Text Study for Luke 10:38-42 (Part Four)

Part Four: Text Matters

I find that one of the most challenging parts of our gospel reading this week is simply understanding the text as we have received it. English translations, including the NRSV, tend to obscure significant – if seemingly small – details that might either help with my understanding or provoke further questions and confusion. Either way, a closer inspection might be useful.

The NRSV uses the connective “Now” to move on from the story of the Man Who Fellow Among the Robbers. That may be fine, but it’s worth noting that the Greek connection is a mild adversative, “de.” Jesus tells the lawyer, in 10:37, “Go, and you do likewise.” The root of the verb for “go” here is poreuomai. The same verb is used eight words later in Luke 10:38. That should cause close readers to sit up and pay attention.

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There’s nothing remarkable about the verb itself. However, this close juxtaposition in a narrative as carefully worded and constructed as the Lukan account should not be ignored. In addition, the two instances of the verb are separated by the mild adversative. There may well be some contrast between the first “going” and the second “going.” The positioning of the two stories may indicate that there is an important difference between them.

Therefore, what we have is something like this. “But Jesus said to him, ‘Go and you do likewise.’ But as they were going, he himself entered a certain village; but a certain woman, Martha by name, welcomed him [into her house]. And this one was sister to one called Mary, [who] also, as she sat at the feet of Lord, listened to his word.” (Luke 10 37-39, my translation). The small details make some notable differences in how the text sounds and works, when compared with standard English translations.

As I’ve noted in an earlier post, it seems clear that Mary was not the only one who sat at the feet of the Lord and listened to his word. Mary “also” did it – presumably along with Martha. “But Martha [while she was sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his word] was distracted by much ministering; but since she was in charge [of the household], she said, ‘Lord, is it not a matter of concern to you that my sister left me to minister alone? Therefore, speak to her in order that she might come to help me” (Luke 10:40, my translation).

When I read the text closely, I get a somewhat different scene in mind than I have often imagined. Martha, as the head of the household (with no adult man in the immediate family, in the Lukan telling) welcomes Jesus appropriately as host. Both Martha and Mary sit at Jesus’ feet and hear his word. Martha, however, is in charge of the festivities and needs to attend to the arrangements. The word the NRSV translates as “she came to him” in verse 40 also has the sense of acting as overseer or being in charge. I’m surprised that this sense doesn’t show up in translations.

Martha wants to be in two places at once, but that can’t be. Making the final arrangements would go more quickly if Mary got up as well. But Mary doesn’t budge. I’d be put out as well if I were in Martha’s shoes. She asks Jesus to excuse them somewhat forcefully for their duties. After all, there will be more time for teaching during and after the meal. Instead, Jesus gently urges Martha to calm down and sit back down. The meal will be there when they’re ready for it.

“But replying, the Lord said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is necessary. For Mary has chosen for herself the best portion which will not be carved away from her’” (Luke 1041-42, my translation). I first notice the verbal similarity between the Greek word for “worry” here, merimnas, and the Greek word for “portion,” merida. You may know that I’m a fan of alliteration in my own writing and reading. So, this verbal similarity captures my attention. This oral/aural feature of the story may well be a clue to the contrast between Martha’s choice for herself to keep worrying and Mary’s choice for herself to keep listening.

In addition, it seems to me that the text contains a delightful play on words at this point. A “portion” can refer, obviously, to some food served at a meal. Could it be that Jesus is offering a pun to get Martha’s attention? “Yes, Martha, I’m all about the servings, here,” Jesus may be saying. “But the most important item on the menu is not the lamb in the oven. The best portion right now is a serving of my word. So, sit back down and take a second helping!”

In Luke 10:42, Jesus declares that Mary “chose the good portion.” Wallace (page 298) refers to this verse under the heading of a “positive for a superlative.” He notes that occasionally, for example, that which is “good” actually refers to that which is “best.” When the word for “good” comes in the attributive position (immediately following the Greek article), and the article is of the par excellence class (a grammatical category that, I think, may well be in the eye of the beholder), then the positive form (“good”) should be translated as the superlative form (“best”).

The Greek verb for “choose” in verse forty-two can be translated in the active voice as a middle deponent. The result is “Mary chose.” Or, it can be translated in the middle voice, the translation that Wallace regards as the more reliable. Therefore, the result is “Mary chose for herself.” Even though the verb is an aorist and is therefore a simple past tense, the context, at least in English, suggests more of a continuing past tense. The result, then, is “Mary has chosen for herself…”

My interest in the littlest words was piqued by John Kilgallen’s note on the use of gar (for) in Luke 10:42. The word doesn’t make it into the NRSV translation, and that troubles Kilgallen (and me). When it is used in a similar context in Acts 8:31, the word can indicate “an unexpressed denial or refusal,” to use Kilgallen’s words. What might that unexpressed denial or refusal be in our text?

Lord,” Martha asks, “is it not a matter of concern to you that my sister left me to minister alone?” The implication is that it certainly should matter to Jesus. And he ought to do something about the situation forthwith. When Jesus includes the gar in his reply in verse forty-two, he does not explicitly deny or refuse Martha’s request, Kilgallen notes. But he does give “the reason…why refusal should be understood as an element of his reply” (page 258). “I’m not going to do it, Martha,” Jesus says, “because Mary has chosen for herself the best selection on the menu.”

There are moments in the life of the faith community when the call is, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” But there are also moments in the life of the faith community when the calls is, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” As we’ve observed before, the key is to know what to do when. When is the right time to speak and the right time to listen? When is the right time to step forward and the right time to sit back? The Samaritan knew the right time. Mary knew the right time. That’s what they have in common, even though their responses were different.

I think about the ongoing conversations we have in our antiracism book study group. This is a very important part of my week and has been for most of the last two years. Often when the group reads and discusses a passage that is especially challenging for White people, we may say to one another, “But what shall we do about it?” I have found that to be a natural question but not the most helpful one. If we don’t yet know what we personally need to do, perhaps we’ve not yet spent enough time sitting and listening.

And the move to doing assumes that we White people are the ones who could know what to do and when to do it. I wonder if one of the struggles for Martha was the leadership role reversal that Jesus affirmed. Mary was, presumably, the younger sister. At the least, she was not the one in charge of the household and the hospitality. Yet, Jesus allowed Mary to set the pace and to choose the portion. Perhaps it was Martha’s task to listen not only to Jesus but to Mary as well.

I can tell you, as an oldest, that’s a hard pill to swallow. I can transfer that experience to all the ways I’m accustomed to being in charge – White, male, pastor, older, credentialed, financially resourced, able-bodied, etc. My shoulders tighten and my jaw clenches, involuntarily most of the time, when others are in charge. I don’t really want to listen. I don’t really want to follow. I want to lead – as I am in the habit of doing.

But that’s not the best portion for me in many cases and situations. The best portion for me as a White, male, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, college-educated, English speaker is to listen to the words of those unlike me and to follow their leads. That’s the best portion. And it is the hardest helping to swallow for many of us in the once-dominant cultural positions that we feel slipping away from us.

Thus, we worry and are distracted by many things. Those worries can make us difficult and even violent. Perhaps one of the opportunities for witness in and through the Church is to model what it looks like to stop doing (if we’ve been in charge) and just sit there. After all, Martha, Mary can do things too.

References and Resources

CARTER, WARREN. “Getting Martha out of the Kitchen: Luke 10:38-42 Again.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58, no. 2 (1996): 264–80. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43724275.

D’Angelo, Mary Rose. “Women in Luke-Acts: A Redactional View.” Journal of Biblical Literature 109, no. 3 (1990): 441–61. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267051.

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

González, Justo L. The Story Luke Tells. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.

Kilgallen, John J. “A Suggestion Regarding Gar in Luke 10,42.” Biblica 73, no. 2 (1992): 255–58. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42611252.

Kilgallen, John J. “Martha and Mary: Why at Luke 10,38-42?” Biblica 84, no. 4 (2003): 554–61. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614476.

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

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Text Study for Luke 10:25-37 (Part Four)

“Who, then, is my neighbor?” It is such a deceptively simple question. But let’s think about it together. I can read that question from a demographic perspective. Who are the people with which I live in proximity? I live in what was originally a first-ring suburb, a White-flight destination. But that reality is two generations past.

Now, I live in a neighborhood with a small amount of racial and ethnic diversity in the single-family homes. I live next to an apartment complex with a much higher amount of racial, economic, linguistic, ethnic, and age diversity. Our property is one of only a few in the neighborhood that actually touches both the single-family properties and the multi-unit property. Most of my single-family neighbors do not regard the apartment people as their neighbors, although we do.

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I’m wondering how even that geographic proximity affects our perceptions. Most of my single-family neighbors regard the children of the apartment dwellers as interlopers and potential threats. They monitor those children (mostly BIPOC folks) with suspicion and tend to ascribe anything negative in the neighborhood as their fault. We don’t see those kids the same way and have come to know some of them a bit. They are our neighbors.

