Text Study for Luke 4:21-30 (Part Two)

How will you read/play Luke 4:22 out loud this week? “And all were bearing witness to him and were amazed at the words of grace which were coming out of his mouth, and were saying, ‘Is not this one the son of Joseph?’” (my translation). The implied answer to that rhetorical question is, “Why, yes, this one is indeed the son of Joseph!” We can be sure that Jesus’ Nazareth listeners have no doubt about his paternity (although the audience, of course, knows different). But that doesn’t help us to discern the “tone” of the question.

AJ and Ben argue that the question “cannot be anything but positive” (page 118). Swanson agrees and notes that the question “would naturally be read as pointing out how strong the local community is: even a kid like Jesus, the son of a builder, a common person, is able to speak and live the tradition” (page 96). Justo Gonzalez suggests that the reaction is tinged with surprise, but overall, their response is positive. “They have heard about what he has done in Capernaum and elsewhere and are ready to listen to his words” (Kindle Location 1278).

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Diane Chen is less certain about that tone. “It is possible to interpret the question as a sense of hometown pride: ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Look how well he has turned out!’ On the other hand,” Chen notes, “the question may betray a tinge of contempt” (page 71). She notes that in the Markan composition, the indication is clear that the home folks take offense at him in this setting. That may or may not be germane to the intentions of the Lukan author, but it’s worth considering.

Malina and Rohrbaugh argue that after an initially positive response, the home folks begin to wonder how all this can happen. “In asking if Jesus is Joseph’s son,” they suggest, “the synagogue participants are questioning how such honorable teaching could come from one born to a lowly artisan” (page 309). They claim that Jesus anticipates this challenge to his honor through the riposte he then offers.

Shively Smith continues in this vein in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “The matter here is not what Jesus says, but who Jesus is,” Smith writes. “As the son of a modest artisan, Jesus should not be teaching with such authority, honor, and influence. This story reflects the problem of the honor-shame code when it meets God’s prophetic disclosures and intentions. The prophetic word and messianic power,” Smith concludes, “rise up from below the social caste system rather than trickling down from above.”

So, as they say, it’s complicated.

I want to play this scene with a baseline of personal approval and local pride directed from the home folks to Jesus, the son of the congregation. But the sentiment that “he’s one of us” can shift quickly to “he’s one of ours.” And “he’s one of ours” can shift further to “he owes us his primary attention.” This proprietary sense of entitlement emerges, I think, during the course of the dialogue in the scene. In just a few phrases the Lukan author portrays this emergence: from compliments to amazement to expectation to entitlement.

I don’t know if this is really what’s happening, but I am reminded of the repeatedly banal conversations I’ve had with a few church leaders over the years about taking care of the home folks first. Charity begins at home. How can we give to the needs of others if we can’t even keep the lights turned on in our building? Why are those other people more deserving of our care than the folks living right under our noses? Let’s keep our giving local, where we know it will do some good for people we actually know.

These conversations unfold most often about the time of annual budgeting for a congregation. This happens to be that time of the year for those congregations whose fiscal year coincides with the calendar year. When someone advocates for an increase in giving to global missions or to the larger church or the world hunger relief or any other “non-local” cause, the argument inevitably arises that we must keep the home fires burning and attend first to those who “belong” to us.

I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that this perspective represents the majority of church folks I have known and loved. That is hardly the case. But such inwardly focused arguments are often raised by the loudest voices in local communities and appeal to the sense of scarcity that so often pervades especially smaller Christian congregations. We need to keep ours for us, the argument goes.

I wonder how much of that is at work inside the boundaries of the Nazareth synagogue.

These conversations are usually about more than fear of lack. They are also about the sense of entitlement that we all struggle with and against in our lives. Do for us what you did for those losers over in Capernaum! We’re your people. We helped raise you! Where would you be without us? You owe us that much, after all.

Of course, this type of conversation isn’t limited to annual budget season. It can be a regular feature of pastoral life in some congregations. If the pastoral leader spends too much time on larger community concerns or on prospective members or on the needs of the larger church, there will almost always be complaints from the local folks about mistaken priorities. Take care of the needs of the members first. If there’s some discretionary time left after that (and there never will be), then the pastoral leader can go and play in other sandboxes.

I’ve served congregations where that internal focus is complete and deadly. I’ve also served in places where there is a general openness to sharing our resources with the community outside the walls of the congregation. I would never wish to paint a picture which says that all Christian congregations are black holes of selfishness that punish any adventures outside of the communal event horizon. Yet, this is a common reality and the bane of existence for many pastoral leaders.

Equality is often experienced as loss by the privileged. Sharing is experienced as theft by those who assume entitlement. The response of the home folks in Nazareth, as reported (or composed) by the Lukan author, should serve as a cautionary tale for our congregations as we balance our “insider” assumptions with the needs of the larger community.

References and Resources

Chen, Diane G. Luke: A New Covenant Commentary (New Covenant Commentary Series Book 0). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). 2018.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

POIRIER, JOHN C. “Jesus as an Elijianic Figure in Luke 4:16-30.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 2, Catholic Biblical Association, 2009, pp. 349–63, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43726546.

Smith, Shively. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-luke-421-30-5.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary Year C. 2006.

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Text Study for Luke 4 21-30 (Part One)

4 Epiphany C 2022

How did things go so wrong so quickly? It seems that one minute the Nazareth folks are astonished at the quality of Jesus’ teaching and can’t say enough good things about the hometown lad. The next minute, they are chasing him over a cliff. How did things go off the rails in a narrative blink of the eye?

The standard interpretation is to blame the Nazareth folks for being prototypical “recalcitrant Jews” who are willfully obtuse and wildly vengeful. That’s just not accurate, even in a variety of toned-down versions. Richard Swanson puts it this way. “The puzzle to be solved in this scene is not found in the rejection of Jesus at the end of the story. The puzzle is to be found in the way Jesus picks a fight with people who approve of his appropriation of the faith of the community” (page 96).

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Levine and Witherington spend several pages on our text in their commentary on the Gospel of Luke. They don’t agree on the provenance, impact, or interpretation of significant aspects of the text. As a result, they offer a good summary of the issues that face us as ethical preachers of the text. For this reason, I want to share rather closely some of their conversation and conclusions. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to the authors as AJ and Ben.

They note that there is nothing in the initial response of the Nazareth folks “to suggest hostility.” Rather they bear favorable witness to his words (page 117).  The question about his parentage in verse 22 “cannot be anything but positive…At this point in the Gospel, there is no reason for the congregation to think that Jesus showing off or rising above his station” (page 118). The crowd is not equipped to see Jesus as the Son of God, in contrast to the us as readers. But that’s no justification for rejecting him.

Swanson agrees that the hometown response is unequivocally positive. “They look at Jesus and see someone who shares their hopes,” he writes. “Gentile Christian interpreters are so trained to see the disjunction between Judaism and their own faith practice that they leap immediately to the rejection that looms at the end of this scene. Because Gentile Christians understand their faith so much in terms of its ‘over-against-ness,’” Swanson continues, “they spend most of their energy explaining the origins of the rejection with which this scene ends” (page 95).

I don’t focus on this to be politically or theologically “correct” in some way. My concern first of all is to get the text right. As AJ Levine puts it in another context, “bad history leads to bad theology, and bad theology is bad for everyone.”

If we read the text honestly, we see that Jesus is the one who “picks a fight,” as Swanson notes. “The comment about acceptability tips the scene from one of gracious appreciation to one of hostility,” write AJ and Ben. “Jesus predicts what the congregation will do before they do, or even say, anything” (page 118). They note that the scene broadly reflects the rejection of the Jesus message and movement in Galilee in the first century. As a result, the message and movement relocated to Jerusalem and then to the Diaspora.

