretty and calm.  Matthew’s messiah story spins the wailing of every generation together and weaves it into a shocking story of how God is present in the Creation.  God is with us in the bodies of refugees.  God is with us in the corpses lying in the street.  God is with us in the desperate midnight escape.  And in each case, God is with us, not because everything turns out alright in the end.  God is with us precisely because it does not turn out alright.  Rachel’s wailing is a sign of the presence of God, not of the absence.  Rachel’s voice is God’s voice.

This is a shocking way to tell a messiah story.

Listen to it slowly.  And then listen for the voice of God, with us in our world.


  • “Oh God, he shot him!  Oh God, he shot my baby!”
  • “This may be the last time we can talk to you.”
  • “This is what it’s like to be married to a cop: my husband has nightmares, flashbacks, he’s afraid that tonight will be the night, more dead bodies at another car crash, another shooting, another suicide.  He’s afraid he will hesitate and it will cost him his life and leave his daughter without a dad and me without a husband.  That’s what it’s like everyday.”
  • “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.
  • “How do I help my kids deal with my husband’s deployment?”
  • “You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.”
  • “Please don’t tell me he’s dead.”
  • “I have been quiet about the fact that my husband is deployed to Afghanistan online. This is to protect his safety and mine”
  • “Go home to wherever you came from and I know you are probably an illegal and take your stupid son with you. How many fathers of your children who are clear mixed.  You both don’t belong here you n******.”
  • “Be careful being married to a cop because they tend to have a lot of issues. Being a cop is a stressful job and scary because you never know when something awful is going to happen. Try getting marriage counseling maybe that might work.”
  • “My husband is deployed and I feel vulnerable.”

A Provocation: Christmas (Proper III): December 25: John 1:1-14

John 1:1-14

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

1:2 He was in the beginning with God.

1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being

1:4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

1:9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

1:10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.

1:11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

1:12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,

1:13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

1:14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

A Question or Two:

  • What might it mean to say “the Word was God?”
  • What is it that makes “Word” and Deity somehow compatible?

Some Longer Reflections:

The beginning of the gospel of John is loaded with Loaded Words: Beginning, Word, Life, Light, Darkness, World, and Flesh, to choose a few.

Each of them needs a capital letter or it looks wrong.  And most of them (as is the case with all loaded words with capital letters) mean more than will fit into any single translation.

The first word, ἀρχῇ, is the ordinary word for “beginning.”  

But nothing in John’s story, especially not the ordinary stuff, is ordinary.  The word ἀρχῇ shows up as a root in “archaeology,” which is the study of artifacts from the deep past, the beginning of human life and society.  So the notion of “beginning” is tied up in notions of things that are very old.  But we study archaeology because we imagine that human beginnings teach us something about the human present.  Archaeologists, if you listen carefully, are always finding links between the things that human beings cannot stop doing and artifacts that reveal the first time human beings did that particular thing.  We grow crops; we build shelters; we use language; we paint.  All of these things are studied by those people who study beginnings, and what they discover about beginnings sheds light on human life now.  At least we expect it to.  

The second word, λόγος, means “word,” of course, but it also means “logical principle.”  

In ordinary usage, it can mean “story,” which makes sense, since stories, in order to make sense, need some kind of narrative logic.  In a Jewish text it also means Torah, which also makes accumulating sense, since most of Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is narrative, and since the logical principle of the universe is Torah.  

Life, ζωὴ in Greek, is next.

The Greek word gives us “zoology,” which is not the study of zoos, but also is not the study of human beings.  The Greek word is thus broader than the English derivative, but the development of the root in English reveals something worth noting.  The Life that came into being through the Word appears to include animal life.  At least the word ζωὴ does not exclude that life.  This fits with patterns seen (but not often commented upon) in Jewish Scripture, where God’s breath makes a human being into a nephesh chayah, which has been translated on occasion as “a living soul.”  The same word, nephesh (translated as “soul”), is used in other passages to name the Life of animals.