Who, then, is my neighbor? Is that a question of definition? Perhaps the lawyer remembers that “neighbors” in the Leviticus 19:18 text are Israelites, not “foreigners.” I think at least some of my physical neighbors believe that their neighbors are supposed to be white, middle-class, native-born Americans who own their houses, pay their taxes, and have nice lawns. Those who fall outside such parameters don’t qualify for the “neighbor” label.

This takes us to a third way of hearing and reading the question. Who should be my neighbor? Arland Hultgren argues that this is the real nub of the conversation in our text. He writes that “the thrust of the story and the follow-up question of Jesus expose the initial question for what it is, namely an attempt to classify people into two groups: those who are the neighbors whom I am to love, thereby keeping the love commandment, and those who are beyond my circle of concern” (page 75).

Hultgren argues that “making that distinction is wrong.” The issue is not about defining “neighbor” in order to determine who’s in and who’s out. “One’s concern should be,” he concludes, “How can I be a neighbor to anyone in need?” (page 75). As you know from my previous post, I’m not sure that’s how the rhetoric of the text actually works out. But the outcome is virtually the same.

Jesus followers shall not allow the boundaries of human enmity to determine the scope of neighbor love. God does not allow the boundaries of enmity between God and sin to determine the scope of God’s love. In fact, God’s love renders those boundaries null and void. For God, the boundaries of enmity are not removed in order for neighbor love to cross. Instead, neighbor love crosses those boundaries, and in the crossing dismantles them.

Here’s how I would put it in theological terms. Grace is the source of reconciliation. Reconciliation is not the precondition for grace. The Samaritan comes as neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers. The Samaritan continues that neighborliness to the end. Will the man be changed by that encounter and see the Samaritan now as neighbor?

Like most interpreters and preachers, Hultgren reads the text as a story about the call to help others in need. “How far am I obligated as a Christian,” Hultgren asks, “to help another who is in need” (page 75). The story and our reflections will get us to that question, I agree. But that’s not the first stop on the rhetorical journey. Will I risk accepting help from, being vulnerable to, being naked and alone with one who is by historical definition and social convention, the Enemy? Can I endure the danger of allowing grace to come ahead of guarantees?

The Samaritan is the “hero” of the story – if a hero is to be found. We who are part of the dominant culture in America always want to identify with the hero. Entertainment media has complied with that desire by making our historical heroes White like us. I’d refer you to Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s work in Jesus and John Wayne for the straight scoop in that regard. We press the Samaritan into that mold and assume that somehow, he is just like us.

But the Samaritan is not like a White, privileged, powerful, and propertied American. And I can’t make him to be so. This Samaritan is the Enemy, the Outsider, the Half-Breed, the Traitor, the Heretic, and so much more – at least to first-century Jews. The character we can identify with is the man in the ditch – likely a Jew heading home after faithfully practicing his faith in the Jerusalem temple. This is a man of at least some privilege, power, property, and position.

Hultgren proposes a sort of “color-blind” sensibility for the Samaritan in the story. “The Samaritan crosses over religious and ethnic boundaries, and the fact that Jesus includes that feature within the parable makes it a crucial point,” Hultgren argues. “The Samaritan provides an example of one who does good to another person in need with any regard for religion or ethnicity. Authentic love,” he concludes, “pays no attention to religious, ethnic, or culture differences when need is present” (pages 76-77).

The Samaritan crosses those boundaries in the story. But there is no reason within the story to think that the Samaritan is anything but painfully aware of those boundaries. Only those with privilege and power can be oblivious to such boundaries. The Samaritan saves the man in the ditch in spite of those boundaries, not because they have now become somehow invisible or irrelevant. Love in action is always specific and incarnate. The Samaritan didn’t stop being a Samaritan. The Jew didn’t stop being a Jew.

I note this because Hultgren’s reasoning leads him to minimize the realities of racial, ethnic, religious, and economic boundaries in the works of neighbor love. Such boundaries “are simply there,” he writes. “But there is a perennial tendency, faced by each generation,” he concludes, “to make the distinctions more important than they are” (page 77). The real result of this way of thinking will not be more vocal neighbor love. The result is the continuing culture of oppressive silence when it comes to dealing with such boundaries.

Expanding the boundaries of our own neighborhoods of active care is a critical part of following Jesus in contemporary America. I agree wholeheartedly with Hultgren in that regard. But that focus leaves the powerful in positions of power. We are the ones who do the healing and helping, the soothing and saving. We are still the heroes, and control of the system still belongs to us (White people). Opening ourselves to the care of the Other – that’s even harder to do.

In my anti-racism book study, we’ve launched into a discussion of the twentieth anniversary edition of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Our conversation led us to reflect on the sources and causes of the generalized White fear of Black people. While the sources and causes are, to coin a phrase, legion, one of our members spoke with candor about a particular cause for the fear.

A significant expression of White fear, our friend noted, is the expectation that Black people will, given sufficient power and resources, at some point retaliate for the violence, oppression, injustice, hatred, and theft they have experienced at the hands of White people over the last four hundred years. After all, that is probably how White people would generally respond if the roles were reversed, right? The historical data is all too clear in that regard.

In this understanding, supported by studies, journalism, and other documentation, Whites and Blacks regard one another as enemies rather than as neighbors. At least some White people do not trust Black people to act with civility and restraint, given half a chance to act otherwise. Our mythology is that Black men are beasts who want our women and our money. Therefore, White fear leads to continued structures and systems of restraint and oppression directed toward Black people.

At the very least, White people continue to resist having Black people as actual neighbors in actual neighborhoods in actual villages, towns, and cities in the United States. That’s an interesting lens through which to read our text. We can ask it first of all, not as a theological question, but perhaps as a demographic and sociological question. In fact, where I live, who is my neighbor? And how does that impact how I live as a daily disciple?

More than that, will I as a White person risk being vulnerable enough to engage in relationships with those “unlike” me? Will I risk the possibility that I might say or do something hurtful to a BIPOC friend, colleague or associate and then have to ask forgiveness and receive correction? Or will I remain, as Robin D’Angelo puts it, a “nice racist”? Am I willing to lay naked and alone, hurting and vulnerable along the road and trust that a potential “enemy” could be my neighbor? I think that’s what we’re called to “go and do likewise.”

References and Resources

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Hultgren, Arland J. “Enlarging the Neighborhood: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37).” Word & World 37, no. 1 (2017): 71-8.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

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

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

Tranvik, Mark D. “The Good Samaritan as Good News: Martin Luther and the Recovery of the Gospel in Preaching.” Word & World 38, no. 3 (2018).

Text Study for Luke 10:25-37 (Part Two)

I referred in the previous post to Dr. King’s use of the parable in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech of April 3, 1968. The speech was delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before Dr. King was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In that speech, he makes a brief but pointed reference to the parable. He draws a simple distinction between the first two travelers in the parable and the third, the Samaritan. The first two, Dr. King notes, asked (and I paraphrase), “If I stop, what will happen to me?” The Samaritan asks, “If I don’t stop, what will happen to him?”

Dr. King connects that question to his presence with and for the striking sanitation workers in Memphis. “That’s the question before you tonight,” King said, “Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?’ Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?’ The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question,” Dr. King concluded.

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That’s an important and compelling framing of the central question in the text. However, I’m not sure it is quite the focus of the parable as presented in the Lukan account. As Matt Skinner notes in the current SermonBrainwave podcast, perhaps the question is different. Jesus asks the lawyer, “Who, then, was neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The question is more about what it means to be neighbor than it is about what happened to the man. Perhaps, as Skinner suggests, the question is, “If I don’t stop, what will happen to me?”

In practical terms, if I don’t stop, nothing is going to happen to me. I’ll just go on my merry way. But if I have any compassion at all, I will take that beaten and bloodied man with me. And I will find myself to be less of a human being than I was before. That, I think, is what will happen to me.

As we travel to Sunday worship, we pass the same man on a street corner each week. He appears to be unhoused and with few resources. He has a hand-lettered sign and a few belongings in a pile along the street. He creates a new sign each week. It is always some variation of “Need help. All gifts appreciated.” When the stoplight at the corner is red, or there is no traffic behind us when it is green, we hand the man five or ten dollars. He always responds with a loud and clear “Thank you!”

I am blessed to share my life with a generous, compassionate, and loving spouse. She plans ahead to make sure we have some cash to share with the man alongside the street. We often don’t carry much cash these days, so it takes just a bit of foresight and effort to be prepared to respond. But that’s the smallest of efforts. And it is her effort, not mine, usually.

If the interaction happens to come up in a conversation, someone is certain to suggest that the money will go for alcohol, drugs, or both. Perhaps, some would argue, we are “wasting our money.” Worse yet, we may even be enabling bad or self-destructive behavior on the part of the man. Worst of all, in the eyes of some, we are naïve simpletons, conned by another scam artist happy to separate us fools from our folding money.