AJ and Ben disagree on the historicity of the Lukan account at this point. Ben leans in general toward something like this actually happening in Nazareth at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. AJ sees it largely as a composition of the Lukan author. “We agree that Jesus may well have claimed for himself the fulfillment of messianic prophecies,” they write, “and he may well have cursed the people of Nazareth for rejecting him, as he cursed the people of other Galilean towns” (page 119). AJ regards the reported event as one of Luke’s apologetic tactics “to keep Jesus’ followers of out of synagogues and to cast synagogues as places of danger for them” (page 119).

Jesus uses the examples of the widow of Zarephath and Elijah and Naaman and Elisha to make some points with the home folks. But what are theses points to be made? That’s the question whether one sees this incident as historical or composed. AJ and Ben briefly review assessments from major commentaries in this regard, commentaries which are relatively uniform in seeing this text as affirming the recalcitrance and rejection of the Nazareth folks. The conclusion, to put it somewhat crudely, is that they get what they deserve.

“Such misreadings,” AJ and Ben argue, “give rise to replacement theology, that is, the notion that the covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been abrogated, with the (gentile) followers of Jesus taking their place.” AJ and Ben note at least three reasons why such readings are mischaracterizations of the text and the tradition.

First, the two stories are part of Jewish tradition and support the longstanding notion of the “righteous gentile.” This would not be news to the Nazareth folks, nor would it be offensive on its face. Second, there are no historical reasons to believe that the Nazareth folks and the Jews they represent would find Gentiles to be excluded or unworthy. Synagogues welcomed Gentiles as “God-fearers,” and the Temple itself had a “Court of the Gentiles.” Third, these Gentiles do not create purity issues. If anything, these are stories about restoring Gentiles to states of ritual purity (pages 120-121).

While AJ and Ben disagree about the historicity of the events narrated and thus about details of the impact and intention, they “agree that fair commentary on what happened is not polemic against Jews in general, nor is it a sign of a replacement theology…” (page 121). Nor do the people at Nazareth have a scarcity problem. They are not enraged that Jesus might suggest an expansion of God’s mission beyond the bounds of Israel. After all, that expansion is firmly embedded in the words and work of the Hebrew prophets.

AJ and Ben cite a 2009 article by John Poirier to assist in making sense of the scene. Their cryptic summary (page 122) was not enough for me to understand the point, so I needed to read the article itself. Even though the events in Luke 4:16-30 are presented by the Lukan author as Jesus’ inaugural sermon, that can hardly be the case (so much for the Lukan “orderly account”). The Lukan author notes that Jesus had made a tour of other towns and villages before he came home (4:15). And he attributes mention of works in Capernaum to the Nazareth folks even though Jesus’ doesn’t get there in the Lukan account until chapter seven.

If there is history behind this account (and I think there is some), then the home folks have good reason to expect that the gifts of healing and exorcism Jesus exercised elsewhere will be brought to bear on the needy at home as well. In addition, Poirier notes that Elijah and Elisha were viewed by the first century as models for the prophet who would come at the end-times to restore the kingdom to Israel. That reminds us that this “restoration” concern haunts the Lukan narrative all the way to the Ascension account in Acts 1 (at least).

“My own view is that the crowd originally welcomed Jesus, and that they probably even relished hearing that this passage was now being fulfilled in their midst,” Poirier writes. “But they were not prepared for the negative design that Jesus was about to draw. Instead of saying that he would perform, in their midst, the works that had gained him acclaim in other synagogues,” he continues, “Jesus presses the parallels between his ministry and the careers of Elijah and Elisha in a rather different way, by comparing the Nazarenes with the apostatized public of Elijah’s and Elisha’s day” (page 362).

Poirier’s conclusion is that the violent reaction of the crowd portrayed in the Lukan account “has nothing to do with any sort of insularity or anti-Gentile sentiments, as scholars have often claimed, but rather with Jesus’ implying that the Nazareth crowd is the antitype to the Israel of Elijah and Elisha’s day” (page 363). Jesus, in this perspective, is not critiquing any Jewish “narrowness” or “sense of privilege” on the part of the hometown folks. Instead, he is simply saying that they are not faithful to their own traditions.

AJ and Ben do not come to a consensus on either the historicity or Lukan theology of this text. They do agree “that stereotypes of early Judaism as a graceless religion or one opposed to the inclusion of gentiles in contrast to the universality of the Jesus movement do no justice to early Judaism” (page 123). Just because Jesus pissed off the home folks by calling them out on their hypocrisy (which perhaps he knew with great intimacy) doesn’t make this text a blanket description or condemnation of “recalcitrant Jews” in general.

Again, this is about getting the text right rather than slipping into the path of least resistance used by a dominant and dominating Christian culture. What would happen if Jesus showed up in our worship and began pointing out our shortcomings in light of our professed principles? I suppose we might start looking for the nearest cliff as well.

References and Resources

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). 2018.

POIRIER, JOHN C. “Jesus as an Elijianic Figure in Luke 4:16-30.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 2, Catholic Biblical Association, 2009, pp. 349–63, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43726546.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary Year C. 2006.

Text Study for Luke 4:14-21 (Part 4)

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting,” G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “it has been found difficult and left untried.” I think that insight predates Christianity by several centuries. When Jesus gives his inaugural sermon at Nazareth, according to the Lukan author, he does not come up with new texts or novel concepts. He stands up and reads from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is also not innovating in the language or ideas of his prophetic oracle. Instead, he is recasting the moral center of the Torah to apply to his time and place.

Jesus did not invent social justice in the Roman province of Palestine in the third decade of the first century of the Common Era. Nor did the prophet of Isaiah 61 invent social justice in the fifth or fourth centuries before the Common Era in response to the Babylonian Exile. Concern for the poor and the imprisoned, compassion for the ill and injured, release from domination and debt – these are notions that come from Torah and stand as the moral center of the Tanakh.

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The fact that Jesus takes this text for his sermon and then declares that in the reading it has been fulfilled in the ears of the listeners means that God’s passionate plan for the wholeness of Creation has not changed from beginning to end. The God of Israel embraces the poor, loves the prisoner, and seeks to reverse all the ways that human beings make our communities into bastions of inequity and violence. That is God’s heart yesterday, today, and forever.

That is the good news of this text, I think – that the Lord is now, has been, and always will be in the business of turning the cosmos right-side up. If loving God means loving whoever God loves, then the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed must be in our field of view at all times. And in those moments when we find ourselves in such circumstances, we can be sure that nothing will separate us from that love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I think that the Chesterton quote can just as easily be applied to the social justice values of the Tanakh as it can to the life of discipleship for Christians. Care for the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner is a value that enlivens the Torah from end to end, but that care was not embodied well in the times of the Judges and the Kings. The classical prophets do not invent a new religion but rather call Israel and Judah to remember and to practice the traditions handed down to them. Those looking for the fulfillment of reign of God in the first century didn’t need a new set of values. They needed to embrace the heart of God’s love for all in ways that were new to them.

We will see the converse of this assertion in the continuation of the reading next week. Just as the words of the prophets were not accepted by some in the times of Elijah and Elisha, the Lukan author tells us, so that same kind of rejection happens at Nazareth. The struggle to move from privilege to compassion, from exclusion to inclusion, from tribalism to love of the cosmos is as old as humanity – and as contemporary as yesterday’s headlines.

The pairing of the reading from Nehemiah with the gospel reading from Luke can provide either a helpful linkage or an unhelpful contrast. We need to exercise care here. The omitted verses are mostly the names of the Levites who assisted in translating the reading from Hebrew into Aramaic and doing some interpretation as part of the translation. Lectors can be grateful for that omission, and I would not advocate for restoring those verses.

