Text Study for Luke 1:39-55 (Pt. 3); December 19, 2021

Mary is Among the Prophets

The Lukan account portrays a great “democracy of the Holy Spirit.” We are headed toward the general outpouring of that Spirit in Acts 2. In that passage, the Spirit equips the disciple community to speak the gospel in the language of “every nation under heaven.”

Peter interprets this outpouring by quoting from the second chapter of the prophet Joel. In the last days, God will pour out the Spirit on all flesh. Sons and daughters shall prophesy. Young men shall see visions, and old men shall dream dreams. Male and female slaves shall prophesy. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

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The Spirit is no respecter of age or gender, of social status or political power, of ethnic origin or native language, of boundary or border. As we shall hear later in the Book of Acts, and elsewhere, God shows no partiality. That is a human game. Instead, the Spirit breaks all boundaries and transcends all barriers. That is the story of Acts, as the Gospel moves from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.

As a result, the early Christian community (according to Acts) held all things in common, ate their food at home with glad and generous hearts, praised God, and had the good will of all the people. They lived in a Spirit-formed community that embodied and expressed values and practices at odds with the patriarchal, hierarchical, honor/shame driven culture of the Empire. And they paid for their oddity, sometimes with their lives.

The first chapter of the Lukan gospel prefigures and foreshadows this great democracy of the Holy Spirit. An old couple in Judea recapitulates the wonder of Sarah and Abraham. Zechariah meets an angel in the Temple – Zechariah, not the high priest or a member of the Sanhedrin. Zechariah is a nobody from the hill country, and he knows it. Elizabeth has suffered shame due to her barrenness for decades but now is expecting.

Then a teenager from Nazareth gets a visit from Gabriel announcing that she was favored with the Lord’s particular presence. She will experience the impossible possibility of bearing the Son of God. None of this good news makes it to the capitol or the Temple. Instead, these two women huddle together in the hill country and shout their joy and wonder. Elizabeth expresses the surprise we should all have – Why has this happened to me?

Then Mary sings the song which sets the agenda for all of Luke-Acts, the poem tradition calls The Magnificat. It is a hymn to the democracy of the Holy Spirit, a democracy that delivers the Great Reversals of the Kin(g)dom of God. It is clear that Mary is a young woman. And in our text, she describes herself twice as a “slave” to the Lord. The Lukan author wants us to understand that Mary functions as a prophet here.

Yet, the Lukan author does not identify Mary as such. It’s not that the author hesitates to call anyone a prophet. Zechariah prophesies. Anna is a prophet. Christian prophets show up in the Book of Acts. Clayton Croy and Alice Connor wonder why the Lukan author does not call Mary a prophet as well. They identify some reasons that give us more insight into the Lukan author’s agenda and strategy.

Croy and Connor seek to make the case for the Lukan portrayal of Mary as a prophet. They explore the connection between this prophetic role and Mary’s reported virginity. They note briefly that the early church theologians did not share the Lukan reluctance to cast Mary as a prophet. And they try to account for this difference in treatment in the Lukan account.

The birth announcement in Luke 1 strongly resembles such birth announcements in the Hebrew scriptures. It is not only modeled after those announcements but actually outdoes them all in both form and content. But this announcement, Croy and Connor note, also has the character of commissioning stories in the Hebrew scriptures – such as the commissioning of Isaac, Moses, Gideon, and Samson (page 256).

In addition, the Lukan text has many features in common with prophetic call stories in the Hebrew scriptures. The Annunciation is an example of the best of all three of the above genres. “While it’s primary purpose is to announce a birth,” Croy and Connor write, “the Lukan annunciation may also intend to depict Mary as a bearer of prophetic revelation” (page 257). The fact that Mary is referred to twice in the chapter as a “slave of the Lord” strengthens the notion of her prophetic call. And her response in the Magnificat is a Spirit-endowed, prophetic response to being “overshadowed” by the Spirit.

“The question arises, then, why Luke would portray Mary as a prophet and yet fail to call her one,” Croy and Connor write. “The answer,” they continue, “may have something to do with the fact that Mary is explicitly identified as a virgin” (page 261).

They note that virginity and prophetic vocation are not connected in ancient Judaism. The only exception is the anonymous figure in Isaiah 8:3. Early church writers often saw this character as a prefiguring of Mary, but the Lukan author doesn’t make this connection explicitly. “In the Hebrew Bible virginity had no essential relationship to prophetic aptitude,” Croy and Connor write, “but the picture differs somewhat when we turn to Greco-Roman religion” (page 263).

They briefly survey a number of connections between virginity and prophetic vocation in the dominant Mediterranean culture of the first century. Virginity was associated with the purity thought necessary to be worthy of a prophetic vocation. That vocation often had sexual overtones in Greco-Roman religion, so the reproductive status of the prophet was thought to matter. To what degree does this pagan perspective affect the Lukan presentation (with possibly some pagans in the audience)?

In early Christianity, Croy and Connor note, Christian prophecy was a quite democratic endowment. It “was understood as a charism given by the Holy Spirit rather than a function determined by an institution” (page 266). It’s clear in Paul’s letters that women, for example, served as prophets in early Christian congregations. In Luke-Acts, Christian prophecy is taken as a given and demonstrated by several characters, including Jesus.

While few women are named as prophets in Luke-Acts, the text from Joel 2 in Peter’s Pentecost sermon mentions women as prophets twice. “Mary, as a prophesying servant of the Lord, can be seen as proleptically fulfilling the prophecy of Joel cited in Acts 2.18,” Croy and Connor write. “The motif of virginity, however, is absent from Acts 2” (page 267). So, what’s the story here? The early church theologians are prolific in their portrayal of Mary as a prophet, in both the Eastern and Western church. So, why not the Lukan author?

“Our hypothesis is that Luke was sensitive to the pagan overtones of associating prophecy and virginity,” Croy and Connor argue (page 270). The Lukan author, they suggest, wants to avoid any explicit suggestion that Mary experienced a sexual contact with God in the Annunciation. The Lord is not Zeus, invading the bedrooms of unsuspecting girls and spreading the divine seed hither and yon. The fact that the Annunciation results in a child, they suggest, makes this Lukan caution all the more pressing.

In addition, they suggest that the Lukan author does not want to make virginity a condition for Christian prophesying. Nor does the Lukan author want this relationship to be one of possession or assault. Croy and Connor point out that the Lukan author knows of such possibilities and describes such in Acts 16. Mary is not possessed by the Holy Spirit. “Mary’s endowment with the Holy Spirit is quite different,” they write, “she fully retains her rationality and volition. Hers is not a mantic possession,” they argue, “but a voluntary reception of the Spirit” (page 271).

Therefore, the Lukan author does not identify Mary as a prophet but rather characterizes her as such. “If it is the task of a prophet is to speak and act in ways that further revelation and redemption,” Croy and Connor conclude, “one might say…Mary delivers” (page 271).

The revelation of the Kin(g)dom of God is not reserved for spiritual savants or religious rulers. It does not happen only in temple precincts or pastoral pulpits. The Holy Spirit is not an endowment limited to the privileged few or regulated by academic or ecclesial authorities. As John reminds us, the Spirit blows where it will. Age or gender, status or ethnicity, position or power – these are not factors in determining where the Spirit works and through whom the Spirit speaks.

While the Lukan author wants this gospel to serve as an acceptable apologia that potentially persuades some privileged pagans, the author also uses it to subvert the values and structures of that pagan world. We must hear the witness of a teenager in Nazareth who for all the world simply looks like a girl in a bit of trouble. We must hear the witness of some old farts who these days would probably be diagnosed with dementia. We must hear the witness of smelly shepherds who can’t write their own names and who count sheep for a living rather than to fall asleep.

The Christian scriptures know the risks of such a democratic and democratizing Spirit. Chaos and self-aggrandizement often lurk just around the corner. Luther knew that as well and rejected the testimony and practices of the “Enthusiasts.” Yet, in our organized old-line congregations, we know that this has led to what Paul called “quenching the Spirit.” Perhaps we would do well to remind ourselves of the fact that Mary is among the prophets, to celebrate that fact, and to listen for prophetic words from unexpected quarters.

The “who” of Christian prophecy is one matter. Another matter is the “what.” More on that in the next post.

References and Resources

Croy, N. Clayton, and Alice E. Connor. “Mantic Mary? The Virgin Mother as Prophet in Luke 1.26-56 and the Early Church.” (2011).

Malcolm, Lois E., “Experiencing the Spirit: The Magnificat, Luther, and Feminists” (2010). Faculty Publications. 275. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/275.

Wilson, Brittany E. “Pugnacious precursors and the bearer of peace: Jael, Judith, and Mary in Luke 1: 42.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.3 (2006): 436-456.