This Life is identified with Light, φῶς, from which root English grew the word, photography, which refers to writing with light.

This Light, we are told, shines in the Dark and is not overcome.  This truth can be confirmed by standing outside, especially on one of these longest, darkest nights of the year, and looking at the stars that speckle the sky.  The Dark does not extinguish the Light, it does not even threaten it.  In fact, the thing that makes it difficult to see the light of the stars at the other side of the universe is not the Dark, but the light of the town in which I live.  Dark actually helps our seeing, because it makes the light stand out.  Though John’s storyteller knew nothing of this, it is worth reflecting on how Light connects us to the actual other side of the universe.  In the vast Dark of space, light comes to our eyes across lightyears of space, allowing us to see not just across vast distances, but also into vast depths of time.  This is especially true if you look at photographs written with light from huge telescopes.  These photographs tell us the story of light from stars that may very well have long ago burned out, stars that write the story of the very beginning of the universe.

The word for “world” is much more interesting in Greek than in English.

The word κόσμος gives us the word “cosmos,” which (to my ear) suggests the vastness of space.  But it also gives us the word “cosmetologist.”  The Greek word is more interested in the beauty of the universe than in its vastness.  You can see this also if you look at photographs write with the aid of the Hubble telescope.  Galaxies and nebulae, gas clouds and varieties of stars, all stir awe even as they remind us that these beautiful things are actually places so far away that human beings will never go there.  That has not stopped us from telling stories (mostly in the form of science fiction and fantasy) of human events transported to these places impossibly far away.  If you read such fiction, you will have noticed that we tell such stories in order to imagine bigger, brighter, darker, stronger, and weaker things than other fiction generally allows us.  

The last word (for now) is Flesh, σὰρξ, is similarly loaded, but in (somehow) the opposite way.  

This shows up best in Hebrew and in texts in Greek that are still dreaming in Hebrew.  And John clearly has a Jewish imagination.  In Jewish Scripture, any talk of Flesh is also talking about Body.  This is true here in the beginning of John’s story.  The λόγος, the organizing principle of the universe, the Light that links us to all of Space and all of Time, the link that allows our imaginations to reach beyond, always beyond, that λόγος becomes a Body.  A body.  A single, limited body, defined by its location in one place at one time, known by its individual particularity and by its resemblance to every other body (every-body) in its family, evidence of its genetic bondage to them.  Bodies grow taller and then shrink as the pads between their particular vertebrae shrink.  Bodies grow older and can never reverse this process.  And because the particular cells that make up any particular body have a limited lifespan, bodies die.  All of them, whether they had an origin (ἀρχῇ) as the logic (λόγος) of the universe, spanned by light (φῶς) shining in the darkness of the beautiful cosmos, all of them die.  Bodies die because they are fragile.  

That may be the most important Christmas reflection out of this beginning of John’s story for this year.

Bodies die because they are fragile.  This is true when cities like Aleppo are destroyed in raging warfare.  This is true when drinking water is contaminated by yet another “completely unlikely” oil spill.  This is true when another ordinary disease weakens and finally kills another ordinary body, even when that ordinary body is a mother or a grandfather or a newborn baby.

John’s story does not have a manger, or a baby Jesus to be placed in that manger.  But John’s story has a body.  An ordinary body, a son, to be clear.  And it is this ordinary body, not the universe-spanning Light, that lets us see glory.  Look carefully at the translation above.  The glory that we see in this translation (unlike other, older translations) is not the glory of “the only Son of the Father.”  It is the glory of a father’s only son.  An ordinary father.  An ordinary son.

There is something about the fragile, ordinary particularity of the Incarnation that may need extra reflection this Christmas.  The glory at the beginning of John’s gospel is a fragile glory, rooted in our astonishment at the birth of our children and at the death of our parents.