Any or all of those things may be true. I don’t wish to minimize or dismiss those concerns. I wonder and worry about those things as well. In addition, I grew up in a home where cash was scarce, and bills were omnipresent threats. I often feel anxious when I hand money over to someone else. What will happen to me if and when I don’t have enough? Perhaps I will compete with the Sunday man for that prime bit of panhandling property.

Of course, that’s not going to happen (at least it is highly unlikely). Yet, the anxiety is often there. If I give him some money, what will happen to me? But if I don’t, what sort of person will I become?

If that’s the question (and I think it’s one of them, anyway), then, for example, we don’t have to worry about the motivations and rationales that caused the priest and the Levite to “pass by on the other side.” In the story, we can assume that they each had rationales that made good sense to them at the moment. We can charitably believe that they made the best decisions they could at the time. But what did they think of themselves later?

If and when I pass by on the other side, I become a little more selfish and a little less compassionate. The Sunday man in my life isn’t beaten and bloodied, half-dead by the side of the road. For all I know, he lives as well as I do (but I don’t think so). But if I pass him by, I leave behind a bit of my humanity there with him. If I do that often enough, I’m not sure how much humanity I will have left at some point. If I pass by on the other side, I fear that’s what will happen to me.

You might think this sounds self-interested in the extreme. I don’t mean it to be that way. I don’t think I respond to the Sunday man simply to get a boost to my ego or additional raw material for my delusions of grandeur. Instead, I’m trying to reflect on the outcome of my actions, not the reason for them. Turning down the chance to act with compassion ends up making me less authentically human than I was before. Do that enough times, and I may cease to inhabit this existence as anything resembling the creature God has made me to be.

Who turned out to be neighbor to the man by the side of the road? The one who showed him mercy. The man who fell among robbers was raised up to live again. The man who turned aside in compassion and care was raised up to live more fully. Jesus tells the lawyer to get out there and do the same thing—to live as the compassionate caregiver God created him to be.

This perspective on the text makes me think about what it means to be an ally and an accomplice in the ongoing struggles against racist behavior in myself, in our Church, and in our American society. I can become clear about the results of our racist system for BIPOC folks. The life-draining disparities in educational, healthcare, housing, transportation, employment, wealth, and political resources between White people and BIPOC folks is well-documented, even when vociferously denied or studiously ignored.

Our racist system has left people literally and figuratively lying by the side of the road – beaten, bloodied and half-dead – for four hundred years.

Some people have been left fully dead. The differential treatment by law enforcement of Jayland Walker and Robert Crimo screams out the realities of what we do to BIPOC folks through our law enforcement systems. The airwaves are filled with White voices that seek to vociferously deny or studiously ignore that deadly disparity as well. If we “pass by on the other side,” we can be clear about what that means for BIPOC folks in America.

But what does it mean for us, who are White and privileged and powerful? It means that we must make ourselves less than fully human beings. At the very least, we must segregate all reminders of such suffering and lock away those reminders behind massive doors of denial. If we are to pass by on the other side, we must spend large amounts of energy and effort pretending not to see anything or anyone at all. That’s one of the reasons we White people continue to live in racially isolated and heterogeneous neighborhoods. The only neighbors we can stand to see are those who, like us, benefit daily from the systemic carnage that racism perpetrates.

We are left anxious and afraid. We are left outraged and offended. We are left vicious and violent. We become liars about our own history and looters of the histories and cultures of others. And when someone challenges our White goodness and innocence, we become all the more enraged that someone would dare to name the reality we spend so much of ourselves to suppress.

If I pass by on the other side of the road in this oppressive, racist system, what will I become? A hollow man. An amoral shell. A performance of whiteness because I have no authentic self out of which to live. That’s what will happen to me. I become incapable of loving God and loving neighbor. And I become incapable even of loving myself.

We don’t know how the lawyer responds in the end. How will we?

References and Resources

Hultgren, Arland J. “Enlarging the Neighborhood: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37).” Word & World 37, no. 1 (2017): 71-8.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

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

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

Text Study for Luke 9:51-62 (Part Four)

Researchers call it the “Last Place Aversion.” Why do people those near the bottom of any social status pyramid treat those beneath them badly? Why do people in low-income groups vote against their self-interest and support systems of inequality? Philosophers and historians have known about this human tendency for centuries. But the explanations offered have not been very convincing.

Until recently. In 2014 researchers[i] suggested that we humans really hate being in “last place.” We will even act against our self-interest if that keeps us out of the bottom of the heap. Nothing makes us happier than having a group or class to look down on. As we move up in status, last place anxiety decreases. As we move down in status, it increases.

Photo by Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto on Pexels.com

In one set of experiments, people were given random dollar amounts. Then the experimenters showed them where they landed on the dollar hierarchy. Each subject then chose one of two strategies. One strategy gives the player more money as almost a sure thing. The other strategy is higher risk but gives the player the chance to move up in the hierarchy.

All the players chose the almost sure thing except for the bottom two. The last-place player wants to move up. The second-to-the-last place player wants to keep from moving down. Both players are willing to tolerate higher risk than average. The one hates being in last place. The other hates the thought of being in last place.

Last place aversion.

Another experiment is a money-transfer game. The players get random amounts of money. Each player has one dollar less than the next highest and one dollar more than the next lowest. Everyone knows their place on the money ladder. Players receive two dollars more. Each player has to give their extra two dollars either to the person directly above them or directly below them on the money ladder.

If I give the two dollars to the person above me, that person will move higher on the ladder (except for the top person). If I give two dollars to the person below me, I fall one place on the ladder. On average, players offer up or down at about the same rate regardless of position.

That’s true except for one person on the ladder. Can you guess which one? That’s right. The second-to-the-last person almost never gives two dollars to the last place person.

Last place aversion.

Of course, you might say, those are games played by undergraduates in psychology programs. That wouldn’t happen in the real world, would it? Think about people in favor of or against raising the minimum wage. The Pew Research Center did surveys to see which lower income group was more likely to oppose increasing the minimum wage. Which group do you imagine was more likely to oppose that increase? You guessed it. Those people being paid just above minimum wage.

Last place aversion.

Well, Pastor, you may say, that’s mildly interesting. But what’s it got to do with anything here today? I’m so glad you asked!

Jesus turns decisively toward Jerusalem in Luke 9:51. On the way, Jesus and his entourage pass through Samaria. Samaria was the territory between Jesus’ homeland of Galilee in the north and Judea, the location of Jerusalem in the south. Jews regarded the Samaritans as half-breed heretics and traitors. They intermarried with conquerors over the centuries. And they worshiped at a temple on Mt. Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem.

The Samaritans were regarded by many Jews as the lowest of the low. The urgency of Jesus’ mission is underscored by the fact that he passes through Samaria.

It was ancient tradition that local folks, regardless of their background, would offer hospitality to travelers. In the first village they come across, Jesus’ followers are rejected and refused.

James and John regard the rebuff as the highest possible insult. I can imagine something like this going through their minds. “We may be hicks from the Galilean boonies and backwaters. But at least we’re not those damned Samaritans!” I’m not swearing here. At least some Jews were sure that Samaritans were cursed by God.

Now we get to one of the awful parts of the text. “Lord,” James and John ask, “do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” We don’t have to put up with such treatment from those low-lifes. If we do, those bottom feeders will be one up on us. And we can’t let that happen.

Last place aversion.

That psychological reality is written into the fabric of the New Testament. You may not know it, but it is written into the fabric of American history as well.

In 1675 Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion against wealthy landowners in the colony of Virginia. Late in the rebellion, as things weren’t going well, Bacon offered the promise of freedom to white and black indentured servants and Native Americans if they would fight on his side. More than seventy men of all colors took him up on the promise.

In the end, Bacon’s forces lost, and Bacon died from typhus fever. But the wealthy white men learned a powerful lesson. If all the folks at the bottom ever joined forces, they could overthrow the ladder of privilege that kept them all in their place.

The wealthy folks separated out the poor whites from the Blacks and Native Americans. They offered the poor whites legal, economic, and social privileges. The price of those privileges was cooperation in enslaving the Blacks and the Native Americans.

The historian, James Rice, described the situation like this. The alliance of rich and poor Whites “forced Indians and Africans to shoulder the burden of resolving the tensions and divisions within white colonial society.”[ii] Clyde Ford says that “liberty and equality are possible for the privileged few, because they are denied to a great many, based on the color of one’s skin. That fundamental equation,” Ford concludes, “is as true today as it was in the late seventeenth century.”[iii]

Last place aversion.

This is very odd for us who follow Jesus. Just a few verses before our text, the disciples argue about which one of them was the greatest. They may all have felt superior to the accursed Samaritans, but there was still the matter of their internal pecking order.

Jesus puts a child on the seat beside him. “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me,” Jesus tells the disputing disciples in Luke 9:48, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”

For the least among you is the greatest. We’re Last Place Lovers. That’s the discipleship standard. And it’s one of the things that makes us Jesus followers so weird. But how in the world can it be true?

If there’s anything we can say about the God we meet in Jesus, it’s this. You are first in God’s heart. So am I. So is every bit of this beloved Creation. There’s no point in trying to protect my place in the Kingdom of God. Jesus already has that covered.