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Text Study for Luke 1:39-55 (Pt. 2); December 19, 2021

Using the Back Door

The Gospel of Luke is a “dual process” document. When we read and interpret the account, we must look for multiple meanings and purposes in any and all of the texts. For example, the Lukan account is an apologia designed to make the Christian movement less threatening to Imperial authorities and more palatable to potential Gentile converts. It is also a “hidden transcript of resistance” that seeks to challenge and subvert the values of Imperial ideology and culture.

The Lukan author has a particular passion for the poor and an eye toward the wealthy who can be part of the movement under the right behavioral conditions. The author elevates the role of personal agency in repentance and renewal and highlights the work of the Holy Spirit in individuals and communities more than any other gospel account. The Lukan gospel is an invitation to hear and a call to do.

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The Lukan author lifts up the ministry of women and makes them appear unduly subservient. The Lukan gospel affirms the absolute continuity between the Jesus movement and the vocation of biblical Israel. And this gospel tempts Christians to supersessionism in ways that are both surprising and shocking.

The Lukan author seeks to encourage a subversive and transformational movement without getting everyone killed in the process.

Thus, as we read and interpret the Lukan account, we need to attend not only to what is said, but also how, when, and by whom something is said. The Lukan author conveys as much or more by narrative structure, style, and tactics as the author does by the content of the narrative itself. If you find the Lukan gospel to be at times confusing and contradictory, that means you are paying close attention. That’s what happens when a theologian tries to satisfy several goals at once, and not all of them complementary to one another.

Lois Malcolm deals with some of these textual tensions in her chapter of the 2010 book, n Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives. In this chapter Malcolm seeks to understand and explicate Luther’s commentary on the Magnificat and to show that Martin Luther sees Mary as a model of witness and faith for us. In the process, she helps us to see the importance of the Holy Spirit for Martin Luther (and for us who bear that tradition) in spite of the reputed Lutheran allergy to experience and embrace of the work of the Spirit.

As Malcolm points out, Luther was critical both of the Augustinian mysticism in which he was formed as a monk and the “enthusiastic” emphasis on the Holy Spirit demonstrated by some members of the later Reformation community. Luther’s understanding of the work of the Spirit was rooted in Romans 8:26 and the assurance that the Spirit intercedes for us in our weakness.

This work is always the work of creation – and particularly creation out of nothing, as was the case in the Genesis account. Thus, the Spirit makes something out of nothing, brings life out of death. “It is here,” Malcolm writes, “in the midst of life’s struggles and not in our higher strivings and aspirations, that the Spirit works in the strange garb of sin and suffering, showing us a God who is continually turning to those lost in sin and death in order to create new life out of nothing – life out of death” (page 167).

With this understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit, it is not surprising that Luther would find a powerful text in the call of Mary and her response in the Magnificat. Before we come to that assessment, however, Malcolm leads us to listen to feminist critiques of this understanding.

For one who has been told for a lifetime and culturally that she is, in significant ways, “nothing,” this reduction to “nothing” before being newly created sounds like the same old stuff. “Rather than opening into transformation and a new beginning,” Malcolm writes, “this conversion story simply reenacts this woman’s story of a cultural unraveling she knows only too well – more like sin than the freeing act of divine mercy” (page 168).

Malcolm invites us to keep this critique in mind as we hear Luther’s commentary on the Magnificat. Malcolm observes that Luther looks at Mary’s experience of God seeing her at the lowest point. It is at this point that Mary experiences, in Malcolm’s terms, both mystical exaltation and prophetic witness.

Luther attributes three insights to Mary in her experience. First, she teaches us that the Spirit creates out of nothing and reaches us at our lowest points. Second, the Spirit is not a one-size-fits-all experience. Instead, God brings down the mighty and raises up the powerless. “Those in affliction hear words of comfort,” Malcolm writes, “those who are self-satisfied – and oppress others – hear words that terrify them” (page 168).

Third, Mary’s experience teaches us that how God sees things and how we see things are quite different. God looks into the depths of human misery to raise us up. We humans look at what is above only to fall down. This is, as Malcolm notes, the real difference between the Theology of the Cross and the Theology of Glory. “Because we cannot create what we desire,” Malcolm notes, “as human beings we tend only to love or desire what we find attractive or appealing. By contrast,” she continues, “as Luther pointed out in the Heidelberg Disputation, God’s love always creates what it desires” (page 169).

God sees Mary in the depths of life and calls her to the heights of faith, hope, and love. She puts her trust, according to Luther, not in the gifts but rather in The Giver. She loves God for God, not for what God will produce. She can do that by the Spirit’s power because she is loved “for nothing” rather than for what she can produce. This love, which is the fruit of faith given by the Spirit, is the only source of real peace for the believer.

The Magnificat begins with that mystical experience of God’s unconditional regard, but it does not end there. The result of that experience is Mary’s “prophetic witness to God’s great transforming work of justice in history” (page 171). This witness issues forth at precisely the moment when Mary is at her “lowest,” just as the great work of Life issues forth precisely when Jesus dies on the cross.

“The Magnificat does not tell a tale of God meeting a prideful sinner,” Malcolm writes, “Rather, it tells a tale of God meeting a woman whom society has seen as insignificant and giving her a new status…as well as a new sense of agency in God’s coming reign…Far from recapitulating the dynamics of her previous life,” Malcolm argues, “Mary was transformed and entered a new beginning” (page 173).

Yet, there is more going on here, Malcolm believes: “this tale of Mary’s mystical exaltation and prophetic agency is not merely a tale about a reversal of power” (page 173). Instead, it is a story of how God regards the lowly, the one who is “nothing,” and creates Life out of the nothing. Merely reversing the roles in the drama of power changes nothing. Instead, Mary bears witness to the God who seeks to dismantle the drama of power itself.

I noted earlier that as we read and interpret the Lukan account, we need to attend not only to what is said, but also how, when, and by whom something is said. That is certainly the case with the Annunciation and the Magnificat. The content of the song is radically subversive and a threat to the established powers and structures of the Empire. How does the Lukan author maintain that hidden transcript without blowing up the whole project in the first chapter?

I think it matters that the content comes in a song rather than in a manifesto or speech. Songs have a way of slipping in the back doors of our awareness and making changes in our feeling and thinking before we are aware of those changes.

One of my favorite musical settings of the Annunciation and the Magnificat is in Marty Haugen’s Holden Evening Prayer. This is beloved by thousands of worshippers. The music in these sections is beautiful. I wonder how much impact the words have because our minds and hearts are focused on that music while the Spirit is doing work in the background and under the surface? Quite a lot of work, I think.

I think it matters that the content comes with the voice of a woman. I wonder if the Lukan author uses the deep misogyny of the Roman patriarchal system against itself. Perhaps the author relied on the tendency of some readers to discount the testimony of a woman simply because she was woman. Thus, that testimony might not have been regarded consciously as a threat even as it worked once again in the background of thinking and feeling.

I’m not suggesting that the Lukan author discounted that testimony in the same way. Here is one of those places where we have to discern the dual process of the Lukan account. The Lukan author may be using the realities of the culture to undermine and subvert the values of that culture. It’s analogous to the power these days that political humor has to reach people when diatribes fall on deaf ears.

Hang on to this proposal as we go further into the Lukan account. Think about it, for example, when we read the parable of the Insistent Widow in Luke 18. Perhaps the Lukan author understands that in his culture, women could get away with things that men could not. That required faith, courage, and the willingness to exploit the opportunity.

Where might there be places where we can wedge our witness into the cracks in our own culture?

References and Resources

Malcolm, Lois E., “Experiencing the Spirit: The Magnificat, Luther, and Feminists” (2010). Faculty Publications. 275. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/275.

Wilson, Brittany E. “Pugnacious precursors and the bearer of peace: Jael, Judith, and Mary in Luke 1: 42.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.3 (2006): 436-456.

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Text Study for Luke 1:39-55 (Pt. 1); December 19, 2021

Not All Blessings are Equal

In these early days of our journey with the Lukan author, we preachers have the opportunity and the responsibility to remind listeners of themes and emphases that will persist throughout the Lukan account. One of those themes is the importance of the witness and ministry of women. Another is the theme of reversals. Yet another is the nonviolent and yet resistant nature of the work of disciples. Still another is the nature of discipleship as the Lukan author understands it. We get all of these themes and more in our reading for this week.

Scholars recognize that Elizabeth’s cry in Luke 1:42 is an echo of Judges 5:24 (NRSV) – “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed.” They also hear in this outcry an echo of Judith 13:18 (NRSV) – “Then Uzziah said to her, ‘O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you to cut off the head of the leader of our enemies.’”

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“Though interpreters, both ancient and modern, have heard Judg 5:24 and Jdt 13:18 as echoes,” Brittany Wilson writes, “they often emphasize only the continuity between Jael, Judith, and Mary, overlooking the obvious point of discontinuity—namely, that Jael and Judith are blessed for killing enemy commanders whereas Mary is blessed for believing the words of the Lord and bearing a son” (page 436). Wilson looks at Elizabeth’s declaration through the lens of discontinuity between Mary and Jael/Judith.