We have been reminded of our fragility lately, and of how ordinary we are.  The problems we face are going to be solved, not by Superheroes that guard the entire Universe.  The problems that we all have to solve, the problems worth thinking about at Christmas, are problems that call for ordinary people who solve the particular part of our problems that they can reach, the part that they have any chance of understanding.

This is what the Incarnation suggests this year at Christmas.


A Provocation: Christmas (Proper II): December 25: Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20

Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20

2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.

2:2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

2:3 All went to their own towns to be registered.

2:4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.

2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.

2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

2:8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

2:9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

2:10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:

2:11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

2:12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

2:13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

2:14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

2:15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

2:16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

2:17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;

2:18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

2:19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

2:20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

 A Question or Two:

  • Why is it shepherds?
  • “All who heard it were amaze at what the shepherds told them.”  Who, exactly, was part of this “all?”
  • How many people were gathered in this group?

 Some Longer Reflections:


(This large text for Proper II is the same as the large text for Proper I, but the intent appears to be to focus first on the birth and second on the shepherds and angels.  That works.)

The angels are difficult.

This is partly because they are angels.  While I know people who expect to see angels around every corner, I do not expect such things.  I have no objection to angels, and even manage to imagine them to be as real as other things that I do not directly experience: the various flavors of quarks, the Higgs boson, the working of my own pancreas, and, well, God.  But I do not trust the idea that one ought invest time in trying to see angels.  I think that is because I am pretty sure that anything you invest that much energy in will yield “experiences.”

But angels are difficult for other, more important, reasons.  In this scene, the angels show up in a multitude.  That’s easy enough to handle.  It is not clear how many it takes to make a “multitude,” but a hundred angels are no harder to imagine than is one angel.  That is not the difficulty.

Angels are not cute.

Popular imagination has made angels into charming creatures rather like fairies, but without the bells on their curly shoes.  But the angels of ancient Jewish imagination were not cute or charming or fairy-like.  The word for angel, ἄγγελος, means “messenger.”  These messengers traveled between the presence of God and human society, bringing God’s messages to our attention in a way we could not miss.  That is what we have seen Gabriel do earlier in Luke’s story.  So the voice of the angel is the voice of God, and the presence of the angel is the functional presence of God.  This charges the scene with the shepherds with real power.  

So part of the problem with angels is that they ARE the presence of God.  Angels show up, but it is God who appears, and speaks, and sings.

It is the “heavenly HOST” that causes the most trouble for me.

“Host” has become a “bible word” when it is not used as an illustrative word.  We may face a “host of problems,” but we do not generally refer to a large group of people as a “host.”  Except in church.

The problem is that the word “host” is a metaphor that has largely lost its referent.  The word in Greek is στρατια, and it means an “army.”  This is a military word, and in this scene it names a large group of soldiers.  It is not a squad of angels that shows up in the sky; it is not even a batallion.  It is as if the 101st Airborne has arrived in the skies near Bethlehem.  There are angels in the sky.  There are many, many of them.  

And them are armed.

That is the difficult part.

To be sure, it makes great sense.  The storyteller is making a point: the Emperor Augustus parades his legions of soldiers, making it clear that he has the power to determine the shape of human affairs, the Emperor forces the entire world to travel to ancestral homelands to be enrolled, the Emperor issues mandates at will, and then an entire Division of angels arrives to make it clear that Augustus has only limited power.  Point taken.

When God aims to turn the world right-side-up, the Emperor might as well whistle as try to oppose the effort: the messiah is backed by an entire Division of angels.

But if the angelic army has showed up to do its duty, why is the world still upside-down?

Why are starving children still waiting for messiah to bring in an age of abundance for all?  And why are women in war zones still hiding from firefights?  Shouldn’t the Prince of Peace have set things right by now?  This is a problem.  That is the real question.

