Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 39)

The observant reader of the Gospels will be aware of the fact that this is not the only record of Jesus’ invective against these Pharisees and experts in religious law.  Turning to the Gospel of Matthew, we find a similar record in the twenty-third chapter.  With Matthew’s placement, we find the words being spoken in an entirely different setting, in both time and place.  Though there are numerous similarities and points of agreement between the pronouncing of woes and associated words, there are some differences.  At first glance, this may seem to be another instance of disagreement between the accounts of Luke and Matthew.  While this may be a possibility, it need not necessarily be the case, as it would be unwise to presume that Jesus only spoke words such as these on just one occasion. 

A significant difference is the fact that Matthew has Jesus saying these things after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, whereas in Luke they are spoken while Jesus is en route to Jerusalem, in the section of Luke that is broadly referred to as the “travel narrative.”  In Matthew, the speech comes on the heels of Jesus being questioned by the Sadducees, Pharisees, and experts in religious law, all in turn.  Following Jesus’ final response, the episode closes with “No one was able to answer Him a word, and from that day on no one dared to question Him any longer” (22:46).  In Luke, we’ll find that Jesus continues to be questioned on a number of occasions.  Combined with the fact that the diatribe in Matthew is significantly longer and more detailed than what we find in Luke, we can take confidence in the fact that this is a critical speech, with shorter and longer versions, that Jesus delivered on a number of occasions. 

Another point of observation is that in Matthew the pronouncement of woes is not directed specifically to the religious leaders, but is said to be directed to “the crowds and to His disciples” (23:1b).  Though we can be sure that the religious leaders were present, Jesus appears to be speaking about them, rather than to them, on the heels of a series of what look like challenges to His rabbinic authority.  This is not the same situation to be found in Luke.  There, Jesus is speaking directly to the religious leaders, and is prompted to deliver the speech by something of an accusation by an astonished Pharisee.  With Matthew’s narrative presentation, Jesus moves from His wielding of woes to a lament for Jerusalem, which is then followed by a sustained discourse that begins with a pronouncement of the Temple’s destruction, which Jesus said would mark the end of the age.  Luke’s presentation closes with the record of a hostile plot in which an attempt would be made to catch Jesus in His words. 

One similarity that may escape notice is that Luke’s particular record of this particular instance of Jesus making this particular speech culminates with what must be interpreted as a growing animosity between Jesus and His challengers.  So it would seem that Jesus was attempting to provoke this type of response, setting Himself up for further questions and further challenges.  As was previously noted, this was not the case with Matthew, as the damning discourse follows Matthew’s insistence that there would be no more questions.  In the case of Luke, the fact that Jesus is being provocative is obvious on the surface.  For Matthew, it is a bit less obvious, though it is there.  We can look at the fact that Matthew’s record is longer and more detailed, along with the fact that Jesus is now at Jerusalem following His acclaimed entry, together with His words spoken against the Temple (and therefore against the Temple authorities), as Jesus’ attempt to provoke the response that would eventually land Him on the cross. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly as it pertains to our larger project, which is that of fitting these records into our examination of Jesus’ words to the church at Laodicea, is the fact that Luke makes it a point to present Jesus as being at a meal when He says these things.  Because of the disparities in details between the two accounts that let us know that Jesus offered up these sayings on at least two occasions (which allows us to surmise that Jesus made use of them on more than two occasions), it is quite telling that Luke provides his account of an oft-repeated speech of Jesus with a meal as the backdrop.  Though we may seem incredibly far afield from the letter to the Laodiceans, and though this excursion through the Gospels has dwelt on some irrelevant points as we attempt to pin down the real-life and important issues at hand in Laodicea during John’s time, we cannot lose sight of the fact that Jesus insists on the fact that He wants to come in and share a meal.  This fact continues to turn all of the meal references within the Jesus tradition into points of weighty concern, and serves to bring the picture being painted by Jesus through John into a consistently sharper focus. 

By the time we are finished, we will have done away with useless anachronisms that would have been meaningless to the Laodiceans and therefore meaningless to us as well; and finally, we will have something tangible upon which to grasp so that we might escape an encumbrance in that which gives Jesus a desire to vomit members of His church from out of His mouth.               

Monday, November 29, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 38)

Jesus does not quickly discontinue His diatribe against these Pharisees that He finds questioning Him yet again.  He continues on with a blasting and withering oration, saying “Woe to you Pharisees!  You love the best seats in the synagogues and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces!  Woe to you!  You are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it!” (Luke 11:43-44)  Though one of the “experts in religious law” (11:45a) spoke up to let Jesus know that He was being remarkably offensive with His words, Jesus continued on in a way that let these men know, in no uncertain terms, that He found their kingdom-and-light-withholding ways offensive.  He goes on to say, “Woe to you experts in religious law as well!  You load people down with burdens difficult to bear, yet you yourselves refuse to touch the burdens with even one of your fingers!  Woe to you!   You build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed.  So you testify that you approve of the deeds of your ancestors, because they killed the prophets and you build their tombs!” (11:46-48) 

As we read these words, let us not fall back into the long-placed trap of imagining that Jesus is railing against their “works-based” religion, whereas He was attempting to bring forth a faith based upon a recognition of grace.  This is not, nor was it ever the issue at hand.  By mentioning the prophets, Jesus calls their attention to the underlying message of the prophets, primarily directed at the leaders of the people, which called attention to the failure to properly bear the covenant with which they had been charged, usually by entering into idolatry, and thereby failing to serve as a light to the nations that would draw people to the recognition and worship of Israel’s God---the Creator God.  Now that idolatry in the traditional sense had been effectively put away and was no longer a problem, intensification of the demands of the law so as to bring about the establishment of the kingdom of heaven was a new form of idolatry that served to create more and more barriers to a widespread awareness of God. 

The issue was not one of works of the law versus grace and faith, but rather, exclusivism and isolation in an attempt to keep God’s covenantal promises for themselves versus truly functioning as lights for the world and extenders of the Abrahamic covenant.  Truly, if one is so caught up in and astonished by a lack of ceremonial hand-washing and conformity to certain irrelevant sectarian prescriptions, how concerned is one going to be share the grand blessings of the Abrahamic covenant with a Gentile “sinner”?  It is with such thoughts reverberating in our minds that we now go on to hear Jesus saying, “For this reason also the wisdom of God said (notice the use of “wisdom” again by the author), ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be held accountable for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary.  Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation” (11:49-51). 

This is not to be taken lightly.  Not only do we see this as a stinging rebuke, but we must imagine the shock that would be felt as Jesus uttered these words.  Whereas they believed that they were doing what was necessary to cause their God to embody the messiah and resoundingly act within history to defeat their enemies, rescue them from foreign subjugation, and install blessed Israel as the exalted nation of the world, Jesus informs them of His opinion that their isolating and excluding actions are productive of a mindset (revolution and rebellion?) that is going to bring yet another reckoning of judgment upon the nation. 

