Text Study for Luke 6:17-26 (Part Five)

God wants from us what is good for us. This simple principle is derived from our Christian understanding and experience of God the Giver. If God is good, then God wants what is good for all of God’s creatures. If God is not good, then why bother with such a god at all?

The Sermon on the Plain can be read as a prescription for human flourishing. It is not a list of things to do in order to avoid damnation. It is rather a description of life practices that lead to fully flourishing humanity. When we resist those practices – when we focus, for example, on being rich, full, laughing and praised – we become less than human. And we reduce the humanity of those we impact with our behaviors.

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I would recommend, as I have before, Heather McGhee’s excellent book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. McGhee outlines in detail the ways in which anti-Black racism has ended up costing everyone in America (except the powerful, privileged, positioned, and propertied White elites) access to and the use of multiple public goods and amenities.

The lie that has been told to poor White Americans since the 1670’s is that Black people are out to steal “their” stuff and don’t deserve to have it. As a result, lower class White Americans have been deployed for centuries to police, restrict, oppress, and hate many of the very people with which they share so much in common.

This has been accomplished by convincing lower class White Americans that economic life is a zero-sum game. If Black Americans gain any public goods, then lower class White Americans will lose out in the end. That story has been used to weaponize lower class White Americans and to use them as a buffer between the elites and all others who might wish to access the public and private goods which those elites regard as their rightful entitlements.

“The old zero-sum paradigm is not just counterproductive; it’s a lie,” McGhee writes. “I started my journey on the hunt for its source and discovered that it has only ever truly served a narrow group of people. To this day,” she continues, “the wealthy and the powerful are still selling the zero-sum story for their own profit, hoping to keep people with much in common from making common cause with one another” (Kindle Location 267).

That sort of zero-sum thinking is essential to the worldview of first-century Mediterranean people, the people who spoke and wrote, heard and read, the Christian scriptures. Malina and Rohrbaugh describe this as a “limited good” view of life. They note that in our modern economies we assume that, in principle, goods are in unlimited supply. We can always produce more.

“But in ancient Palestine,” they write, “the perception was the opposite: all goods existed in finite, limited supply and all goods were already distributed. This included not only material goods, but honor, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well – literally everything in life. Because the pie could not grow larger,” they suggest, “a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else” (page 324).

Therefore, in the ancient world, a rich person was proverbially regarded as either a thief or the son of a thief. And, in the ancient world, it was also a proverb that “the poor will always be with us.” If someone accumulated a large amount of the good stuff, that meant that others, the poor, would have to go without. This understanding was used to justify a defensive strategy, where everyone was always extremely zealous to keep whatever they had – goods, reputation, and status.

While Malina and Rohrbaugh argue that the contemporary Western system is not a limited goods system, history does not really bear out that conclusion. We see now that the goods of this life are unlimited for the powerful, the privileged, the positioned, and the propertied. The goods of this life are severely limited for everyone else. It would seem that the world of the Sermon on the Plain is not quite so distant from us as we might have thought.

The problem is that this zero-sum, limited good perspective makes life worse for all but a few people at the “top.” It is not a formula for human flourishing. McGhee uses the historical fact of public swimming pools as a way to understand how this has worked in American social history.

When segregation of public accommodations was made illegal in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, the response of the White public was wildly irrational. Rather than share public goods and accommodations with Black people, White communities closed swimming pools and parks by the hundreds – thus depriving poor White people of those same public accommodations.

At the same time the construction of private pools skyrocketed. Private country clubs replaced the functions of public parks and recreation facilities for those who could afford such amenities. In addition, public schools were sometimes closed rather than integrated. Public schools in a county in Virginia, for example, were closed for five years rather than being integrated. At the same time, there was a boom in the opening of private “segregation academies” for those White students whose families could foot the bill.

“But did white people win?” McGhee asks, “No, for the most part they lost right along with the rest of us. Racism got in the way of all of us having nice things…. It is progressive economic conventional wisdom that racism accelerates inequality for communities of color, but what if racism is actually driving inequality for everyone?” (Kindle Locations 228, 231).

Why are the rich, the full, the laughing, and the praised being warned in the Sermon on the Plain? First, the accumulation of such power, privilege, position, and property by the few does not produce human flourishing. It may result in a very good life for a few. But it also results in a very bad life for the many. That bad life is a consequence not only for the visibly oppressed but for all the non-elites who have been coopted into supporting that system of oppression.

I would refer you to a CNN editorial written by Rev. William J. Barber II and Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove. “Since the murder of George Floyd sparked mass protests across the country,” they note, “many conservatives have responded by appealing to White Americans’ fear and suggesting that collective efforts to address systemic injustice are anti-White.” That suggestion is the latest installment in the four-centuries’ long effort by White elites to use other Whites to control Blacks and to violate their own rational self-interest.

“But this is the big lie White supremacy has always told to sustain itself,” Barber and Wilson-Hartgrove write, “and history shows the fight for equality is not a zero-sum game. Americans must learn Black history if for no other reason than to understand that Black political power has been good news for many White Americans” (my emphasis). They argue that one of the reasons for the current rage against a full and fair teaching of American history is the elite fear that the majority of White Americans may come to realize that they have been duped.

“We cannot allow reactionary campaigns against critical race theory to frame Black history as a threat to White Americans,” they argue. “Though poverty disproportionately hurts communities of color in the United States, more White women are living in poverty than any other demographic in the country. Black history helps us see that it doesn’t have to be this way.” Human flourishing is a zero-sum game only if we make it one.

“When Black people have fought for the promises of democracy, all Americans have benefited,” Barber and Wilson-Hartgrove conclude. “If it were not true, then the narrow interests committed to dividing us for their benefit would not be investing so much money in their anti-CRT campaigns.” This is how you can tell when the truth is being told – when the powerful, the privileged, the positioned, and the propertied expend real energy to call it a lie. Of course, in some eras, telling that truth can get a person crucified.

In the Sermon on the Plain, elites (whether outside of the Lukan congregations or inside) are warned that they are working contrary to God’s intentions for full human flourishing for all. They have what they want now, but that’s not satisfactory to God in the end. Jesus puts up a stop sign and calls the elites to change their behavior while there’s still time (remember the Rich Man and Lazarus?).

Finally, when we treat other people as less than fully human, we become subhuman ourselves. This is why I think it’s helpful to see the “woes” are warnings. There is still time for the elites to rejoin the human community and to make life better for all. The Lukan author doesn’t call upon the rich, the full, the laughing, and the praised to give it all away and become poor. Instead, he invites them throughout the text to use their resources for the good of all, as God has intended from the beginning.

Good news for the poor is good news for all. Good news just for some is not good news at all. Dignity for some is not dignity. Dignity for all is blessing for all. This is built into the very fabric of Creation, at least from a Christian perspective.

“Since this country’s founding, we have not allowed our diversity to be our superpower,” Heather McGhee concludes, “and the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its disparate parts. But it could be. And if it were, all of us would prosper” (page 289). I like it. I know, it makes me sound like a damn socialist. I’m ok with that. God wants from us what is good for us.