That’s the good news for today. Last Place Aversion is a waste of time. We’re Last Place Lovers, because we’re all first place with God. So, James and John, the only heavenly fire you’ll get is the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That fire calls people of every time and place into God’s beloved family. And in that family, everyone is in first place.

What does this mean for us? I’ll make a few brief suggestions. When I’m worried about my spot on the ladder, I’m getting this Jesus-following thing wrong. The Spirit helps me let go of that worry every day.

Whenever we get the chance to dismantle and demolish human hierarchies, we Jesus followers should be part of that work. These are the things that Paul calls the works of the flesh in Galatians 5. I’m thinking about racism, misogyny, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism for starters. We live in a time when some folks want to put all the old hierarchies back in place. So, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

Whenever I get the chance to lift up anyone in a last place, I need to jump at the chance. That’s what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit. I pray that you and I can be bear that fruit fully and daily. Amen.


[i] “LAST-PLACE AVERSION”: EVIDENCE AND REDISTRIBUTIVE IMPLICATIONS. Ilyana Kuziemko Ryan W. Buell Taly Reich Michael I. Norton. Working Paper 17234. http://www.nber.org/papers/w17234. NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138 July 2011.

[ii] Quoted in Clyde W. Ford, Of Blood and Sweat, page 117.

[iii] Ibid.

Text Study for Luke 8:26-39 (Part One)

Who are you? It seems like a simple question.

My name is Lowell Hennigs. Yet, that doesn’t really answer the question. A name is a label. It’s not an identity. A name is handy handle to holler across a crowded room. But it doesn’t tell you who I am.

At times, people thought names meant more. A name could describe or even determine a person’s character. It could identify an ancestor’s vocation. It’s not hard to see where people got last names like Butcher, Baker, Carpenter, or Plumber. Even now, parents hope children’s names might matter. We name our children sometimes to carry our hopes and dreams for their futures.

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Yet, there’s more to me than my name. My name is an identifier, not an identity. “I am large,” Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, “I contain multitudes.” Think for a moment of your multitudes. I am a spouse, a parent, a friend (or enemy). I am a neighbor. I’m retired and still a pastor. I am white, cisgender, straight, and male. I’m a citizen. I’m a Lutheran Christian. And much more.

Some of my selves work together. Others contradict or even conflict. Some of my selves are dominant and obvious. Some are in the background or mere relics of my past. Some of my selves are more masks than identities. Someone asks me, “Who are you?” That’s hard to say. Identity is a moving target, a work in progress, a complicated dance.

Jesus travels from his home country of Jewish Galilee to the Gentile territory of Gerasa. Gerasa is on the Other Side. It’s on the other side of the Sea of Galilee physically and geographically. Gerasa is also on the Other Side in religious, political, and ethnic terms. Jesus enters foreign territory. Who knows what might happen in such a strange place?

Jesus barely hits the ground, and all hell breaks loose. That’s not a profanity. It’s a literal description. A local, filled with demons, accosts Jesus. It seems that Jesus commands the unclean spirit to leave the man. The spirit, still in the man, falls at Jesus’ feet in obedience and begs for mercy. Jesus asks him, “What is your name?”

It’s not clear if Jesus is addressing the man or the spirit at this moment. But the spirit answers. “Legion,” the spirit replies, “for (Luke tells us) many demons had entered him.” Legion? That’s an odd name. What’s going on here?

At the start of the story, we might have considered the man mentally ill. We wouldn’t be far wrong. The man’s neighbors had tried to protect him and themselves by restraining the man. If they didn’t care about his welfare, they might have simply put him out of his misery. But they tried to help him.

Those efforts failed. The man was so desperate for freedom that he rejected the limitations even of clothing. He fled human company to be free or to protect others from himself, or both. He wandered in a local graveyard as one who was already dead.

I can imagine such a man on the streets of our city. Most of us no longer attribute such a condition to demonic possession. Yet, with all our scientific advances, we don’t manage some of our neighbors who battle their own Legions much better than did the first-century Gerasenes.

Jesus asked him (or them), “What is your name?” The reply is no accident. My identity comes, in part, from inside myself. But it also comes from outside of me. It comes from the people and systems and forces that connect me to the world that isn’t me. The demonic name reflects a system and forces that are literally driving the man out of his mind.

My family has formed me. My communities shape me. I don’t create the laws and rules, values and histories, of this land. I didn’t sign up in advance to be white or male or cis or straight. For that matter, I didn’t check the boxes for left-handed or partially color-blind. I didn’t whip up Christianity or democracy or capitalism in my spare time. Yet, all these externals make me, at least in part, what I am.

Nor did I create the racism in which I’ve grown and live. I didn’t manufacture the homophobia, the transphobia, or the misogyny in which I’ve grown and live. I didn’t invent the classism, the ableism, the imperialism, or all the other “isms” that shape my life and worldview. Yet, they are part of who I am. These forces seek to possess me, to use me, even to destroy me. If these forces get a deep enough hold on me, they can literally drive me out of my mind.

For the man among the tombs, the external forces wore the face of the Roman Empire. A legion may have been an army of demons. It was also six thousand well-armed and highly trained Imperial invaders. They controlled thought and extorted taxes. The man lived with a system that demanded obedience and conformity on the pain of death. This system called violence peace, extortion prosperity, and oppression freedom. Such a system would make any person more than a little crazy.

When Jesus comes, the demons must go. I hope that’s a thought you’ll take with you. The only question is where the expelled Legion will land. Jesus allows them temporary refuge in a herd of hogs. But the poor piggies cannot tolerate the invasion any better than the man in the graveyard. The demons join the pigs in a watery grave.

When Jesus comes, the demons must go.

Now we see the man, for the first time, for who he really is. We see him for himself. His neighbors find him healed and saved. He’s fully dressed and completely lucid. Most important, he’s sitting at Jesus’ feet.

Who does that posture mean in the gospels? Disciples sit at Jesus’ feet. Jesus sets the man free. In that freedom, the man becomes himself. And he becomes a Jesus-evangelist in his hometown.

What is your name?

What makes you “you”? Paul wrestles with the Galatian Christians over this question. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ,” Paul writes in Galatians 3:27, “have clothed yourselves with Christ.” The real key to our identity is not who we are but whose we are. The man became most fully himself when he took his place as a disciple at the feet of Jesus. What might that mean for us?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor. He participated in the German resistance plot to remove Adolf Hitler during World War II. The plot failed. The Nazis threw Bonhoeffer in prison. He was hanged there on April 9, 1945.

In prison, Bonhoeffer wrote letters reflections, and sermons. He also wrote poetry. One poem was titled, “Who Am I?” Bonhoeffer knew he was not only the bold disciple face he presented to his captors and cellmates. He knew he was also afraid, depressed, lonely, weary, empty, and ready for it all to end. Like Whitman, Bonhoeffer “contained multitudes.”

Bonhoeffer ends his poem with these words. “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!” Bonhoeffer had no time for illusions. Real life tears away the false and fragile identities we create. What is left, for me at least, is this calm assurance. Whoever I am, O God, I am yours.

I hope you can take that Good News with you today.

So, we aren’t imprisoned by identities we create to defend ourselves and dominate others. Nor are we defined and determined by identities that others try to force upon us. We can be freed from the legions that want to destroy us. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” Paul writes, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

If my primary identity gives me power, position, and privilege, that identity is bondage, not freedom. On this one hundred fifty-seventh anniversary of Juneteenth, we can celebrate with our Black sisters and brothers a triumph of human identity over the forces of power, position, and privilege. If you don’t know and celebrate the story of Juneteenth, I hope you will seek out the resources to help you know and understand.

Last Friday was the seventh anniversary of the murder of the Emanuel Nine is Charleston, South Carolina. This was an example of White Christian Nationalist identity as dominance and death. It’s clear that we White people continue to live in and benefit from a system that believes difference is for domination. That system of White supremacy is demonic and continues to make people crazy in a variety of ways. Faithful disciples reject that system and work to dismantle it.

Who are you? That’s the question of the day. How do my actions and commitments answer that question? I hope you’ll spend time thinking about your answers this week.

Text Study for Day of Pentecost 2022 (Part Two)

Karoline Lewis suggests, in Sermon Brainwave podcasts, that we preachers need to “pick our Spirit” on the Day of Pentecost. In light of the significant differences between the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John, that suggestion makes good sense. Nonetheless, it also strikes me that the accounts have something significant in common.

Both the Acts 2 account and the Johannine story have the same basic players in narratives involving the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Acts, we are reminded in clear and graphic terms that Judas, one of the Twelve, betrayed Jesus to the authorities and suffered a gruesome and guilt-wracked death. In the Johannine account, we read about the Paraclete after Judas has exited the scene to hand Jesus over.