He concludes by saying “Woe to  you experts in religious law!  You have taken away the key to knowledge!  You did not go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were going in” (11:52).  Talk of “going in” would have to be related to the coming kingdom of heaven that was going to be manifest on earth through their God acting through messiah.  So with all of this, Jesus has effectively challenged the basis of their power structure amongst the people, which was the idea that they held the keys for the manifestation of the kingdom of heaven.  If the masses were to continue listening to Jesus, and if they were to take up His way of neighborly and selfless acts done to and for all without limitation as the means of representing the kingdom of God, then it would seem to be impossible to foster any type of movement to drive out the Romans so as to reclaim the covenantal land and enjoy the related promises.  So we do not wonder at the fact that “When He went out from there, the experts in the law and the Pharisees began to oppose Him bitterly, and to ask Him hostile questions about many things, plotting against Him, to catch Him in something He might say” (11:53-54).  Their desire to discredit Jesus would have been palpable and understandable.   

As we continue to make this wide-ranging analysis of the Gospel records fit within our stated topic, and lest we lose track of where we have been and where we are going, it behooves us to point out that Jesus’ obvious impatience with mindsets and activities that fostered exclusivism (not in truth claims, but in covenant participation) is a key to comprehending His problems with the church at Laodicea.  

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 37)

It is not until the eleventh chapter of Luke, as we pass over the feeding of the five thousand, that we once again see Jesus at a meal.  In the thirty-seventh verse, we read “As He spoke, a Pharisee invited Jesus to have a meal with him” (11:37a).  As Jesus is rarely in the habit of turning down these meal invitations, regardless of who is making the request, “He went in and took His place at the table” (11:37b).  We are left only to wonder which position at the table has been taken by Jesus.  Does He take the position of most honored guest, sitting immediately to the right or left of His host, who would be seated in the protoklisian (chief seat), or would Jesus position Himself at the lowest place, that being the seat known as the “eschaton”?  It is not important to settle this question here, as the fourteenth chapter of Luke will give us a greater insight into a potential answer. 

As is common, Jesus is immediately questioned.  It is not presented as an outright question, though we can imagine something being said by the Pharisee that would engender the response that is forthcoming from Jesus.  We read that “The Pharisee was astonished when he saw that Jesus did not first wash His hands before the meal” (11:38).  We can read this as being akin to the hushed murmuring that so often accompanied Jesus, which was “He eats with tax collectors and sinners.”  This act of “negligence” on Jesus’ part becomes yet another charge against the possibility of Jesus being the messiah---an ever growing litany of factors, in the minds of some, weighing against this possibility.  In response, Jesus is somewhat less cordial than we have seen Him be in the past. 

When He was subtly accused of impropriety when it came to the woman that washed His feet with her tears and hair, Jesus offered up a question of His own to His concerned host.  However, Jesus does not here propose a question, nor does He offer up a parable.  Rather, He lets loose upon this Pharisee, and presumably, upon other Pharisees in attendance at this meal, saying “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness” (11:39).  A stinging rebuke indeed!  He does not let that stand on its own, adding “You fools!  Didn’t the one who made the outside make the inside as well?” (11:40)  With this, Jesus reminds them of their Creator---the God of Israel.  Jesus, operating inside Jewish custom, indicates that the purpose of the washing of hands was the remembrance of God and His covenant, but this washing had been reduced to a mere formality and custom.  One can imagine that it was used as yet one more barrier, separating the chosen ones of God from the “tax collectors and sinners” that stood outside of the covenant. 

How can this be imagined?  Well, it is not difficult to surmise that Jesus, Who is routinely concerned with the kingdom of heaven and its practical outworking, has that inclusive kingdom in mind when He says, “Woe to you Pharisees!  You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and every herb, yet you neglect justice and love for God!  But you should have done these things without neglecting the others” (11:42).  This follows His insistence to “give from your heart to those in need, and then everything will be clean for you” (11:41).  Beyond that, we cannot fail to assess the placement of the record of this meal within the overall narrative structure of Luke.  In this telling of the life of Jesus, that could very well be designed to be read or recited as a performance piece in a single sitting, we are not far removed from the parable of the “Good Samaritan.”  That parable is prefaced by an expert in religious law standing to test Jesus, just as He is being tested at this meal with this Pharisee, and saying “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:25b)  Jesus asks for this expert’s opinion, which comes back as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (10:27).  Jesus acknowledges His answer by saying “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live” (10:28). 

When pressed by the expert as to who would be his neighbor, Jesus responds with the familiar parable of the good Samaritan.  The parable closes with Jesus asking the expert to identify the neighbor in the parable.  “The expert in the religious law said, ‘The one who showed mercy on him” (10:37a), that “him” being the wounded man.  To this, Jesus replied “Go and do the same” (10:37b).  With this parable, Jesus presented His expectations concerning the kingdom of God and its requirements for costly acts of sacrificial love that show little concern for self, as demonstrated by the Samaritan.  We have not traveled very far from that telling within Luke’s Gospel before we hear Jesus again speaking of love and a need for just actions, as in His first pronouncing of “woe” to the Pharisees that are present.  Indeed, there is a nearly direct parallel with the parable.  In addition, we note that the Samaritan gives, and Jesus, unsurprisingly, speaks of a need to give from the heart to those in need.  This is unlikely to happen as long as we are overly concerned with the desire for conformity to communal norms that have little or nothing to do with the manifestation and advance of the kingdom.          

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 36)

There are a lot of very interesting things that could be said concerning what this woman is reported to have done.  She wet Jesus’ feet with her tears, and wipes His feet with her hair (7:38).  Jesus calls attention to this when He speaks to the Pharisee, pointing out the fact that she is now doing that which the Pharisee had failed to do when Jesus entered his house, which was wash Jesus’ feet (7:45).  We need not dwell too long on this one point, but for a woman to take her hair down and to use it in this way would bring much reproach.  Clearly, this woman is unconcerned with the reproach and shame that she is bringing on herself, and is only concerned with honoring Jesus and making up for the dishonor that was extended to Him when He did not receive the customary foot-washing.  She is more than willing to take shame upon herself so that the one that she obviously looks to as Lord might be honored, which is a cruciform expression of love. 

In addition, she was said to have kissed Jesus’ feet and anointed them with oil (7:38), whereas Jesus did not receive this courtesy from His host (7:46).  Though Jesus saw these acts as expressions of love, the Pharisee looked upon them quite differently, saying to himself, “If this man were a prophet, He would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner” (7:39).  As Jesus was quite familiar with the responses that He received in association with His dining with “tax collectors and sinners,” we can imagine that He was sensitive to the demeanor of His host.  Being obviously aware of what was being thought of Him, Jesus proffers a short parable to the Pharisee, posing a question concerning the forgiveness of debts, to which the Pharisee responds correctly.  It is upon receiving an appropriate response that Jesus turns the tables on the one that had been subjecting Him to such critical thoughts.  When He calls attention to her acts, not only does Jesus honor this woman, but in the process, He shames the negligent Pharisee.  The Pharisee had sought to shame Jesus and the woman, but Jesus reverses the situation. 

Jesus says: “Do you see this woman?  I entered your house.  You gave me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You gave Me no kiss of greeting, but from the time I entered she has not stopped kissing My feet.  You did not anoint My head with oil, but she has anointed My feet with perfumed oil” (7:44-46). By this, Jesus makes it clear that this man had acted improperly towards Him, and that the woman was making up for the slighting.  In a sense, it can be said that by shaming herself at Jesus’ expense, she was attempting to enter into the indignities to which Jesus was being subjected.  As we consider this, it is almost impossible to not think of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossian church, in which he writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body---for the sake of His body, the church---what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (1:24). 

