Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Corinth's Communion (part 6)

Let us continue to bear in mind that the communion table was approached within a culture with a ready understanding of the social significance of meals and meal practice, and by a church that looked upon the Passover celebration, now transformed by Jesus, by the light of the messianic banquet and all that such implied.  In many ways, though we do not wish to paint with too broad of a brush, we can see that the communion table---that simple ceremony that Jesus delivered “after supper”---had effectively become symbolic of the messianic banquet, and therefore symbolic of the establishment of the kingdom of heaven.  It did this while carrying a great degree of weight in the areas of theology, and practice.  Theology because the communion table, in carrying the heavy weight of so much meaning, tells its participants a great deal about the God that Jesus intended to reveal and to be revealed through His church that was intended to reveal God’s kingdom.  Practice because, looking back to the example of Jesus, the participants at the communion table are able to learn a very basic premise of what it would look like when they were living and acting like those who truly believed that Jesus had been enthroned, and that God had begun to rule this world through Him. 

Much like the covenant markers of Judaism (primarily circumcision, dietary prescriptions, and the keeping of the Sabbaths) had become the indicators of those that intended to participate in the kingdom of God, so too did participation in the communion, with an ear and an eye towards the inclusive, socially flattening and barrier eliminating model that had been presented by Jesus and which was being shared orally at the point that this letter to the Corinthians was written (as evidenced by the fact that Paul feels compelled to confirm the tradition that had been presented to him), indicate one’s intention to participate in the kingdom of God on earth, doing so through calling Jesus Lord in both word and deed.  This would include living out the implications of the model that was to be found in what would have been the well-known practices of table fellowship of the one that was being looked to as King, and acknowledging the ministerial and missional prominence of the readily communicated stories (as evidenced by the fact that they take up a sizable amount of the Gospel accounts) that served to demonstrate the way that Jesus approached and spoke about the meal table, along with His handling of questions and concerns about the same.  This would also have to be borne in mind alongside the oft-repeated fact that His positioning Himself as Messiah, whether implicitly or explicitly, meant that the meal tables of Jesus, and therefore the table that the early church looked upon as the one table of singular importance, had undeniable messianic banquet sensibilities, and would have to be considered within that terribly important context. 

For these reasons, it seems to be incumbent upon us to move past a pre-occupation with individualistic concerns, and about whether we are able to approach the communion table in a particular condition of heart or soul that becomes determinative of the way that God is going to view us as we take the elements and participate in the Lord’s Supper.  Though Paul does write that “A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup” (11:28), the thrust of the letter, when considered within our diligently teased out knowledge about the context of meal practice and what it communicated about the church and the kingdom of heaven, forces us to consider the “person” in the context of the community in our attempt to fully and rightly discern what it is that is taking place and what has the Apostle so exercised at this congregation. 

This is hardly a nonsensical deduction, as Paul began this section of the letter with a general address to the whole of the church that he intends to hear his words at the same time and place.  He wrote “I do not praise you” (11:17), which is clearly directed to the group.  When he writes “you come together not for the better but for the worse” (11:17), and then reinforces this with “when you come together as a church” (11:18), this is clearly group-speak.  The addition of “I hear there are divisions among you” (11:18) reveals Paul’s desire for unity as a group, while also serving as a lament that there are divisions.  Such a lament would militate against any type of practice that served to elevate the individual aspect when concerning oneself with the meal which identified one as a loyalist to Jesus and as a willing participant in the kingdom program of God for the world that was being enacted through the church.  This is not to say that God does not work through individuals, but such a thought does remind us that no man is an island unto himself.  So we do not devalue the importance of individual pursuit within the kingdom, but maintaining consideration of our context, which is that of a meal that is communal through and through, individualistic concerns, especially as Paul addresses this church, fall by the wayside.  This will allow us to get at the root of the problem.   