“According to Luke, Mary’s peaceful servanthood foreshadows the life and death of her son,” Wilson writes, “who overcomes violence through peace. Indeed,” she continues, “Mary ushers in a new age, in which women are called most blessed for their acts of peace rather than for their acts of violence” (page 438). This theme of peace is a major focus for the Lukan author and one which we can encourage our listeners to watch for in future readings. More on that below.

Wilson traces the historical background of the interpretive connection between Mary, Jael, and Judith, the access the Lukan author had to the texts and the way the author used both the Book of Judges and the Book of Judith in the Lukan work, and the extensive textual and linguistic echoes from Jael and Judith in the Lukan account.

Wilson also notes that, based on the structural analysis of Richard Bauckham (who finds a chiastic structure in Luke 1:5-80), verses 39-45 are the central and pivotal verses in the first chapter of Luke. Remember that ancient writers relied a great deal on the structure of a text to indicate emphases as well as connections. It may be that Luke 1:42 is, therefore, the center of the center of this first part of the Lukan account.

What is the connection that the Lukan author wishes to make between Mary, Jael, and Judith? “Jael and Judith are, in fact, the only named women in the entirety of Israel’s writings, both canonical and noncanonical, who kill a person with their own hands and are then exalted for assisting the people of Israel,” Wilson notes. She observes that as literary figures or images, “Jael and Judith are remembered mainly for their dismemberment of Israel’s enemies” (page 442).

Jael, Wilson notes, acts as a “mother” toward Sisera before driving the tent peg through his temple. As Danna Nolan Fewell writes, Jael is “the woman who mothers Sisera to death.” Judith is more seductress than mother but is no less “blessed.” Wilson notes that, in fact, the story of Jael serves as the template for the story of Judith, so the similarities in the stories are intentional and quite obvious. But how does Mary fit into this trio?

“Of the trio of biblical women called ‘most blessed,’ Wilson continues, “it becomes apparent that Mary’s faithfulness to Israel stands in stark contrast to her pugnacious predecessors” (page 447). Most obvious in this contrast is the lack of physical violence in Mary’s story. Even the theme of motherhood is a contrast since Mary’s motherhood will give life rather than take it. “Of course, Jael and Judith bring life to Israel through establishing temporary peace,” Wilson notes, “yet the manner by which they achieve this peace is drastically different” (page 448). Rather than engaging in violence, Mary puts herself at risk of violence by placing herself in a precarious social and personal position.

As in the stories of Jael and Judith, the “victory” Mary embodies is proclaimed in a song (well, two songs in the Lukan account). Wilson notes that the songs in the Jael and Judith stories recount and celebrate both the acts of violence and the defeat and death of the enemies. Neither Elizabeth’s song nor Mary’s song has that violent aspect. And Mary’s song ends with the prayer for mercy on the enemies, not execution.

Mary is not called blessed for doing violence but rather for being willing to hear and to obey God’s word. “Instead of being portrayed as a woman warrior,” Wilson concludes, “Mary is presented as a woman disciple, a peaceful hearer and doer of God’s word” (page 449). Therefore, Mary is displayed as a role model for disciples in the Lukan account – one who hears the word of the Lord and does it. “Responding to God’s word, through both listening to and acting on that word,” Wilson writes, “is an essential aspect of discipleship in Luke” (450).

Wilson notes the passage that came to mind for me immediately in this reflection. “While [Jesus] was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’” (Luke 11:27-28, NRSV). Here, on the lips of Jesus, is the Lukan description of the essence of being a disciple. These verses contrast Mary’s “natural” relationship to Jesus with her conduct as a prototypical disciple.

Wilson then moves to a third intertextual echo in Elizabeth’s cry. Deuteronomy 28 lists the blessings and benefits of obedience to the Lord. In particular, we can hear the echo of Deuteronomy 28:4 (NRSV) – “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock.” The blessings come from hearing the Lord’s commands and carrying them out.

Jael and Judith listened to the command of the Lord as well and acted. Their actions, however, were violent, while Mary’s response is not. “The peaceful act of listening to the Lord creates a marked contrast with Judith and Jael’s actions,” Wilson notes, making the dissonance all the more jarring” (page 453). The emphasis on peace is a Lukan theme. The word for “peace” appears in the Lukan account at least four times as often as in the other Synoptics.

Wilson describes how this emphasis works out in the later chapters of the Lukan account. “Advocating healing rather than killing, Jesus’ actions stand in stark contrast to his disciples’ misperception that peace can be achieved through the sword,” she argues. “At the point when the disciples’ use of the sword could most easily be justified [during Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane], Jesus still emphatically rejects violence, knowing that he is to die a violent death by the hand of those determined to bring about his demise” (page 454).

It may be worth noting in both the Advent and Christmas texts the prevalence of “peace” and the centrality of peace to the coming Kin(g)dom. We only have to listen to the song of the angels to hear this emphasis on peace. But we don’t have to wait for that song to hear this emphasis and know its important. “At the outset of the Gospel, Mary’s radical obedience to the Lord foreshadows her son’s radical obedience,” Wilson writes. “Both mother and son reject violence,” she continues, “Mary not only embodies peace because of her act of discipleship; she embodies peace by carrying within her very womb the savior who brings peace to the world” (page 455).

Then comes the question which has driven Wilson’s essay from the beginning. “Since Mary’s faithful discipleship ushers in her son’s peaceful reign,” Wilson asks, “why does Luke provide textual linkages to the two most violent women in all of Israel’s sacred writings?” (page 455). On the one hand, these linkages show a continuity with the women who save Israel from their enemies. She is the latest in a long line of those who reverse the dynamics of gender, political, and economic power that seek to keep people in bondage.

In spite of that, there is the discontinuity. Since the Lukan author uses this discontinuity, we are reminded that the Lukan author could assume a deep and intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures (probably in their Septuagint translation) on the part of the Lukan audience. “To the attuned hearer who catches the scriptural references and who already knows the story of Jesus,” Wilson proposes, “the irony practically pops off the page” (page 455). This irony demands that such an attuned reader would think about the discontinuity.

“Luke envisions Jesus’ story as the continuation of Israel’s story,” Wilson writes, “yet he revisions the continuing story in surprising and sometimes startling new ways” (page 456). The Lukan author challenged the first listeners and readers to hear and process those revisions. The author challenges us in the same way, Wilson argues. “From now on,” she writes, “those who are called blessed follow not the way of violence but the way of peace. Like Mary,” she concludes, “believers are to hear and act on the message of peace proclaimed by the fruit of her womb – Jesus Christ, the prince of peace” (page 456).

References and Resources

Wilson, Brittany E. “Pugnacious precursors and the bearer of peace: Jael, Judith, and Mary in Luke 1: 42.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.3 (2006): 436-456.

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Our Kind of Crazy — Saturday Sermons

It’s another “Crazy John” Sunday at churches around the world. Every second and/or third Sunday of Advent, the wild man of the wilderness invades our imaginations. He’s wrapped in cowhides and spouting judgment. He’s a walking advertisement for the bugs and honey diet. He quotes prophecy and dunks respectable people to wash away their sins.

John may be crazy. But he’s our kind of crazy.

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He makes these confusing connections. Fruit from stones. Fire from water. John may be crazy. But he’s a prophet. He points to the new way things will work.

The Messiah comes from a manger. The King comes from a cross. Life comes from the grave. New birth comes from old death. This is the new order John announces. This is the new reality Jesus launches. This is the New Creation the Spirit empowers.

John may be crazy. But he’s our kind of crazy.

John made sense to the people of Jerusalem and all Judea. They left their warm homes and cozy tables. They tramped into the wilderness to hear a simple message. God is about to change everything. We can come along, if we’re not too wedded to the old ways.

How does this speak to you? Fruit from stones. Fire from water. And to throw in John’s mentor, Isaiah—shoots from a dead stump.

Perhaps your stone-cold heart is stirring. Maybe there are new shoots from the dead stump of disappointment and despair. The flat water of a bored spirit may start to bubble and boil.

Is this the season for you when everything changes?

John may be crazy. But he’s our kind of crazy.

He starts with forgiveness. The French say that to forgive is first of all to accuse. “Repent!” John proclaims. So they come—addicts and adulterers, molesters and murderers, pickpockets and pranksters, thieves large and small. They come to come clean.

Their sin is a two-sided coin. On the one side is idolatry. Any god will do, as long as that god serves my desires. On the other side is despair. No god worth the name wants anything to do with me. Idolatry and despair—it is the coin of Satan’s realm. We spend that spiritual funny money to drive away death. We discover that Satan’s coins are all counterfeit.

John may be crazy. But he’s our kind of crazy.