Jesus then provides proof that He knew precisely what type of woman this was that was touching Him, by going on to say, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many, are forgiven, thus she loved much” (7:47a).  This did not call for supernatural insight.  Her expression of love was all He needed to see to confirm the forgiveness which she felt.  Much is spoken in these words.  We must notice that Jesus provides us with a sense of time and distance with His words.  Even though we immediately go on to read “Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven’” (7:48), His words concerning her response indicate that this was a reiteration of something that she had already experienced.  In regards to what she had done at the feet of Jesus, He said that “she loved much,” indicating that the acts of love (as we do not forget the suffering and shame associated with those acts) were in response to the fact that she had already had a sense of forgiveness, and had already passed into the kingdom of God.  Jesus did not need to inform her that her sins were forgiven, as she already knew. 

Clearly then, the words were spoken for the benefit of those in attendance at the meal, and who were surrounding Him at the table.  We apprehend this when we go on to read “But those who were at the table with Him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this, who even forgives sins?’” (7:49)  Why would this be said?  It would be said because forgiveness of sins was provided at the Temple and was the domain of the Temple.  One could be absolved of sin, but only by presenting a sacrifice at and for the Temple.  With these simple words, Jesus shows us that He believes Himself to be Messiah---the embodiment of Israel’s God, and therefore the true Temple.  By extension then, this woman’s costly act of sacrifice was, in fact, performed at and for the Temple.  This allows us to understand the full import and impact of His words when He says to the woman that “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:50).  Were not these words the words that would be spoken to those who had brought their sacrifices to the Temple, so as to receive confirmation of their forgiveness and right-standing before God there? 

Understood in this way, this story of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfumed oil lines up quite well with the other record of the same (in Matthew and Mark), in that both women, as far as Jesus is concerned, are performing sacrificial acts towards the true and lasting Temple.  With all of this, Jesus provides further demonstration of His Messianic self-understanding; and it does not escape our notice that this straightforward and dramatic presentation of Himself as Messiah has yet again taken place at a meal.               

Friday, November 26, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 35)

If taken within the context of meals---a context which has been arranged by Jesus’ reference to the eating and drinking in which both He and John are said to engage, then we can hear Jesus speaking of Himself within the long-standing wisdom tradition within Israel that is associated with the Messiah.  Though it is the Gospel of John that makes a more prevalent use of the highly-developed wisdom tradition, there is no reason to preclude Luke from making use of it as well, as he makes his report on Jesus’ words and deeds.  If the messiah-associated wisdom tradition is in play here, then it is conceivable that there are messianic banquet considerations to be taken from the words of Jesus. 

Is this a bit of a stretch to hear Jesus making messiah and messianic banquet references in this short little statement?  Probably not, especially in light of His making mention of eating and drinking, and then Luke’s transition to Jesus’ presence at the dinner at the house of a Pharisee.  The use of “wisdom” as a clearly self-referential statement at this point in the narrative, when both Jesus’ hearers and Luke’s readers have been thrust into a meal-related mindset, clearly ushers us into a messianic context.  With thoughts of both messiah and meal at play, along with talk of vindication (an incredibly important concept for Israel especially in relation to messiah), it would not be difficult to find Jesus’ hearers associating words such as “all her children,” when used in this context, entertaining thoughts of the great messianic banquet. 

What we get here is a glimpse into Jesus’ mindset as it relates to this banquet in Matthew, when we hear Him say “I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:11-12).  Though we will be looking at Jesus’ presence in the house of Zaccheus at a later time, the words that Jesus speaks in that situation, in which He declares that Zaccheus “is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9b), Jesus’ use of “son of Abraham” informs us that such an idea, used in association with a meal, might be at work when Jesus says something like “wisdom is vindicated by her children.”  Clearly, if we ever find ourselves thinking that any of the Gospel authors are offering up anything less than complex theological constructs in narrative and biographical form based upon the fact of a resurrected Christ that demanded their full allegiance, then we do them a tremendous disservice.   

Having dealt with that transition, we now move on to an examination of Jesus at a meal at the house of a Pharisee.  As we embark upon yet another examination of one of Jesus’ meal events, we bear in mind the statement from Revelation that prompted us down this path, in which Jesus says, “Listen!  I am standing at the door and knocking!  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with Me” (3:20).  This situation of Jesus being outside the church, we also remember, has been brought about because of a practice of the church that has Jesus telling them that He is “going to vomit you out of My mouth” (3:16b).  Finally, and based on our thorough examination of similar statements, we are also keeping in mind that Jesus, through John, is dealing with a real life situation that would be well understood by His hearers (John’s readers), with this fact marked out by the statement “The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (3:22). 

At this particular meal, we learn that “a woman of that town, who was a sinner, learned that Jesus was dining at the Pharisee’s house,” and that “she brought an alabaster jar of perfumed oil” (7:37) to this house.  Jesus, of course, was in the customary reclined position on the dining couch, with His feet away from the table, and this woman “As she stood behind Him at His feet, weeping… began to wet His feet with her tears.  She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfumed oil” (7:38).  At first glance, this may seem to be a repetitive presentation, as we have already encountered a similar story of perfumed anointing in our examinations of the meals of Matthew and Mark.  However, this is clearly a different function and a different woman, with this event taking place well ahead of the anointing story chronicled in Mark and Matthew.  As a matter of fact, Luke omits the particular anointing story found in Matthew and Mark, providing this one instead.    

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 34)

Returning now to Luke, we do so with a more firmly rooted understanding of the significance of meals, not only within the communities, but also within Jesus’ ministry.  Because of what they demonstrate, and because of what they allow to be demonstrated, Jesus consistently seizes upon these occasions to teach and to make points about the nature of the kingdom of heaven.  We can also see that they become the source of ongoing controversies concerning Jesus. 

Re-engaging with Luke, we find a perfect example of that in the seventh chapter, as Jesus is following up on inquiries made of Him by disciples of John the Baptist, and speaking about him to the assembled crowds, doing so in the context of the kingdom of God (7:28).  At the close of this dissertation about John, Jesus references the controversial nature of His meal practice (and even that of John in a roundabout way), by saying “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’  The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at Him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (7:33-34)  We cannot take lightly the importance that Jesus and the Gospel authors attribute to meals.  If we do allow our hermeneutic to be fundamentally influenced by this meal dynamic, then the mention of a meal in the letter to Laodicea, as we earnestly desire to know what is going on in that church that Jesus finds disgusting and which has Him outside the church wanting to come in so as to share a meal, is so very, very telling. 

Both Luke and Matthew have Jesus closing out His discourse on John the Baptist by adding, “But wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (7:35).  Though there is an implied break in the narrative following these words from Jesus, with the words of the thirty-sixth verse of Luke seeming to present a new situation, it is noteworthy that Luke immediately moves to inform the reader that “one of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him” (7:36a).  With this, the author appears to be communicating the importance of meals, as even though there is a break in the action, so to speak, the theological narrative continues, with Jesus being moved directly from His statement about wisdom and her children (which follows a statement about eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners), to the acceptance of an invitation to dine at the house of a Pharisee. 