But the potential to draw a contrast between the “gracious words” of Jesus in Luke 4 and the half-day long recitation of “the Law” in Nehemiah is hard for contemporary preachers to resist. The NRSV translates the Hebrew word, “Torah,” with the English word, “Law.” That is unfortunate, because we Protestants in particular jump immediately to our Reformation over-simplification: gospel = good; law = bad. It would be much better if the translation would be something like “teaching” rather than “law.”

In addition, we Protestants in particular then assume that this “Law” is nothing but the ritual and ceremonial regulations (and all those boring genealogies and population reports). But where do we think we get the notion that God loves the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner? It is in that very “law” that we so easily caricature and hold in contempt.

I’m struggling a bit with our morning devotions in the last few days. I was hit today with another example of making Jews look bad in order to make Jesus look good. The writer notes that the people stood and listened to the reading of the Law from early morning until midday. We preachers can ruefully observe that we can’t get most of our folks to listen more than about ten minutes (at least in mainline Protestant shops), much less for half a day.

The devotional writer focuses on this report and wonder who in the world needs to listen to the Law for that long. After all, Jesus summarizes the whole of the Law and the Prophets in two brief commandments. The implication is clear, whether intentional or not. Poor, foolish Jews who have to stand and bear the burden of rigid legalism hour after hour while we Christians can get the straight stuff in thirty seconds and get on with our lives.

This is another example of what Barbara Brown Taylor points to in Holy Envy as “the language of contempt.” It’s not intentional, I don’t think. Nor is there any direct insult uttered. But the contrast itself makes clear the perspective that Christianity supersedes a defective predecessor religion and does it in a fraction of the time.

But let’s read the Nehemiah text for what it really says. The people tell Ezra to bring out the book of Moses’ teachings – a gift direct from the Lord to Israel. The ears of all were attentive to that teaching, even though it took hours to read it all. The people knew they were in the presence of holiness and greatness and stood to honor that presence. They wept when they heard the places where they fell short. And Nehemiah urged them to celebrate now that they heard the truth.

Of course, one day of this teaching wasn’t enough. The heads of all the ancestral households came together for more study of the Teaching. As they studied, they re-discovered the Festival of Booths. They put together their own wilderness booths to remember their heritage and “there was very great rejoicing.” Seven days the reading and rejoicing continued. The festival finished with a solemn worship service and a rededication to the covenant with the Lord.

This sounds nothing like a terrible burden or a command performance. The people found life and joy in the Torah. It was in a return to the heart of the Lords’ teaching that they found this life and joy.

When Jesus preaches at Nazareth, he is not proclaiming a different teaching. He is calling the people of God back to the values and institutions that make them who they have been called to be. It’s not that the Torah was tried and found deficient. It’s that it hadn’t always been tried. It hadn’t always been tried because the heart of the Torah is justice and love. That heart challenges our hearts of stone and dismantles all the ways we seek to maintain our power and privilege.

As Nehemiah read the scrolls of Moses’ teaching to the people, they looked into a scriptural mirror and didn’t like what they saw. That’s the source of the weeping. The fact that they wept is a sign that they heard. When they heard, then they could do something to begin to change. The reinvigoration of the Feast of Booths was a sign of that willingness to give the Teaching a real try.

Jesus’ teaching in Nazareth has a similar function. The words from Isaiah are a window into the values of the Kingdom of God, yesterday, today, and forever. These words are also a mirror in which we can see reflected our embrace and/or rejection of these values. If we don’t like what we see, we have a couple of choices. We can be humble enough to make some changes. Or we can break the mirror.

This is the two-fold uncovering in the season of Epiphany – throwing light once again on both who God is and who we are. The question is quite the same. Will we look closely and accept what we see? Or will we seek to suppress the message and kill the messenger?

Text Study for Luke 4:14-21 (Part Three)

In our daily devotion this morning, the writer suggests that every Christian congregation has a “Red Sea” in its baptismal font. The waters in the font are described as ebbing and flowing just as the waters did in the first Red Sea. The baptized pass through the waters from bondage to freedom, from sin to forgiveness, from death to life, the author notes.

The writer continues by noting that Christ is the new Moses who leads the baptized through those waters and on to the table of the Lord. At this table we are fed for our journeys through the wilderness of this life. The writer urges readers to think of the font as our personal Red Sea and to give thanks for the gifts we receive through that baptismal covenant.

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On the one hand, I fully support this theology of baptism, both in terms of the Christian scriptural witness and in terms of my own confessional tradition. I have said and taught and preached precisely the same kinds of things about the imagery and impact of baptism. I treasure the “Flood Prayer” offered in some baptismal services (which came from Martin Luther) and its evocation of all things watery in both Testaments.

On the other hand, this treatment of the Red Sea as a trope or type for Christian baptism begins to smell to me like unconscious replacement theology or even unconscious supersessionism. The actual Red Sea story recedes into the background and becomes a prop used for the purpose of explicating and illustrating Christian theology.

I’m not attributing any intentions to the writer of this devotion. Let’s focus, instead, on the numerous times that I have expressed baptismal theology in precisely the same way. I have not intended to diminish or discount the Hebrew history of enslavement and escape in order to bolster my rhetorical toolbox for talking about baptism. But that may well be the outcome of such language. And I have learned to trust outcomes far more than intentions for the purpose of truth.

I need to digress for a moment. It’s not relevant whether the Exodus account happened precisely as reported, or at all, for that matter. I mean, it’s not relevant to my wondering about my Christian expropriation of the Exodus texts for my homiletical and pedagogical purposes. The Exodus story matters to the faith, life, and identity of a people just as it is. That story is not “incomplete” until it is fulfilled in Christ’s death and resurrection or in the rite of Christian baptism. It is a tradition with its own integrity, not a trope for my convenience.

This may sound like making a mountain out of a molehill, but I don’t think it is. The Exodus story matters to a faith community on its own. If I treat that story as a prop or a foil for my own purposes, then I am treating the Jewish faith community as invisible, unimportant, or even non-existent. To disconnect the Red Sea, for example, from the community to whom the story means the most is to treat that community as a thing – a resource for my use on the basis of Christian privilege.

Perhaps I can make my point in a different way. I hope that I wouldn’t use the Middle Passage experience of captured Black people as a way to illustrate the passage from death to life in baptism. To do so would be to make that horror into a rhetorical prop. It would be to render non-existent the millions who paid for the Transatlantic enslavement system with their freedom and/or their lives. To use that historical reality as an “illustration” of anything else is offensive on its face.

These days there are many loose comparisons between the Holocaust and some instance of contemporary discomfort. This comparison, too, is offensive on its face. There is nothing – nothing! – “like the Holocaust.” Saying that there is something in my privileged life that is “like” the Holocaust, or the Middle Passage, or Wounded Knee, or living under Jim Crow simply means that I have spoken the sufferers out of existence and turned them into homiletical paper dolls for my playtime.

There is something arrogantly dismissive – I now see about my own usage and rhetoric – in saying we have a “Red Sea” in every font. The Exodus story is an account of enslavement and liberation, of suffering and redemption, with its own integrity. Whether it is the story of a few dozen people or two and a half million makes little difference to the point.

Drawing out connections between the Exodus and other parts of the Scriptures cannot be the same as deploying a clever, shorthand trope. It’s equivalent to saying that I know what it means to suffer discrimination because I was one time the only white person in an all-Black setting. I don’t know what suffering discrimination means. And if I claim to know, then I have reduced centuries of oppression and suffering to a brief moment of personal discomfort amidst the sea of privilege in which I as a White person swim.

So, how do we speak of the relationship between Christian theology and Jewish realities without using the Old Testament stories as either props or foils? This matters for our text because Jesus takes a text from the Tanakh and makes it do work in his contemporary setting. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your ears” (Luke 4:21b, my translation).