John starts with forgiveness. So some things have got to go. Hatred, pride, anger, greed, lust, vengeance, apathy—all the things that come between us and God, between us and our neighbor. Burned like chaff and blown to the winds.

John starts with forgiveness. So some things must stay. Grace, mercy, peace, hope, compassion—all the things that open me to trust God above all things. John points to the One who brings these gifts to us—Jesus the Messiah, baptizing us with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Fruit from stones. Fire from water. Shoots from stumps.

John may be crazy. But he’s our kind of crazy.

Which image speaks to you today?

Is this a season of growth and giving, a time when the Spirit bursts into bloom for you?

Is this a cold, hard time—the moment when the Spirit raises you from the rocks to be a renewed child of God?

Is this a season when your faith burns bright and hot for all to see?

Is it a moment for drowning—when all that tries to kill you must die in the waters of repentance?

Is this a season for cutting of the old, dead wood that weighs you down?

Or is it a moment when new life springs out of that dead wood?

What image speaks to you today?

John may be crazy. But he’s our kind of crazy.

John preaches in expectation. We live in fulfillment. The Messiah has come from a manger. The King has come from a cross. Life has come from the grace. New birth arises from death and despair.

We are not prophets of what might be. We are priests of what God has done in Jesus. We are kings and queens filled with the Holy Spirit of hope.

Fruit from stones. Fire from water. Shoots from stumps.

John may be crazy. But he’s our kind of crazy.

Thanks be to God!

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It’s Advent — This is how it begins

Maybe you remember the days when you could drop off a family member at the airport and then go out and watch the plane depart.  A small boy did that regularly with his traveling father.  When the little boy was about four, he took his first airplane ride.  After the family boarded the plane and buckled their seatbelts, the little boy began to scrunch up in his seat as the plane taxied down the runway.

“What are you doing, son?” his father asked.  “I’m waiting to shrink and disappear,” the little boy answered.[i]

What preconceptions, misperceptions and excess baggage fill you with fear?  The second and third Sundays in Advent are always house-cleaning Sundays.  Listen to the voice crying in the wilderness.  Prepare the way of the Lord!  This is how it begins.

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It begins with clearing out a path, making a way.  It begins with shedding the preconceptions, misperceptions and excess baggage that make us shrink and disappear.

This is how it begins—with a thorough cleaning.

At our house, we wade through stuff we can’t use or no longer need.  We have give-away bags.  We have recycle bins.  We have trash tubbies.  We have to organize the stuff that holds the stuff we can’t get organized.  And we’re pretty good at letting things go!

What a relief it is when all the excess baggage is removed!  This is true in our storage rooms.  It’s even truer in our hearts and minds and spirits.  What is taking up space in my head that really belongs to Jesus? What is cluttering up my heart so that God can’t even catch a breath?  What is smothering my spirit so that the Holy Spirit can’t find a crack to blow through?

This is how it begins.  Clear out a path. Make a way.

What’s the best way to get the house cleaned?  Invite some company!  The King is coming.  So let’s spruce things up.  What needs sprucing up in me so that Jesus can be welcomed?

If only it would be enough to just rearrange all the excess baggage!  If we could just put things in different slots, tidier boxes, or nicely labeled folders!  Anything more than that requires real change.  And real change is precisely what we don’t want.  A little repackaging—a little reorganizing—but no more than that, please.

According to sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Christianity is not the most common faith among America’s teenagers.  Instead, the most common faith among teenagers is that they call “moralistic therapeutic deism.”  In this perspective God is “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”[ii]

Smith and Denton have mapped that faith on to American teenagers.  I think it describes Americans in general.  American Christians embrace moralistic therapeutic deism.  They embrace the reshuffling of excess baggage and pretend to call it real change.  That’s a far cry from the one who baptizes us with the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Moralistic therapeutic deism is not how it begins.

This is how it begins—with a real house-cleaning.

It begins with people sitting in darkness and longing for light.  It begins with people deep in despair, waiting for a word of hope.  It begins with people drowning in disgust and death, longing for life and love.  It begins with a word in the wilderness.

And here is that word.  You and I can be changed.

Drew Carey is a successful stand-up comedian.  He has starred in his own sitcom, run an improve-comedy show, hosted a daytime game show, written a bestselling memoir, owned a soccer team, and led several charities.  You might think Carey is the most organized person on the planet.  Instead, he spent years terrified of his own to-do list.

Carey was drowning in emails, scripts, meetings, invitations, requests, bills, letters and plans.  He was so daunted, in fact, that he spent tens of thousands of dollars to fix the problem.  He contracted with Dave Allen, the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.  Allen’s system results in four files—things to be done, delegated, dropped or deferred. There’s lots more to it than that, but you get the picture.[iii]

What if we made those files a template for our spiritual life this Advent?  What if we looked in our hearts to see what needs to be done, delegated, dropped or deferred?  Perhaps what needs to be done is a change in priorities.  Perhaps what needs to be delegated is control of the cosmos.  Perhaps what needs to be dropped in the resentment and rage that fill our days.  Perhaps what needs to be deferred is our desire to have everything perfect.

Done, delegated, dropped or deferred—it’s a great spiritual discipline in this Advent season.

We do this not only to let go of things.  We do this to make space for the life Jesus wants us to have.  In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor offers this little exercise.

“If you want to try it, then make two lists on one piece of paper.  On the one side of the paper, list all of the things you know give you life that you never take time to do. Then, on the other side, make a list of all the reasons why you think it is impossible for you to do those things.  That is all there is to it.  Just make the two lists, and keep the piece of paper where you can see it.  Also promise not to shush your heart when it howls for the list it wants.”[iv]

That seems like a wonderful Advent exercise.  There will be two results.  You will experience a sense of peace when you focus on what gives you life.  And you will discover that what really gives you life is the place where Jesus wants to meet you every day.

This is how it begins—with a real house-cleaning.

So let’s begin.  Then we might have room for some really good news.  Where will the cleaning begin for you this week?


[i] Illustration from Stephen Montgomery, “Beyond Fear, Fundamentalism and Fox News: The Active Hope of Advent.”

[ii] See Smith and Denton, Soul Searching¸ page 165.

[iii] From Roy Baumeister’s book, Willpower.

[iv] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, page 138. 

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Text Study for Luke 3:7-18 (Pt. 5); December 12, 2021

Not the Most Wonderful Time

All of this talk about happiness and joy is really hard on people who face bereavement – either fresh or long term – in this season. And, if we’re honest, who doesn’t face bereavement this time of year?

I am just coming out of the least wonderful time of the year for me. It is the time of year when I remember the last Thanksgiving with my dad, unable to do anything but suck on an olive pit while the rest of us were supposed to feast on turkey and the fixings. I couldn’t do it, and I will not be able again to “celebrate” Thanksgiving.

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It is the time of year when I relive the twelve days of dying for my beloved first spouse. While it is not a debilitating journey for me as it was ten years ago, it is a stretch where nearly every minute is a reminder of some part of that process. I’m always glad when it’s over. And let’s not start in on moving from Thanksgiving Day to Native American Remembrance Day (a move for which I give thanks)!

Now we come into the season of mandatory happiness. I don’t have it in me. I find many secular Christmas songs highly irritating. At the top of the list today is “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” For many of us, it is not. It is not the “happ…happiest season of all.” The world around us insists on these facts. That assertiveness, however, feels like an assault.

I am so grateful for the spiritual gifts of joy and celebration my spouse brings to our life together. If it weren’t for her, I’d miss the whole season. She is able to bring Christmas joy into our home and into our life in the midst of and in spite of the realities of her life and mine.

That being said, no amount of elevator music can make the season the most wonderful time of the year for me. Happiness is overrated. For us as Christians, this is the season of joy. I want to spend a bit of time on the difference between happiness and joy.

The world demands happiness, and we won’t play. The real response to Christmas is joy. John Swinton spoke once about this difference between happiness and joy. Joy, he said, is the experience that comes in the midst of the darkness to create hope. Happiness denies the darkness. Joy dispels it. Happiness is temporary. Joy is lasting.

The Gospel of Luke has more occurrences of words for “joy” than any other book in the New Testament. The Lukan author wants to convey the notion that following Jesus is a joyous adventure in the midst of a dark and dreary world. It’s not that the Lukan account denies or minimizes that darkness. That is hardly the case. Instead, joy is what happens in the midst of the darkness, not in spite of it. Joy comes from knowing the darkness cannot last forever.

“For Luke,” writes Richard Hays in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospel, “the hallmark of right response to the message of Scripture is not so much obedience as joy: a glad and grateful reception of the powerful work of salvation performed by God throughout Israel’s story; in the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; and in the Spirit’s continuing work in the church.”

“Nothing that comes and goes is you,” writes Eckhart Tolle. In a daily devotion, Dr. Alan Wolfelt quoted this line. I have been privileged to study with Dr. Wolfelt. Dr. Wolfelt is the founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. He has written nearly eighty books and hundreds of articles on grief and mourning. He is, in my opinion, the foremost bereavement educator and counselor in the world.