If we keep ourselves within a mental framework that does not have Jesus or Luke diverging from speaking from a context of meals and their importance, then it is quite possible to hear Jesus speaking in that context when He says that “wisdom is vindicated by her children.”  This, then, is not a disconnected aphorism recorded by Luke and randomly placed within the text, but rather, a transition that maintains the meal-related motif.  Of course, this cannot be asserted without addressing the fact that Matthew places Jesus’ speech about John within a different sequence of events, and does not move from the wisdom and children statement to Jesus’ meal in the house of the Pharisee.  Without attempting to rectify or harmonize the chronological conflicts, the difference can be explained by noting Luke’s greater emphasis on Jesus’ meals.  Though Matthew certainly holds Jesus’ participation at various meals in high regard, rightly signifying their importance for understanding Jesus and their significance for the communication of His mission, it is Luke that has Jesus spending more time at meals, while also sharing some of His most impactful parables (the parable of the prodigal chief among these as one of Jesus’ most important, elaborate, and impactful parables) while at a banqueting table. 

One may wonder why this is so.  However, our wondering is blunted when we consider the joint-authorship of both Luke and Acts, with Acts forming the second half of what is effectively a single discourse.  As Acts is a record of the earliest activities of the apostles of Jesus, and because table fellowship was an important and unfortunately contentious issue in some of the earliest church communities (witness the confrontation between Peter and Paul in Antioch over the subject of table fellowship, as recorded in Paul’s letter to the Galatian church), it is understandable to find Luke more inclined to share more table stories, and to create a narratival construct that will make the record of meals and Jesus’ participation and teaching at these meals, a more prominent feature of his biographical and theological presentation of Jesus.   

Monday, November 22, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 33)

The head steward, as indicated by the presentation of the author of the text, realizes the dynamics that are now at play.  It is interesting that we are provided with the information that the head steward of the feast did not know the source of the wine (John 2:9), and it is upon tasting the wine that he is spurred into action.  The actions that follow, usually interpreted as his commendation of the bridegroom, can only be so interpreted outside the context of cultural meal practice and the social constructs that are on display in the meal.  The head steward, thinking about all of the problems that have now been presented to both him and the bridegroom due to the revelation of this new and better wine at the end of the meal, must take quick action on his own behalf, so as to preserve his own honor and standing in the community.  If he does not, it is he that runs the risk of being shamed, and this is what we see being played out, through the text, before our eyes. 

The head steward, of course, is the master of the feast.  Chief among his duties would be the duty to see to it that the most honored guests had received the best wine and the best food.  Now, unbeknownst to him, the best wine is going to go to the guests at the lower end of the honor spectrum, which would mean that he had not done his job.  Thinking quickly, he goes to the bridegroom and says, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the cheaper wine when the guests are drunk.  You have kept the good wine until now!” (2:10)  Again, we must not think of this as simply a matter of the head steward offering praise to the bridegroom.  It is actually the head steward’s attempt to shift the negative reactions that are sure to come, along with the associated dishonor, on to the bridegroom and away from himself. 

If we were to have been present at the feast (and if the two protagonists of the scene were speaking English), we would more than likely hear the head steward put a great deal of emphasis on the word “you” when he says “You have kept the good wine until now!”  This is an attempt at self-preservation.  The head steward is protecting himself.  We can almost be sure that this was said in the hearing of the honored guests, so that when the new and better wine begins to be enjoyed by those who would normally have received the inferior wine, the honored guests, who are now the insulted guests, will see that the head steward recognized the problems inherent in the situation.  The head steward wanted to position himself as being more concerned with the honor of these sure-to-be-offended guests than was the bridegroom, so that if and when the bridegroom relieved him of his duties as head steward, due to the coming and public shaming that was now coming to the bridegroom because of the very words of the head steward, he would be welcomed into the home of one of these other guests and charged with similar types of duties.  We can also see this at work in the parable of “unjust steward” in Luke’s sixteenth chapter.   

Now it may seem as if the head steward is acting dishonorably here, but that would be over-reading the situation and ignoring a key feature provided by the text.  It is clear that the head steward did not know the source of the new wine.  The text is clear in its indication that he did not know, though the servants knew (2:9), while ironically also knowing that they were going to be the ones that got to drink the new wine, as the insulted guests would not lower themselves to drink the wine that was being provided to the servants and those at the tail end of the table service structure.  Now, to help further explain the head steward’s words and actions towards the bridegroom, we need to bear in mind that as far as he is concerned, it is indeed the bridegroom that has provided this new wine.  This is truly the only reasonable assessment at hand.  If so, then for some reason, the bridegroom has gone behind the back of the head steward and colluded against him in this area, in an attempt to make him look bad before the community.  Also, the head steward would be completely justified in thinking that, for some reason, the bridegroom was making an overt attempt to dishonor his honored guests by purposely not providing them with the best wine.  The head steward, apparently, is not only not willing to let this blame be put on him, thereby letting the scheming bridegroom off the hook, he is also not willing to go along with the dis-honoring that he sees taking place. 

Finally, and though we should not push things too far in this area, we note that the wine was produced in the “six stone water jars… for Jewish ceremonial washing” (2:6b).  For reasons of purity, ceremonial washing was very important.  These ceremonial washings may have been limited to the hands, but we can also think of the incident in the seventh chapter of Luke, in which Jesus, while a woman is washing His feet with her hair, mentions to Simon that He had not had his feet washed when He entered Simon’s house.  So it is within the realm of possibility that these jars had been the jars employed in the washing of the guests hands and feet as they arrived for wedding feast.  If so, then the servants of the house would have been employed in this process, assisting the attendees in the process of washing, and perhaps even doing the washing themselves.  It is these servants then, who will be drinking the best wine from out of their jars of service.  Here, one cannot help but think about Jesus’ washing of His disciples’ feet, about the last being first, and about the exaltation of servants, as yes, it is true that the most honored ones are indeed those that drink the best wine.  Such thoughts continue to inform the process of coming to a firm and certain understanding of the issue at hand in Laodicea.          

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 32)

Making this journey through the wedding feast at Cana is not entirely relevant to our overall project of discerning Jesus’ concerns with the practice of the church at Laodicea.  The conclusion to be drawn is only tangentially applicable, because of what it tells us about Jesus’ views as worked out at meals.  However, it is the fact that this miracle is connected to a meal, and the fact that Jesus makes a definitive reference to His desire to re-enter into the church at Laodicea (a figurative re-entrance) in order to share a meal, that makes the time spent with this story, however un-related to the overall topic some of the analysis may be, so thoroughly useful. 

It has been previously said that Jesus created a problematic situation.  What was that situation?  Why was it problematic?  Was it a problem for Jesus?  To answer the last question first, we can say “no,” it was not a problem for Jesus at all, at least directly.  It could be an indirect source of problems for Him, which we’ll be able to understand as we make our analysis.  So it was not a problem for Jesus, but rather, it was a problem for the bridegroom, who was the host of the meal.  How was it a problem for him?  One would think that Jesus had solved a problem, rather than created one, but reaching that conclusion would be unfortunately short-sighted.  At least initially, we might think that the bridegroom would be appreciative of Jesus’ actions, as He intervenes to “save” the party by our customary way of thinking, but we shall quickly disabuse ourselves of this notion. 