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Peter preaches his great sermon in Acts 2. Yet, this is the same Peter who denied Jesus three times before the crucifixion. This is the same Peter who declares in the Johannine account that he will go and die with Jesus. Yet, when crunch time arrives, he declares with the same vehemence that his is not one of Jesus’ disciples. This is the same Peter who gets a great deal of bad press from Paul in Galatians. And this is the same Peter who needs rehabilitation and a new vocation in John 21.

The other disciples are also present in each of the scenes. These are the ones who questioned, doubted, and resisted Jesus’ message. They didn’t get it, even though others did. They jockeyed for position and power. They wanted to call down fire from heaven on recalcitrant Samaritans. They wanted to shoo away the needy and vulnerable from Jesus’ care and attention. They were flummoxed by the bread and terrified by the storms.

Whether we are in the Book of Acts or the Gospel of John, these are the folks who serve as the foundation of the Christian movement. They don’t seem to be the best choices for the job.

There is this old joke. Jesus has just risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. He is hanging out with some angels on the clouds. They are looking down upon the earth.

 One angel says, “Lord, that was amazing; we thought you were a “goner”. We thought it was over. But then, you rose from the dead. You trampled death under your feet. You’ve defeated Satan! What’s next?” Jesus answered, “I left a handful of people who really believe in me, and they are going to tell the world about me and make disciples.”

The angels were stunned. They simply stared at Jesus. The silence got to the point of being uncomfortable. Finally, one angel tentatively asked, “Lord, what is Plan B?”

Jesus answered, “There is No Plan B”.

If I am going to preach on the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit in some way this Sunday, then certainly I need to make some choices. But if I’m going to focus on the ones whom the Spirit fills and sends forth into the world, I don’t need to make such choices. In each account it’s the same motley crew that makes up the first generation of the Church.

That fact gives me great hope — not because of the motley crew, but because of what the Spirit can do with such a questionable lot.

The institutional Christian church around the world is in deep distress at this moment. The Russian Orthodox church is a willing tool of the Russian imperial project (and hopes that project can be a tool for the resurgence of that church). The Southern Baptist Convention is embroiled in conflict and controversy after an independent report detailing the amount and frequency of sexual abuse on the part of SBC clergy and the lengths to which the church bureaucracy has gone to cover up both the abuse and the scandal. Already that bureaucracy is trying to tell us that there’s nothing to see here, but there is.

The statistical connection between White Christian evangelicals and both White Christian Nationalism and fostering gun violence is clear and shocking. No matter what other variables might be involved, the Evangelical movement is deeply implicated in the violent, anti-democratic, racist project that animates the current ideological Right in the United States.

I wish that my own theological tradition and its institutional expressions were exempt from the disaster and decay. The president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is urging an LCMS college to take the opportunity during their presidential search to restore a theological commitment to white supremacy and political quietism. While he doesn’t use those words, that’s the impact of his instructions. There’s no concern about making the LCMS White again. The task is simply to keep the White people in charge.

The ELCA faces a developing crisis around the actions of the bishop of the Sierra Pacific synod. A report has come out in the last few days that details patterns of racism, abuse of power, and cover-up. The bishop in question has doubled down on the rightness of their actions and is supported by the majority of that synod’s governing council. In spite of the fact that the report recommended formal disciplinary action by the denominational bishop, that denominational bishop left the decision to resign in the hands of the alleged perpetrator. Now, the shit has hit the fan for the denomination. I suspect that the resignations which result will be multiple.

The ELCA’s largest seminary, Luther, has its own controversy. Students, joined by some faculty and staff, are pressing the seminary to engage in the process to become a Reconciling in Christ seminary – an institution that formally and fully welcomes, embraces, and includes members of the LGBTQIA+ community as students, faculty, staff, and candidates for rostered ministry. The seminary administration has engaged in bureaucratic sleight of hand and behind the scenes power plays to suppress this conversation and controversy. But the issue is not going to go away quietly, even though the end of an academic term may give the seminary a bit of breathing space.

I rehearse the previous paragraphs in part to get some of this garbage out of my brain for a few moments. As I reread this brief (and tendentious) account, I am tempted to despair of any hope for the institutional church. I, too, would like to know if there’s a Plan B. And I sigh with the knowledge that there is not.

Then I look in the mirror and am reminded that this is not merely about that terrible Church “out there.” I am ashamed of large parts of the institutional church at this moment. I also know that at times that church has had good reason to be ashamed of me as well. Just as I bemoan the self-serving mediocrities that we find in leadership in my own and other denominations, I remember that I have spent time as a similar self-serving mediocrity when faced with real challenges in the church and the world. The brickbats I throw at church leaders routinely bounce back and hit me as well.

I don’t remember this merely to write off the bad behavior of the institutional church under the cheap grace of “all have sinned,” etc. No, church leaders and structures are currently accelerating the already troubling decline in church structures and systems we have know for several generations. The prediction that the ELCA may disappear as a functioning entity by 2050 seems more real and likely at this moment than it did a year ago.

All that being said, I think about that first Pentecost and the characters who were filled with the Spirit. Perhaps the real miracle of Pentecost is that the Spirit can take such characters and build a church at all. If that is the real miracle of Pentecost, then that miracle is not a one-off affair. Instead, that Pentecost miracle continues to happen day in and day out, week in and week out, in our communities of faith. I know many, many competent and committed Christians who engage in works of justice, love, and mercy in the name of Jesus. But even the best of us are broken, fallible, and afraid. Yet, the Spirit continues to build and to use the Church.

The Book of Acts reminds us, of course, that some sorting is necessary for the life and health of the Church. We should never preach the joy of Pentecost without recalling the tragedy of Ananias and Sapphira, for example. I suspect that many of the leaders I mentioned above will not be part of how the Church moves forward in mission, in light of the mistakes and malfeasance of the past and present. But the Spirit will find others to take up the cause.

Here, perhaps, is the place to move to the Romans 8 passage. Whether we describe the Spirit in terms of Acts 2 or John 14, the result of that endowment is the courage to live and act as children of God, “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” God sends the Holy Spirit so that the Church may continue the work of Christ in the world and to do “greater works” still. That all happens, not because anyone is particularly competent or qualified. Rather, that all happens because the Spirit makes it so.

There is hope for us yet.

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Text Study for Day of Pentecost 2022

If there is any historical moment that demands some homiletical work on the ethnic diversity in Acts 2, this is the time. The “Great Replacement Theory” of White Supremacy is in the headlines. States continue to pass laws banning the discussion of racism as a central feature of American history under the façade of opposition to the teaching of Critical Race Theory. White Christian Nationalism is no longer a construction of the lunatic fringe, hiding in the intellectual and informational shadows. It is now a talking point for a number of local, state, and federal candidates for elected office.

These ideas are embodied in individual and institutional lives, and on the basis of these ideas, people are being murdered.

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We all know that we prefer to gather with people “like us.” That’s been demonstrated in numerous psychological and sociological experiments and studies. The “us” that we are “like” is a socially constructed reality. Race, class, gender, generation, national origin, political affiliation, and other differences are things that at some point did not exist as they are now. Therefore, these realities were created, not discovered. What can be made can be unmade as well, even if that unmaking is difficult.

We prefer to gather with people “like us” especially when that gathering supports and enhances our self-interest. We tend to gather in ways that promote our power and privilege. Then we tell stories to account for the “like” and “unlike” we have constructed – stories that root our power and privilege either in our natural superiority, the natural inferiority of the “unlikes,” and/or some combination of both. The historic construction of Whiteness in the Enlightenment era West is a textbook example of the formation of such a story.

The Pentecost narrative in Acts 2 is all about embracing and celebrating our God-created differences. It is a text that rejoices in all the “unlikes” who hear the Good News of Jesus Christ in the Temple that day. I would encourage you to read and reflect on Eric Barreto’s article at enterthebible.org as you prepare for this Sunday. I want to engage in a bit of that reflection here as well.

“Too often, Christians have hoped for a time when our differences would cease,” Barreto writes, “when in Christ we would all be indistinguishable. Such impulses,” he argues, “are earnest but fundamentally misguided.” I’m not so sure about the “earnest but misguided” piece.

I have served my entire adult life in a denomination which has expressed that hope for the disappearance of differences in a variety of ways. There was a time when my denomination aspired to have one in ten of its members to be BIPOC (although the term wasn’t current thirty-five years ago). What we should have known and only gradually admitted was that this was an assimilationist and colonialist strategy.

The ten percent solution, if it had come to pass, would have provided an ideological salve to the consciences of White Lutherans who knew that our segregationist history and practices were contrary to the inclusive nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This solution would have been just enough “diversity” to meet our institutional needs but not enough to bring about even a small bit of transformation.

An incarnation of this Whiteness protection strategy was the effort to launch and plant ethnic-focused ELCA congregations in communities of color. These projects were required to conform to the standards of the White power structure of the denomination and to operate according to the neoliberal economic model of financial self-sufficiency within three years (or else). Those congregations formed in economically oppressed communities that could not meet the financial independence standard were either shuttered or regarded as embarrassing liabilities.