References and Resources

Botha, Pieter J. J. “Community and Conviction in Luke-Acts.” Neotestamentica, vol. 29, no. 2, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1995, pp. 145–65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43048218.

Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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

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

Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity Series (PC). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.

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

McGhee, Heather. The Sum of Us. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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

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Text Study for Luke 6:17-26 (Part Four)

Where’s the Good News?

In many traditions this Sunday, someone will read, “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” The reader will then solemnly intone, “The gospel of the Lord.” And the perhaps somewhat dazed congregation will respond, “Praise to you, O Christ.” Gospel? Good news? Where might we find such news in this text, especially those of us who might be more on the “woe” end of the equation than the “blessed” end?

I’m not sure how to answer that question quite yet. However, we can perhaps continue to discern the intentions of the Lukan author in presenting the text in this way. Whether that will lead us to the Good News for the day remains to be seen. But at least we may have additional interpretive notions for interacting with the text.

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I want to start with a couple of conjunctions. The reading begins with an additive or affirmative “and” (not conveyed in the NRSV) that connects the summary in 6:17-19 with the account of the call of the twelve apostles. The “blessings” in verses 20-23 are connected by another “and,” maintaining the continuity of the narrative.

Then things get adversative. Verse 24 begins with a conjunction that could be translated as “By contrast” or “However.” The poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted are dignified in the Kin(g)dom of God. However, the rich, full, laughing, and praised are warned of their potential impending doom.

The woes end with verse 26, and the next verse begins with another adversative. This conjunction can be translated as “in spite of” or “nevertheless.” Let’s notice, first of all, that the paragraph describing love of enemies is somehow in contrast to the previous listing of the woes and their outcomes.

This is one of the problems with dividing the Sermon on the Plain the way the Revised Common Lectionary does here. The Sermon is divided into two pericopes which depend upon one another for narrative and rhetorical flow.

It would have been far preferable, in my humble opinion, to have kept verses 20-31 together on one Sunday. Then more of the Sermon could have been read and interpreted on the succeeding Sunday(s). There’s more than enough text to accommodate that strategy. It’s probably too late to make that change in the reading and preaching for the upcoming Sunday. But I think it’s important for the preacher to take this interconnection into account.

In any event, there is something in vv. 27ff. that ties to the points being made in the blessings and woes. One of the differences between the Matthean Sermon on the Mount and the Lukan Sermon on the Plain is the much tighter literary structure of the Lukan version. The four beatitudes, for example, are matched and paralleled by the four woes. We might wonder if there is additional parallelism in the succeeding text.

I think there clearly is such parallelism. Let’s begin with a look at Luke 6:27-31 and 6:32-36. In vv. 27-31, we can imagine a person in a particular social location. This is someone who is sometimes subject to abuse. That abuse can take the physical form of a back-handed smack to the face. This is someone who may suffer the indignity of having a cloak commandeered or stolen. This is someone who suffers the expropriation or theft of their personal goods.

The prescribed response is to turn the other cheek, relinquish the undergarment as well, give to those who beg from you, and refrain from pursuing those who might hijack your stuff. “And just as you might want people to do to you, do likewise to them” (Luke 6:31, my translation).

This paragraph seems to be addressed to those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted.

The next paragraph has a quite different tone and focus. The imagined person is someone who can do good for others, a patron of some sort. This is someone who can lend to others with the expectation of receiving interest on the loan. The imagined person is someone who is fully engaged in the typical network of reciprocal favors that serves as the basis of social and economic relationships among the relatively well-off in the first-century world.

This second paragraph wraps up with a second injunction to love your enemies (the wording is identical in verses 27 and 35). But love for the enemy in the first paragraph means refraining from a violent response to violence suffered. Love for the enemy in the second paragraph means retreating from the system of reciprocal favors and being, instead, like “the Most High.” The imagined person is commanded to “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

It is certainly possible to interpret these paragraphs as addressed to the same person or people. But the substance of each paragraph is quite different. The parallelism is intended, I would argue, as a way to highlight contrasting responses to the same gospel imperative, depending on one’s social location and circumstances.

I think that Luke 6:37-38 is addressed to both social locations, highlighting what they have in common across their obvious differences in position and power. Refrain from judging one another, the Lukan author appears to say. Engage in mutual giving and forgiving. The outcome will be an abundance of good stuff (whatever that is in this context) for you all. The pronouns here are plural, as they are throughout.

Then the narrative offers another set of parallels. In Luke 6:39-42, we get a parable about hypocrisy. I argue that this is directed to the poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted. They are sorely tempted to see themselves as superior to the woefully privileged. This self-serving vision blinds them to their own need for grace and mercy.

In Luke 6:43-45 we get a second parable. But this one is about production. We have the words “treasure” and “abundance” in this paragraph. Both of those words are connected to the heart and could be spiritualized away. But in the context of the whole narrative, it seems obvious to me that these words are directed to those in the community with more resources – fruit that can and should be shared from goodness for goodness.

Then we come to the closing and summary parable of the Sermon. The parable of the two foundations certainly presents a dichotomy. But it doesn’t appear to be a divergence between the poor and the privileged. Instead, all the members of the community, those who call Jesus “Lord, Lord,” are challenged to build the foundation of their life together – their “house” – on the rock of the Messiah. The way to build that house is by hearing and doing what Jesus commands.

Why did I go through all that analysis? I wonder if one of the major Lukan agendas is to work out the tension between relatively poor and relatively wealthy Christians in the Lukan community. The way to work that out is an ethic of mutual compassion rather that an ethic of mutual exchange or, worse yet, of the cultural hierarchy of honor and shame. Disciples live together not merely based on a coincidence of personal interest but as a community of personal and mutual dignity in Christ.

Back now to my initial question. What is the “good news” in the blessings and woes reading for this Sunday? There is no distinction made in verses 20-26 as to who is addressed. Everyone addressed is “you” (plural). The Lukan assembly is a mixed multitude where the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted dine at the same eucharistic table as the rich, the full, the laughing, and the praised. How can life together be managed in such a complicated social setting?

The first good news is that it can be managed, if we allow the power of Jesus to flow from his resurrected body into the gathered body we call the Church. In this time of painful polarity, that could be a powerful message to bring to a congregation. The ethical injunctions of the Sermon on the Plain are designed to bring Christians together in spite of human divisions, not to amplify and to exacerbate those divisions.

That coming together means renouncing revenge. It means trusting the Lord to provide. It means doing things for love rather than credit. It means that profit is not God. It means human enmity is temporary rather than eternal. It means that judging and condemnation are to be eschewed. Hypocrisy is to be rooted out. Humility is the common currency of community. Good trees shall bear good fruit.

The house (household) of God is to be founded on the solid rock of Jesus, not the shifting sands of human identity politics. That means hearing Jesus’ words and doing them, daily and consistently. And if Jesus commands it, Jesus also empowers it.

I’m not sure I’m persuaded by all this. But it gives me something to consider.

References and Resources

Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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

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

Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity Series (PC). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.

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

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Text Study for Luke 6:17-26 (Part Three)

Discomfort and Dignity

I think the number one reason White Christians give for rejecting anti-racism talk in church is that such discussions will create “divisions.” This is the argument offered in general for keeping “politics” out of the pulpit. But it is made with great conviction when the topic is issues of racial justice and history.