Perhaps Luke’s story has the same problem with angels that I have: they may be real enough, but we do not have anything like direct experience of their impact on the world.  If so, then Luke’s story aims to create puzzlement: how can so much evident theological power have no impact on the real world?  The storyteller provides a messiah, an army of angels, and a mother who calls for the hungry to filled with good things and the rich to be sent empty away, but none of this actually happens.  Perhaps we are meant to wonder why.

But then why make this a story about the messiah?  Why not just make it a story about a teacher, a healer, a prophet, even?  But when you begin a messiah story by having Mary promise that arrogant power will be thrown down, and then back that up with armed angels, as a storyteller, you have to follow through.

I have friends, colleagues, who insist that this scene is built this way so as to refuse power.  Jesus is, in their reading, absolutely non-violent, and the angels, though armed, are noncombatants.  We have talked about this.  I find the idea of a God who subverts all our notions of success and strength highly attractive.  When Dorothee Soelle (in her book, Theology for Skeptics) writes about the Incarnation, voluntary dependence, and powerlessness, I find myself cheering.  If all that God does is oppose force with force, all Creation gets from the bargain is continuing violence.  And our addiction to violence is aided and abetted.

But even as I cheer, I worry.

I get nervous that this approach will morph into some kind of “spiritualizing” project.  It is a short step from affirming strategic non-violence to deferring all “right-side-up-ing” of the world to a time either after death or above the surface of the earth.  Again, resurrection and promised paradise I can make sense of as well as I can make sense of gluons and tau neutrinos.  It is not the lack of tangible effects that makes me worry.  A great many processes are going on at all times without being normally observable.

What I am nervous about is the sleight-of-hand that goes with deferring all effective messianic activity onto another plane of being.  That sounds too much like a dodge, and evasion.  If the real interpretive point is that the work of the messiah affects souls, not bodies, then I must ask Jesus’ question from Luke 5: “Which is easier to say: ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say: ‘Get up and walk’?”  That’s the beauty of so much religious talk: it is easy to say, and hard to demonstrate that it has any impact on the real world.

If Luke’s storyteller goes to all the trouble of enlisting an army of angels just to make the point that messiah only impacts souls (whatever they are, exactly), then that seems a foolish investment of narrative resources.  If the savior that is announced only saves souls, you don’t need angels to do that.  And if the messiah who comes only affects our interior state over against God, then messiah could simply have sent a memo.  There is no need for a physical presence to make a gaseous, spiritual point.  And if the LORD (the Mercy Attribute of God, which the angels identify with Jesus, the messiah) only enacts spiritual mercy, Mary (and all the mothers of starving children) will ask how this fulfills any part of the contract implied in the Magnificat.

Interpretation that chooses only to speak to “spiritual realities” is theological oxycontin.  It is a drug that leads to an addiction that may be even more dangerous than our addiction to violence.  Addiction to violence will kill us, but addiction to a painless spiritual existence will calm us down when others are killed.  This drug will make it possible for us to walk up to the driver’s side window of yet another blood-spattered vehicle, make the sign of the cross, and bless the dead black man inside, ushering him into a heaven where we don’t have to care about the societal structures that allow us all to smile blandly when law enforcement officers kill him.

I cannot believe that God sent the messiah to make it easier to smile blandly.


Happy Christmas.

A Provocation: Christmas (Proper I): December 25: Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)

Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)

2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.

2:2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

2:3 All went to their own towns to be registered.

2:4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.

2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.

2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

2:8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

2:9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

2:10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:

2:11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

2:12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

2:13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

2:14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

2:15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

2:16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

2:17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;

2:18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

2:19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

2:20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

A Question or Two:

  •  Just curious: why do you think the angels appeared to shepherds?
  • Was it because David was a shepherd?
  • Was it because shepherds were not judged to be trustworthy?
  • Or was it because the shepherds were out in the wilderness alone and the angels needed lots of sky for their appearance and song?
  • Just wondering.

Some Longer Reflections:

In Matthew’s story, Jesus is  born several years earlier, during the reign of Herod.  Luke has Jesus birth take place well after Herod’s death.  Which gospel is right?