In that devotion, Dr. Wolfelt offers these comments on happiness and joy.

“What falls in that category [of things that come and go]? Your looks. Your weight. Your hair (ha-ha). Your job. Your basic belongings. Your feelings. Your thoughts. Day-to-day obligations.

What doesn’t come and go? Love. Once established, it tends to stick around, even if the object of that love doesn’t. Your most deeply held values, such as honesty and compassion. Your personality. The activities and special objects that have the power to make you gasp with wonder and joy.

The stuff in the first paragraph is temporary. The stuff in the second paragraph is eternal and thus meaningful. Mindfulness helps us dedicate more time and awareness each day to the second paragraph—as well as discern the difference—so that we don’t stress out too much about the first” (from One Mindful Day at a Time: 365 Meditations on Living in the Now).

Happiness is temporary and external. Joy lasts and fills our hearts. So, the shepherds, in the dark of that first Christmas night, get good news of great joy. To us is born in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.

As Christians we claim unchanging joy. We are certain, as Paul reminds us in Romans 8, that nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We are certain that because Jesus lives, we shall live also. We are certain that in the New Creation there will be neither tears nor pain, neither mourning nor death.

In his book, The Road to Daybreak, Henri Nouwen puts it this way. “I think that joy is much more than a mood. A mood invades us. We do not choose a mood. We often find ourselves in a happy or depressed mood without knowing where it comes from. The spiritual life is life beyond moods. It is a life in which we choose joy and do not allow ourselves to become victims of passing feelings of happiness or depression.”

So, we choose joy. We make that choice together. In many congregations this time of year, the communities use a ritual of remembering to bring light in the midst of the darkness. We name the names of loved ones who have entered the new life with Christ. We do not deny the pain, the grief, the loneliness, the loss. We weep with holy tears. We will not cooperate with the culture of death denial, the world that insists on hollow happiness to distract us from distress.

In a recent article, Dr. Wolfelt offers several suggestions for healing our holiday grief. First, he suggests that we “set our intention to heal.” This means that we make a commitment to positively influence the course of our life journeys. This is the change from being a passive witness of your grief to being an active participant in your mourning.

Nothing has made me more frustrated in my own bereavement journey than the phrase, “It just takes time.” Of course, it takes time, but what was I supposed to do while I waited?” I learned from Dr. Wolfelt to take positive actions in my mourning. Those actions don’t fix or resolve grief. But taking positive action to seek support and to mourn our loss is part of setting that intention to heal.

Dr. Wolfelt encourages us—especially during the holidays—to turn to ritual. Ritual gives structure to remembering. Ritual can do for us what thoughts and feelings by themselves cannot. I’m sure you have your personal rituals at this time of year as well. Find ways to use those rituals to help you heal.

And Dr. Wolfelt encourages us to live in the now. The loss of grief remembers us into the past and seeks to keep us there. The fear of grief projects us into the future and seeks to take us there. “But when remembering and projecting exhaust you,” writes Dr. Wolfelt, “and they will—return yourself to the present moment.” So, we focus on the here and now of our loss.

For us, it is not the most wonderful time of the year. But we do live with good news of great joy which is for all people. I pray that this Christmas joy will bring some measure of light in our dark places today and in the coming days.

Stanley Hauerwas writes that Christian joy “is the result of our letting go of the slim reed of security that we think provides us with the power to control our own and other’s lives. But such a letting go is not something we can will,” Hauerwas continues, “so much as it is learning to accept the whittling down that the difficulties and tragedies consequent upon our frantic search for power force on us” (page 148).

It is, therefore, no accident that repentance and joy show up in the same passage of Christian scripture. We find joy – no, more properly joy finds us – at those moments when we relinquish our efforts to make life turn out “right.” Hauerwas notes that “joy is thus finally a result of our being dispossessed of the illusion of security and power that is the breeding ground of our violence” (page 148). If that is the case, that helps us to understand that the Baptizer’s call to the tax collectors and soldiers to change their ways was an invitation to joy.

“And the irony is that the more we lose,” Hauerwas writes, “the greater the possibility we have for living life joyfully. For,” he continues, “joy is the disposition that comes from our readiness always to be surprised; or put even more strongly, joy is the disposition that comes from our realization that we can trust in surprises for sustaining our lives.” That’s quite a description of real Christmas joy in the midst of a world where loss and grief are still very real.

References and Resources

Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Brueggemann, Walter. Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Know Press, 2017.

Byrne, Brendan. “Jesus as Messiah in the gospel of Luke: Discerning a pattern of correction.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly; Jan 2003;  65,  1;  ProQuest Religion pg. 80.

Hauerwas, Stanley. The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Odell, Margaret. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-zephaniah-314-20-5.

SCHEFFLER, E. H. “THE SOCIAL ETHICS OF THE LUCAN BAPTIST (LK 3:10-14).” Neotestamentica, vol. 24, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1990, pp. 21–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43047935.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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Text Study for Luke 3:7-18 (Pt. 4); December 12, 2021

Expect Joy

In the traditions of the liturgical calendar, the third Sunday in Advent is “Gaudete” Sunday – the Sunday of the pink candle. “Gaudete” is the Latin word for the command to rejoice. Thus, this third Sunday is the rejoicing Sunday.

It is the Sunday when we turn the Advent corner from judgment to joy, from preparation to celebration. But our Gospel text seems to be an odd traditional choice for Gaudete Sunday. On its face, Luke 3 and the dour preaching of John the Baptizer is not the first text that comes to mind when I think of joy.

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Perhaps the problem is not in the text but rather in me. Rejoicing is hardly one of my personal strong suits. It comes naturally to some people, and I envy them this personal quality. I find joy suspect, a trap of good feelings that will result in a disappointing end. I approach joy from a defensive stance. Better to forego a bit of emotional froth in order to avoid a dive into the dark chasm when the existential fraud is revealed.

No, I’m not great fun at parties.

I come by this approach to joy quite honestly. I come from people who like a good laugh as much as the next person but were disposed to see the glass as routinely half-empty (or completely empty a great deal of the time). My mother, of blessed memory, was orphaned young and had a difficult childhood afterward. She came equipped with a somewhat joyless demeanor and life built numerous structures on that foundation.

Any positive experience could be jerked away at a moment’s notice. So, it was better to maintain a gray exterior and an even keel. I tend to minimize the potential for disappointment rather than to maximize the potential for joy. I’m not recommending this as a general approach to life, but I know that I’m not alone in my experience. And I’m sorry that I have bequeathed at least some of this emotional framework to my children, but there wasn’t a lot I could do about it.

If we were to rely solely on the Luke 3 lection, we might find ourselves trapped into another depressing week of judgment and anxiety. That’s not really the heart of our text, as I hope I’ve pointed out previously, but it can be hard to see how John’s preaching leads to “good news.” Fortunately, we have the companion texts to assist us in embracing the joy of Gaudete Sunday.

The first lesson, for Zephaniah 3:14-20, may be an editorial insertion from a member of the Second Isaiah school during the Babylonian Exile. That suggestion comes from Rolf Jacobson in the current edition of the “Sermon Brainwave” podcast at workingpreacher.org. With that background in mind, I can hear the echoes of Isaiah 40-42 in this prophecy.

There is the reversal of judgment, the promise of the Divine presence, the healing of bodies broken by oppression, and the promise that the people shall return home. “The presence of these exilic themes suggests that the book of Zephaniah was revisited and reshaped for a post-exilic audience,” Margaret Odell writes in her working preacher.org commentary, “an audience who had survived the judgments of the previous generations but still awaited the fulfillment of YHWH’s promises of restoration.”

Odell notes that Amos and some of the succeeding prophets had reversed the current understanding of “The Day of Lord.” That day had been regarded as a time of rejoicing over the Lord’s victories on behalf of Israel. But Amos and his colleagues declare that this Day shall be about judgment, not victory. The response to the Day should be fear, not joy. Much of Zephaniah has this tenor in regard to the Lord’s coming.

“Just as suddenly, Zephaniah 3:14-20 reverses expectations yet again.” Odell writes. “YHWH removes the judgments, vanquishes Zion’s foes, and comes once again to dwell in Zion’s midst. Zion and YHWH exult in this reconciliation. If Zion rejoices because of YHWH’s mighty acts on her behalf, YHWH rejoices over her. It is a shared joy that reverses a long and difficult history of shame and dishonor, as even the nations are summoned to sing Zion’s praise.”

Zephaniah 3:14 simply effervesces with rejoicing. Shout with joy! Rejoice exceedingly! Exult with all your heart! Do this in response to the rescue and renewal the LORD is bringing about. But verse 17 has a wonderful twist. The LORD, our God, will rejoice over us with joy and renew us in love. This is a Sunday not only for our rejoicing over God but for God to rejoice over us as well! I think this text would make a marvelous call to worship or declaration of absolution during a rite of confession.