This is the ecclesial version of the argument now driving legislation in a number of states that would outlaw the possibility of making (White) children “uncomfortable.” Let’s not talk about our historic horrors or our current crisis of racial realities. Our children are fine with video games that splatter blood across the screen and active shooter drills that envision the deaths of dozens. But any discussion of our history of White power and the violence associated with it is too much for tender White ears.

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Therefore, people who assert that they have no responsibility for past atrocities and are superior in every way cannot deal with the guilt they (we) feel for those atrocities or manage the modest discomfort that such conversations would produce. Come on, folks! You can’t have it both ways. If we’re not responsible, why would it bother us? If we’re so great, why can’t we take it?

The anti-racism book group of which I’m a member is currently reading and discussing Austin Channing Brown’s excellent book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. In that book she writes, “Ultimately, the reason we have not yet told the truth about this history of Black and white America is that telling an ordered history of this nation would mean finally naming America’s commitment to violent, abusive, exploitative, immoral white supremacy, which seeks the absolute control of Black bodies. It would mean,” she continues, “doing something about it” (page 116).

Therefore, in the White church as in other White spaces, we avoid the conversation. We minimize the history. We talk around the issue with pious euphemisms. So, we continue our complicity. “Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice,” Brown concludes, “is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort” (page 117).

Jesus distinguishes between the poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted, and the rich, full, laughing, and praised. I can imagine some well-intentioned church folks listening to that Sermon on the Plain and becoming increasingly concerned. Why is Jesus drawing these distinctions between people? That will just increase the divisions that already exist. Let’s focus on the positive, the things that bring us together, the things that we can celebrate and upon which we can build.

Why can’t we all just get along?

Those who know this conversation understand that the White Church claims to want “reconciliation.” But that reconciliation is imagined as coming without either repentance or repair. That reconciliation is imagined as a sort of moral and social “reboot,” as if we could all just go to some zero point, pretend that all is in the past with no present consequences, and then to go on with our (White) privileged lives, just as before.

In fact, repentance and repair are the works that make genuine reconciliation even possible. “Denial, it would seem,” writes Jennifer Harvey in Dear White Christians, “makes genuine connection more difficult and actual division thus more likely” (page 237).

The Lukan account of the Sermon on the Plain does not shy away from naming the divisions that mattered in the first-century setting. More than that, the Sermon flips the script on both the plagued and the privileged. The poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted are declared “blessed.” The rich, the full, the laughing, and the praised are warned that their privileged positions are temporary at best. We spent some time on the meaning of the “woes” in a previous post. What do we do with the label, “blessed”?

It should be clear that Jesus is not using a definition most contemporary people would recognize. “Blessed” is most often used these days to describe benefits we have received. Those benefits might be material. They might also be relational and/or spiritual. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that we have received “blessings” from God, who is by nature, The Giver. It’s just that this doesn’t seem to be the meaning used in the Sermon on the Plain.

We who have more than enough benefits might read the text as valorizing poverty, hunger, weeping, and persecution. We might be tempted to make the oppressed into “heroes of the faith,” as if in the long run these kinds of privation are good things. I know that I have learned a great deal about being a faithful disciple from people who have very little in the way of “material blessings.” But I don’t get the sense that they are glad to be poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted because of the fringe benefits. Their faith comes in spite of the privation, not because of it.

So, Jesus is not talking about material blessings. Nor is Jesus valorizing privation. Instead, I think, he is offering a counter-narrative of resistance. In the Kin(g)dom of God, the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted are blessed in spite of their privation, not as a result of it.

In any situation of oppression, we who are privileged have some options for describing how things got the way they are. One option is to blame the victim(s). That can be done in two ways. We may argue that the victims of oppression are constitutionally inferior to the privileged in some way. The poor and hungry are genetically shiftless and lazy. The weeping should have known enough to dodge their dangers. The persecuted are probably troublemakers who simply get what they deserve.

Aristotle applied this line of thinking to enslavement when he described some people as “natural slaves.” This genetic and biological argument has a long and terrible history in American racism, where the assumption has often been that Black people (and folks of other “colors” as well) are constitutionally inferior to White people and therefore deserve what they get. The logical outcome of this line of thinking is Hitler and Auschwitz, enslavement and lynching.

As we have come to understand the utter lack of a scientific, factual basis for such assertions of biological inferiority, we White people have fallen back to arguments of social inferiority. Poor people have not developed the values of hard work, the skills for organization, the intelligence for management necessary to accumulate and manage wealth. Black people have troubled families, fractured communities, criminal tendencies, and historic social disabilities. That’s why they have so much trouble.

It’s a more sympathetic description, perhaps, but it has the same outcome. If you are poor, hungry, weeping, or persecuted, it’s your own damn fault. It’s not up to us privileged folks to fix your problems and to inconvenience ourselves in the process.

In first-century terms, the oppressed are the “dis-honored.” Honor and shame are the chief social currencies in the first-century Mediterranean world. If you are poor, hungry, weeping, or persecuted, you are not an honorable person. If you are not an honorable person, then you deserve to be poor, hungry, weeping, or persecuted. It is an elegant exercise in circular logic that makes perfect sense to the rich, full, laughing and praised people who get to be “honorable.”

I want to take a clue from Austin Channing Brown’s work to understand what’s going on here. What if we substitute the word “Dignified” for the word “Blessed” in the Lukan beatitudes? You who are poor are dignified (no matter what anyone says), for yours is the Kin(g)dom of God. You who are hungry now are dignified (no matter what anyone says), for you will be filled. You who weep now are dignified (no matter what anyone says), for you will laugh. You who are persecuted now are dignified (no matter what anyone says), for you are on the side of the prophets.

How can this be? The poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted are not in their situations because they are constitutionally inferior. They are not oppressed because they had the bad judgment to be born into inferior social settings. No – the fault is not with the people. The fault is with the system.

If neither the genetic nor the sociological argument suffices to explain oppression, then the only remaining option is the System. It is the System that keeps the rich, the full, the laughing, and the praised in their positions of privilege, power, and property. It is the System which keeps White Americans safe and comfortable at the expense of everyone else. And it is the System which Jesus subverts and inverts.

Thus, we can be part of the System or part of its subversion. If we are part of the system, then we have been warned. If we are part of its subversion, then we can embrace the dignity we share with all of God’s children and make that shared dignity the basis upon which we connect to one another.

References and Resources

Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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

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

Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity Series (PC). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.

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

Text Study for Luke 6:17-26 (Part Two)

Warning!

How shall we “play” the blessings and woes that lead off the Sermon on the Plain? The easiest way to read these little poems is to pronounce them as blessings on the “good people” and curses on the “bad people.” Thus, the rich, full, laughing, and praised are singled out for condemnation. Since we human beings can always find someone else better off than we are, the rich, full, laughing, and praised can always be identified as those other people, the ones who have more than I do.

But that’s an odd reading in a sermon which, just a few sentences later, urges the listeners not to judge so that we ourselves will not be judged. Perhaps we need to exercise a bit more subtlety and patience in our interpretation of the text.