I write this as one who has participated in efforts to achieve the ten percent solution personally and institutionally. As a denomination, we now know better – at least in theory. We would be well-served to make financial and institutional reparations to those communities which we sought to exploit for our own emotions and ends.

I could rehearse much more history regarding our failed and disingenuous efforts at racial “reconciliation,” diversity training, additional efforts at institutional representation, corporate repentance and apology, and shared leadership. These efforts have not all failed or been unconsciously cynical ploys to make our White selves feel better. There has been some good mixed in, but on balance we have failed as a denomination, judicatories, congregations, and individual White believers.

Barreto encourages us to allow Pentecost to “help us think differently about difference.” We humans prefer to gather with people “like us.” But the mania for monoculture is a mark of sin, not a sign of the coming Reign of God. “Simply, diversity is one of God’s greatest gifts to the world,” Barreto writes. “At Pentecost, God through the Spirit does not erase our differences,” he continues, “but embraces the fact that God has made us all so wonderfully different.”

Barreto disputes the reading of Acts 2 that regards the event as a reversal of the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis 11. He argues that such a connection misreads what happened in Genesis. The “confusion” of languages was not a punishment for the arrogance of the Tower builders. “Is it really a punishment from God that we are all different, that we speak different languages and live in different cultures?” Barreto asks. “That is, is difference a problem in need of a solution? I certainly don’t think so,” he continues, “and the vibrancy of the world’s cultures is evidence against this misreading of Babel.”

In fact, the gift of the multiple languages in Genesis 11 protects the Tower builders from themselves and their own hubris in seeking to become like God and to take heaven by storm. This is the conclusion of the Primeval history that began in Genesis 2, when the man and the woman, desiring to be like God, took the fruit and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was the uniformity of language and the collective arrogance that uniformity facilitated which was the danger in this text.

Difference is not only good (indeed, it is). It is a way that God saves us from ourselves, from our sinful desire to create a god in our image rather than to live as those created in the image of God.

Barreto asks an important exegetical question. If, in fact, Pentecost reversed Babel by undoing the multiplicity of human languages, why then did the listeners in the Temple hear the gospel, each in their own languages? And, I would add, why is that diversity of ethno-linguistic groups so lovingly detailed in the text if the purpose is to wipe out that diversity? “Why not cause everyone to understand one, universal, heavenly language?” Barreto asks.

His answer is worth quoting. “Perhaps because the writer of Acts does not understand Babel to be a punishment God inflicted upon us. Perhaps because Acts understands Babel as an expression of God’s greatest hopes for all of humankind, not a punishment. Perhaps because Acts understands God’s commitments to our differences” (my emphasis added).

I like that phrase, “God’s commitments to our differences.” If God preferred to gather with those “like God,” then God would spend eternity enjoying the diversity of the Triune community. God must like diversity, otherness, difference. Otherwise, there would not have been a Creation. No finite creature can be “like God” in any substantive way. We can and do reflect the image and likeness of God, as human beings. And, miracle of miracles, we each do it in a different way!

Therefore, we humans would most fully reflect the image and likeness of God by gathering with people who are not “like us.” I cannot reflect the image and likeness of God by myself. I can only do so in the company of others who are not me and not like me. Yet, we White Christians continue to gather in our segregated congregations and to act as if it’s all good.

“I think this is one of the most powerful messages of white supremacy,” Robin DiAngelo writes in Nice Racism, “there is no inherent loss in leading a segregated life.” I can live my entire White life with no significant interaction with BIPOC people. And I can live that way under the impression that nothing is missing or deficient. “Most white people will go from cradle to grave with few if any authentic sustained cross-racial relationships with Black people,” DiAngelo continues, “and not see that anything of value is missing” (page 83, my emphasis).

I can only plead guilty as charged and work now to do better because I know better. I’m not doing very well, and neither is my denomination.

“Lots of Christians hope to transcend ethnic division by erasing ethnicity,” Greg Cary writes in his online comments for The Christian Century. “’I don’t see color,’ some will say. But Acts sees in color and values ethnic difference,” Cary continues. “Acts imagines unity that embraces diversity rather than bleaching it out. The miracle of Pentecost is not that one language brings everyone together. It is not that everyone learns English Aramaic,” Cary concludes. “It is that all the people hear the gospel in their own languages.”

The texts for the Day of Pentecost and for the Sundays following will offer the opportunity for sustained reflection on God’s delight in difference and our calling to embody and enact that delight as followers of Jesus. I will seek to lift up those opportunities, and I hope you will partner in that effort.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin. Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm. Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 2021.

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Text Study for John 13:31-35 (Part Four)

Toward the end of Martin Luther’s The Freedom of the Christian, Luther offers a section entitled “Concerning Works for the Neighbor.” Luther roots works of love for the neighbor in our trust in God because of Christ. Since we receive all that God has to offer for free, by grace, and accept that grace through faith, we are freed to do everything in love for God who loves us completely. “Therefore, I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor,” Luther writes, “just as Christ offered himself to me” (page 524).

This is the first of several expressions of “Luther’s Golden Rule.” While the more familiar form of the Golden Rule is something like “do to others as you would have them do to you,” Luther’s expression of the Golden rule is different. For me as a disciple, what I would wish done to me is not the standard for measuring and assessing my behavior. God’s grace makes it possible for me to de-center myself and put Jesus in the center of the frame as the standard of loving service.

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Luther reminds his readers that “just as our neighbor has needs and lacks what we have in abundance, so also we had need before God and lacked God’s mercy. For this reason,” he continues, “our heavenly Father supported us freely in Christ, so also we ought to freely support our neighbor with our body and its actions, and each person ought to become to the other a kind of Christ, so that we may be Christs to one another and be the same Christ in all, that is, truly Christians” (page 525).

“Just as I have loved you,” Jesus tells the disciples in John 13:34b (NRSV), “you also should love one another.” The standard for the disciple life in the Johannine account is the active and embodied love that Jesus extends first to us as disciples. “We continue to love,” the writer of the First Letter of John says, “because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19, my translation). That love is to the end, the completion, the uttermost. It is both the means of and the model for our love for one another.

It is not that Luther diminishes the importance of what most people would consider to be “the Golden Rule.” Luther puts his esteem for that rule like this. “Look here!” he proclaims, “This should be the rule: that the good things we have from God may flow from one person to the other and become common property. In this way,” he continues, “each person may ‘put on’ his [or her] neighbor and conduct oneself toward him [or her] as if in the neighbor’s place” (page 530). That’s a pretty strong endorsement of “the Golden Rule” (and a nod toward Luther’s socialist tendencies, at least within the Christian community).

The rationale for this rule, however, (according to Luther) is not because it’s a wonderful general principle for human conduct – although it is certainly that. Instead, love for neighbor is rooted in Christ’s love for us. “Just as my faith and righteousness ought to be placed before God to cover and intercede for the neighbor’s sins, which I take upon myself,” Luther writes, “so also I labor under and am subject to them as if they were my very own. For this,” Luther concludes, “is what Christ did for us. For this is true love and the genuine rule of Christian life” (page 530).

Perhaps we are reminded at this point of Paul’s encouragement to the Galatian Christians. “Bear the burdens of one another, and this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, my translation). Luther brings the final section of is tract to an end in this way. “Therefore we conclude that the Christian individuals do not live in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor, or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith,” Luther writes, “and in the neighbor through love” (page 530). This is, according to Luther, the definition of the “freedom of a Christian.”

Here and elsewhere in his work, Luther is clear that this rule of love is not something we disciples carry out on our own or to our credit. Instead, he argues, in the words of Tuomo Mannermaa, that Christ is present in each of us and all of us through faith. In Johannine terms, the disciples receive the model of this love in John 13, the foot-washing. But it is not until John 20 that they receive the means of this love, when Jesus breathes into them his Holy Spirit.

“Christ is, thus, the true agent of good works in the Christian,” Tuomo Mannermaa writes in Christ Present in Faith (Kindle Location 682). This loving presence of Christ in the disciple makes it possible for the disciple to fulfill the “law of Christ,” what in the Johannine account is now called a “new commandment.” Mannermaa quotes Luther, who puts it this way: “Thus he is a true doer of the Law who receives the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ and then begins to love God and to do good to his neighbor” (Kindle Location 712).

I think the context of our reading has a profound impact on how we understand and then embody this love for one another. As we have noted previously, the new commandment is sandwiched in between references to the betrayal by Judas and the denial by Peter. It is precisely these failed disciples that Jesus loves to the uttermost. Jesus does not love either Judas or Peter because they achieve some required behavioral standard. Jesus does not mandate that they conform to some model of being or behavior. As the First Letter of John reminds us, Christ loves us first.

This is the part that I can write but struggle to accept. Each of us has a story about the formative role of conditional love in our lives. I don’t consider myself exceptional in that regard. Nonetheless, my story is indeed my story. I was trained, as were those who came before me, to believe that loving care was always a reward for performance. That performance might be taking care of the needs of another, having the right answer to a question, or just getting out of the way and trying not to be a bother. In any event, loving care did not come first, but rather second.