The prophet did not write these words in the original setting to describe the person and work of the Messiah. These words were directed toward those who were either returning or returned from the Exile. The “me” in Luke 4:18 is not Jesus in the original setting. It is the prophet. What do we do with this appropriation and application of a text – whether by Jesus or by us?

We might say that this is why Jesus gets the big money, after all. We Christians see him as Lord, Messiah, Son of God. We describe him as the Word made flesh and tabernacling among us. Thus, the Word can deal with the words of Scripture however he chooses. And when he does so, it has the authority of the Word for us. Even if Jesus misquotes and/or collates Old Testament texts (as he does to a degree here), that’s not a big deal. If anyone can get the sense of the text and has the freedom to improvise a bit, it ought to be Jesus.

I don’t care much for that argument on theological grounds because of its Docetic potential. If Jesus gets to deal with Scriptures “from above,” then perhaps he’s not a fully enfleshed Word. This is the Docetic move that western Christians make too often. Whenever Jesus does something that should be interrogated or even critiqued, we play the Divinity card and get him off the hook. But if Jesus can get a pass on his hermeneutics, then how do we know that he is “truly human” in any other dimension of his person and work? Docetism denies the Gospel in the end.

But even if we grant the crypto-Docetic move for Jesus, that doesn’t let us off the hook as interpreters after Jesus and of the New Testament witness to him. It’s just too easy to take the real human experiences in the Old Testament texts and turn those into cute figures we can use on our sermonic flannelgraphs. Oh, if that reference is too dated for you, then I’d say we can’t just quote tweet Old Testament texts to suit our purposes as if there was no reality behind them.

What’s the point here? We need to wrestle with how to take Jesus’ application of the prophetic verses and make that application appropriately relevant to our own situation. That’s going to become even more pressing next week when we Christian preachers will be tempted to have the Nazareth folks stand in for all “recalcitrant Jews” in the last two millennia (whether we say that out loud or even think it consciously is beside the point).

Jesus acknowledges the truth of Isaiah’s words in describing what God is always about. Isaiah acknowledged the truth of the Exodus account in using it to interpret the Exile and return. We can acknowledge the grace of God in both the Exodus and the Exile as we describe our own baptismal journeys. But we must be careful to do so without erasing or prostituting those stories merely for our own purposes.

I’m harping on this because the Lukan account leans toward replacement theology and supersessionism. We have to find ways in our preaching to acknowledge that reality, to wrestle with it, and to find ways to work around it. If we can do that, we might be able to think about our own sorts of “replacement theologies,” where we treat others as props in our own life dramas.

How, in our preaching and teaching, for example, do we fail to acknowledge that we White people have intentionally sought to remove and replace Native Americans from the land in the last three hundred years? How, in our preaching and teaching, do we fail to acknowledge that our desires for racial reconciliation are often thin masks for the project of erasing any love for Blackness? How, in our preaching and teaching, do we reinforce the idolatry of White American exceptionalism which requires all human experience to be filtered through our White Christian American screens?

Nobody said that ethical preaching is easy…

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Text Study for Luke 4:14-21 (Part Two)

On this week’s Sermon Brainwave podcast, Matt Skinner gives an interesting reflection. He notes that he doesn’t see himself in the categories covered by Jesus’ selected scripture reading. He doesn’t see himself as poor or captive or blind or oppressed. Skinner cautions against spiritualizing those categories in order to make them comfortably adaptable and applicable to us. By “us,” he means White, American, privileged, positioned, powerful and propertied persons. I take Skinner’s point and want to make that our touchstone for some reflection in this post.

Most of us contemporary readers are going to have to do some work to find “good news” for us in Jesus’ inaugural sermon at Nazareth. But was there “good news” for the first audience of this reading and sermon? Let’s put aside for the moment whether events actually unfolded in the way the Lukan author reports them. In the context of the story the author tells, is Jesus speaking the Gospel for the home folks in the Nazareth synagogue?

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Asking that question makes clear the problem with dividing the scene into two lectionary readings, even if they are on successive Sundays. Something Jesus says or does really pisses off the hometown folks, according to the Lukan account. “In the second part of this story (4:21-30) which is next week’s Gospel reading,” writes Elizabeth Johnson in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “the reaction of the hometown crowd will turn from amazement and approval (4:22) to rage and even murderous intent (4:28-29). Knowing what is coming,” Johnson continues, “it is difficult to preach on only the first half of the story.”

Near the end of her commentary, Johnson raises this question. “Will hearers today receive this message as good news, or will they respond like the hometown crowd in Nazareth, fearing the loss of privileged position?” On its face, that seems to be an odd way to frame the question. Certainly, the text quoted from Isaiah 61 (and perhaps 58) sounds like a threat to those of us who are not poor, captive, blind, or oppressed. There is no question that Jesus proclaims an overturning of the economic, political, social, and carceral status quo.

But would the folks at Nazareth have heard the Isaiah passage as the same kind of threat to them? That seems unlikely. In fairness to Johnson, I’m not suggesting that she believes first-century Nazareth was filled with rich, privileged, and powerful people. But it is important to keep clear about what’s good news and what’s bad news for them and for us in Jesus’ reading and sermon.

The rage and rejection in the second half of the text do not come from the Isaiah passage. The Nazareth folks don’t reject the message. They reject the messenger. They’re not troubled by the sermon theme. But they don’t care at all for the application.

We will need to pursue this further next week and with great caution. The easiest thing in the world in the second half of the text is to make the Nazareth folks serve as stand-ins for “the recalcitrant Jew.” This story is the Lukan version of the Johannine assertion that “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11, NRSV).

The gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John wrestle with the problem of general Jewish rejection of trust in Jesus as the Messiah. They each present some variety of Jewish “hardheartedness” as the solution to that problem. I mention the whole issue here, because I want us to be careful not to paint ourselves into that corner as preachers over the next two Sundays. That will require great care.

Certainly, there were differences in income and status among the people of Nazareth. But Jesus’ hometown was not a bustling Hellenistic colonial burg in the way that Sepphoris was, just a few miles over the hill. I’m not saying that the Nazareth folks were somehow immune to or isolated from Hellenization and the impact of the Greco-Roman cultural system. But it would seem, from archaeological and textual evidence, that first-century Nazareth was a pretty humble little place in political and socioeconomic terms.

So, it seems to me that Jesus’ textual choice would have been regarded, on its face, as very good news for the home folks. He is proclaiming a reversal of fortune for those on the outside looking in. In fact, he is announcing the beginning of a Jubilee year. Whether Jesus has in mind the actual institution of the Jubilee Year as described in Leviticus 25 is a matter of ongoing scholarly debate. But, regardless of the niceties of scriptural provenance, Jesus declares that the upside-down world is about to be turned right side-up.

You may recall that the Jubilee Year was intended to be the great socioeconomic reset for the society of ancient Israel. Debt and concentration of property in fewer and fewer hands would inevitably deprive at least some of the people of Israel of their ancestral birthrights of land and blessing. In order to ensure that God’s promise to all the people remained intact, the institution of the Jubilee Year declared that every fiftieth year, everyone would go back to square one.

Debts would be forgiven. Alienated home farms would be returned to the traditional owners. Israelite debt slaves would be set free and perhaps criminal sentences would be waived and expunged. The distance between the top and the bottom, the haves and the have-nots would be erased, at least for a while. It would be like entering the Land of Promise once again for the first time.

Whether the Jubilee Year was ever enacted or was simply an aspirational construct is hard to tell. But it seems unlikely that anyone every really went through with it. The few times it is mentioned in the Old Testament outside of Leviticus, the institution does not fare well. We can imagine the economic chaos such an event would produce in market-driven systems. And if the Jubilee Year were a reality, then it would hang over every transaction, and the life of the market might grind to a halt.