It has become clear that an approach to that which serves to identify the church of Christ, that being the communion table, that puts a premium on the individual heart or soul condition of the one that comes to the table, is almost counter-intuitive to what Paul believes is necessary and appropriate.  Indeed, if the example provided by Jesus is considered again, as the meals of the Jesus tradition have come to devolve upon the communion table, one could, if hung up on individualism and anachronistic determinations of worthiness and examination, say that Jesus Himself was prompting violations that would bring judgments of weakness, sickness, and death, as He was consistently coming to the table with, and welcoming to the table those identified as tax collectors and sinners, who were therefore most certainly individuals of the unworthy variety.  This is quite the conundrum, and we are only forced to it if we continue to miss the main concern of the Apostle as he addressed what he learned was happening in this church.        

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Corinth's Communion (part 5)

Looking at Paul’s discourse concerning the communion in this way, in the larger context of what precedes it in the eleventh chapter and in consideration of the general tone of the letter, while also holding on to the reality of a general and public reading to the group, rather than an individual and private reading, prompts us towards a better way of coming to terms with what follows.  The twenty-seventh verse reads “For this reason, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (11:27).  When isolated from what prompted Paul to write about that which he had received from the Lord, this verse prompts all types of interesting thoughts concerning what it means to take in an unworthy manner.  When one goes on to hear “A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup” (11:28), an even larger range of potential interpretations come into view. 

In fact, it is proof-texting that almost immediately comes into view, and accordingly, a statement from what is presented as Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, that of “Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” (13:5a) is brought into service, so as to aid the unsure reader of the first letter in their comprehension.  That won’t do at all, of course, as ideas communicated in the second letter would have zero bearing on the way the hearers of the first letter are to understand Paul’s directions.  Nevertheless, herein lies much controversy, as rightly introspective Christians grapple with what it means to take the bread or cup in an unworthy manner, or what it means to examine oneself, in light of the fact that Paul continues on to write “For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself.  That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead” (11:29-30). 

Naturally, judgment, weakness, sickness, and death are to be avoided.  Unfortunately, large numbers of Christians, down through the centuries, have not only looked at the words of these verses and attempted to understand them in isolation from the larger picture into which they are painted, they have also looked at them from within the overarching idea that the goal of the Christian life is simply to achieve heaven and avoid hell.  Therefore, words such as “guilty” and “judgment” are associated with the proverbial and everlasting fires of hell.  In addition, individualistic concerns and notions of personal salvation, and the corollaries of heaven and hell (as salvation and judgment) have further colored the interpretation in a way that would not have been in the minds of Paul’s original hearers, especially if they had already been well-instructed by him in the fundamentals of all that was implied by the kingdom of heaven, and by concepts such as justification (the means by which one enters into the kingdom of heaven). 

If personal concerns are at the fore, then attempts taken to determine what it would mean to take the elements in an unworthy manner, along with an examination of self, juxtaposed with the irrelevant notion of examining oneself to see if one is in the faith, generally devolves into an idea that sins must be confessed before taking communion, so that the participant will then be worthy to receive the body and blood.  Conversely, some would declare that this type of self-examination is precisely not what is to take place, as it puts the focus on one’s own self, rather than on Jesus, and that Paul is indicating that the focus must be on Jesus, with the bread and the cup acting as useful symbols that allow such a focus to be maintained.  Therefore, in a strange twist, it is declared that confession of personal sins in order to become worthy is that which makes one unworthy, as doing so is nothing more than attempting to work towards one’s salvation, and is therefore a denial of grace, which is ultimately a denial of Jesus. 

Beyond that, semantics and grammar are brought into play, and it is declared that proper understanding is had when one sees that “unworthy” is not the word that is used, but rather “unworthily,” which then makes all the difference in the world.  Now, this is not the place to delve into whether or not the proper word is the adjective, unworthy, or the adverb, unworthily, and then basing an entire communion methodology upon what is implied by the differences between the two.  Getting focused on such a thing would seem to miss the point either way, as determining if one is supposed to be focusing on self and sins as opposed to Jesus and His sacrifice, may be an unwarranted flight into a disconnected and individualized spiritualization in the realm of personal concern and the final destination of one’s eternal soul.  This would be another instance of losing focus on the larger movement and forgetting the environment into which Paul writes and the concerns that he is raising and addressing within this entire section that runs as one unit from at least the seventeenth verse through the thirty-fourth verse, while also failing to consider the very real and known situation that would be readily identified by Paul’s intended hearers.  Quite frankly, though the thoughts and actions of individual persons are in view here, it seems clear, based on the way that Paul has introduced the specific topic of communion, as well as what follows (verses twenty-seven through thirty-four), that it is the actions of this church as a group---as a body---that is the concern, and the demand that is placed upon us is to see, hear, and understand the situation in this way.  