We should not look at the fact that His mother presents the information that the party had run out of wine as indicative of a problem that the bridegroom would be looking to rectify, as the fact that they had run out of wine would be of no real concern to either the head steward of the party or the bridegroom.  Running out of food and wine was a common occurrence.  Sometimes, people who were slated for service later in the function would receive nothing at all, and this was accepted as part of the meal culture.  With this in mind then, and this has been said before, we need to look at this as a situation into which she believed Jesus would want to enter, based upon what she knew about her Son, and about His conception of the kingdom of God which He preached.  We might even be able to surmise an intrusion of her own sense of His status as Messiah, and based upon that, her interpretation of the great messianic banquet of Isaiah, with this interpretation possibly informed by Jesus’ own thoughts on such (though this is pure and unsupported speculation).  Though we are here speculating, concerns about the messianic banquet could play a role in our consideration of Jesus’ position towards the Laodicean church in Revelation.   

Again, the fact that there is no wine is not a problem.  Why is that?  It is not a problem because the bridegroom would, presumably, though he would have some type of concern for the enjoyment of all of his guests, be most concerned with providing wine and food to the most honored guests.  As the service of food and wine reached further and further away from his seat and that of his honored guests, so too would his concern with their provisions recede.  As long as a certain group of individuals had been able to eat and drink to their heart’s content, all was well, and the wedding feast would be looked upon as a success. 

Additionally, it must be pointed out that the bridegroom was now going to gain stature in the community due to the fact of his marriage.  We can couple that with a successful wedding feast, which would also contribute to his enhanced stature in the community.  Because Jesus has done what He has done, this is now at risk of being undone.  The bridegroom, while he is lounging at the banqueting couch with his honored guests, is being unknowingly put at risk of a diminished stature in the community.  How is this so?  It is because the best wine is now being served, at the end of the banquet.  Rather than looking upon this as an act of considerable generosity and thoughtfulness on the behalf of this bridegroom, which we are prone to do, this would be perceived as a slight to his honored guests. 

Questions would arise.  Why did they not receive this wine?  Why were they not good enough to receive these superior libations?  It would be wondered why the bridegroom was mocking his guests in this way.  Rather than being enjoyed by the elites of the community, the best wine is now going to be enjoyed by the servants and less honored guests, thus putting them on the same level as the honored guests, or worse, elevating them above the honored guests, which could be perceived as an insult to honor, thereby becoming a source of conflict.   

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 31)

As we read this passage, let us be sure to avoid falling into the trap of thinking about parties in contemporary terms, thereby applying anachronisms or ideas too broadly that might naturally occur to us.  This is not an issue of simply throwing a party, making sure that everybody at the party gets the good drinks first, and then, once everybody at the entire party is drunk, bringing out the lower quality beverages, doing so at a time when people are less likely to care what they are imbibing.  This is, quite simply, not the situation at hand in Cana.  Remember, there is an order of quality and an order of service, with the best food, and the largest amount of food, along with the best and largest amount of wine, going to the more honored or honorable guests, with the guests at the far end of the table, and therefore at the lower end of the social spectrum, left with items of much lower quality.

Jesus has created a problematic situation for all involved.  This should not be overlooked.  We tend to romanticize the words of Scripture that we have just read, looking at them through goggles that distort the image that would have been easily seen and obvious to the first century author, reader, and hearer.  That distorted image has us seeing and hearing the head steward going to the bridegroom and offering him a compliment in regards to his generosity and his unexpected grace, which is put on display by lavishing the best wine upon his guests at the end of his party, clearly sparing no expense in so doing.  From there, we make an analogy about the grace of God, as shown through Jesus, and perhaps even toss around a couple of ideas about the law as good wine, gifted by God, whereas the Gospel is an even better wine that has been saved for the end, therefore placing Jesus in the role of head steward, God the Father as the obviously generous bridegroom, with the servants that filled the purification jars (now clearly representing the strictures of the law---with an associated new wine versus old wineskin paradigm) representing the church, and the historical Jesus that speaks to the servants now functioning as more of a Holy Spirit figure, commanding the servants (the church). 

This sets off something of a spiritualized, proof-texting binge (not entirely dissimilar to the usual cavalcade of under-Scripturalized and under-historicized over-spiritualizations generally associated with the book of Revelation in general and the letter to the Laodicea more specifically) in which we take this miracle and fold it up with other miracle reports in the Gospels as little more than evidences of the divinity of Jesus, as if the Gospels were merely meant to function in such a way.  In an even more entertaining venture, some attempt to use this event as Jesus’ own approbation of drinking alcoholic beverages, as if this occurrence was God’s way of legitimating a questionable activity.  Amazingly, and in the same vein, some individuals, with equally narrow fields of vision as those who actually want to use this event as a sanction for the drinking of wine, endeavor to employ the miracle at this wedding feast as a polemic against the drinking of alcohol.  As surprising and antithetical as that may sound, the claim is made with the argument running along the lines of “because the wine was new, it had not had time to ferment and was therefore non-alcoholic, meaning that it was nothing more than grape juice, which is Jesus’ (and therefore God’s) way of informing us that this, since this ‘wine’ (though it’s really just grape juice) is clearly recognized as being better than what had gotten everybody drunk to that point, is what God would prefer His people imbibe from this point.”  Both sides, of course, are equally ridiculous.  Any attempts to draw inferences for Christian practice in the area of beverage consumption from this miraculous intervention by Jesus and its presentation by the author of John, is an exercise in missing the point that is about as useful as looking at Jesus’ declaration of the fact that He is standing outside the door of the church at Laodicea as a salvation message that insists that Jesus needs to be invited into our heart so that we can go to heaven. 

Now, all of this is not to say that we do not have a lavishly generous and unexpectedly gracious God.  It is not to say that we are unable to draw inferences from the events in the life of Jesus that will assist us in our spirit-animated journey of faith as functionaries in this world on behalf of God’s kingdom.  It is to say, however, that if we miss the real world importance of the life of Jesus, and if we do not first set these stories within their historical, cultural, and social contexts, and make every effort to first understand them on their own terms as they would be understood by those who experienced them first-hand, then we are most likely going to miss out on the true theological richness that lies ready at hand, as Jesus does go about revealing God.  We must not skip over the fact that this is, first and foremost, a real-world event happening to and with real-world people with real-world customs and concerns, just as we must remember when we dissect the letters to the churches in Revelation.  Because there are realities in play, there are real world considerations and consequences, as we shall see.   

Friday, November 19, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 30)

So how does this visible social stratification at the banqueting table have any bearing on Jesus turning the water into wine?  It has much to do with the “when” of the miracle.  To understand the significance of what has happened, and to continue layering in levels of understanding as we build to a plausible conclusion concerning the Laodiceans, we’ll need to do some historical contextualizing so as to recover an aspect of the ancient world and its feasts that has been almost completely lost in the western world. 

To do so, we turn first to Pliny the younger, a magistrate of ancient Rome, who lived from the late first century into the early second century.  He wrote about feasts and community meals in and before his day, and his report speaks to the social order that is demonstrable in the service progressions in the meals.  In reference to a meal at which he was an honored guest, Pliny writes: “Some very elegant dishes were served up to himself and a few more of the company; while those which were placed before the rest were cheap and paltry.  He apportioned in small flagons three different sorts of wines; but it was not that the guests might take their choice: on the contrary, that they might not choose at all.  One was for himself and me; the next for his friends of lower order (for you must know the measures of friendship according to degrees of quality; and the third for his own free men.” 