The text of verse 17 is hard to translate and then interpret. “The Hebrew in these verses is so obscure,” Odell writes, “that there is little scholarly agreement about their meaning. What is clear is that YHWH rejoices over Zion, and that it is his love for Zion that motivates his actions.” For example, the verb for “renew” is really the verb for “to keep silent.” Odell offers a helpful commentary on this little challenge.

She suggests that it is not necessary to edit the text as the NRSV does and move to the word for “renew.” Instead, the LORD perhaps keeps silent in love in order to refrain from speaking further words of judgment. “And, since this silence is surrounded by song and rejoicing,” Odell proposes, “we can conclude that this silence is not simply divine forbearance but rather full acceptance of Zion as she is. Past conflicts, past complaints, remain definitively in the past,” she argues, “What now bind YHWH and Israel together is joy in one another, and song.”

Odell quotes Martin Luther from “Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day” in this vein. “For, if it is true that the child was born of the virgin and is mine,” Luther writes, “then I have no angry God and I must know and feel that there is nothing but laughter and joy in the heart of the Father and no sadness in my heart.” The call of this Gaudete Sunday is to expect joy!

This call is multiplied and magnified in the second reading from Philippians 4:4-7. “Rejoice in the Lord at all times,” Paul writes to the Philippian church. “Let me repeat that – Rejoice! Let your kindness be known to all people,” he continues, “the Lord is near!” This sounds a great deal like the Baptizer’s counsel when people asked what they should do in response to the coming of the Kin(g)dom. Rejoicing is not expressed in private celebrations but rather in public behavior.

That is because living in the joy of the Lord is a subversive act. The powers of sin, death, and the devil – inhabiting the domination systems of the world – demand from us a depressed and dour acquiescence. Our rejoicing is a visible affirmation that the powers of the powers are not the final word, and that our lives are not determined by the drumbeat of domination.

Those powers seek to satisfy us with mere happiness so we will be distracted from authentic joy. I am re-reading Kate Bowler’s marvelous memoir of her journey in and through cancer, No Cure for Being Human. As a scholar and critic of the “Prosperity Gospel,” she was uniquely positioned to understand and interpret her own experiences of suffering and joy.

“American culture has popular theories about how to build a perfect life,” Bowler observes. “You can have it all if you just learn how to conquer your limits. There is infinity lurking somewhere at the bottom of your inbox or in the stack of self-help books on the bedside table. It taunts you as you grip the steering wheel in traffic, attempting your new breathing practice, or in the predawn minutes when you could be working out” (p. xiv).

Bowler knows that these pre-packaged promises of mere happiness are doomed to fail. They founder on the rocks of our finitude. But joy comes just as we strike those rocks and discover that the promises of God are with us in the midst of our changes and challenges. Paul knows this as well, writing one of his last letters before he heads to Rome and execution. I would consider using this text from Philippians as the sending of the congregation as the worship service is ending.

At our house, we are finding joy in our Advent devotions as we read from Walter Brueggemann’s Celebrating Abundance. His reflection for the second Monday in Advent lifts up the new and subversive song of joy. “The new song never describes the world the way it now is,” Brueggemann writes. “The new song imagines how the world will be in God’s good time to come. The new song is a protest against the way the world now is. The new song is a refusal to accept the present world as it is,” he continues, “a refusal to believe this is right or that the present will last” (page 22).

If joy is a delighted protest against the oppressive status quo and a laughing proclamation of the changes to come, then it is no wonder that we encounter joy most often in the midst of the changes and challenges of life. Brueggemann offers a joyful prayer for living in the midst of those changes and challenges. “In this Advent season, teach us the new song, which heralds the new world that is coming, the new reality that is taking shape before our eyes. May we rejoice,” he prays, “in its truth and power and join all creation in its loud amen!” (page 23).

It is Gaudete Sunday. Expect joy!

References and Resources

Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Brueggemann, Walter. Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Know Press, 2017.

Byrne, Brendan. “Jesus as Messiah in the gospel of Luke: Discerning a pattern of correction.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly; Jan 2003;  65,  1;  ProQuest Religion pg. 80.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Odell, Margaret. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-zephaniah-314-20-5.

SCHEFFLER, E. H. “THE SOCIAL ETHICS OF THE LUCAN BAPTIST (LK 3:10-14).” Neotestamentica, vol. 24, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1990, pp. 21–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43047935.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Text Study for Luke 3:7-18 (Pt. 3); December 12, 2021

Yes, But…

“But since the people were looking forward, and all were wondering in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John replied to all of them saying, ‘I, on the one hand, baptize you with water; but on the other hand, one is coming who is mightier than me…” (Luke 3:15-16a, my translation). The people were expecting, anticipating, looking forward to the coming of a Messiah. But what did that mean to them and for them?

Perhaps it is time for my annual Advent visit to one of my favorite novels, Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations. I think that title could be the theme for Advent preaching and worship every year (but eventually some alert parishioner would probably catch on). Pip, the main character, was expecting great things to come his way. Everyone around him was aware of those “expectations” and treated him with respect and fawning commensurate with the supposed windfall awaiting him.

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Pip was not mistaken in looking forward to a life of some wealth and privilege. But he was quite mistaken about the source of those great expectations. He thought his benefactor was the cruel and capricious Miss Havisham, the local lady of the manor. His actual patron was Abel Magwitch, a convicted felon who was now on the run from the law. This mistake regarding the source of the gift motivates a significant plot line in the story.

A mistaken notion about the source of expectations underlies the conversation we hear in Luke 3:15-17. Based on his preaching and moral teaching, the crowds begin to wonder if John is himself the promised Messiah who will bring about the restoration and renewal of Israel. The word Luke uses in verse 15, prosdokao, literally means to think or to understand “forward.” It is a verb with an arrow of time built into it.

We need to ask two questions here? First, were the people in John’s time expecting someone who fit the description of “Messiah”? Second, was that a live issue in some way for the hearers and readers in the Lukan audience? These questions are related but are not the same. It is certainly the case that first-century Jews with a variety of perspectives were looking for a messianic figure of some kind.

Brendan Byrne offers a brief outline of these expectations in his article. He concludes that there is enough evidence from sources prior to and during the first century to believe that people had this expectation. There is sufficient evidence in the Christian scriptures to conclude that Jesus was at least aware of the expectations of a “Davidic” messiah held by at least some of the folks around him. And it is clear by the time of Holy Week that “he was recognized by some people as Messiah or at least as a messianic pretender” (page 81).

How this played out for the gospel writers is another story. “Reading the gospels, however,” Byrne writes, “conveys the impression that this ‘messianic issue’ was a confounded nuisance with which the authors had to deal rather than a helpful lens through which to view Jesus” (page 81). The gospel writers struggled to maintain the tension between Jesus’ death by crucifixion and the honor status of a Davidic king.

There is no question that Jesus was seen by some, at least, as precisely such a Davidic messiah, or as a failed messianic pretender in the Davidic mold. The dilemma after Easter, as Byrne describes it, was that the disciples as witnesses “could deny that the title…was rightly applied to him, or they could say, ‘Yes, he was/is the Messiah, but….’” (page 82). That is, they could argue that he is the Messiah but in a different way than was expected by those who witnessed his life and death. That is the choice that each of the gospel writers appears to make, although the details of that description vary with the account.

Byrne argues that the Lukan author makes this “Yes, but,” choice “not in a political sense that would pose a threat to the established order” (page 82). Byrne is of the school that believes Luke wants to make the Christian message less threatening to the Gentile authorities and more palatable to the Gentile audiences who occupy at least a part of the Lukan gaze. He contests the view that the Lukan account is intended to be subversive to the Imperial narrative of Reality.

Byrne’s strategy is, in part, to create distance between the notion of the expected “Messiah” and that of Jesus as the “Son of God.” While he doesn’t address our text in his article, those titles are juxtaposed and perhaps somewhat opposed to one another in Luke 3 and 4. In our reading and its context, it is clear that the “Son of God” title is the more important interpretive lens through which to view the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, at least according to the Lukan author.

Byrne sees this pattern of Lukan interpretation having been launched in the Annunciation to Mary in Luke 1:26-38. “What I am trying to suggest here,” he writes, “is that the annunciation of Jesus’ birth inaugurates a pattern whereby Jesus is presented as ‘Messiah, but…,’ the ‘but’ referring to what the reader knows from being aware of the mode of Jesus’ conception: namely, that he is uniquely related to God in filial terms vastly outstripping any conventional expectation of the Davidic Messiah and that this drastically transforms the nature of his messianic mission and behavior” (page 85).