It does not matter how you answer this question, at least if you are asking about truth and accuracy.  Jesus was born some day, some year, some hour, apparently in Bethlehem.  It does not matter when it happened.  We could not settle that question even if we thought it was important to be correct.  It does not matter.

But it does matter that both Matthew and Luke tie the birth of messiah to actions of the Empire.

Matthew ties the birth to the genocidal rage of Herod (we will explore this scene next Sunday).  Luke ties the birth to Imperial pretense.

This is not the first time in the history of the world an emperor snapped his fingers and expected the world to jump and run. It will also not be the last. People who love power exult in being able to make people do whatever they want. Sometimes they exert this power just for revenge.  There might be a minority president-elect who drools when he thinks about revenge.  There just might be such a person.

But Luke’s storyteller is not too terribly impressed with Imperial pretense.

The main effect of the Roman order that made the world jump and run was to bring families together.  In particular, Rome guaranteed that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were in Bethlehem, wrapped in deep Jewish history.  Jesus and David are now tied together, and Roman power is undercut by its very demonstration of power.  Oh well.

 Also, there is no inn in this story.  

Period.  The word in Greek is κατάλυμα and it means “guest room” and it is full.  With families gathering all over the world, guest rooms will fill up.  It does not matter if the guest room is full.  After the guest room is packed with people, families make beds on the couch, and then on the other chairs.  People will be sleeping on the floor, maybe even under the coffee table.  And after all of those spaces are full, the family will get really creative.  Jesus’ family appears to live in an old-style peasant house, like a German Bauernhaus, with the family living on the upper level and the farm animals living on the lower.  The κατάλυμα might be full.  That does not matter.  Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are family, and they are not turned away.    

That is the rule, even for people dominated by an power-hungry ruler.

That is the rule, especially for families who resist.

There is always room for family.  

This matters.  If we were reading the gospel of John, then indeed “his own received him not.”  At least sort of.  But in Luke’s story, his own not only received him, they welcomed him, they sheltered him, and they saw in Mary’s pregnancy the promise of the future of the family.  Of course they would find a place for her and her baby, even if they had to improvise.  A manger will work as a cradle, in a pinch.  Roman power created the pinch.  Jesus’ Jewish family created the solution to the problem  

This is not the first time Luke’s storyteller has presented family as the well of strength, the cell of resistance, in the face of danger.  

When Mary first learned that she was untimely pregnant, she ran to her auntie in the hill country and Elizabeth (whose name indicates that God’s oath is trustworthy) welcomed her. This is also not the last time that family will provide the energy that resolves a scene in Luke’s story.  When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple (the stable Jewish center of the world) they are met by Simeon and Anna who play the role of grandparents in the scene.  And at the end of the story, the “daughters of Jerusalem” wail for Jesus as if he were their brother.  

In Luke’s story you can always count on family, especially when the pressure and the danger are unbearable.  With family, we can bear anything.  That is one of the main points of Luke’s story.  That is, in fact, crucial to the way Luke has chosen to tell the story of the messiah: messiah comes as a member of a family.  That family shares the work of turning the world right-side-up, which is the central task messiah must carry out. 

Luke’s story is complicated, to be sure.  Families are like that.  But even with the complications, it is still a story that surrounds messiah with a family that makes the story possible.

Of course there is room.

Notice, in passing, that Mary treasures all this.

Given the events of those few days (a long trip, a family welcome, a first birth, a flock of shepherds talking about a host of angels), that is not too surprising.  But Luke’s storyteller does not paint Mary as overwhelmed and dewy-eyed.  We are told that she “treasures” what the shepherds said.  The word in Greek is συνετήρει, which is a word for what faithful people do with the words of Torah.  Mary analyzes all that has happened; she meditates on all of this, and expects to learn essential truths from her probing meditation.