What Pliny here describes is quite common, and we can see how this report might be applied to the wedding feat at Cana and the turning of the water into wine.  Pliny makes the point that, while there were three different sorts of wines presented to the table, one should not be deluded into thinking that each person at the table was going to be able to choose which of the three wines they were going to take for themselves.  If all were looked upon as equals, this might be the case, but this was not the prevailing situation.  Again, there were clear delineations made between and among guests.  In case the seating positions relative to the host was not a sufficient indicator to a person of his societal ranking, the quality of the food and wine which he would find offered to him would be a yet further indicator.  Naturally, the host would have the finest wine and food served to his most honored guests, with the lesser wine served to those that were slightly less honorable (remember, this is an honor and shame society), with the poorest quality wine and food offered to those that were the least honorable, who also would have been seated the furthest away from him at the u-shaped table, if they were seated at the table at all. 

A Latin poet named Martial, who lived just a few years after the time of Jesus, provides us with yet another interesting picture of the honor and shame culture that played out at the banqueting tables of the ancient world.  From his work we read: “Since I am asked to dinner… why is not the same dinner served to me as to you?  You take oysters fattened in the Lucrine lake, I suck a mussel through a hole in the shell; you get mushrooms, I take hog funguses; you tackle turbot, but I brill.  Golden with fat, a turtle-dove gorges you with its bloated rump; there is set before me magpie that has died in its cage.  Why do I recline with you?”  It is easy to observe that there is a significant dichotomy of quality at work here.  By now, can we not begin to make the mental analogy to Jesus’ conversion of water into wine? 

As we consider what has been reported by both Pliny and Martial, and as we attempt to thrust ourselves into that foreign and ancient world of which we know woefully little, would we not find ourselves amazed---indeed, would not all those in attendance at such a function find themselves amazed if the best food and the premium wine was served at the end of the banquet?  Yes, we would, because such a thing would be a scandalous reversal of the expectations of those in attendance.  Is that not what happens in Cana? 

Let’s look at the text, doing so with a far better mental framework by which to gain proper context as we do.  Remember, Jesus was initially unconcerned, but eventually involves Himself in the situation that has been brought to His attention by His mother.  When He finally gets involved, “Jesus told the servants, ‘Fill the water jars with water.’  So they filled them up to the very top.  Then He told them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the head steward,’ and they did.  When the head steward tasted the water that had been turned to wine, not knowing where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), he called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the cheaper wine when the guests are drunk.  You have kept the good wine until now!’” (John 2:7-10)  

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 29)

The subject of wine and feasts lends itself to jumping ahead to a story from the Gospel of John (though we shall return to our meal-examining trek through Luke).  The reference, of course, is to the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, and the famous incident of Jesus turning water into wine.  At the beginning of that story, we find that “Jesus and His disciples” (John 2:2a) were invited to this wedding and its associated feast.  Quickly, we encounter the fact that there was a problem, which was that “the wine ran out” (2:3a).  For some reason, this was of some concern to Jesus’ mother, so she took it upon herself to inform Him that “They have no wine left” (2:3b).  Apparently, there was something about Jesus’ personality and character that caused His mother to think that Jesus would be interested in addressing this pressing issue.  Jesus’ mother believed that Jesus would fix this problem. 

At least initially, Jesus does not sense that this is an issue in which He wants to involve Himself, saying, “Woman, why are you saying this to Me?  My time has not yet come” (2:4).  Even though Jesus says this, Mary believes, again, based on what she knows about her Son, that He is going to do something, so she “told the servants, ‘Whatever He tells you, do it.’” (2:5)  Most likely, though one knows not how long, some time elapsed between the time at which Mary speaks to the servants and Jesus’ act of intervention in the problem at hand.  Eventually, and though we are not necessarily provided with an overt reason, Jesus is spurred into action.  For some reason, though He had seemed uninterested when first told of the wine shortage, Jesus takes action to correct the situation. 

Why is the fact that there is no wine a problem?  Why is Mary concerned with this?  Why does she think Jesus will be interested in involving Himself?  Why does the author of this Gospel see fit to include this story?  The answers to these questions come through an examination of the setting and the culture.  In the end, this becomes an opportunity for Jesus to provide instruction to those in attendance, and ultimately, the author of John finds it useful to include this story because it serves to provide elucidating information about the nature of Jesus’ kingdom and His mission.  Fortunately for us, examining this particular miraculous occurrence, while reinforcing principles at work in Jesus’ ministry and therefore having an impact on the way in which we make our engagement with the world, also sheds a great deal more light on the issue at hand in Laodicea---that is, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. 

In order to understand the goings-on here in Cana, we must take it upon ourselves to understand the nature of feasts in the world occupied by Jesus.  When it came to feasts, there were rules in place for the table.  Meals were, for all practical purposes, miniaturized pictures of the society, and there were rules (unwritten) governing association and socialization.  The positioning of guests around a table was a demonstration of social hierarchy and political differentiation.  What was quite common in the ancient world, which we can safely presume was present at this particular meal as a matter of course, was a u-shaped table known as a triclinium.  Banquets were organized around this table, using dining couches, with the host sitting at the center of the bottom of the “u”, with the two most prominent positions to the right and to the left of the host.  Accordingly, the least honorable seats would be located at the end of the table.  Thus, the banquet table in the ancient world would be an effective microcosm of the stratifications of the existing social order.  

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 28)

Now that it has been made clear that John the Baptist’s disciples were also present at this meal in the home of Levi (Matthew), and thus reminding us that there has not been a change of venue, there are some additional observations that we can go on to make when we look at what follows.  Jesus, after the question that is either posed by or on behalf of John’s disciples, goes on to ask, “You cannot make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?” (Luke 5:34)  Matthew has Jesus asking, “The wedding guests cannot mourn while the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (9:15a)  When we read this, we must resist the temptation to start immediately projecting various Christologies upon Jesus, and in doing so, see Jesus, first and foremost, as giving Himself titles.  Though that is ultimately a proper thing to do, and though both Matthew and Luke, writing after the crucifixion and Resurrection, are most definitely providing the report of these words from a past-tense conceptual context that allows for a full import of Resurrection and therefore kingdom of God implications, we must understand that there is a more basic point of reference at play here, and we cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of the importance of meals and the fact that Jesus is at a meal. 

As we consider that, the oddity of the question cannot help but strike us.  In Matthew, Jesus is simply said to be at a meal (9:10).  Luke tells us that Jesus is at “a great banquet” (5:29).  Whether it is simple a meal, or whether it is a great banquet, it is nonetheless a meal.  So why is Jesus being asked about mourning or fasting?  The question seems terribly out of place, and may be an indication that the presence of “tax collectors and sinners” (5:30) had caused some present at the banquet to abstain from participating in the festivities and frivolities.  Jesus, quite obviously, is not dissuaded by their presence, and seizes upon their presence, what He is doing, the setting in which they all find themselves, and His conception of His mission, so as to communicate certain truths about the kingdom of God and what He would expect from His followers. 

Jesus is also in the habit of communicating to people at a level that they are going to be able to understand.  This can be understood from His use of “wedding guests and bridegroom” in relation to the inquiry.  If He launches into a flight of speculative philosophy and theology from which to draw eschatological implications, then it is possible that the majority of His hearers are going to misunderstand Him.  For that reason, Jesus often uses examples that are ready at hand when He wants to make a point.  Perhaps the finest example of this is to be found in the Gospel of John.  In the fifteenth chapter, we hear Jesus telling His disciples “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener” (15:1).  Having said that, Jesus goes on to speak of bearing fruit, pruning, and branches.  He then repeats Himself and His insistence that He is the vine, while going on to tell His disciples that they are the branches and that they must remain in Him if they are going to be able to accomplish what it is that He intends for them to accomplish (15:5). 