Of course, the previous paragraph is not a critique of the Jubilee Year. Rather, it’s a critique of the market’s tendency to widen the wealth gap and concentrate money, power, position, and property in fewer and fewer hands – unless there is some sort of societal intervention.

Let’s move from the times of Leviticus and Isaiah to the day when Jesus read and preached in the midst of the Nazareth synagogue. In the twenties of the first century in the Roman province of Syria, some new revenue policies were put in place. Land was accumulated and controlled by a few wealthy owners, many of them absentee landlords living on the Italian peninsula.

People were losing their farms and businesses as the Imperial system imposed a different economic order in what the Romans called Palestine. Tax rates were increased, and people already living in a subsistence economy were pressured even more. People who had been thrown off their land in this process wandered the countryside looking for work, food, and housing. At least some of the folks in the crowds following Jesus were likely these economic refugees looking for some solution, some salvation, for their problems.

So, it seems reasonable to believe, based on the historical record and the text itself, that Jesus’ scripture selection would have been received as good news indeed. The initial response in verse 22 (which we don’t get until next week) confirms this assessment. All who heard him at Nazareth testified about him in positive terms. If Jesus had actually stopped talking after verse 21, things would have gone much better for him during his homecoming tour.

But would we have had the same positive reaction to Jesus’ words? Perhaps that is a place where we can reflect as preachers. Unless we spiritualize the Isaiah text into comfortably “interior” and non-material terms, the proposed upending of our political and socioeconomic arrangements should leave us at least a bit unsettled. Would we speak well of Jesus and be pleasantly surprised by what he had to say?

If we’re honest (we who are privileged, positioned, powerful, and propertied), we would have to say that we would not be. Here’s a reminder that the Law or Gospel impact of a text depends a great deal on the position and posture of the hearer.

We can also be reminded that Jesus did not somehow “invent” God’s passion for social, political, and economic justice. Jesus begins his ministry in the Lukan account by aligning himself with the historic and scriptural passion for the widow, the orphaned, and the sojourner, which runs throughout the Hebrew scriptures. This passion is not limited to the prophets but is a bright line tying all the Hebrew scriptures together.

Jesus is not breaking from tradition but rather affirming it. Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he asserts that the scripture is being “fulfilled” as the Nazareth folks are hearing it. The promise to turn the world right side-up is not a new innovation but has been the plan all along. Jesus announces that the plan from the beginning is coming to fruition in and through him.

That might not have pissed off the Nazareth folks, but perhaps it doesn’t make some of us very happy. What will we do with that challenge?

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Text Study for Luke 4:14-21 (Part One)

3 Epiphany C 2021

Friends, there is still time for you to be part of my online Bible study of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. The first session takes place from seven to eight p.m. Central Standard Time tonight and continues for another five weeks after that. If you are interested, send me a message and I’ll make sure you get a Zoom invitation. Looking forward to it!

The first thing to note is that the Revised Common Lectionary divides one scene into two texts, spread out over two weeks. Given the attendance habits of most mainline Christians in the United States, this schedule is problematic on its face, since it is likely that at least some of the listeners will hear only the first part or the second part and not both. So, a challenge to the preacher is to discern how much of each half to include or assume in the message. I have no wisdom in that regard, having wrestled with the question and failed in the execution at least a dozen times in my parish ministry.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

At the very least, this week we need to remind our folks that no matter how much we might like the pretty words in the first half of the scene, things are not going to turn out well by the end. That result is going to present all sorts of anti-Jewish landmines for the preacher next week. We’ll attend to some of those issues as we go along in our study together.

First, however, let’s attend to the context of this scene. We have come from the Baptism of Jesus, two weeks ago, through the Genealogy (which is important but never read in worship) and the Testing in the Wilderness (which will show up on the first Sunday in Lent). It should be clear that the stretch beginning with the Baptism pushes us to meditate on what it means for Jesus to be “the Son of God.” That’s the declaration at the baptism. That’s the punchline of the Genealogy. And that’s the point of contention in the testing: “If you are the Son of God…” I wonder if the Nazareth scene has a “Son of Nazareth or Son of God” undercurrent. More on that perhaps later.

We get a textually brief interlude in Luke 4:14-15, but I think we should assume that some time transpired. Enough time must have passed for Jesus to do some big stuff and for the word to get around. In addition, we get the word that Jesus himself taught in their synagogues, being “glorified” by all.

Just a note on that translation – being “glorified.” The NRSV reads that Jesus “was praised by everyone.” I’m sure that’s an accurate rendering. However, I think it misses a connection the Lukan author wants to make verbally. The word for glory in Greek, “doxa,” shows up with regularity in the Lukan account. People in this account regularly “glorify” God. The angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest” in Luke 2:14. The shepherds go home from meeting the baby, “glorifying” God on the way. They are also “praising” God, but that’s a different verb.

I think it’s a good translation principle to follow the verbal tactics of the document you’re translating. If the Lukan author uses the same word, we should do so in our translation. It’s not just about the isolated word. It’s about the rhetoric the author is developing and deploying. Unlike the writer of John’s gospel, the Lukan author doesn’t have a poem or discourse that simply says Jesus in God in the flesh. However, in repeated ways, the Lukan author shows us this reality. Jesus is “glorified by all” just as God is glorified by all.

The Lukan author has an additional verbal parallel to the experience of the shepherds in the verb for “returned.” It’s a relatively common verb, but the parallelism is interesting. The shepherds have, against all sociological odds, witnessed the newborn Messiah. They return with words of glory and praise based upon all they have seen and heard. Jesus returns in the power of the Spirit to Galilee after his successful testing. In response to what people hear in his teaching in “their” synagogues, everyone glorifies Jesus. I emphasize this, in part, because I think the Lukan author is creating a strong contrast with the response that Jesus will eventually get from the home folks in Nazareth. “Glorification” is not the end result of that encounter.

This a small bite of the text and barely gets us into the reading, but these editorial transitions in the Lukan account deserve some close scrutiny. In between the stretches of narrative, we can perhaps hear the voice of the Lukan narrator making some points with the assumed audience for the account. And as another audience, we can ask ourselves how we are doing on the points being made. When I hear Jesus’ teaching and witness his actions, how do I respond? Does “glorification” of Jesus describe my reaction to the Lukan account?

No, it doesn’t – at least not without some tutoring from the text. The Lukan account continues the process of spreading the report about Jesus by reporting to me and all my colleague listeners. This challenges me as a preacher. Do I share the message in such a way that it leaves people talking about it all week at work, before class, in the coffee shop, at the dinner table, over a beer? I haven’t hit that mark very often in forty years. Do I hear the message in such a way that I just have to tell somebody, or I’ll burst? Once in a while, but mostly I’m immunized against such impacts.

I don’t think it’s helpful to say something like, “You should be more excited!” Nobody gets “should-ed” into enthusiasm about anything. But it might be helpful for a preacher to note that for at least some people at some point, this was pretty riveting stuff. And we might be led to wonder just what it was that they found so newsworthy.

When something appears to grab another person’s attention, we can’t help but wonder what’s so interesting. We’ve all done some version of the social psychology experiment where we just stand in place looking up intently at something. It takes only minutes for other people to stand next to us and begin looking up in order to discern what’s so compelling. Someone will certainly ask, “What are you looking at?” It only heightens the curiosity when we don’t answer.

If we can generate that sort of interest by looking intently at nothing, what might happen it people saw us looking intently – excitedly – at something?

Another note from this text reminds us that Jesus engaged in regular synagogue attendance. When he returned to Nazareth, where he had been raised, “he entered, according to his ‘eiothos’ on the Sabbath, into the synagogue, and he stood up to read” (Luke 4:16, my translation and emphasis). The word often translated as custom really means something like “habitual practice” or “customary behavior.” This was not a strategic policy or tactical move. Regular synagogue worship was part of who Jesus was.