Mary also “ponders” what she has heard.  This word also is a word that indicates sharp-minded intellectual analysis.  The word is συμβάλλουσα, which is the root of the English word, “symbol.”  It implies that Mary sees a deep significance in the events of these few days, a significance that she will analyze and understand, no matter how long it takes.  

She did the same thing when Gabriel visited her.  On that occasion, she also analyzed what she heard, and the fruit of her analysis appears in her independently composed Magnificat, which I think reveals why she agreed to take on the risks of giving birth to the messiah.  The world needed to be turned right-side-up, and the powerful needed to be put down from their thrones, even if all this entailed real risks for Mary.  She knew what she was getting into.  

Now Mary is told stories of an army of angels.  She stops to analyze what this means, and to extrapolate what might happen next.

The storyteller, therefore, has set up a narrative problem for the audience.

A story that begins the way Luke’s story begins ought to end with a glorious victory.  Luke’s story will end with an ascension of Mary’s baby into the heavenly realms, to be sure.  But the world is not right-side-up.  And Mary would know this.

And presumably continue with her pondering.

A Provocation: Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C, John 12:1-8

Four gospels, four anointings

Three are in Bethany, the fourth might be anywhere, including Bethany, though Luke surrounds the scene with places in Galilee. Two definitely take place in the home of Simon the Leper, whoever that is. John's anointing could also be in Simon's house, but we would have no way of knowing.

A woman enters. In the anointing scenes, a woman always enters. In Luke, she is a sinner, though the word need not imply that she is anything more than a non-observant Jew. In Mark and Matthew, her act (but not her name) will be remembered for ever. Mark goes so far as to build a memorial to old What's-Her-Name. Only John knows her name, but it won't do to import Mary into the synoptic scenes. When a storyteller chooses not to reveal a name, we have no business pretending that we know a secret that we have not been told.

The varied details of these related scenes tie them together. All four gospels know of a woman who anoints Jesus. Sometimes she anoints his head (Mark and Matthew), sometimes his feet (Luke and John). Sometimes the ointment is pure nard (Mark and John); Matthew, Mark, and John specify that it is costly (though the exact word they use varies); in the Synoptics it is in an alabaster container. In Matthew, Mark, and John, Judas Iscariot makes an appearance, but only John brings him into the anointing scene itself. All four know that someone was criticized in the scene, though only Luke imagines that it was Jesus. Usually the woman is attacked.

I do not think it serves any useful purpose to try to decide which version of the story came first. The Synoptics share details back and forth with John, defeating any easy analysis. All four canonical storytellers are fascinated by the scene. Each uses it to embody key structural themes in the story being told. Apparently, this little scene can be used by anyone to make any point that needs to be made, so the crucial interpretive task is to analyze it as part of the weave of the gospel in which it now appears: in Matthew, the woman continues a pattern begun in the genealogy, where women take decisive action to move the story forward; in Mark, it is this woman who establishes the narrative warrant for calling Jesus the messiah, the anointed one; in Luke the issue is hospitality and wholeness, and the storyteller lets the woman's act motivate Jesus to heal a rift in the people of Israel.

John's weave

John's weave is equally complex, and very different. We are introduced to Lazarus and his sisters in chapter 11. We discover that Lazarus is a sick man, and that he is from Bethany, from the village of Mary and Martha, his sisters. Before we learn anything more, the storyteller informs us that Mary was the one who anointed him (in the past tense, though it has not yet happened). When we meet them again in chapter 12, Jesus comes into Bethany (he had retreated into the wilderness); he is on his way to Jerusalem for Passover, along with the whole flowing stream of faithful Jews going to celebrate freedom in the face of foreign domination. Bethany is identified (unnecessarily, since it's only been one chapter) as the place where Lazarus was, and Lazarus is identified as the one whom Jesus raised from death. Past is tied to future, the present moment is suspended in memories and actions that twist around each other, and the verb tenses can't keep up. Time is always tangled in John's story, but that probably should be expected, given that the story itself starts before time itself.