Now, it is certainly possible to hear Jesus, with these words, communicating eternal truths to His disciples as He rounds out His instructions to them before making His way to the cross.  However, if we note the setting in which this is taking place, it does not necessarily heighten or deepen our understanding, but it does give us a further glimpse into Jesus’ teaching habits.  So where is Jesus when He is saying these things?  He is in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The thirteenth chapter of John has Jesus at His last supper, and the fourteenth chapter has Jesus expounding upon the remainder of His mission.  Chapter fourteen has Jesus closing His discourse by saying “Get up, let us go from here” (14:31b).  Chapters fifteen through seventeen have Jesus continuing His discourse following His “time to go” statements that closed out the fourteenth chapter.  Though chapter eighteen begins with “When he had said these things, Jesus went out with His disciples across the Kidron Valley.  There was an orchard there, and He and His disciples went into it” (18:1), the fact that He had already said, “let us go from here,” coupled with His new discourse which began with “garden talk,” better informs our mental picture of the setting.  This “orchard” is the place where He is arrested, which we know is the Garden of Gethsemane. 

In using the imagery of the vines and fruit, while amongst vines and fruit, the truth of what He is attempting to convey is going to settle in more effectively.  This is not difficult to understand.  This reminds us that Jesus does such things on a regular basis, and in so doing, it is far more likely that He is going to achieve satisfactory levels of contemplation among His hearers.  So with all of that said, we are able to make the connection that, based on His words about wedding guests and bridegrooms, Jesus is at a wedding banquet.  A wedding banquet would be a community-wide celebration, and would generally consist of a diverse array of guests, as we can gather from the fact that there were tax collectors, sinners, disciples of John the Baptist, Pharisees, and experts in the law present.  By extension then, we can extrapolate that there was wine at this feast, being poured from wineskins, which explains Jesus’ reference to wine and wineskins.  Perhaps new wine had been poured into an old wineskin and one had burst at the feast, thus providing yet another example for Jesus?  Also, it is likely that He and others were wearing wedding garments (think about the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22 and the reference to wedding garments), and it is possible that either His garments, or the garments of some of the guests, had been repaired with patches.  This then explains the reference Jesus makes to garments. 

Jesus appears to be in the habit of being understandable to His hearers, and of course, this would be just as true when it comes to His words to the church at Laodicea.  When we consider Revelation in this light, we will understand that Jesus is using a ready at hand example and situation to inform them, if they have ears to hear, about His displeasure at their practice as it relates to His kingdom.  We will eventually see that Jesus does not leave the Laodiceans in a position of conjecture and subjective determination, but that based upon what He reveals about Himself and His kingdom, they will have precise knowledge about the problem and about how they can go about correcting that problem.           

Letter To Laodicea (part 27)

Keeping in mind the mention of the meal in the letter to Laodicea, and Jesus’ offer to share a meal with that church, we move along to the next meal in Mark, which is that of the Lord’s supper.  Mark’s presentation, because it serves as the basis for Matthew’s record of this gathering, differs little in detail from that which we have already covered, so we take the time to mention the altogether important reference that Jesus makes to the kingdom of God (14:25).  So many times, we have been presented with a reminder of that kingdom in association with Jesus’ meals, so the fact of the presence of the thought should never pass without the notice that it demands.  This should also continue to clue us into the fact that the inclusion of a meal reference in the letter to the Laodicean church in Revelation is going to have bearing on the interpretation of that letter, especially as it relates to Jesus’ view, informed by Hebrew prophets, of an important aspect of the kingdom of God.

Exhausting the meals of the Gospel of Mark (though only in number, not in depth of meaning), we now pass on to Luke’s Gospel.  In Luke’s fifth chapter, for the first time in this Gospel, we find Jesus sitting down to a meal.  Luke informs his readers that this banquet is at the house of Levi (5:29), and we know that this is another name for Matthew.  This then, is a separate presentation of a meal that we have already seen and explored in Matthew’s Gospel.  Having said that, we note with interest that Mark, though functioning as a foundational source for these other two records, does not include this particular story.  The reasons for the omission could be quite numerous, but it is likely that Matthew and Luke had shared access to material or informants that were unavailable to Mark. 

Here we find the familiar charge that Jesus was dining with all the wrong people, because “there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them” (5:29b).  As we make an additional reflection on this, it is worth contemplating that these facts are never hidden.  Though some would have considered these dalliances with the despised to be a source of shame, Jesus never makes an attempt to justify His practice or to excuse it on a technicality.  It is also the case that the Gospel writers and the early church did not seek to marginalize these stories, though they could easily be a source of embarrassment for a Jewish Messiah.  On the contrary, the authors put these facts and these stories front and center, apparently sharing with Jesus in an understanding of their importance in what it is that they are attempting to convey about the kingdom of God.  Obviously, there is much to be gleaned from these meals.  

Apart from the difference in name, the beginning of Luke’s report about this meal shares a great deal of similarities with Matthew’s report.  There is a banquet, it is at the house of one that had been called by Jesus, there were guests that some considered less than welcome, there was surprise at Jesus’ comfortable mingling with those that were thought to be outside of the carefully delineated bounds that marked off the covenant people of the kingdom of God, the registration of a complaint in this regard, and a response by Jesus that demonstrates His thoughts concerning the inclusive nature and addition of “questionable” peoples as partakers of God’s kingdom.  Following that, there is a divergence in detail from what we find in Matthew.  This divergence aids in the painting of a more robust portrait of the setting in which Jesus finds Himself. 

So moving forward a bit we read that “they said to Him, ‘John’s disciples frequently fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours continue to eat and drink.’” (5:33)  Matthew, on the other hand, reported that “John’s disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples don’t fast?’” (9:14)  So in one report, there is an inquiry that makes reference to John’s disciples, and in the other it is John’s disciples that make the inquiry.  As was said, this divergence in detail gives us a more complete sense of the scene.  Though it has already been made clear, in our analysis of this scene in Matthew, that this inquiry by John’s disciples was made while Jesus was at the meal, it is possible to find ourselves reading through Matthew’s narrative, to come upon “Then John’s disciples came to Jesus,” and to walk away with the idea that the setting has changed.  Luke helps us to understand that there are some disciples of John the Baptist present at this meal, thus giving rise to the question.         

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 26)

Clearly, we have traveled a long way from the point of our commencement.  As we consider where we have been to this point, and ponder where it is we might be going, one of the things that comes perfectly into focus is that the widely held view of what Jesus is attempting to communicate (and perhaps successfully communicates) to the church at Laodicea, is one that is hopelessly shallow, anachronistic, and eschatologically unsound as it fails to properly do business with the cold realities of the world in which they were uttered and penned.  If we read searching and penetrating words such as “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were either cold or hot!  So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16), measure them against what we know biographically, philosophically, and theologically about Jesus from the Gospels, and then proclaim that Jesus is addressing nothing more than some vague notion of spiritual fervor, then we have failed to take seriously the Jesus of Scripture, of history, of eternity, of the cross, of the grave, and of truth.  Considering the path that has been traveled in the course of this study, one would certainly hope that this notion has been dismissed. 