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I would recommend the current episode of the “Sermon Brainwave” podcast for your reflection. Rolf Jacobson notes that “woes” are not the same as “curses,” at least in linguistic terms. If you want to hear real blessings and curses, he suggests, you’d be better served to reflect on the first reading for this Sunday from Jeremiah 17:5-10. In those verses we get the real Hebrew words for “cursed” and “blessed.”

Moreover, curses are accomplished facts from which there is no return. Curses are pronounced on people as declarations and descriptions. If that’s what is happening in the Sermon on the Plain, there’s not much hope for the rich, full, laughing, and praised.

Richard Swanson talks about the nature of these “woes” as the Lukan author reports them. “Here the strong economic edge would make any interpreter who actually had to take them seriously a little nervous,” Swanson writes. “If woe is pronounced on the rich, any interpreter hoping to curry favor with her audience will have to find a way to reassure her audience that the ‘rich’ in this passage live somewhere else and live some other way” (page 104).

Of course, the rich, full, laughing, and praised that Jesus addresses in the Sermon are not somewhere else and living some other way. They are right in front of him, addressed with clear second-person plural pronouns and verbs. Jesus is not talking about someone else, somewhere else. As we listen, we will likely realize (we white, North American, English-speaking Christians) that we, too, are among the rich, full, laughing, and praised people toward which the woes are directed.

“If you listen to the reaction of people to the economic bite of these woes,” Swanson writes, “you will notice that speaking these words simply and straightforwardly in any worship gathering will get you accused of being a disloyal leftist who is engaging in class warfare, typical of those who don’t support the real America” (page 105). Yes, I think that’s an accurate assessment.

Jacobson argues that these woes are not curses. Instead, they are warnings in the shape of laments. A curse is an accomplished reality. We only have to wait for the hammer to drop. A warning is given when there is, at least in theory, the possibility of a change in course or an alteration of behavior. We who are rich, full, laughing, and praised now still have the opportunity to get on board with the healing and wholeness the coming Kin(g)dom offers to a sick and broken cosmos.

I think a preacher might take the opportunity to pull a story from later in the Lukan account to illustrate what’s going on here. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-13) won’t show up in the lectionary until some four months after Pentecost, so there’s no harm in bringing it up now as an illustration. This reminds listeners of the unity of the gospel as a whole story. And it will set up the possibility of reminding listeners later that the Lukan author spends a lot of time working out the implications and applications of this sermon as we go along.

The rich man, after his death, is an example of one who is now cursed. He had his good things in life. He had received his “consolation” in his earthly life. In death he can see his error, but there is nothing to be done. A great chasm now exists between him and Life, and no one can cross it. He did not heed the warnings he received when alive. Nor will his brothers, since they also have access to the same warnings.

What are those “warnings”? In fact, the clearest warning of the rich man’s dire situation lay at his gate day in and day out. What further evidence would the rich man need that the status quo was terribly wrong? In Moses and the prophets, he could read about God’s intentions with the Jubilee Year (in Leviticus). He could read the warnings in Isaiah to those who connected farm to farm and house to house and were not concerned about the ruin of God’s people. He was awash in warnings to change and chose to ignore the plain evidence before him.

I think it is responsible to the text to “play” the woes as warnings to the rich, full, laughing, and praised. Thus, I would “play” the woes as warnings to us who are privileged, powerful, positioned, and propertied. The warnings are not just the words on the page. The poor, the hungry, the miserable, and the persecuted live among us as warnings that the unjust status quo cannot and should not last.

This line of thinking reminds me of the moment of realization Charles Dickens allows for Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Is this vision, whether for Scrooge or in the Sermon, a vision of things that must be or of things that may be? Is this a set of curses or warnings? In the course of human affairs, one might be able, Scrooge says, to make the necessary changes to set things right. If that is not possible, he continues, then why bother with the warnings at all?

The woes are warnings and therefore invitations to repentance. It is possible for even the hardest human heart to be changed – to love one’s enemies, to share one’s goods, to be merciful as our Father is merciful.

Heeding the warnings requires a clear and honest look at our situations as the rich, full, laughing, and praised. That’s much easier said than done. We can refer back to the Rich Man and Lazarus. How many times did the rich man simply step over that poor wretch at his gate without even noticing the need? How easy can it be to take our privilege for granted and to become habitually blind to the human dramas in the world around us? It is very easy indeed. Ignore the warnings long enough, and woes become curses.

It’s one thing to make personal changes in priorities and practices that lead to a more just and equitable way of living. That is certainly a part of the way of discipleship, especially in the Lukan account. But this cannot be a purely individual affair. At the very least, all the pronouns in this section are plural, and all the verbs are addressed to “you all” rather than merely to “you.” The communal and, dare we say, systemic nature of the woes can be hidden in the imprecision of English grammar, but it is starkly visible in the Greek.

I have just read an online article by Bob Smietana from the Religion News Service entitled “Woke War: How social justice and CRT became heresy for evangelicals.” If you don’t know the day-in and day-out excellent work Smietana produces, I would encourage you to follow him on whatever platform you might prefer.

He notes that one of the current ideological battle lines in the Evangelical Christian world (in the United States) is the fight to sustain the dichotomy between personal faith and social action. He quotes evangelical influencer, Owen Strachan, who declares that Christians can follow Jesus or be “woke” on issues of racism. But, Strachan says, they can’t be both. Social justice warfare, according to Strachan and his ilk, is the latest and greatest Christian heresy of which liberal and progressive Christians are guilty.

I’m an ELCA Lutheran and hardly likely to take seriously Strachan’s pronouncements. But much as the South won the ideological Civil War in the United States, evangelicalism has won the popular theological war in the hearts of many, many American Christians, regardless of denominational label or heritage. So, a progressive/liberal preacher, such as I am, has to take these arguments seriously, since they come in the doors of our congregations every Sunday.

“In an interview with Religion News Service, Strachan explained further that wokeness undermines the unity of churches by emphasizing racial and ethnic differences,” Smietana reports. “The gospel, [Strachan] said, erases such distinctions, while wokeness pits people against each other.” If that is the case, then Jesus is engaged in the Sermon on the Plain in such “pitting people against each other.” Naughty Jesus!

Individual repentance and social justice work are not diametrically opposed in the gospels. That should be clear from the Sermon on the Plain. Instead, they are two sides of the same coin. Smietana also quoted Professor Anthea Butler (author of the book, White Evangelical Racism) in the article, who gives an excellent explanation of what is going on. “On the one hand, evangelicals wanted souls to be saved,” Butler writes in her book. “On the other, they wanted everyone to stay in their places.”

That desire to have things both ways is not consistent with what we read in the Sermon on the Plain. We who are rich, full, laughing, and praised – we can make constructive changes, or we can sustain a status quo that will be the death of us. The good news is that the power for healing and wholeness flows out of Jesus and into us, if we are willing.

But what about those “blessings”?