“They” gave a banquet

We don't know who “they” might be, but since Lazarus, the no-longer-quite-so-dead one, is listed among those reclining to eat and not as the host of the event, the event clearly extends beyond a small family gathering. The narrative context probably gives good hints as to why the whole town gives a banquet: the story is surrounded by reminiscences of the raising of Lazarus and of the joy this caused in the area. Jesus probably never had to pay for drinks or a meal in Bethany ever again. Apparently Jesus was not the only person in Bethany who loved Lazarus.

Mary enters

She anoints Jesus' feet. The entire action takes only one verse. This single verse is solidly concrete in the midst of John's often ethereal story. Mary carries a container of nard, pure and costly. She anoints his feet. She wipes his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the smell of the ointment. These very specific, very concrete moments of sensation give this scene a remarkable solidity. The smell fills the house. The last time we met Lazarus, there was also a smell. Martha pointed it out that time. It was the smell of death. This time it seems to be the smell of rejoicing at the restoration of life, though Jesus turns it back to death in his commentary. Life and death dance together tightly in John's story, and the smell links them.

The scene also involves feet and hair, customary elements that show up in various Synoptic versions. The elements are customary, and common, since most of us have feet and many of us have hair. But these feet and this hair bring an intensity to the scene that you can only discover when you perform the scene. Lazarus is reclining to eat. Presumably, so is Jesus. Mary therefore has to kneel to apply the ointment. That change of posture focuses the scene. By most accounts, we should image that women were veiled in ancient Jewish culture, and that their hair was coiled tightly, unseen except by her closest family members. Before she can wipe his feet, she has to remove her veil (whatever its exact nature) and unbind her hair. That action takes time, and during that time, the silent scene focuses entirely on her. The sight of her hair (which St. Paul describes as the “glory of a woman”) would have surprised, even frozen, the crowd. Then she has to bend deep down to wipe the feet with her hair.

Do this.

Find a pair of actors (or people simply willing to embody the scene), and do this.

The intensity of the scene will surprise you.

When the anointing is connected with the raising of the brother, Lazarus, Mary's intense joy will overwhelm you. The act is powerful, intimate, astonishing, breath-taking. The entire community is gathered to celebrate the joy of (for once) receiving back from death an essential person who had died. Their joy is focused by the specific act of a sister who had lost a brother. The power of the scene makes sense. The intimacy makes sense. But you will be surprised by how powerful and how intimate if you actually play the scene.

Judas objects, but his objection now emerges as an even deeper offense. The mention of his thievery seems even beside the point, since he is really objecting, not to waste, but to joy and love. And because Jesus immediately links the anointing to his own entombment, Judas is also made to object to the resurrection. This use of the character, Judas, causes problems, especially given the history of interpretation, which connects (all too gladly) Judas with the Jewish people. At least one layer of John's story (the latest and angriest layer, I argue) makes the same sort of connection. Interpreters ought step wisely along such trails, walking on them critically or not at all.

The whole story

But this little scene with its tight physical focus finally holds the whole story together. The characters, the aroma, and the purposefully distorted verbs tenses link the anointing to the raising of Lazarus. This insistent distortion of time links it to the beginning of John's story beyond the structure of time. The aroma also links this celebration of life to a memory of death, and Jesus connects this link, himself, when he reminds the audience of his entombment, a matter they could not forget. Life and death are linked back to life that rises from death.

And all of this is held in Mary's hand with the container of ointment. All of this is held in her powerful actions: kneeling, unveiling, unbinding, bending, and wiping. And the entire story is bound up in the joy that Mary embodies. This ties Mary to the disciples at the end. This ties Mary also to the God's joy at the beginning of creating and loving the cosmos. Mary embodies John's whole story.


A Provocation: Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

This scene is difficult because it is too easy.

Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees and scribes grumble. The fact that the tax collectors were collaborating with a brutal enemy (Rome) only leads interpreters to claim this as an instance of radical grace. And at the end, the scene becomes a simple contest between law and gospel, a contest gospel always wins.