Regular Christian worship has been a challenging practical conundrum for many of us over the last two years. I am grateful for the herculean efforts many congregations have offered in order to make worship services available online in a variety of formats. This has been exhausting and frustrating for worship leaders and preachers. And it has led some of us to get out of the habit of regular, weekly worship.

I have been able to re-engage, in a limited fashion, in weekly, in-person worship (although Covid variants continue to make that a complicated process). I’m not one of those preachers who came into the pastor biz because I’m so in love with worship services. I’m not. I’ve often joked that the Holy Spirit called me into ordained ministry because paying me to show up was the only way to get me in worship on a regular basis.

But I have experienced, as I have at other times in life, how much my Christian habits slip and slide without the anchor of regular worship attendance. For me, it’s not so much the instruction or the study or the proclamation or the sacraments. I have no trouble engaging at a deep level with the Word on my own. But that’s not enough. In fact, being a sort of Robinson Crusoe Christian is bad for my faith practices, no matter how much my introverted psyche likes the solitude.

Again, I don’t think anyone can be “should-ed” into a joyful and nurturing discipline of regular weekly worship. But it can’t hurt to point out that Jesus found that weekly sustenance important for his spiritual grounding. And that was the place where he could engage God’s people in the vital dialogue that makes faith matter.

Perhaps this regular practice became more important to Jesus during a time of testing in the wilderness. He was on his own with the devil, and it was quite a tussle. When he came back to the world, it may be that synagogue worship and the community of the faithful felt fresh, new, and invigorating in ways that they hadn’t for a while.

That’s part of my experience in returning to in-person worship. What has changed is not so much the worship as me. I wonder if that’s the case for others as well.

Next time, we’ll look at the text for Jesus’ Nazareth sermon.

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Text Study for John 2:1-11 (Part Three)

The gospel according to John begins with a poem, a party, and a protest. The poem is the Prologue in chapter one. The party is held at Cana in the first half of chapter two. The protest is in the Jerusalem temple in the second half of chapter two. The poem does not have the utility of a shopping list. The party could be seen by some as a waste of both time and wine. The protest may have made lots of noise, but it didn’t appear to change anything of substance in that historical moment.

The first two chapters of the Johannine account could be regarded, in the words of Marva Dawn’s great old book, as “a royal waste of time.” Don’t get me wrong here. The events may not be particularly “useful” in any social, political, or economic sense at the moment. But they are deeply significant, both in the Johannine account and in our walk as disciples.

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In the previous post, we talked about time and its meaning in the Johannine account. I was reminded of the Ephesian reference to “getting the most out of the time.” As I reflect further, I think I’d like to take that translation back. I’m not sure it’s all that helpful. That translation can easily slide into a neoliberal, capitalist interpretation that reinforces our obsession with making every second productive in economic and political terms.

I’m reading Jenny Odell’s 2019 book, How to Do Nothing. She notes that her book is “a field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy…” (page xi). She argues that we live more and more in a system where what we do with our time can never be enough, how we accumulate our stuff can never be enough, and who we are as people can never be enough.

“The point of doing nothing, as I define it,” Odell writes, “isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive” (page xii). She wants us to wrestle ourselves away from the “attention economy,” where every waking second of our lives is available to be monetized by strangers in the virtual world and to replant our focus back in a public and physical space.

I think about an example which is not quite in Odell’s direct argument but makes the same point. Nearly twenty years ago, Andrew Fischer rented out his forehead to SnoreStop for over thirty-seven thousand dollars. This spawned a small industry dedicated to monetizing the physical geography of human bodies in order to promote a variety of products. It was a good deal for Mr. Fischer, and he made the whole enterprise into a business beyond serving as a walking billboard.

In effect, such an enterprise treats human bodies as spaces which can be commercially exploited for private gain. Let me be clear. No one forced Fischer to do anything. I’m not making that argument. But he viewed his body in the same way that our culture views time – as a tangible asset to be mined for everything it’s worth. And if we’re not producing something of economic value, then we’re “useless.”

The first thing Jesus does in the Johannine gospel, after responding to the curiosity of the first disciples with a call to following, is to attend a party. When he’s asked to do something “useful” at the party, he gets snarky with his own mother and says something like, “Hey, I’m off the clock, Mom.” Then when he does respond to the request, he makes a whole bunch of wine. He doesn’t give sight or hearing or anything else. He starts by being a bit less than “useful.”

And he does it for free. Now, that’s downright un-American.

In a neoliberal, capitalist worldview, regular worship makes no sense. Regular worship doesn’t produce any capital gains. We don’t make anything. We may not even learn anything. I had an inactive parishioner in a congregation once who finally came clean with me on why he didn’t attend worship. He couldn’t afford to waste time like that.

Sunday morning was a time when he could find lots of people at home. Since he was in direct sales, that time was one of his biggest earning blocks of the week. Spending a couple of hours getting ready for, traveling to, attending, and then traveling back from regular worship was, in his view, a bad investment. I thanked him for his honesty and stopped asking him questions.

Many folks deal with this lack of usefulness in worship and other church activities by turning these events into self-help or personal growth experiences. They may not be able to monetize their time at church, but they can justify the expenditure on the basis of “what they get out of it.” Consumerism remains the framework through which they understand worship and account for their time.

This is most obvious when someone changes churches (or synagogues or mosques or other communities, I assume) because “I’m not getting anything out of it.” The more spiritual and pious form of this complaint is that “I’m not being fed.” People have mismatches with faith communities, and I think people should participate where they can be of most service. But the arrow of causation tends to run from congregant as consumer to church as vendor.

“We live in an age and a culture that want instead to turn the worship of God into a matter of personal taste and time, convenience and comfort,” Marva Dawn writes. “Consequently, we need the biggest dose of God we can get when we gather for worship on Sunday morning – to shake us out of this societal sloth and somnambulism and summon us to behold God’s splendor and respond with adoration and service and sacrifice” (Kindle Locations 121-123).

But if our gospel reading is any indicator, sometimes making the most of the time might mean doing nothing really productive. “Worship is a royal waste of time that spirals into passion for living as Christians and back into more passionate worship,” Dawn argues. “It is totally irrelevant, not efficient, not powerful, not spectacular, not productive, sometimes not even satisfying to us. It is also the only hope for changing the world” (Kindle Locations 245-246).

Worship is such a force for hope because it requires us to pay attention for the sake of attention rather than to fill someone’s pockets. Worship is not a means to an end but rather an end in itself. It is an expression of our love for God “for nothing.” We might want to love God for what produces, but that is not love for God. That is really love for self. Relating to God for God’s sake needs to justification and provides no profit.

No wonder most people don’t care much for it.

References:

Marva J. Dawn. A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World Kindle Edition.

Odell, Jenny. How to Do Nothing. Melville House. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for John 2:1-11 (Part Two)

Back to John 2:4 and translation/interpretation issues. First, there is the phrase, ti emoi kai soi, gunai? Wallace (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics) examines this sentence under the heading of a “Dative of Possession.” The dative functions like a possessive in certain circumstances. These circumstances include times when verbs of being are in or implied in the sentence, and these circumstances are relatively rare.

The literal translation, according to Wallace is “What to me and to you, woman?” He regards “the entire expression as idiomatic” and permitting of a variety of renderings. “If this construction is a legitimate dat[ive] of possession,” he writes, “the idea is ‘What do we have in common?’” That’s why I have translated the sentence as “What’s that to me and to you, woman?”

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The “that” is the fact that the supply of wine has given out. The implication is that such matters are of no real importance, unless Jesus’ “hour” has indeed come (which, apparently, it has not). This is the first time in the Johannine account that Jesus talks about his “hour.