References and Resources

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

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

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

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Text Study for Luke 6:17-26 (Part One)

Finding the Thread

I read the Lukan account with an inclusio that begins at Jesus’ baptism (3:21) and ends with the Transfiguration (9:36). This is the announcement and description of Jesus’ mission according to the Lukan author. The overall account begins with the prologue and then the birth narrative. After the Mission account, the Lukan author moves on to the road to Jerusalem, a narrative that takes us all the way up to the Lukan passion account, beginning in Luke 19:28. The Lukan epilogue begins at 24:13 and takes us to the end of the story (until we pick it up in Acts).

The Epiphany readings pick up that inclusio structure, especially as it relates to the Lukan account. This year we get the fullness of this Lukan section in Epiphany since we get nearly the complete schedule of Sundays. The Mission account gets launched in Jesus’ Nazareth sermon in Luke 4, and the events of this account return to that message repeatedly and in concentric circles. The texts ask us each week, “What does it look like to follow the real Son of God?” (as opposed, for example, to the Emperor who claims to be a son of a god).

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We follow the One who commands the demons, even though they shout to Jesus, “You are the Son of God!” (4:41). They do so, of course, in order to control him, not to follow him. We follow the One who heals the sick in droves and who proclaims the coming Jubilee Year in the synagogues of Judea. (4:44). This One calls us to follow him and catch people rather than fish. This One even calls the likes of tax collectors to become followers. He calls not the righteous but sinners (5:32). And this One is doing something new. Old cloth and old wineskins cannot accommodate the new contents.

We follow the One who is in constant prayer with God. He calls twelve to be apostles, “sent ones.” And a motley crew they are – including Judas, the one who became the betrayer (6:16). This review of the context brings us to the text for this Sunday. We get the opening words of what has historically been called “The Sermon on the Plain,” in distinction from Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount.” The two sermons have many similarities, but the differences are instructive as well.

We can be better gospel readers if we pay attention to the authorial summaries and transitions in each of the four gospels. It is in these summaries and transitions that we can hear most clearly the authorial voice as narrator. That is especially the case in the Lukan account. We have one of those authorial summaries in Luke 6:17-19. This summary serves as a bridge from the apostolic call to the Sermon on the Plain and contains clues about the framing of that sermon.

One could easily read the “blessings” and “woes” in Luke 6:22-26 as a set of binaries: poor/rich, hungry/full, weeping now/laughing now, persecuted/praised. Those pairs are certainly in the text. But I am often tempted to read these binaries as judgmental and exclusionary. The poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted are on the right side of Kin(g)dom. The rich, full, laughing, and praised are on the wrong side of the Kin(g)dom. But I think that framing is a mistaken view of the text and the Sermon.

In the summary, the Lukan author emphasizes the large crowd, not only of disciples, but of people from all over. They all came to be healed and exorcised. All in the crowd reached out to touch him and access his power to make people whole. That power was not limited in application. Instead, the power came out of him and healed all of them. In the summary, the emphasis is on including all the people, not just a select group of the worthy or deserving. We need to hang on to that thought.

Notice, as well, that this isn’t a “sermon and soup” system at work here. The crowds aren’t required to sit and listen to Jesus talk in order to qualify for healing and exorcism. That work of ministry comes first, free of charge. The fact that Jesus doesn’t charge for or benefit from his healing ministry is one of the things that sets him apart from other folk healers in his setting. Instead, the Sermon is a commentary on the work of healing and wholeness all the people have witnessed.

So, the summary focuses on the inclusive nature of the Kin(g)dom. In the text for next Sunday, we see additional language about loving enemies, blessing those who curse us, engaging in reconciliation, using the tools of peaceful resistance – being merciful as our Father is merciful. Once again, the context strongly suggests that the blessings and woes are not intended to set up dyads of the included and excluded.

The Lukan author makes clear that this teaching on the Level Place (the literal translation in 6:17) is for his disciples. But that category is not limited to the Twelve. Jesus began calling disciples, in the Lukan account, in chapter 5. Here in chapter 6 the select ones are called “apostles” and are set apart by the application of that title. So, the teaching is for any and all disciples. It is up to us as hearers and readers to determine if we are part of the group addressed by this teaching.

In the chapters leading up to our text, Jesus has been in Galilee, although the Lukan author is noticeably vague about that geography at this point. That being said, the crowd includes people from all of Judea and from as far away as Tyre and Sidon, far to the northwest. As is typical in the Lukan account, the gospel is for people from all nations and is not limited to Jewish audiences. Diane Chen notes that no one is turned away and everyone is healed (age 93).

It may be that the Lukan author wants us to think about Isaiah 40:4 where the rough and high places are made into a level plain. Or it may be that the Lukan author wants us to think about Moses and Sinai, but in a different light. “Thus, while Matthew presents a parallelism between Jesus speaking on the mountain and God speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai,” Gonzalez writes, “Luke’s parallelism is with Moses coming down from the mountain and speaking to the people, a parallelism that immediately reminds us of the disobedience of the people, and places the sermon in a much harsher light” (Kindle Location 1749). We will keep that in mind as we think about how to play the scenes that make up the sermon.

” An important part of the gospel message is that Jesus has defeated the powers of evil,” Justo Gonzalez writes, “and that in the end his victory will become apparent to all of creation” Kindle Location 1401). He notes that the miracles in the Synoptics are “not an interruption of an order, but rather the irruption of the true order—the order of the creator God—into the demonic disorder of the present world” (Kindle Location 1613). Miracles demonstrate and announce God’s victory over the powers of evil. They are signs that a new order is at hand, the order Jesus described as the Jubilee Year in his Nazareth sermon. Miracles, he concludes, “embody and are part of the good news!” (Kindle Location 1613).

We are reminded here, as in other gospel stories, that Jesus’ body was a source and conduit of healing power. “And all the crowd was trying to touch him, because power went out from him and healed all [of them]” (Luke 6:19, my translation). Power comes through Jesus and out from him throughout the Lukan account. We see this in Luke 8:46 when Jesus notices that power has gone out from him. In fact, we end the gospel account with Jesus telling his disciples to wait in the city for power from on high to come from Jesus to them (Luke 24:49).

That being said, Jesus’ power is always applied in the Lukan account to bring about healing and wholeness not only for the individual but for the community and Creation. Following the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus quickly resumes his healing ministry in the towns and villages of Galilee. The first beneficiary of this ministry is a (Roman) centurion, a “God-fearing” synagogue supporter, whose slave was at the point of death. The outcome of that event is that the faith of Gentile is commended beyond anything Jesus has found in Israel.

Preaching this Sunday’s text will rightly focus on the blessings and woes. As we do that, however, let’s take advantage of the clues in the narrative that lead us to shape that reflection faithfully and in the spirit of the text itself.

References and Resources

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

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

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Sunday Sermon Upcoming

How far would you go to save someone you love?

Sit with that question for a few moments. How far would go to save someone you love? Would you go to the next city, the next state, the next country, the next continent? Probably. Would you mortgage your home, lose your job, max out your plastic, sell your plasma? I would. Would you alienate family and friends, throw your reputation to the wind, break the law? If necessary.

How far would you go to save someone you love?

For many of us, this isn’t a hypothetical question. You have perhaps had to answer this question any number of times. You may have endured endless conversations with physicians who outline treatment options and quote statistical norms. You may have raged at administrators whose hands are tied by petrified policies and procedures. You may have attacked ossified institutions that argue against your dear one as an exception. After all, if we do that, where will it end?