And that loving care was conditioned upon my being assimilated to the needs and standards of another or of others. I didn’t suffer nearly as much trauma as many people, so I’m not making a case for some special victimhood here. Instead, I think I’m quite typical and ordinary of our human experience – systems that require us to become something we’re not in order to be embraced and included, at least for the present moment.

Temporary and conditional loving care is not the love that Jesus gives to his disciples (and God to the world). Jesus loves us first, as we are, where we are. We are not called to change in order to be loved. We are loved into the beautiful creations we were always meant by God to be. That is the love present in us by faith in Christ – who gives himself to us to the uttermost and without condition. And this is the love we are empowered to emulate as Jesus’ disciples.

Love one another as Christ loves you. It sounds so simple. But it has revolutionary implications. For example, in our anti-racism book study, we (White participants) continue to reflect on and wrestle with our individual and systemic behaviors that center our Whiteness in our awareness, our actions, and our worldview. That White-centering makes it impossible to love BIPOC folks for themselves. White supremacy means that BIPOC folks are objects to be appropriated into the White story of the world and of individual life. That’s the opposite of loving one another as Christ loves us.

If I am to bear another’s burdens and thus fulfill the Law of Christ, then I must become intimately familiar with those burdens before picking them up. That’s why it is so important to do the work of learning as much as we White people can about the experiences of our BIPOC sisters and brothers in our White-centric culture and churches. This learning requires humility, listening, self-awareness, self-reflection, and repentance. Until we’ve done that work – coming to terms with our White identity – we won’t be either safe or competent in bearing the burdens of others in this culture.

In another line of thought, my enemies are not God’s enemies – or at least are not punished for being anyone’s enemies. I’m leading a brief study on the Book of Jonah both online and in our local congregation. And this is one of the lessons of that little book. Loving as Jesus loves means that my enemies are still objects of God’s love. A preacher might point to the reading from the Book of Acts for Sunday to find additional support for this assertion.

So, my agenda in scapegoating and punishing others does not fit with God’s agenda of giving abundant life to all. If I have higher standards than God in this realm, I should probably re-examine my standards and adjust my thinking. Just as Christ has loved me (and loves me to the end), so I am called daily to love others.

And that’s the Good News…

References and Resources

Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Augsburg Fortress, 2006.

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. Fortress Press, 1998.

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.

MOLONEY, FRANCIS J. “A Sacramental Reading of John 13:1-38.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53, no. 2 (1991): 237–56. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43719525.

van der Merwe, Dirk G.. (2022). The concept and activity of ‘obedience’ in the Gospel of John. Verbum et Ecclesia43(1), 1-9. https://dx.doi.org/10.4102/ve.v43i1.2367.

Wengert, Timothy J. The Freedom of a Christian 1520 (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Fortress Press, 2016.

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Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part Five)

Theorizing and theologizing about trauma are highly visible in my information networks these days. While inter-generational trauma has been a known and acknowledged reality in communities of color for generations, this psychosocial reality has become mainstream in the last few years. A primary reason for this shift is obvious and ubiquitous – the Covid-19 pandemic and its devastating impacts on American society and societies around the globe.

Why does this matter for my writing in this space? One way to examine, interpret, and apply the reading from John 21 is through the lens of trauma theory, theology, and pastoral care. But first, let’s review some of the realities of this historical moment.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

As of this writing, the United States is days from recording the one millionth death from the Covid-19 pandemic. This number is certainly a significant undercount, perhaps as much as 200,000, based on the additional deaths recorded during the pandemic that exceed expected mortality rates. “These immense losses are shaping our country,” Melody Schreiber writes in her Scientific American article, “how we live, work and love, how we play and pray and learn and grow.”

These losses will have generational impacts. This pandemic will be an historic “anchor event” – similar in this way to September 11, 2001, or – to expand the cultural and generational framework – April 4, 1968, or November 23, 1963, or December 7, 1941. For example, Schreiber reports, nearly a quarter of a million children lost a caregiver to COVID. Older Americans as a cohort and communities of color have been particularly hard hit. The consequences of these concentrated impacts will only unfold over the coming decades. “On average,” Schreiber notes, “every death from COVID leaves nine people grieving.”

Other age and social cohorts have been hit in other ways. The death rate among working-age Americans is the highest ever recorded in the experience of the American insurance industry. These death rates are forty percent higher than they were pre-pandemic. By comparison, a ten percent jump in the mortality rate would be considered a once in two hundred years catastrophe. The current death rate is unprecedented.

This working-age death rate was especially concentrated in the fields of food and agriculture, warehouse operations and manufacturing, and transportation and construction. “And working in a nursing home,” Schreiber observes, “has been one of the deadliest jobs in the U.S.” during COVID-time. The overall losses suffered so far are more than double the American deaths recorded during World War II. Just as it has taken generations to process and to continue to grieve those losses, it will take generations to process and grieve the devastation of this pandemic.

Some of the impacts have been immediate. Over one million women so far have left the work force during the pandemic, primarily to deal with disruptions in childcare and other caregiving responsibilities. Many older adults, who were primary caregivers in the unofficial world of childcare, are simply no longer there. This loss has been concentrated in communities of color that depend more heavily on the unofficial childcare network and resources. This loss of primary caregivers has physical and mental health consequences for children as well as economic ones.

“The Bible is one long series of traumatic events and accounts of how people struggle to speak about God in the face of them,” Serene Jones writes in Trauma and Grace. “Two traumatic biblical events jumped out at me immediately,” she continues, “the crucifixion and the resulting trauma of those Christians who experienced it” (Kindle Location 124). The crucifixion was an experience of terror and torture, of humiliation and shame, of personal agony and political theater. “So, for Christianity,” Jones suggests, “understanding trauma is not just a kind of secondary issue—it is rather the most central event of our faith” (Kindle Location 129).

Jennifer Allen writes that all traumatic events cause cultural trauma, a change in the collective identity of group members in response to and in the wake of that traumatic event(s). Allen quotes Jeffrey Alexander in this regard. “Trauma,” Alexander writes, “is not the result of a group experiencing pain. It is the result of this acute discomfort entering into the core of the collectivity’s sense of its own identity” (Allen, page 6). This entry results in an “enculturation” of the trauma which produces shared memories, stories, and interpretations of the traumatic event.

Allen applies these insights to the telling and writing of the gospel accounts. She points, in particular, to Shelly Rambo’s description of the Johannine account as a “survivor narrative.” Allen writes that, “The emphasis on witness and the many post-resurrection narratives in John provides a significant basis for claim-making and transformation of the collective identity” (page 6). The disciples carry the experience of the trauma of the crucifixion (and resurrection) and discern the meaning of these events as they tell and re-tell the gospel stories. In this way, the event changes the collective identity of the group.

“The Christian story is bathed in trauma,” Allen writes, “and in understanding God and our relationship to God in the face of historic, enculturated trauma. It is in the face of the shared narrative of trauma,” she continues, “where Christians can gain an understanding of God and God’s relationship to their own brokenness” (page 12). She argues in her thesis that John 21 offers a story that attempts to explain God’s presence in the trauma and to offer Jesus’ instructions on how to proceed in response to the trauma.

Allen describes Peter in John 21 as a “survivor seeking healing.” He responds to all that has happened by trying to return to the way things used to be when he and his companions worked and lived as Galilean fisherman. I imagine many of us church folk think immediately of the desperate desires in our congregations for things to return as quickly as possible to “the way things were before Covid.” But in John 21, we see that there is no going back to the before times. “Peter’s lack of success in fishing,” Allen argues, “proves that he will not be able to return to life ‘before,’ but will need to reintegrate his life with the presence of trauma” (page 18).

Nonetheless, when (with the prompting of the Beloved Disciple) Peter swims to shore, he seems to rejoice that perhaps he and his companions have gotten past all that unpleasantness and may be able to move on in triumph. The rest of the disciples clearly see that this avoidance and suppression of the traumatic memory isn’t possible. They know who Jesus is but won’t risk talking about how exactly he got from where he was to where he is.

In the threefold questioning, Jesus leads Peter to review and re-narrate Peter’s own place in the traumatic story. Jesus meets Peter where he is and allows Peter to come as far as he can in the conversation but presses him no further for the moment. “In Peter, we see the effects of trauma in their earliest and least processed manifestations,” Allen writes. “Peter has not yet processed the trauma to the point where he is able to share the narrative with others, establish trust, or reconnect relationships,” Allen continues. For Peter to become a “carrier” of the tradition to the community and succeeding generations, “he needs to begin processing his own trauma and he needs a witness who can hear his narrative and help to integrate it into the larger narrative” (page 20-21).

Allen examines the roles of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple in similar ways, and I would encourage readers to take some time with her fine thesis (as well as the books to which she refers). But there is something about Peter in this text that makes him a helpful focus for preaching this week. In our historical moment of trauma, we are, I think, most like Peter. We would like very much to get back to fishing in the way we did before all this stuff began to happen to us.