And perhaps the customary readings of this scene are exactly what is needed.

One could do worse.

But the scene is stranger than its customary interpretation, and I am convinced that strangeness provokes productive reading.

For instance:

  • The storyteller does not begin by saying that the son repented, but only that he “came to himself .” That could imply that he experienced a deep, life-changing realization that remade him completely. Maybe. But it could also merely imply that he did the math and realized that, on his current trajectory, he would crash and burn in a short time.
  • The translators of this scene have papered over a clue to the son’s moral state. They tell us that the son says that his father’s hired servants have “bread enough and to spare,” this in the face of his own starvation. That is a workable translation of the Greek, but a much more natural reading would catch a very different note. The son says that the hired servants not only have enough bread, they have too much. That difference matters. He contrasts himself with mere hired servants, and judges that it is not right that they should have more than he, as a beloved son, has.
  • If he had made a contrast with his brother, the flavor would be different. In that case the contrast would be between his location and his brother’s, between his choices and his brother’s, and one might expect him to return home and try to live more like a son and less like a leech. The fact that he contrasts his situation with that of servants (who should be glad just to have a job) suggests that he believes his status entitles him to more food. Does this sound like life-changing repentance?
  • Though the son’s rehearsed speech could seem to imply that he has learned his lesson, and that he is, in fact, ready to surrender his status and sense of entitlement, I am strongly inclined to read it as revealing the opposite. Years ago, Donald Juel suggested a reading of this scene that recognized what older siblings have sometimes learned about younger siblings: they have the advantage of waiting, watching, and learning how to manipulate their parents. I find that reading persuasive. I think the son knows that the father, who gladly agreed to go along with the legal fiction that he was dead so that the son could inherit the death benefit, would melt at the suggestion that he treat him now as a servant. The father’s soft point (as the young son knows) is that he is far too willing to treat him as a beloved son, even when the outcomes are decidedly negative.
  • Notice that it is only when the son plans what he will say to his father that he evinces a willingness to surrender his status. When he speaks to himself, he notes that the servants have more food than they should rightly have, given their status. Internal monologue reveals the heart, and this revelation is disturbing.
  • If the young son is finally a selfish manipulator, what will he do in the future? The storyteller leaves this crucial question without an answer.

What if these oddities are the key to the story?

  • If the oddities are the interpretive key, then this well-loved scene is not a bland endorsement of hospitality and welcome, but an acknowledgment of the real risks that go with actual grace.
  • It even raises the question of whether grace is such a good idea after all. Deep in the heart of my theological marrow I have a commitment to the notion that grace is a radical, creative force that remakes even the deepest corruption. I have found that notion comforting, and preachable, many times. But this strange little scene requires me to stop and wonder, requires me to notice that the father, who says that his dead son is now alive, has been wrong before.
  • We do not know how the story turns out, and the storyteller must have intended it that way. Is the son re-made, or just re-shoed, restored, and rested for his next caper? How do things turn out next week? We do not know. And we have to ask.
  • If the oddities are the key, then I find myself thinking, not about the amazingly successful resolution to this scene, but about the risk with which it ends. Perhaps only grace could redeem the young son. Perhaps so. But it is also clear that we do not know that he is redeemed. As I said, the father, ever overly optimistic, has been wrong before.
  • Perhaps this strange scene shines its brightest light, not on the beauty of a gracious (but abstract) theology, but on the unrepentantly real risks of life together. Welcoming the stranger into the home sometimes ends with a knife between the ribs. It just does.
  • If you pretend that such things never happen, people who prefer fear and anger as motivators will win the argument every time, and faithfulness will be left looking like a sentimental artifact of a charming childhood.
  • Perhaps the point is that the risks are as real as the love. And then the point is that the love is indomitable. Perhaps. And indomitable love might indeed re-create the world.

But perhaps one ought tremble when reading this scene.