All the while, the life of your loved one is leaking into oblivion. The future of your loved one drains into despair. Every answer is no. Every door slams shut. Everyone is so, so terribly sorry. And none of it makes a lick of difference.

Now we might be ready to hear today’s gospel story. There’s this royal official whose son is on the verge of dying. How far does he go to save his son? The trip from Capernaum to Cana isn’t exactly to the ends of the earth. But it is two days’ journey, even by horse and wagon. That’s two days away from his son’s bedside, not knowing whether his son still lived. Those two days might as well be two centuries for that frantic father.

When our oldest son was eleven months, he had sudden seizures. The local hospital couldn’t figure it out. They sent him by ambulance to a bigger hospital. Usually that trip took about ninety minutes. But this was anything but usual. A blizzard was beginning, and the roads were treacherous.

We followed a snowplow most of the way. The trip took almost three hours. In the days before cellphones, we had no idea if the ambulance was on the road or in the ditch. Those were some of the longest hours of our lives. Those hours were punctuated by prayers and torn by tears. I have some small notion of what that two-day trip was like for the frantic father.

I imagine you know as well. To love anyone is to risk having such a terrifying experience. The fact that the father even undertook such a trip is evidence of his desperation. Everyone and everything else had failed.

The father heard rumors and reports about this Jesus guy. He seemed to have a knack for healing. Folk healers were a dime a dozen in those days. Perhaps the father had tried several already. But what if this guy was the real deal? How far would you go to save someone you love? On a trip to one more healer, it seems.

The rumors and reports came from Galilean pilgrims newly returned from the Passover in Jerusalem. This Jesus character had stirred things up a bit – with some wonder working and civil disobedience. He came back to Galilee through Samaria rather than taking the usual detour around that unclean territory. This wasn’t a stellar resume. But when your loved one is dying, who cares about such details?

The father finds Jesus in Cana. He begs him to come down to Capernaum. A crowd gathers, hoping for some fireworks. Jesus replies to the father, but his first words are for the rubberneckers. “Unless you all see signs and wonders, you all will never believe.”

The father has no time for this theological debate. “Lord, would you please come down before my child dies?”

Pause for a moment as the drama unfolds. How far would you go to save someone you love? The frantic father is also a royal official – a person of power, privilege, position, and property. He is used to giving orders, controlling information, dictating terms. People come to him asking for favors and begging for help.

But not today. Desperate need flattens hierarchies. If my child is about to die, I don’t scan the social registers or research personal pedigrees. I will go to any height – or any depth – to get help for my child.

Jesus says to him, “Go. Your son lives.” That’s it. No hand-waving or incantations. No spitting or sighing or prancing or praying. Jesus is brief, not to mention brusque. Most astonishing, the man puts his trust in Jesus’ words and heads for home.

I would have balked rather than believed. If this isn’t on your schedule, or if it’s above your pay grade, Jesus, just tell me! Don’t put me off with some blue-sky promise. But the frantic father puts his trust in Jesus and heads down the hill.

We’d been on the road for about ninety minutes. We had cried and raged and prayed ourselves into an exhausted calm. We decided that our son had come to us as a gift from God. Nothing changed that. Whatever his condition, his location would not change. He was in Jesus’ loving arms now and always. After that, we drove on in silence.

I don’t know if that’s where the frantic father ended up. But I do know he entrusted the life of his son to Jesus. I do know that he put himself fully in Jesus’ hands, come what may. In the Gospel of John, that’s the definition of believing.

In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther asks a simple question. What is it to have a god? His answer is equally simple and simply profound. “A god,” Luther writes, “is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need.” In other words, a god is whatever or whoever we depend on in life and in death. “That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself,” Luther concludes, “is really your god.”

The frantic father trusts Jesus to be God. John’s Gospel wants us to know that this is the source of Life. Not just biological existence, but Abundant Life – with a capital “A” and a capital “L.” In John 20:31, we read that the signs in this book “are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have Life in his name.”

The man who trusted Jesus went about a day’s journey homeward. His household slaves met him on the road. They said, “Your child lives.” Some calculation revealed that the son recovered at the moment Jesus promised the healing. As a result, the man and his household entrusted themselves to Jesus.

I know that mixture of joy, relief and wonder the father felt. The little boy we sent off by ambulance in a blizzard – he celebrated his thirty-seventh birthday about a month ago. By the time we got to his hospital room, he was standing up, wanting to go home.

How shall we respond to this story in John’s gospel? Let’s rejoice with the father, but let’s also temper our celebrations. This isn’t about cheating death and then moving on. That little boy had a funeral at some point, even through Jesus rescheduled it. Even Lazarus –dead, smelly, and then blinking in the sunlight – even he had another funeral. Abundant Life is more than just delaying death.

The Christian good news tells of a God we can trust in life and in death. The gospel isn’t a primitive terror management strategy. The gospel is about who we are and whose we are in life and in death. In John 1:12 we hear that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” Or, as Paul puts it in Romans 8:39, nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In addition, look at the frantic father. He probably wasn’t a Jew. He was more likely an agent of the Roman oppressors. If he was wealthy and privileged, he achieved that status on the backs of people like Jesus and the folks in Cana. He wasn’t a solid citizen or model disciple. Yet, he begged, he got, and he trusted. Our human categories and criteria are always too small for God’s grace. God loves every bit of the cosmos and will do everything to save us.

I also invite you to see the father as an image of Jesus. This is the season of Epiphany. How far does God go to save those God loves? From infinity to mortality. From heaven to earth. From deity to humanity. From Creator to Cross. How far does God come to save those God loves? Into the very center of our hearts.

So, we might think a moment of the distances we’re called to cover. Racial divides. Wealth gaps. Class chasms. Gender differences. Ability divergences. Political divisions. How far will we travel to walk alongside those God loves? That’s the ministry question every day…

Let’s pray.

Text Study for John 4:46-52 (Part 2)

The purpose of the Johannine gospel is laid out with clarity in John 20:30-31. “Therefore, indeed, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which have not been written in this book; but these have been written in order that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in order that by believing you might have life in his name” (my translation).

A quick reading of the text from John 4:46-52 should make it clear that this healing story is intimately connected to understanding the purpose of the Johannine account. Jesus mentions signs and wonders and their connection (or lack thereof) to believing. There is the drama of a child on the point of death and Jesus’ declaration that the child lives. When the Royal hears about the timing of the child’s healing, then he and his whole household begin to believe, although they do not actively follow Jesus.

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Whenever we have the chance to preach on a Johannine text, it’s a good idea to review Craig Koester’s article, mentioned in the “References and Resources.” I will review portions of that article and make some observations as well.

What is the connection, at least in the Johannine account, between Jesus’ signs and the response of believing? Koester reviews the various scholarly opinions dealing with this question. It may be that Jesus doesn’t have much use for a faith that depends on being impressed by visible signs. Or it may be that the signs are part of the Johannine account for the precise purpose of calling forth believing.