When I say, “we, of course, I am referring primarily to White, privileged, and propertied people in the United States and western Europe. We are far more accustomed to triumph than we are to trauma. In fact, we love triumph so much that we have willingly inflicted trauma on others – especially upon Native, Black, and Brown people – in order to maintain our triumphant and privileged positions. One of the realities that makes our current trauma so terrifying is that we White, privileged, and propertied people are in the process of “losing” all of that advantage.

It’s no wonder that we want to go back to the way things were, back to fishing as if nothing important had happened. But that’s not an option for us or anyone else. The downstream consequences of the COVID trauma will be with us for generations, just as the consequences of White Supremacy have been visited upon Native, Black, and Brown people for generations. We White people might get our feelings hurt as we hear these stories, but we can either sit and listen, or we can try to silence the testimony with violence.

Allen notes that the Beloved Disciple has made more progress than Peter in processing and integrating the trauma of the cross and resurrection. Thus, the Beloved Disciple serves as both a witness and a partner in Peter’s process, whether Peter wants that to be true or not. Perhaps this is an invitation for us White, privileged, propertied folks to recognize the partnership of the traumatized among us. Now is the time to listen to Native, Black, and Brown people, to women, to the disabled, to the LGBTQIA+ community, to those who do not conform to the tyranny of the “normal.”

They know what we don’t. We may not be able to fish as we once did. But that’s not an end to the old life. It’s an invitation to the new one.

References and Resources

Allen, Jennifer M. “John 21 and Christian Identity: What John’s Gospel Reveals about Cultural Trauma.” https://www.academia.edu/42951581/John_21_and_Christian_Identity_What_Johns_Gospel_Reveals_about_Cultural_Trauma. Accessed April 28, 2022.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kim, Sean Seongik. “The Delayed Call for Peter in John 21:19: To Follow in and by His Love.” Neotestamentica 51, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417485.

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

Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Ramelli, Ilaria. “‘Simon Son of John, Do You Love Me?’ Some Reflections on John 21:15.” Novum Testamentum 50, no. 4 (2008): 332–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25442613.

Schreiber, Melody. “What One Million COVID Dead Mean for the U.S.’s Future.” Scientific American, March 29, 2022. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-one-million-covid-dead-mean-for-the-u-s-s-future/. Accessed April 28, 2022.

SHEPHERD, DAVID. “‘Do You Love Me?’ A Narrative-Critical Reappraisal of Ἀγαπάω and Φιλέω in John 21:15–17.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 777–92. https://doi.org/10.2307/25765966.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.

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Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part One)

You can’t get a new past.

No matter what the science fiction writers propose, past events are fixed, immovable, unchangeable. The past cannot be changed. Only the future is fluid, contingent, still to be determined. This is one of the ways in which we might meditate on this text together. “In short, life is about regrets,” the authors of the Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness write in their preface, “doing what we should not do and not doing what we should. Only the conscienceless,” they conclude, “are immune” (page vii).

I have done a fair bit of work on the subject of forgiveness over the years. I find that the topic of “self-forgiveness” is often the one that occupies much of the conversation for people. I wonder if that was a struggle for Peter as well. The Johannine gospel reports, as do the other gospel accounts, that Peter “denied” his association with Jesus in some way. In the Synoptics, he denies that he knows Jesus. In the Johannine account, Peter denies three times that he is one of Jesus’ disciples (perhaps a greater failing in the framework of the Johannine gospel).

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While Simon Peter is really a bit player in the majority of the Johannine account, here in chapter twenty-one, he takes center stage. He is mentioned by name and by pronoun nearly two dozen times in twenty-five verses. Jesus’ threefold questioning of Peter’s love for him makes it clear that this chapter is the epilogue for the denial narrative and for the gospel account as a whole. Peter cannot deny his denial but rather must deal with it if he is to function as one of the risen Lord’s disciples. So, there is a reckoning in this chapter.

You can’t get a new past. So, what is Peter to do? “In contrast to strategies to cope with wrongdoing by either accepting responsibility or prioritizing oneself over others,” the editors of the Handbook write in their preface, “forgiving oneself entails accepting responsibility for violation of a socio-moral value while also accepting oneself as a person of value” (page viii). It doesn’t appear, from the text, that this sort of self-forgiveness will suffice for Simon Peter.

Thus, he goes back to what he knows. He returns to who he was before this three-year journey with Jesus began. “I’m going fishing,” he tells six of the other disciples. These six include the main disciple characters in the Johannine account, although their identities are rolled out a bit slowly. They decide to go along and get back to the work that they know as well. But there’s no real future in that work. They catch nothing.

The first scene in this text is one of quiet despair in the dark. You can’t get a new past. Peter doesn’t know how to move into the future, carrying the burden of that past with him. There they sit in the boat, at night, doing that which takes as little thinking as possible. It is a poignant picture of anyone who is caught in the dead-end of guilt and shame for a past sin.

Then, the sun comes up. This is the Johannine account, so every small detail matters. Dawn is resurrection time, as we know from the gospel report. New light brings the possibility of new life. Perhaps there is some path forward into a life that is more than an endless cycle of rumination, regret, remorse, and self-recrimination. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu noted, there is no future without forgiveness. But perhaps with forgiveness there is also a future.

Tutu wrote his book to report and reflect on the work and experiences of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa. Tutu was the chair and guiding light of that commission. One option in the aftermath of that diabolical system was to simply condemn the perpetrators en masse and abandon them to perdition. Tutu and others discerned that such a path would leave South African society hobbled by the past and destined to a hate-filled future.

Thus, he was certain that there could be no future for that society without a process for confronting the evil, hearing the testimonies of both perpetrators and victims, fostering accountability and forgiveness (if appropriate and helpful), and finding paths toward rehabilitation and hope.

“The point is that, if perpetrators were to be despaired of as monsters and demons,” Tutu wrote, “then we were thereby letting accountability go out the window because we were then declaring that they were not moral agents to be held responsible for the deeds they had committed. Much more importantly,” Tutu continued, “it meant that we abandoned all hope of their being able to change for the better” (page 83).

I cannot get a new past. But I am not imprisoned by that past to pursue an unchanging destiny either. I can be changed. I can grow. I can hear the call to follow Jesus and respond with a life of discipleship. The future is history still to be written. And that future history, as we read in our text, is to be written in the language of love.

“God loves me as I am to help me become all that I have it in me to become,” Tutu writes, “and when I realize the deep love God has for me, I will strive for love’s sake to do what pleases my Lover. Those who think this opens the door for moral laxity,” he continues, “have obviously never been in love, for love is much more demanding than law” (page 85). Thus, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

What follows this question is not an accusation. We might have asked a similar question and followed up with something like, “Then how could you have denied in public three times that you were not one of my disciples? What kind of love does that!” I might have pushed for an explanation of the misdeed, a way to make sense of why a supposed loved one did such a thing to me. I have asked such questions, and I have been asked such questions. If I loved you, how in the world could I have done that thing that hurt you so much?

On the one hand, Jesus already knew the answer to the question about the past. Peter denied his discipleship because acknowledging it would have cost him his life. It wasn’t a hard thing to figure out. On the other hand, what explanation would have really helped? If I could give an adequate explanation for why I hurt and betrayed someone I loved, then that explanation would become a justification for the action. And, Voila! I would no longer be guilty and in need of forgiveness.

To forgive is first of all to accuse, as the French proverb reminds us. And to repent is first of all to confess. Confession is not explanation. Confession is not self-justification. Confession is not spreading the blame or defending the action. Confession is acknowledging that I did something wrong (or failed to do something right). The result was that someone else got hurt. No, I hurt someone. End of discussion.

“Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are,” Tutu writes. “It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation,” he continues, “exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but, in the end, it is worthwhile,” Tutu argues, “because in the end dealing with the real situation brings about real healing. Spurious reconciliation can bring only spurious healing” (pages 270-271).

The breakfast on the beach is certainly a meal of reconciliation. It has echoes of the feeding of the Five Thousand and thus is the Johannine author’s way of connecting us to the Eucharistic meal. Yet, that meal of reconciliation is not the end of the scene. Therefore, when they were done eating, the Johannine account says, the conversation began. “Simon of John, do you love me more that these?”

If you do, Jesus says, then put that love into action now and in the future. Love the ones I love in the way that I love them. Peter, you can’t get a new past. But you can live into a new future – one that is not bound to the brokenness of that past. For Christians, all hope is resurrection hope. And for Christians, the outcome of forgiveness is always new life, both now and forever.

We all know that we can’t get a new past. We can suppress and deny that past. Or we can confront that past, take responsibility for it, make repairs in whatever manner possible, and live in ways that prevent us from repeating that past. These changes may be painful. They may even cost some of us our lives (as was the case for Peter). But without forgiveness, our futures will be just more of the same.

I think it’s impossible, or at least irresponsible, to read this text without thinking about what it means for systemic racism and anti-Blackness in our American history and in our current lives. We will think together about those implications as we move forward this week.

References and Resources

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.

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