Monday, March 28, 2011

Corinth's Communion (part 4)

That said, we move to the twenty-first verse, where the facts of the matter become more glaring.  Paul writes, “For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper.  One is hungry and another becomes drunk” (11:21).  With this, when considered along with what we know about the banqueting tables of the ancient world, it becomes quite evident that Paul is taking issue with the meal practice of the Corinthian church.  This reminds us of the common and accepted situation of banquets, in that the honored guests would eat first, and that they would also eat the best food while receiving the best wine, while the guests towards the other end of the social spectrum would have to wait to be served.  Here, we reflect on the story of Jesus turning the water into wine, and in the context of what Paul writes to this church, consider that the best wine was then going to be reserved for those that would be receiving their food and drink at the very end of the meal, contrary to all custom. 

In some cases, invited guests would receive nothing at all.  It appears that this altogether unfortunate situation was occurring within the church, at common meals.  Rather than demonstrating that they truly believed that all were one in Christ, and there was neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, and neither Jew nor Greek, there were divisions being put on display at the very meal that was supposed to be demonstrative of the messianic banquet, and to which they were apparently making reference as being the “Lord’s Supper.”  By countermanding the example that had been provided by Jesus, in the context of His announcement of the presence of the kingdom of heaven in which He reversed and flattened out the social order, this church was not being a unique and shining light to the world.  It seems that they were calling what they were doing the Lord’s Supper, and speaking of it in terms of the messianic banquet; but with what is going on there, we are made to understand why Paul tells them “you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper” (11:20b).  If one is going hungry while another becomes drunk and presumably satiated while all are sitting at the same table, how could this possibly be looked upon as the Lord’s Supper?  Where is compassion and love and preference on display in such a situation?  Most decidedly, it is not.    

Paul does not deny that the members of this church come from different segments of society.  He does not deny that there are individuals from all socio-economic levels coming together, nor does he level his critique in this direction.  He writes “Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink?” (11:22a)  The Apostle was not concerning himself with the eating and the drinking itself.  This was not the thing with which he took issue.  What concerned him was the fact that the entrenched forces of the world, backed up from time immemorial by the kingdoms of the world and by the way that they went about gaining and maintaining power, were infiltrating that which was supposed to represent the kingdom of God---which was to model, based on Jesus’ example and insistence, an entirely different way of establishing and growing a kingdom. 

Following up on his rhetorical inquiry about private houses in which the people could eat and drink to their heart’s content, Paul asks “Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing?” (11:22b)  How horrible that this had crept into the church of Christ!  By bringing the banqueting table and festal meal practices of the world into the church, and by attempting to erect and maintain, within the church, the same social divisions and boundaries that existed outside the church, they were extending the shame (in an honor and shame society) felt by those that they supposedly referred to as brothers and sisters in Christ, while referring to it as the Lord’s Supper.  It is no wonder that Paul writes “Should I praise you?  I will not praise you for this!” (11:22c), before going on to talk about the Lord’s Supper as it is meant to be. 

In the recounting of what he had received from the Lord and passed on to this church (11:23), Paul makes it clear that Jesus gave bread and the cup to all, and that none were left out.  That was not the first time that Jesus had done this, as we can see the same thing happening at the feedings of the multitudes over which Jesus presided.  With this in mind, can we even imagine engaging in a celebration, calling it the Lord’s Supper, and not allowing all to participate?  Of course not!  It seems that we do engage in such a practice in our churches, on a regular basis, actively excluding people from participation at the Lord’s Supper, and doing so based on what might very well appear to be, upon a closer, far more informed, and contextualized reading of the words of Paul regarding examination of self and judgment, a seriously flawed practice.  The exclusion of some from participation in the meal due to social custom, however, appears to be precisely what was taking place.  Standard meal practice, in which inequality was rampant, was in effect, and it was being referred to as the Lord’s Supper.  This could not possibly be that for which Jesus had gone to the cross as part of the inauguration of the kingdom of God on earth, so it is little wonder that Paul was angry with this church.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Corinth's Communion (part 3)