Now, this is not to say that there is not going to be a spiritual application.  Christians are supposed to be Spirit-animated beings.  Therefore, the life of the Spirit will most assuredly play a role in making sure that the truth, once discovered, becomes active in our life, shaping our practice as Christians, informing our understanding of God, and determining the ways, means, and methods we will adopt as we function as ambassadors for God’s kingdom and interact with the world as such.  Indeed, though there are many who study this sacred tome while in a state that finds them devoid of belief, the vast majority of those that take this Word seriously, and who make concerted attempts to convey that seriousness, do so precisely because they look to Jesus, a man that was shamefully crucified but then attested as risen from the dead, as Lord of all.  Holding to the ridiculous notion of somebody rising from the dead, a notion that is purely antithetical to all that we know about the nature of life and death, is only made possible by the active, illuminating, testifying, assuring, and even reasoning presence of the Spirit of God.  So yes, there is going to be a spiritual application, but if we seek for that as the first truth, approaching Jesus on self-constructed terms amenable to our own notions of spirituality, then we are going to be prone to missing out on the fullness and richness of the divine revelation. 

Furthermore, if we read “Listen!  I am standing at the door and knocking!  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him and he with Me” (3:20), couple that with Jesus’ insistence that “The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (3:22), and continue to hear that as some type of invitation to salvation (in the popular mindset of now being able to go to heaven when we die), then we do little more than fail to take these Scriptures seriously.  When and if we stumble down that path, we do nothing more than dismissively wave our hands, and in one motion, sweep away the full and glorious scope of salvation history.  Not only does such an idea fail to understand the basic ideas associated with, and far-reaching implications of God’s salvation that would have been understood by denizens of the first century that would have heard the words of Jesus and His apostles, it fails to take the Scriptures seriously as that which teaches us about God, doing so all the way from Genesis to Revelation.  Do we really imagine that God’s revelation to the creatures that He created in His own image and seeks to redeem and reconcile to Himself is summed up by the simplistic and shallow notions and ideas that we uncritically apply to these tremendously deep words from our resurrected Lord? 

It should not be difficult to agree that it is incumbent upon us, as Christians, to approach the Word of God with the utmost of seriousness, with a burning passion to understand the God that is most decidedly revealed in Jesus.  That passion should force us to do the serious and strenuous work of understanding Jesus on His terms, and within His world, rather than first making Him fit into our world, and then making pronouncements about Him accordingly.  Being unwilling to do the hard work that might force us to put aside long-held assumptions, no matter how useful or satisfying those assumptions may be, fails to take our Lord and the authors of the New Testament seriously as first-rate theologians, deserving of our time, our attention, and as much intellectual power, attention, and honesty as we can muster.  Naturally, some will be more successful in this area than others, and some will be more at ease within this process and with such efforts than will others, but different capabilities hardly justify willful ignorance, or even a grotesque and unseemly glorying in a continued defiance that is directed against the application of reason and intelligence.  Such defiance is nothing more than a manifestation of unthankfulness that is caused by a groundless elevation of self.  On the contrary, we should thankfully appropriate the diligent efforts of many God-fearing men and women that have devoted their hearts, minds, and lives to efforts to better understand the sacred writ.  We do so while being led by the Spirit so that we might ultimately serve our Lord in worship of our God in the most appropriate and glorious manner.        

Letter To Laodicea (part 25)

In the ancient world, it was customary for a community to receive a famous and honored individual into their midst with great pomp and ceremony.  Often, a delegation from the community would go outside their town, meet the arriving person of prominence, and accompany them back to their locale.  This is referred to as a “parousia”.  We see several examples of parousia in the life of Jesus, and even one when He goes to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead.  There is no record of Jesus being received in this way upon this visit to Bethany, but we can imagine that such an event took place, as His fame could only have grown as Lazarus continued to live amongst the people. 

As a part of the reception, there would be a determination made as to which member or family of the community was the most worthy and important individual, in the best position to accept the dignitary into their house, most capable of reflecting favorably on the larger community so as to give the best possible impression to the honored guest, and able to bring honor to the whole of the community in the process.  As was said, it would have been a natural choice, owing to previous events, for Lazarus to host Jesus in Bethany.  The fact that Jesus loved Lazarus and His sisters would have contributed to this more than natural arrangement.  However, it is Simon the leper that receives the honor of hosting a meal for Jesus. 

Whether this is the choice of the community or Jesus’ choice we are left to wonder, but we do know that one who would normally be marginalized and even ostracized in the community for a variety of reasons is the one that has this honor.  If the story of Zaccheus (which we will cover as part of this study) is any indication, it is likely that it is Jesus that has made the choice of meal location, but it is not something about which we can be dogmatic.  We pay attention to these seemingly insignificant and possibly irrelevant details because of what it can teach us and allow us, with the utmost of relevance, to apply to considerations concerning the church at Laodicea. 

Beyond the fact that the meal is taking place at the house of a leper (though we may be tempted to imagine that the meal is taking place at Lazarus’ house because it is said “they prepared a dinner for Jesus there” (12:2), the “there” must be a reference to Bethany), when we fold in the details from the Gospel of John, we are now urged to look a second time at the fact that Martha was serving.  Martha is not only serving, but she, a wealthy woman like her sister (who can afford to “waste” a valuable amount of perfume), is serving in the house of a leper.  This is unthinkable in that day.  Clearly, Simon is somebody that is further down the social scale from Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, so the fact that a more noble member of society is serving in the house of somebody that is “beneath them,” is a radical shake-up in the normal social order, though such things seem to be quite commonplace with Jesus.  It is the presence of Jesus, and that alone, that is bringing this unthinkable occurrence to pass.    

The social mobility of our own day (for a large part of the world), along with the casual mixing of classes that makes it impossible to positively and concretely identify one’s socioeconomic status was unknown in the ancient world.  Various aspects of the culture, especially the setting of meals and banquets, revealed social status in no uncertain terms.  The fact that this is so foreign to most of us causes us to miss these aspects that would have stood out in the early years of the church.  We tend to read past these things, whereas a time and a culture that is thoroughly accustomed to these things and ordered around meals, would have had very strong reactions and opinions associated with what was being seen in Jesus’ actions and what was being communicated by the church about Jesus’ actions. 

A prominent feature of this story is that Mark makes it a point to mention that Jesus is dining at the house of a leper named Simon.  For some reason, Lazarus is absent from Matthew and Mark’s story, and of course, is absent from any Gospel save that of John.  Though Lazarus’ lack of any presence at all in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is bizarre (to say the least), it is Simon who is conspicuous by his absence from the telling in John.  Though Simon is not present in John, Lazarus, though he is famous and people are coming to see Jesus on account of him, is not presented as the honored guest.  He does not take the place of Simon, but is presented merely as “among those present at the table with Him” (John 12:2b).  Lazarus is just another guest, Martha is serving, and Mary is (according to John’s record, wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair---which brings its own provocative considerations that are beyond the pale of this study).  There is a dynamic at work here with these meals, and especially this particular meal, that should serve to provide structure for our thoughts and considerations of Jesus’ kingdom message in general, as well as the serious matter at hand in the letter to Laodicea.