The word for “hour” (Greek = hora) shows up at twenty-six times in the Gospel of John. One instance is in the phrase, on the lips of Jesus, of “my hour.” We find that in our current text. The word is coupled with a possessive referring to Jesus in John 13:1, where Jesus knows that “his hour” has come to exit the world and go to the Father.  Those texts bookend the Johannine “Book of Signs” and mark transitions from the introduction of the gospel to that first “book” and then from the first book to the “Book of the Cross” in John 13-20.

That possessive usage also appears in John 7:30 and 8:20. In both cases, the narrator tells us that Jesus either avoids arrest or is not arrested by authorities “because his hour had not yet come.” In both of those cases, the word for “not yet” is the same as in John 2:4, the Greek word, “houpo.”

The term can be used to specify clock time. Four times the Johannine author tells what time of the day it is. We also find clock time usages in John 4:52-53, in John 11:9, and in John 19:27. I should note, however, that in those cases the Johannine author may well be relying on some double entendre. Each of these “hours” identities a significant event in the narrative. The “hour” is a way of telling the time of events.

But labeling the “hour” at which these events occurred may well identify them as important and revelatory moments. In John 11:9, Jesus talks about twelve hours of daylight as the time to walk without stumbling. Certainly, this is a measure of “clock time.” But it is also an encouragement to treat that time as filled with significance and light. If people know enough to do their walking when the sun shines, how much more so should people know enough to do their living in the Light of the Son.

The word for “hour” also identifies something that we might speak of as “the time.” We get this in the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. In John 4:23 and 23, Jesus assures the woman that “the hour is coming” when she will worship somewhere besides Gerizim or Jerusalem. Presumably that worship will happen wherever Jesus is.

In John 4:23, 5:25 and 28, “the hour” that is coming will be the time when the dead hear the voice of the Son of God and the ones who hear that voice will live. It’s interesting in John 4:23 and 5:25 that “an hour is coming and now is” when shall be hearing the voice of the Son of God. And the ones who have heard shall live. So, the “hour” as described here is both now and in the future.

“The hour” also describes moments to come in the experiences of the disciples. In John 16:2, the term points to those moments when Jesus followers may be expelled from synagogues and even killed for the sake of their Jesus following. Those who carry out such persecutions will see these moments as their “hour” of triumph. But Jesus speaks to the disciples to teach them that more is going on under the surface.

Jesus uses the figure of a woman in labor to illustrate what it means when someone’s “hour” has come. We can mark down the clock time of a birth, but that event has far more significance than being a mere calendar entry. Following this, in verse 25, Jesus notes that soon he will speak not in figures but plainly. And soon the disciples will be scattered and separate, but Jesus will not leave them alone.

Finally, in John 17:1, Jesus prays that the hour has come to glorify the Son. This takes us back to the words of the Johannine prologue and to the end of our current reading, when the disciples believed in and witnessed the Son’s glory.

You likely are aware of the different terms for time in Greek. There is “chronos,” the time that passes on clocks and sundials and measures the steady chain of events that we experience as the flow of time. There is also “kairos,” which means the significant time, the right time, the auspicious moment. The “hour” in the Johannine account almost always has the flavor of kairos rather than chronos.

We all experience moments in time when the world changes irrevocably. I write on the eleventh anniversary of the death of Ben Larson in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Ben was my pastoral intern and a profound gift to the life of the Church. When he died, life changed not only for the Church but for all the people who knew and loved Ben. There is no going back to the time before Ben’s death, and life for those who knew and loved him is colored by that event for the rest of our lives.

On a societal level, we can name such hinges of history. In my lifetime, as in any lifetime, such kairos moments are manifold. The assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy have all been such moments. The discovery of the Watergate break-in, the end of the Vietnam War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the September 11 attacks, and the Great Recession have also been such moments. There is no going back “behind” those events in order to recover some position of prehistoric innocence.

Jesus’ “hour” is when everything changes. While the sign at Cana is not that hour, it begins the process of pointing toward that moment when the cosmos pivots on the hinge of the cross. That hour is the basis for how we Jesus followers are called to treat every hour that follows.

Jesus’ mention of the “hour” makes me think of the words in Ephesians 5:15-16. “Watch carefully, therefore, how you walk through life, not as unwise folks but rather as wise folks, getting the most out of the time (kairos!), because the days are evil” (my translation). For Jesus followers, there is no “ordinary” time, no time that is empty of meaning and significance. After all, who knows whether the next moment will be “my hour” or not?

The writer of Ephesians illustrates this good use of the time, not with images of hard work and productivity, but with images of joyful worship and grateful living. Perhaps the Johannine author wants to make a similar point. The hour is getting closer, so the time for a wedding celebration is at hand.

I pray once again that I might receive the gift of exuberant joy to fill my “hours” with that worship and praise.

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Text Study for Luke 3:15-22 (Part 3)

Bombs or Bouquets?

It’s clear from a general reading of the Lukan account that the Lukan author has made significant adjustments and additions to the Markan composition. The same can be said of the Matthean account, but that’s a topic for next liturgical year. Those adjustments and additions are obvious in the text for the Baptism of Our Lord C.

We might discuss them in a text study like this or a Bible study in a congregation. But the Lukan editorial work is not a topic for a sermon – at least not in my hermeneutical tradition. That being said, the responsible preacher needs to know these changes and to have some understanding about why the Lukan author does what they do.

And…there’s the challenge.

As we have this conversation, I think it’s important to be clear that I don’t assume that the Markan composition is somehow more “original” or “authentic.” I think it’s clear that the Markan account comes earlier in the timeline of the Christian movement than the other three gospel accounts. That puts the Markan composition closer in time to the actual events, but that is no guarantee that it is more “historically accurate.”

That’s not the agenda for any of the Gospel composers. I’m not saying that they just made stuff up (well, that may be the case in a few instances). Instead, I’m saying that each of the Gospel composers has theological assumptions and goals that found and frame the particular Gospel in question. I like the Markan composition best for a number of stylistic and theological reasons, but NOT because I think it’s the one closest to “The Truth.”

One way to think about the differences between the Markan and Lukan accounts could go like this. I think the Markan composition is more “kerygmatic” and the Lukan composition is more “apologetic.” I’m using those words in fairly narrow technical ways, so I should explain what I mean.

A kerygmatic approach sees the Good News as an invasive reality that has little or nothing in common with the world as it is. There’s a real sense in which the Markan composer likes to blow stuff up – at least theologically. We get dropped into the explosive part of the story right away, and everything seems to happen “immediately.” The impact of this approach is confrontational and challenging. The Good News comes from outside the world as it is, and you can adjust to it or not – your choice.

In the kerygmatic approach, God’s Word comes into the world on its own terms, take it or leave it. Thus, it is (to steal Paul’s language), a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to us – to us who have given ourselves over to that new reality – it is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

An apologetic approach sees the Good News as more consistent with the world as it is. We can use things we know about the world to get some general insights into what God is up to with the Gospel. We might be able to see some of these general insights, for example, in the natural world. Human philosophy might offer categories and analytical tools that help us to achieve a better understanding of theology and the ways that God operates. History might be interpreted as the outworking of God’s plans, whether most people know it or not.

Think about the things the Lukan author does in these first three chapters of the Gospel. The introduction is a clear description of an apologetic effort. The author wants to give Theophilus an “orderly account” of what Jesus means and who he is. There are the repeated attempts to locate all of the gospel events in the framework of “secular” history. Non-Jews have large parts in the plot and are at times the partial targets of the rhetoric.