If Paul provides “instructions,” “warnings,” and “correctives” during the course of his treatment of communion, common sense would tell us that he did so in the context of dealing with a significant problem in the congregation to which he was writing.  This is a legitimate conclusion to reach, and it is reinforced by what comes before Paul’s delving into his “passing along” of what he had “received from the Lord” (11:23a).  It is what precedes this that is so incredibly instructive for our understanding of why Paul takes this route, for understanding the meal practice of the early church, for understanding the role of the communion in particular within that meal practice, and for understanding the kingdom implications and the way in which the church of Jesus was charged to represent that kingdom through meal practice and communion. 

Something was taking place in Corinth that, for Paul, was odious in the extreme, and ran contrary to all that was represented by the example that had been provided by Jesus.  If we consider the tone that Paul is clearly taking throughout this letter, and then hear words such as “Now in giving the following instruction I do not praise you” (11:17a), we should hear this as the sharp rebuke that it is.  When Paul writes, “I do not praise you,” he is providing a contrast with an earlier statement in which he writes “I praise you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I passed them on to you” (11:2).  This is quite the stark contrast to Paul saying “I do not praise you,” and then going on to add “Should I praise you?  I will not praise you for this” (11:22b), before launching into “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you” (11:23a).  It is of interest to note that in one area, this church is remembering Paul and maintaining the traditions that he passed on to them, but on the other hand, had become completely dismissive of that which Paul passed on to them as coming from Jesus Himself.

As we continue moving forward, and as we consider what is happening within this church, let us keep in mind that the culture was possessive of strong, dividing, separating, stratifying societal forces that were existent and readily demonstrated at the meal tables of the ancient world.  When we take great pains to understand and reflect upon the importance of meals in that time, because of the language that is in use we are able to identify the fact that Paul is communicating in the context of problems centered on meal practice.  It is with this in mind that we hear Paul saying “I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse.  For in the first place, when you come together as a church I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it” (11:17b-18). 

Now, Paul is not speaking into a vacuum.  This church is going to know about their divisions, and they are going to know where those divisions are most clearly seen.  This letter, which would have been read out loud to the congregation in one sitting, has already made mention of “jealousy and dissension” (3:3), and beyond the eleventh chapter---quite noticeably in chapter twelve---Paul is going to address further divisions.  Because those divisions come on the heels of what he is communicating in the eleventh chapter that is going to be clearly situated within church meal practice, and because the congregation is going to hear these words in short order (with no private reading and no artificial chapter and verse divisions), they actually play into the divisions that Paul is referencing in the eleventh chapter.

Returning to the nineteenth verse, we read “For there must in fact be divisions among you, so that those of you who are approved may be evident” (11:19).  This is a rhetorical exercise by Paul.  He is not saying “there must be divisions so that we can know, and know correctly, who among you is truly saved and approved by God.”  Rather, he is being critical of their divisions, and of the steps that are taken to highlight, or to make it quite evident, those who are “approved.”  Because he goes on to write “Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper” (11:20a), we know that Paul is addressing divisions and those who are “approved” in the context of the meal table.  This seems to be a clear reference to the honored guests and the chief seats of the world’s banqueting tables, which opens up a whole new world of understanding. 

We cannot short our understanding of what is being said by thinking of the Lord’s Supper as simply the bread and the cup of the communion.  The Lord’s Supper must here be understood in the context of the well understood tradition of the entire meal of Jesus and His disciples, of what that meal and the specific and identifiable tool for remembrance and identification of kingdom participants that Jesus provided to His disciples at that meal, and of the messianic banquet.  We have to adjust our thinking so that when we think of the Lord’s Supper, our thinking goes beyond just the bread and the cup of communion and of those few minutes of church services that are taken up by the practice.  We must force ourselves to think of the Lord’s Supper in its larger context and against the background of the common meal practice of the ancient world.      