Others propose that the signs may produce a sort of introductory believing, but disciples have a deeper and fuller trust. Still others note that the signs are only effective in producing believing among those who have already begun to trust in Jesus to some degree and thus have a confirming rather than a producing function when it comes to believing (page 327-328).

Koester reminds us that one of the strategies in the Johannine account is to put stories and characters next to one another. This juxtaposition allows us as readers to compare and contrast the variety of responses to Jesus. In our case, the parallel stories, Koester suggests, are the story of the Royal’s son and the story of the Man on the Mat in John 5:1-16. He argues that we should read these stories together for two reasons: the common theme of a healing sign and the features of the stories that make them “mirror opposites” (page 336).

I’ll summarize Koester’s schematic of the texts. Our story happens in Cana of Galilee, a location where believing happens readily. The second story is in Jerusalem, where believing is a struggle and resistance is more likely.

In our story the man approaches Jesus. Jesus resists the request with talk about signs and wonders. The man persists in his request. Jesus promises the healing, and the man departs believing. On the way he meets his slaves who bring word of the healing. The man checks the timing of the sign and believes. In addition, the man’s whole household believes.

In the second story, Jesus approaches the man. The man resists the overture with talk about a wonder. Jesus makes a second offer, and the man doesn’t respond. Jesus heals the man. The man leaves, still oblivious to Jesus’ identity. Afterwards, the man encounters “Jews” who complain about violation of Sabbath law. Jesus again approaches the man. The man turns Jesus in to the authorities, who then persecute Jesus.

“The sharp contrast between these episodes,” Koester writes, “again raises the question as to why some people respond to Jesus with faith, while others show unfaith or hostility” (page 337). The Royal came with an expectation of healing. The Man on the Mat had no such expectation or even desire. The second story “demonstrates that simply seeing or experiencing a miracle is no guarantee of faith,” Koester argues. “Moreover, the story indicates that the man’s unbelief was not due to some failure on Jesus’ part, since it was Jesus who consistently initiated contact with him” (page 338).

The story of the Royal paints a different picture. The man hears about Jesus and is willing to “come and see” (yes, we can think about the call of the disciples in John 1). He trusted in Jesus’ promise that his child was living. On the basis of hearing the word and trusting the promise, Koester suggests, the man was then able to discern the meaning of the signs. “The sign in turn confirmed his faith,” Koester concludes, “as the first Cana miracle confirmed the disciples’ faith” (page 338).

What does this all mean in the Johannine account? Koester notes that in this account genuine faith comes through hearing. “In the case of the disciples, the royal official, the blind man, and Martha,” he writes, “hearing evoked an initial response of faith or trusting obedience which was confirmed and deepened by a sign.” That deepened faith empowered them to understand the sign and experience it as evidence confirming Jesus’ claims (page 347).

Seeing, according to Koester, does not have the same impact in the Johannine account. That is the case with the Man on the Mat in John 5. He simply missed the point altogether. Some reacted to what they saw with confusion, like Nicodemus. Others responded with hostility and even violence. Nonetheless, Koester argues, “Our study does not suggest that the evangelist disparaged seeing signs, resurrection appearances, or actions like the temple cleansing” (page 348).

Believing based on seeing, however, does not move the person into deeper faith in the Johannine account. “The evangelist makes clear that Jesus’ actions were rightly perceived only by those who already responded with faith or trusting obedience to what they had heard from or about Jesus,” Koester concludes. The progression to deeper faith in the fourth Gospel moves from hearing the Word to seeing confirmatory signs to deeper understanding of the signs and a development of genuine and mature faith no longer dependent on the signs (page 348).

In these mirror opposites, then, do we have a contrast between believing that grows and believing that is stillborn? Karoline Lewis helps us look closely at the grammar for some clues. This gets into the Greek-speaking weeds, but I think it’s helpful. Things that would be obvious to a Greek-speaking listener or reader or often simply and literally “lost in translation.”

“Therefore, Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you would see signs and wonders, you might not ever believe’” (John 4:48, my translation). The verb for believe is an aorist subjunctive, “putting how the official will respond into a condition of uncertainty” (Lewis, page 70). The negative is a “strong future denial,” which is why I render it as “you might not ever believe.” Jesus’ comment to the Royal is not a condemnation but it is certainly a test of his trust. Lewis puts it well. Jesus says, “I wonder what it will take for you believe. Will it be the signs and wonders, like everybody else?” (page 70).

The frantic father has no interest in the existential dilemma. “Sir, will you please just come down before my child dies?” (John 4:59b, my translation). “He believes what Jesus says,” Lewis writes, “before he believes because of what Jesus does” (page 71). This is the nature of a deepening faith in the Johannine account, a believing that takes Jesus at his word before any confirmation is offered. “The truth of Jesus’ words, Jesus as the truth, is dependable even without Jesus present, which is central to the meaning of the healing of the royal official’s son,” Lewis notes.

What is at stake here for the Johannine author and community? Lewis puts it well. “The healing is not premised on Jesus’ being there but on his word,” she suggests, “and it is therefore an embodied event that demonstrates a larger theological issue for the Fourth Gospel, the possibility of believing in Jesus even after his return to the Father” (page 72). Lewis refers us to the overall purpose of the Gospel in John 20 at this point.

Is the point, then, to just believe no matter what? No, Lewis says. That can’t be it. “To say that what Jesus says is true does not mean he speaks verifiable facts,” she writes. Instead, “Jesus is truth because he is the one on whom we can be utterly dependent,” Lewis continues. “Jesus’ words are true because there is a correlation between what he says and what he does and who he is” (page 72).

It’s not that we are called to trust Jesus without any “evidence.” Instead, our desperate search for help can lead us to meet Jesus. In this meeting we can experience healing and salvation. At that point, we can take our healing and leave, like the Man on the Mat. Or we can be open to a deeper relationship and understanding that doesn’t depend on signs and wonders but is rather rooted in undying trust.

The child lives. But there is still a funeral somewhere in the future. We get a bit of foreshadowing of the Raising of Lazarus in John 11 here. We also get a reminder of what the life of believing is like for any of us. We believers can point to times where we were almost dead, only to be brought back to life by the Lord Jesus.

Yet, even as we tell those stories, we know that unless Jesus returns soon there is still a funeral somewhere in the future. Is believing in Jesus something more than a variety of terror management strategy as we contemplate our own mortality? I don’t know how that preaches, but it is a question worth contemplating this week.


References and Resources

Koester, Craig R., “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John” (1989). Faculty Publications. 22. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/22.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Augsburg-Fortress, 1998.

Meier, John P. “The Historical Jesus and the Historical Herodians.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 119, no. 4, Society of Biblical Literature, 2000, pp. 740–46, https://doi.org/10.2307/3268526.

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Text Study for John 4:46-52 (Part 1)

6 Epiphany C 2022 (Narrative Lectionary)

I’m preaching in a local parish this Sunday, and they use the Narrative Lectionary. So, I’m going to do my work on the gospel text appointed in that lectionary this week. Therefore, we return to the Gospel of John for this week, at least. To be honest, I’m struggling with the anti-Judaism potential in the Lukan readings, and I need some more time to work this out. So, I’m glad for the “out” I’ve been given to think about a different set of texts for a while.