“Though he may have been crucified by a Roman governor as a dangerous political rebel inspired by messianic delusions,” Byrne argues, “this is a total misrepresentation created by his enemies, as the governor himself several times acknowledged.” Byrne argues that Jesus’ movement was “prophetically critical of, but not fundamentally hostile to, the prevailing civic authority and order.” Byrne concludes that the Lukan author wants to communicate this view of Jesus to establish Gentile Christian identity and to encourage “the success of the gospel in the wider Greco-Roman world” (page 95).

The people were looking forward and wondering. To what were they looking forward and wondering? The answer to that question makes a difference, I believe, in our own Advent expecting and wondering. I think Byrne is quite correct in reminding us that each of the gospel writers is offering a “Yes, but” answer to the question of whether Jesus was the Messiah. But I’m not sure this entails, even in the case of the Lukan account, that the answer serves to make the Jesus movement more palatable to Roman authorities and to Gentiles generally. Please see my previous work on the Lukan account as a hidden transcript of resistance.

We can be clear that none of the gospel writers, and the Lukan author in particular, want us to wonder if John was indeed the Messiah. It may well be that there were sects devoted to the memory and veneration of the Baptizer still active toward the end of the first century. Therefore, Luke needs to tamp down that sort of expectation and to put John in the proper place in the narrative.

Who are we expecting – in general, and in this season of Advent? At least some so-called Christians in the United States are expecting the return, sooner rather than later, of a White, Warrior Messiah rather than the presence of a humble and nonviolent (Brown, if you need a color) Suffering Servant. In fact, for many we live in a time of nostalgia rather than expectation. We are awash in longing for a time when White Male American Christianity was the dominant demographic reality in the West. As that demographic reality fades into the past, the anxiously violent reactions increase.

We can and perhaps should asks ourselves a question in this Advent season. If we are looking for something, what direction are we looking? Are we looking backward with that nostalgic longing, or are we looking forward with expectant hope that something new is about to happen? Of course, we can see and understand Jesus as Messiah (“Christ”), but…

We tend to see precisely what we expect to see. More than that, we accept evidence that confirms what we believe, and we reject evidence that contradicts what we believe. This is called “confirmation bias.” Pip, in Great Expectations, provides a case study in how confirmation bias operates. He collects an abundance of evidence to support his belief about the identity of his benefactor. And nearly all of that evidence is either useless or wrong.

So, the question about who or what we are expecting is a critical one in this Advent season. Our expecting can and will shape what we see and how we see it. In the Lukan account, John has to correct this bias quite forcefully for his first audience. Perhaps the Lukan audience needed a similarly forceful correction in their expectations. Perhaps we do as well.

John himself requires some measure of perception correction. You will recall that as he sits in Herod’s dungeon, he sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is the Coming One or if John should “expect” another. The verb there is the same as it is here in Luke 3. John receives a correction to his expectation that may have reshaped his perception, both of himself and of Jesus.

In addition, as we have noted before, the Lukan account is helping to manage not only who we expect but when. Luke is doing more than explaining the delay of Jesus’ second coming. Instead, the Lukan author wants to rekindle the flames of gospel hope for the long haul.

As preachers, we may want to challenge our listeners with a simple Lukan question. What do you expect?

References and Resources

Byrne, Brendan. “Jesus as Messiah in the gospel of Luke: Discerning a pattern of correction.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly;  Jan 2003;  65,  1;  ProQuest Religion pg. 80.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

SCHEFFLER, E. H. “THE SOCIAL ETHICS OF THE LUCAN BAPTIST (LK 3:10-14).” Neotestamentica, vol. 24, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1990, pp. 21–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43047935.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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Text Study for Luke 3:7-18 (Pt. 2); December 12, 2021

First, Do No Harm, but Then…

In Luke 3:18, John’s proclamation is described as “good news.” On the face of it, that seems like a somewhat odd characterization. We don’t tend to hear words about the coming wrath or unquenchable fire as positive predictions. Perhaps we need to listen with ears better tuned to the message.

Levine and Witherington suggest that “the more informed among Luke’s readers would have recognized the Baptizer’s allusion to Isa. 51:1-2” (page 87). If that is the case, then we have the chance to do some “little text, big context” work to better appreciate what the Lukan audience may have been taught to hear. The verses in question say,

“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many” (Isaiah 51:1-2, NRSV).

Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric on Pexels.com

If you are going to look to “Abraham your father,” John may be saying, then this is the place to look. Isaiah 51:3 offers words of comfort to those who are returning from the Babylonian Exile. That comfort will come in the waste places, and the wilderness will become like the Garden of Eden. Here’s a connection to John’s place of residence (as Luke describes it) in the wilderness. This will be a place of joy and gladness, of thanksgiving and the voice of song.

John’s proclamation in verse six ends with the declaration that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. “Salvation” comes into the poem in Second Isaiah three times in five verses. God’s salvation has gone out in the new regime of God’s rule over all the peoples. Heaven and earth will vanish like smoke, but God’s salvation will be forever, and God’s deliverance will be unending. Those who revile and reproach God’s people will be eaten up like old fabric, but God’s deliverance will be forever and God’s salvation to all generations.

The poem in Isaiah 51 carries the Good News of God’s faithful deliverance. That deliverance will set people free from domination and oppression. That deliverance and salvation shall have universal scope and shall be available for all peoples. This universal deliverance and salvation shall be about justice and redemption. The first result of this salvation shall be the return of the “ransomed of the Lord” with songs on their lips and joy on their heads.

If this text is part of what stands in the background of John’s proclamation, then it is more plausible that it would be heard as “good news.” If that is the case, then the question, “What, therefore, shall we do?” is not a fearful response. It is rather something more like, “What can we do to help?” If things are getting better, then count us in! For the first time in a long time, there is reason to hope.

The popular notion is that the essence of the Hippocratic Oath taken by (some) doctors is the phrase, “First, do harm.” It is often noted in its Latin form, “primum non nocere.” In fact, this language doesn’t show up in the Hippocratic oath. When it does show up in the writing of the ancient Greek physician, in a work entitled On Epidemics, it is more ambiguous than perhaps we would like. Physicians and their instructors debate the practical meaning of the phrase and know that in the real world applying it is always complicated and sometimes counterproductive.

“First, do no harm” seems to be more John the Baptist than Hippocrates. Tax collectors, don’t gouge the public. Soldiers, don’t extort more than you have coming to you. However, this is perhaps about more than refraining from criminal behavior. Richard Swanson helps us to see this urging in a wider and deeper context.

“Even people who made their living collaborating with the enemy,” Swanson writes, “heard the call to turn the world right-side-up” (page 67). He suggests that John tells them to do just what the rules require and not one thing more. “John tells even the collaborators that they can join the resistance against Rome,” Swanson continues. John “tells them simply to do the bare minimum, to do what native peoples have always done to resist powerful colonizers: never to make it easy for the oppressors, follow their orders, but no more than that” (page 67). John offers the soldiers similar counsel.

It is certainly the case, as I noted in the previous post, that John urges his listeners to do what is possible within the scope of their daily lives. But that doing may be more than trying to straddle the fence between collaborator and revolutionary. If the Lukan account is a hidden transcript of resistance, then these small actions are part of that hidden transcript. Done enough times, such actions can cause a large system to simply grind to a halt.

Scheffler notes the slight change in Luke 3:17 as compared to Matthew 3:12 (page 24). In the Lukan recension, the clearing of the threshing floor and the gathering of the wheat are aorist infinitives rather than future tenses. These things are happening in the ministry of Jesus, according to Luke. Only the final judgment is put off to the future. Salvation is happening in the here and now. That is part of the good news the people are hearing.

This can help to make some sense of the final paragraph in this section. Immediately following this declaration that John’s proclamation was “good news,” we hear the Lukan report of John’s arrest and imprisonment.

I think the Lukan author has provided an inclusio at this point in the text. That’s another of those oral/aural techniques for which we need to keep our eyes and ears open. Herod is noted in verse one as the ruler of Galilee. He is described again in verse nineteen as “the ruler.” In both cases, the formal title of “tetrarch” is used in the Greek text. The “good news” leads, in literary terms, to an immediate and negative response from one of the so-called rulers.

Scheffler points to this connection in his article. “Luke pictures the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus, not only as far as the latter’s socio-ethic is concerned, but also with regard to his suffering. As was the case with Jesus,” Scheffler continues, “the notion that a consistent socio-ethic leads to suffering also applies to John. Therefore,” he concludes, “it is important that John’s sufferings are mentioned here where he explicitly reports about the relationship between John and Jesus” (page 25).

I think the context supports the notion that the socio-ethical actions John advises are more than “good deeds.” Instead, they are actions of resistance against oppressors. They are part of the larger reality of the Kin(g)dom of God that challenges the domination systems which embody the oppression of Evil in the world. John urges people caught up in the System to find ways to resist the System and to make it grind to a halt. John takes on the corruption of the rulers directly and pays for that confrontation with his life.