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Corinth's Communion (part 2)

Unfortunately, context is quite often neglected when it comes to Paul’s treatment of communion in the letter to Corinth.  So often, when we hear the passage referenced or quoted, the reference picks up at the twenty-third verse.  There, Paul writes, “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed took bread, and after He had given thanks He broke it and said, ‘This is My body, which is for you.  Do this in remembrance of Me.’  In the same way, He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’  For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (11:23-26).  These are the words that are regularly spoken to create the familiar setting in which we partake of the elements of the table. 

When this happens, we treat the words of the Apostle as if they were some type of instruction manual on how to engage in this practice.  In a sense, that is true, but that is only a part of the story.  Do we take the time to look at what precedes the “instructions”?  Sadly, no.  Like we do in so many other situations, we have a tendency to simply pull things out of context and use them for our own purposes, reading into the text that which we want to see there.  Making reference to the “instruction” portion of chapter eleven, without making reference to what comes before or after, forces our analysis into the the category of being ahistorical and subjective, thereby causing us to miss out on the aspects of the kingdom of heaven and on the reference to Jesus’ meal practice that was so instructive and important for the early community of believers.

Now, it must be said that what comes after is regularly incorporated into the practice of communion.  The “words of warning,” as they are generally viewed, are usually included, so as to induce introspection among potential participants.  We read “For this reason, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.  A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup.  For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself.  That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead.  But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged.  But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned with the world” (11:27-32). 

These “words of warning” have been appended to the “instructions” for good reason.  However, the way in which they are presented, and in which they are urged to be taken, removes them from their practical and objective context, as participants are usually asked to apply this warning individually, as related to their personal salvation, with considerations of personal and individual judgment falling if one doesn’t have the right mindset in one’s taking of the elements or the right understanding of what the bread and the cup represent.  Pretending that Paul has such things in mind is unsatisfactory, and it ignores the corrective action that Paul is taking, first and foremost, with this church, as it fails to follow the example of Jesus and fails to understand that Paul is criticizing this church for their failure to embody the kingdom of heaven.  In addition, the encouragement to come to these words individually and personally, as if the recipients of this letter were silently reading their Bible for themselves, in their studies, rather than hearing the letter read out loud to the entire congregation, has had a hand in creating an unreasonable and Scripturally unsupportable expectation of some type of Christian perfectionism, and a need for confession of personal “sins” after a personal examination of the condition of one’s heart before taking communion.

If we continue on from the words of warning that Paul has delivered, we are able to encounter some corrective language from Paul.  He writes, “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.  If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that when you assemble it does not lead to judgment” (11:33-34a).  When we allow ourselves to jump right into the communion at the twenty-third verse, then the addition of these words from Paul don’t make a great deal of sense.  Along with that, if we fail to take common first century meal practice into consideration when we read these words, they are not going to make a lot of sense.  Finally, if we don’t bear in mind the vision of the messianic banquet and the personal example of Jesus at communion, that goes beyond the “Last Supper” and takes in the whole of the tradition of His meal practice that has the messianic banquet standing in its background and informs the understanding of the early church as to why they are even engaging in this practice in this way, then we are going to have difficulty making sense of what Paul is getting at it with these final corrective instructions; and we are, more than likely, going to approach and utilize the words of Paul incorrectly, missing out on the depth of the problem that is being addressed.

Obviously, Paul has more than what we generally think of as the communion in mind.  Most of us, for better or for worse, only experience the communion as a part of a church service.  Rarely, if ever, do we experience the communion as part of a meal, which was the common experience of the early church.  This, of course, kept the meal practice traditions of Jesus, while serving as a reminder that said practice was firmly ensconced within the Isaianic messianic banquet and its associated expectations and demands of the people of God.  Naturally, this more accurate duplication of the “Lord’s Supper,” as it took place within a world that had very certain and defined parameters and social constructs around its meals, while standing against those same constructs, would have created a dynamic that is all too unfamiliar for us. 

So yes, we tend to forget, or perhaps we never even truly realize that Jesus and His disciples did not simply go through a communion celebration in the way with which we are so familiar.  It must be reiterated that they were at a meal.  Paul even reminds us of this, writing “In the same way, He also took the cup after supper” (11:25a).  So we have a reminder that the basis for Christian communion sprung from an event that took place at a meal.  Not only that, but it becomes clear from Paul’s writing that the specific practice of communion in the early church was also taking place at a meal; but because the communion itself is so often referred to as the “Lord’s Supper,” the meal aspect (and therefore the messianic banquet aspect) is unfortunately screened from view.  This is a loss of understanding, with an extraordinary depth for conceptions concerning church practice and the kingdom of heaven that deserves to be recovered.