So, Luke makes adjustments and additions to the Markan bomb-throwing enterprise. This seems clear in the account of Jesus’ baptism. In the run-up to the text, John the Baptist give ethical exhortations which are personally pointed but do not require a direct challenge to the Imperial system. Luke notes that the Herodians, clear losers in the historical struggles for rule, are at fault for putting John to death.

And Luke separates Jesus from John at the baptism as well as separating, at least rhetorically, the baptism from the descent of the Dove. It seems that the Lukan author is trying to make the birth and calling of Jesus similar to some degree to the birth stories of Greco-Roman heroes. I’m not suggesting that the Lukan author wanted to make Jesus into a Galilean Hercules. What I’m suggesting is that the Lukan author was keen to put the Gospel account into terms that would be more understandable for people in the Hellenistic world of the late first century.

Markan bomb throwing is fine if you think that the end of the world might come tomorrow or the day after. In fact, in the shadow of that impending doom, such apocalyptic assertiveness would be the only option that made sense. Going slowly, building the case, taking the time for questions – that would seem foolish in a world about to come to an end. Decide! Choose! Or soon the choice will be made for you!

If the Lukan author is coming to grips with a longer eschatological time scale, then such bomb throwing makes less sense. If, in addition, the Lukan author is targeting more privileged and established folks who have more to lose when the establishment gets blown up, then persuasion, meeting people where they’re at, hearing objections and alternatives, that makes more sense.

I don’t experience the Lukan account as “compromising” the Markan composition in any way at all. But it is a different time, a different audience, a different strategy, and a different tone.

Kerygmatic or apologetic – that’s always one of the questions that faces us as Christian witnesses. Do we risk being so “other” and confrontational in our witness that people can’t even hear or understand what we’re saying? That seems counterproductive. Do we line up our presentation of the Gospel so completely with the culture that Christian distinctiveness disappears into the blur of cultural conformity? That may be even worse.

Worst of all, do we allow our Christian witness to be coopted by the cultural establishment as a way not to challenge that establishment but rather to underwrite it? That’s the real challenge for Christians in the past two millennia. In the Eastern churches, there is so often the problem of being a “national” Church, completely aligned with (often oppressive) power structures. That is, in large part, the issue for Orthodoxy in Russia these days.

In the United States, a particular brand of Christianity has underwritten the system of White Supremacy here for four hundred years. A particularly virulent brand of what David Gushee calls “White Christian Nation-ism” has come into full view through the January 6, 2021, insurrection, and other similar events. To be White, Christian, and jingoistically authoritarian are all facets of the same ugly gem, in this perspective.

Those are extreme examples. For many of us western Christians, our accommodation with White supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist, individualist American culture has become so familiar that we don’t even notice the accommodation. It could be that the Lukan author can help us this year to walk the line between sectarian separatism and semi-conscious accommodation.

So, for example, various Caesars claimed to be “sons of God.” What did they get wrong (or right) about those claims? How so? Some Christians attribute a vocation for former president Trump analogous to the vocation of Jesus here in Luke and elsewhere. That’s certainly not right, but why not? How so?

To what degree can I accommodate the lifestyle choices of my neighbor for the sake of the gospel witness? At what point does that accommodation become acquiescence? Should I focus more on challenge or dialogue, on debate or listening? I look forward to Lukan help with these questions.

Text Study for Luke 3:15-22 (Part 2)

Baptism as Vocation

Why does Jesus get baptized? This seems to be a developing problem for the Gospel traditions that come after the Markan composition. The Matthean account devotes several verses to this issue in chapter three. John resists the idea that he ought to baptize Jesus “for repentance.” Jesus puts the issue to rest by saying that the baptism is proper “to fulfill all righteousness” (verse 14). I’m not clear what that phrase really means, but it is a way to move on from the issue.

The Johannine account does not report a baptism at all. John does testify, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him” (John 1:32, NRSV). Thus, even though mention of Jesus’ baptism is studiously avoided here, the descent of the Holy Spirit is emphasized more strongly.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

John, in this version, declares that he did not know Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” before this event. That seems odd, given the Synoptic tradition that Jesus and John were kinfolk. But John receives a revelation that “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33, NRSV). John has seen this descent and testifies that Jesus is “the Son of God.”

The Lukan account reports that Jesus is baptized but seems to separate John from that baptism. “But while all the people were being baptized and when Jesus also had been baptized, then as he was praying, the heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended in visible, bodily form as a dove upon him, and there was a voice out of heaven, ‘You are my son, the beloved, in you I have taken pleasure’” (Luke 3:21-22, my translation).

The Matthean and Lukan accounts are pretty much in sync in the verses leading up to this paragraph. But they diverge significantly at this point, applying different “fixes” to the “problem.” The problem seems to be that baptism – whether by John or of the Christian variety – is associated with the forgiveness of sins. And Jesus is regarded, both narratively and theologically, as without sin. So, the question remains. Why does Jesus get baptized?

The Lukan account seems to open up a bit of space between the baptism of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit, moving toward the Johannine emphasis on the descent as the important moment in this part of the drama. I think that the Lukan author wants listeners/readers to experience the descent of the Holy Spirit as a moment of vocation more than a moment of forgiveness and reconciliation.

This may be a helpful emphasis in proclamation for this coming Sunday. In my Lutheran tradition, baptism (at least as understood in the pews) is almost exclusively about forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God in Christ. This understanding leads to a highly transactional understanding of the nature of baptism – do the act and get the benefit. This leads to people calling (at least Lutheran) pastors wanting to schedule a time to “get the kid done.”

I hated those calls to my study almost as much as I detested the inquires about weddings because we had such a pretty sanctuary. It’s not that I think nothing happens in baptism regarding the forgiveness of sin and the entrance into a new life. Far from it! I never turned down those “get the kid done” calls precisely because I am sure that the Holy Spirit can work powerfully even when those involved have no interest in that work.

The fact is, however, that a significant part of the Rite of Christian Baptism, at least in our tradition, is vocational in nature. Baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ is certainly the gift that Paul describes, for example, in Romans 6. But it is also the calling we receive in Christ to follow him and the equipment we receive by the Holy Spirit to pursue that calling.

The presider, for example, marks the forehead of the baptismal candidate with the sign of the cross (often using anointing oil). The presider speaks the name of the person and then continues: “child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” That assurance is then followed by the vocation. The presider presents a lit candle to the baptized and brings to mind Jesus’ words: “Let you light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.”

Just as Jesus’ baptism was both gift and vocation, so is the baptism of each person who follows Jesus. The baptismal rite concludes with a welcome to the newest member of the Messiah’s family. That welcome is into the body of Christ, but also into the mission all members of that body share – a mission both of worship and witness, of prayer and service.

I think that we see this working out in the Lukan account both when Jesus is tested in the wilderness and when Jesus preaches his inaugural sermon in Nazareth in chapter four. Jesus is full of the Holy Spirt and is led by the Spirit in the wilderness (Luke 4:1). What is tested is his identity as the Son of God, the gift of identity received after the baptism and the descent of the dove. Following the testing, Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee to carry out his calling.

In the Nazareth sermon, we get the content of the call. Jesus reads from Isaiah about the nature of the call which comes from the anointing of the Spirit – bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and a declaration of the Jubilee Year. His sermon is one of the shorter on record: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:20, NRSV).

This is the content of the call that comes to Jesus followers who are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Forgiveness of sin is preparation to receive and enact that vocation. I think the Lukan author would like us to see that such forgiveness is not an end in itself but is rather a necessary step in the journey toward Spirit-born discipleship. Therefore, baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection cannot be a mere transaction. It is intended by God to be an ongoing transformation powered by the Holy Spirit in, among, and through us.

The Baptism of our Lord is an excellent opportunity to remind Jesus followers of this dimension of the baptized life. It will be news for some and a helpful reminder for others. I hope it is an opportunity that is not missed.

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