The Lukan author is a master of the oral and/or literary technique of foreshadowing. The shadow of the cross falls over this part of the narrative as John is hauled off to prison for eventual execution. On the one hand, John proclaims the Good News that will be fulfilled in Jesus. On the other hand, he is apprehended by the forces of Evil who seek to suppress that good news.

“John’s message is, given his audience, one of comfort,” Levine and Witherington write, “people who have brought themselves to John and repented are the wheat; those who deny John and his baptism are the chaff…” They suggest that we have a clear indication of such chaff in verses 19-20. Herod Antipas and Herodias represent the chaff that will be destroyed.

I think that the Lukan account picks up a new section at verse 21, although the connection to “all the people” keeps a bridge to the previous section. Luke 3:21 through 4:30 is tied together by a reflection on the nature of Jesus as the Son of God. Therefore, as I suggested reading Luke 3:1-9 for last week, this week I would read Luke 3:7-20. I don’t think we honor the Lukan text by stopping at verse 18.

In the previous post, I encouraged us to wonder (at least by implication) how we can prepare the way of the Lord through our everyday lives and small actions. I want to stick with that wondering. But I think the text in its fullness urges to think not only about where we might engage in such actions, but where those actions might be tools of resistance to the powers that seek to dominate. And if those actions are such tools of resistance, then perhaps we should be ready to suffer as a result of our engagement with the powers.

It takes very little effort, for example, to speak up in support of someone who has endured a racial slur in our presence. Yet, we White people find it incredibly difficult to respond to such language with resistance to the wrong and support for the sufferer. We know that if we do, we may experience some suffering on our own. At the very least we will surrender some of our White solidarity, and we hate to relinquish that property.

Yet, that is precisely the sort of action I suspect John would call forth from us as the fruit that befits repentance.

References and Resources

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

SCHEFFLER, E. H. “THE SOCIAL ETHICS OF THE LUCAN BAPTIST (LK 3:10-14).” Neotestamentica, vol. 24, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1990, pp. 21–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43047935.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Text Study for Luke 3:7-18 (Pt. 1); December 12, 2021

Last week we noted two things about the Lukan account.

First, the Lukan author is writing an orderly account for the long haul, for a setting in which it appears that the Second Coming of the Son of Man will be “delayed” indefinitely. I want to take a moment to reflect on what that means. It doesn’t mean, in the Lukan perspective, that there has been a change in the Divine Timetable. Instead, the Lukan author is suggesting that perhaps the generation of the Markan composition hadn’t gotten the eschatological expectations quite right, especially in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

I worked for a boss once who insisted that we would never suggest that the boss was “late” for anything but rather was “delayed.” The purpose was to indicate that our boss was organized and stuck to a schedule unless some unavoidable task came up unexpectedly. That is not really the case with the Lukan account. The issue of the “delay” was with the schedule assumed by early Jesus followers, not because God was disorganized or needed to go to Plan B.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Second, the Lukan author is addressing a complicated mix of people in sociological, psychological, and theological terms. The Lukan audience is largely Jewish-Christian, but Gentile god-fearers are becoming more and more numerous in those communities. While the great majority of the Markan audience likely came from the lowest socioeconomic segments of the Roman populace, the Lukan audience seems to have more people of wealth and influence, as well as soldiers and mid-level bureaucrats. We can see that difference reflected in the characters who take center stage in the Lukan drama.

We will come back to that second point in a moment. But first, let’s think about what this difference might mean for how the Lukan account was delivered to readers, or was it listeners? The addressee of Luke/Acts, the “most excellent Theophilus,” was clearly literate. Some scholars wonder if Theophilus was an actual person or simply a stereotype, a literary conceit by the Lukan author. For present purposes, that distinction doesn’t make a difference. Whether Theophilus was real or fictional, the character was assumed to be literate.

That is quite different from the clear Markan assumption that the composition would be primarily spoken and that the written document was really a transcript of one or more of those oral performances. But this doesn’t mean that the literacy rate in the Roman Empire suddenly skyrocketed between 70 and 90 CE. At best, the Lukan author could have assumed about a ten percent literacy rate. It is likely that the real number was somewhat lower.

The great majority of people who came into contact with the Lukan account would have heard it read aloud rather than reading it themselves, either aloud or silently. So, it is worth our time to continue to ask performance critical questions of the texts as we go through this lectionary year. One of those questions entails wondering who was really addressed in a text. More properly, this question invites us to imagine who it was who heard themselves addressed as these texts were read aloud.

In Luke 3:7-22, the text contains clear indications about who was being addressed. In verses seven and ten, it is the “crowds that came out to be baptized by John” who are addressed and then raise questions in response to John’s proclamation. In verses 15, 18, and 21, it is “the people” (and then “all the people”) who are the target of the text. As I noted last week, this is different Matthew’s targeting of the religious authorities. This is a direct address similar to the “you (plural)” passages in the Markan composition.

That direct address takes up most of verses seven through nine. It continues in verses ten through fourteen and is focused on specific social groups. In verses fifteen through seventeen, John responds to questions which may still have reverberated in the Lukan community fifty years after the fact. And in verse twenty-one, we hear that “all the people” have been baptized, a remarkable statement on its own. John’s work was finished, and Jesus’ ministry could then begin.

As we look more closely at the text, and as we remember that oral/aural techniques still apply, we can begin to look for (and to see) some of those techniques and use them in our interpretation. You may recall the Markan fondness for chiastic structures. And you may recall that this is a characteristic of oral/aural presentations in the Greco-Roman world. In Luke 3:7-10, I would suggest that we have a small chiasm. It works like this:

A:        Luke 3:7 – John warns the crowds

B:        Luke 3:8a – Be fruitful trees

C:        Luke 3:8b – Children of Abraham from stones

B’:       Luke 3:9 – Unfruitful trees are cut down

A’:       Luke 3:10 – The crowds ask their question

The center of this paragraph is John’s reminder to the crowds that their cultural and religious pedigree is neither necessary nor sufficient to “flee the wrath to come.” Stones don’t have such a pedigree. Neither do Gentiles, by the way. Remember that the Lukan author always has an eye toward how this will all work out in the Book of Acts. One of the major themes of Acts is that new “children of Abraham” will be raised up in the most unexpected of places.

On the one hand, this is a caution to Jewish Christians who are perhaps tempted to lean back on their pedigrees and relax a bit as the Second Coming seems to recede into the historical future. On the other hand, it is good news for those who do not have and cannot have that pedigree. They may become living stones just as Jesus is the living cornerstone upon which the Church is now built. Regardless of their backgrounds, the listeners can indeed “bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

We contemporary Jesus followers are long past the Jew/Gentile divide of the first century. We are not, however, long past the boundaries we create between “insiders” and “outsiders” in most of our congregations. Pedigree, whether in terms of genealogy or tenure, does not substitute for repentance – changing one’s mind to be aligned with God’s intentions. Nor does recent arrival require one to sit on the sidelines until one has “earned the right” to be part of the real community.

The Lukan author moves from a chiastic paragraph to one that exhibits the Rule of Three. Did you happen to notice that? The crowd replies to John and says, “What, therefore, shall we do?” Rather than offering a broad-brush description, the Lukan author has John respond to three specific situations: less-poor people, tax-collectors, and soldiers. I want to make a few observations here.

First, John accepts the question as the right one. But his reply might not be quite what the first audience or the Lukan audience was expecting. I would connect Luke 3:10 to the previous paragraph in part because it is connected with an “and.” Luke 3:11 has a “but” in it to indicate a mild adversative sense. While we might expect John to urge some “spiritual” reformation, he goes for the pocketbook, at least metaphorically.

Second, John affirms that the crowds can indeed do something. They have, in contemporary language, agency. That agency is not determined by economic status. It is not only people of means who can do something that matters. Someone with two coats was not a wealthy person. But that someone was also not the poorest of the poor. Do something with what you have. Tax-collectors could obey the rules, and soldiers could be satisfied with their wages.

These are actions from normal, everyday life. On the one hand, the Lukan author is not advocating for a social or economic revolution on some historic scale. On the other hand, a modest social position is no excuse for doing nothing. We can all do something, the Lukan author seems to say. And that something will likely be specific to the dynamics of our particular situations.

I cannot do “everything.” So, I am sometimes tempted to do nothing. But the fact that I will not bring about change on some historic scale is not a reason to despair. I don’t think that my commitment to a plant-based, whole foods diet will solve the climate crisis or reform industrial agriculture. But it is something. I don’t think my charitable gifts to a variety of organizations will eliminate hunger or childhood poverty. But those gifts make some small difference. In the language of the theater, there are no small parts – only small players.

In addition, doing something changes me. Remember, this is about bearing fruit worthy of repentance. The Western, Enlightenment assumption is that we think ourselves into acting. But the truth is that we more often act ourselves into thinking. When I share my cloak with the one who has none, I nudge myself to be more of the person who does such things. Habits form character and change minds. That sounds like repentance to me.

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