Corinth's Communion (part 1)

Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper. – 1 Corinthians 11:20  (NET)

When we grasp the importance of meals in the first century and for the early church, as they were an effective means by which to communicate concepts concerning the kingdom of heaven, we can vest mentions of meals with the proper amount of weight and meaning, and do so even if there does not appear to be any controversy or angst in the situation. 

One such place in which there does appear to be much controversy is the church at Corinth.  This angst is expressed by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, which is the place where we find the most detailed treatment of the communion table, outside of the Gospels, in the whole of the New Testament.  The words used in Paul’s presentation of the communion in the eleventh chapter has been, for centuries, the basis for the celebration of communion, shedding clear light on the practice of the early church, as Paul helpfully elaborates on the goings-on that we see in the “Last Supper” of Jesus and His disciples.  At the same time, while extraordinarily helpful, those same words have been the source of much controversy, as words like “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty  of the body and blood of the Lord.  A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup.  For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself.  That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead.  But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged” (11:27-31), have been applied in a number of ways. 

Usually, there is an encouragement to apply these words in an individual and personal manner, which fits well within a notion of salvation that is predominantly individualistic and focused on an other-worldly escapism.  However, this type of application presents us with a bit of a problem, as such notions would not have been the thrust of Paul’s understanding, nor that of the early church, and certainly would not reflect the worldview in which Jesus Himself was ensconced, and in which He re-oriented the Passover celebration towards Himself.  While there is certainly a sense of individual salvation, Jewish thoughts of salvation, especially as connected with the Passover celebration, as was the communion, were oriented towards the deliverance of the people of God from exile and oppression, with the deliverance from out of Egypt as the model.  While there is an individualistic component here, that individual benefit cannot be disconnected from the community. 

Also, the escapism that is prevalent in the popular interpretation of the communion passages of chapter eleven would not have been a part of Paul’s worldview.  The guilt and judgment reference in the passage previously quoted would not be connected with the eternal destination of one’s soul, and should certainly not be used as a means of limiting participation at the communion table or of generating fear and trepidation at partaking of the elements.  As Jesus invited tax collectors and sinners, and those that would have been rightly identified by observers as being outside of the covenant to join Him at His tables, as He did so with the messianic banquet clearly in the background, and as we, along with the early church, view the communion table in that light, it would seem ridiculous to put such onerous limitations and boundaries, productive of fearfulness and ultimately exclusion, around that which allows us to mimic Jesus’ table practice and show forth the kingdom of heaven. 

When we read these words from the Apostle Paul, and as we consider the communion table, the thoughts that must be dancing at the forefront of our mind cannot be wrapped up in a concern for a personal salvation.  Rather, those thoughts must be the kingdom of heaven, and its manifestation and advancement.  If we are going to rightly approach the communion table, we cannot be focused on ourselves, but on what the table says about the kingdom of heaven.  Based on everything that has been said to this point, it seems that this approach may be the right one, and that it is in approaching the table in this way that we can find a better interpretation and understanding of Paul’s treatment of the subject.  Not only that, but bearing in mind the kingdom of heaven, in the context of the meal practice of the early church, rather than one’s personal salvation, allows us to understand why it is that Paul even brings up the subject in the first place.      

Friday, March 25, 2011

Problems For James (part 2 of 2)

In a way that continues to echo the example and the teachings of Jesus, as we hold on to a construct which has James envisioning the character of the meal practice of the church, James goes on to say “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters!  Did God not choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He promised to those who love Him?” (2:5)  If a banqueting table is in mind, this mention of the kingdom, along with the use of “heirs” (which provides the Abrahamic covenant context that the author, due to his mentioning of Abraham that is soon to follow) that accompanies the contrast between rich and poor, places James squarely within the Jesus tradition that served as a constant reminder of the messianic banquet and of the unexpected way in which God was going about the business of establishing His kingdom. 