To what lengths might you go to keep your child from dying? One answer to this question comes in the form of a TEDx talk by Anneliese Clark. I don’t recommend this talk with any political or medical motives. I think, however, that is a contemporary illustration of the distance parents will go to save our children. I imagine you can see the connection to the story in John 4:46-54. You might see a variety of connections, and you can share those in the comments if you wish.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I would travel to the ends of earth and the heights of heaven searching for a cure for my sick child. I would rather have one of my arms ripped off than to have one of my children suffer. I know very few parents who feel less passion for their children’s health. So, here in the Johannine account, we have an eminently relatable and painfully dramatic healing story.

To what lengths might you go to keep your child from dying? Traveling far is a significant theme in the Gospel of John. “Geography is theology in John,” writes Jaime Clark-Soles in her workingpreacher.org commentary. Jesus and his disciples go from Galilee to Judea and back again numerous times in the Johannine account. It is a gospel about covering great distances.

That’s true geographically. But it is truer sociologically and theologically. Let’s think about the social distance between Jesus and the “ruler” who meets him in Cana. Soles notes that scholars debate the ethnic identity of this upper-class, elite person. She notes that the official might be a Roman and therefore Gentile official.

Or the ruler may be a Hellenistic Jew serving in the administration of Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet ruler of Galilee. In addition, Herod certainly had Gentiles in his administration, so there are no guarantees about the ethnic identity of the ruler in any event. Soles argues that the ruler is likely a Roman official. She connects the Johannine report to the accounts of the healing of the centurion’s son in Matthew 8 and Luke 7. She also suggests that “given the emphasis in this cycle of expanding inclusivity, it makes sense to construe him as Gentile.”

That may well be the case, but it seems to me that responding to a Herodian official would create just as much of a challenge for Jesus. Herod was half-Jewish and half-Edomite. His family is a collection of thugs and murderers. They are despised by their subjects and mocked by their Roman overlords. They are (or soon will be) responsible for the execution of John the Forerunner (he’s not really the Baptizer in the Johannine account). So, an oppressor for sure – whether Jew or Gentile.

Malina and Rohrbaugh note that the title for the man is vague at best. It is an adjective that should be translated as “royal,” as in “he was a ‘royal’.” They argue that he was likely a member of the Herodian family, due to the reference to his whole household and to his position as a slaveholder. “In any case,” they continue, “whether a royal retainer or a royal aristocrat, the man whose son is near death would be very high on the social scale in a town like Capernaum. He is certainly not the type,” they conclude, “who would normally seek the patronage of a villager from Nazareth” (page 107).

How far would I go to get my son saved? I certainly wouldn’t let any ethnic markers get in the way if I thought someone could help.

The Royal isn’t the only one who crosses these ethnic boundaries. The first boundary Jesus crosses in this story is ethnic. He has moved from working among the Galilean Jews to the Jews in Judea. Then he spends two days building a faith community among the Samaritans in Sychar. Now he is open to bringing healing (which can also be construed as “saving”) to a (Herodian) Gentile. When we read the Johannine account, we must always remember that it is the cosmos that God loves by sending the Son (John 3:16, John 4:42).

“On the heels of Jesus’ presence in Samaria is now his mission to the gentiles,” Karoline Lewis writes. “The world that God loves just keeps getting bigger” (page 70).

The second, and more imposing, boundary Jesus crosses in this story is the boundary of class or honor status. Let’s consider this first from the perspective of the ruler. He moves from near the top of the social scale to near the bottom of that scale. When he asks Jesus for a favor, he makes Jesus his “patron” and is now beholden to him. It is a sign of the Royal’s desperation that he comes in person and doesn’t send an enslaved person or a freed person to speak on his behalf.

The Royal depends on reports of Jesus’ signs in Jerusalem as he decides to seek out this “savior.” Malina and Rohrbaugh note that this connection will have serious reputational repercussions. They argue that the word for “beg” in the text is a term one uses to describe seeking a favor from a patron. They note that the Royal addresses Jesus with a respectful title. And, they suggest, “Since word of the aristocrat’s begging would spread quickly in a small town, [the Royal] risks serious public dishonor by doing so unless his behavior was warranted by Jesus’ reputation” (page 107).

So, how far would you go to save your son? Reputation be damned – I want someone who will get the job done! This means that the Royal goes from powerful to powerless, from dominance to desperation. I may have too much faith in the Johannine author’s subtlety, but I wonder if this is reflected in another geographic feature of the text. Capernaum is over 200 feet below sea level. Cana is nearly seven hundred feet above sea level. Even the topography reveals the real status of the players involved.

Malina and Rohrbaugh devote an extended reading scenario in their commentary to the subject of patronage. They define patronage as “a system of generalized reciprocity between social unequals in which a lower-status person in need (called a client) is granted favors by a higher-status, well-situated person (called a patron).”

A favor is something you need that you can’t get on your own. “By entering a patron-client arrangement, the client relates to his patron as to a superior and more powerful kinsman,” they continue, “while the patron sees to his clients as dependents” (page 117).

So, how far would you go to save your son? First of all, it appears that the Royal willingly traveled the twenty-four miles from Capernaum to Cana. Even if he could access wheeled and horse-drawn transportation (which was likely), this was still most of a two-day’s journey uphill and through some rough terrain.

Second of all, the Royal surrenders his power, position, and privilege in order to get his son saved. A powerful man expects to dictate terms, to control information, to give orders, and to get results. But here, he needs to take a chance on gossip, trust a promise, and go on a journey, the outcome of which is uncertain. He is on unfamiliar terrain in every dimension of his experience. But often, there’s a slim difference between desperation and faith.

Then, let’s consider this from Jesus’ perspective. He is often critical of the elites who come to him with questions and critiques. He is suspicious of those who claim privileged and power. Not long before he has had a challenging conversation with Nicodemus, one that seems to indicate Jesus’ attitude, at least in the Johannine account, toward those who are at “the top” and should be in the know. That conversation ends without a conclusion. We don’t yet know how the Jerusalem establishment might respond to Jesus, but things aren’t looking good.

Perhaps this accounts for the relatively cool reception Jesus gives the man when he arrives. We should be careful about how we hear the text, however. When Jesus talks about the relationship between signs and believing, all the “you’s” in the sentence are plural (verse 48). He’s not addressing the frantic father specifically. This is a word to the observing crowd who are hoping for more theological fireworks.

Desperate human need is a great leveler of hierarchies. When one’s child is on the verge of death, a parent doesn’t spend a lot of time checking the social register to research the pedigree of the potential healer. Dire necessity closes the sociological and ethnic gaps with lightning speed – at least for the ruler. When a loved one is dying, human distinctions matter very little. The man is like you and me – he’ll do anything to get his son saved.

It’s Epiphany. Perhaps the question here is this: how far will God go (come) to save God’s children? It may be that the Royal is as much a model of God as he is a client of Jesus.

References and Resources

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Augsburg-Fortress, 1998.

Meier, John P. “The Historical Jesus and the Historical Herodians.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 119, no. 4, Society of Biblical Literature, 2000, pp. 740–46, https://doi.org/10.2307/3268526.

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