As we should expect from those that are operating with a proper, first century Jewish mindset, it is the earthly manifestation of the kingdom of God and its demonstration through the meal (the prominent social event of the day in that time---this has gone effectively unchanged) that is the foremost consideration, rather than an ambiguous concept of “salvation” that relied on foreign, Greek concepts of an ethereal escape into a good-creation-denying-and-therefore-supposedly-blissful disembodied condition, with an eternal residence in some nether-regions beyond the clouds.  This concept, though familiar to Jews of the first century, was rejected.  It would also come to be rejected by Gentiles that came into contact with the Gospel claim of the Lordship of Jesus, and who, by submitting to that Lordship by the Spirit’s effectual application of the power of the Resurrection, came to be concerned with the manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth, with its intended end of the renewal and restoration of the creation and its gathering together of a people into a body that was called to live out, in advance, that soon-to-be consummated kingdom, as they celebrated the re-creation that was to come.  The Resurrection of Jesus into this world (now changed and being changed by the power of the Resurrection), with a new and transformed physical body, served as the model for their expectation.

Moving forward here in James, we do well to keep in mind the words of Jesus (from Luke 14) concerning exaltation and humiliation, about the first being last and the last being first, about the filling of the empty seats in the parable of the great banquet, and about the prevailing mindset in His day about the messianic banquet (God’s judgment on non-covenant people, represented by the deaf, blind, and lame), so that we may rightly hear the contextual critique that is being offered.  Doing this allows us to avoid anachronistic and improper application of terms when we read “But you have dishonored the poor!  Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts?” (2:6)  James, with the messianic banquet as exampled by Jesus (as Messiah) in mind, and with Jesus’ criticisms of the rich (Sanhedrin, High priest, Temple authorities, scribes, etc…) that were in circulation at that time, is expressing incredulity that these same rich ones to whom they are offering the chief seats in their assemblies, are the same ones that are dragging them before courts and councils, demanding that they disavow their claims that Jesus was the Messiah.  This seems to be made clear when we read “Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to?” (2:7)  With this, we are reminded of what Jesus said to His disciples, that “they will seize you and persecute you, handing you over to the synagogues and prisons.  You will be brought before kings and governors because of My name” (Luke 21:12b).    

We must remember that these were highly charged times.  Much like Jesus, who expected His listeners to have ears to hear, James did not offer direct criticism.  Such a thing would have been unwise.  Presumably then, the “rich” must be understood, not in a general sense as those with money, but primarily as the rulers of the people, who have gained their wealth by oppression (and possibly corruption in connection with the Temple).  We see the same types of language with writers like Paul and John, as they cloaked their subversive words, whether those words were subversive of the authorities of Israel or Rome, in what might be considered to be obscure language.  However, what might be obscure to us would be readily understandable to those to whom the words were initially directed.  Indeed, to this end, Paul takes up much of the language of the Caesar cult, which would have been quite familiar to those that received his letters (a prime example is the “from faith to faith” statement of Romans 1:17), but is heard quite differently by those of us that live at such a tremendous time and distance from the Apostle.

These early Christians, living in altogether different times, with a message that challenged the power structures of their entire world (both Jewish and Greco-Roman), had to speak and write in a way that forced the recipients of their words, whether spoken or written, to make the necessary connections and extrapolations that would convey right understanding.  It is incumbent upon us, if we desire to rightly hear and understand even the smallest portion of what is being communicated, to make our best attempt to immerse ourselves in that same world, which requires those of us that are not denizens of the first century, to engage in serious, sustained, and strenuous mental efforts.  This most definitely must be done, quite obviously, to understand Jesus’ words, and indeed, all of the words of Scripture, lest we shortchange the words and intentions of our Lord and our God, and go about on our merry way of ignorant and prideful spirituality.  

Problems For James (part 1)

My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. – James 2:1  (NET)

Social stratification and the recognition of distinctions (delineation) was so incredibly ingrained within the culture, be it Jewish or Greco-Roman culture (with concerns about dining with only people of the covenant or with maintaining proper social boundaries at the table), that it was inevitable that this societal force, if left un-restrained and unchecked, would quickly make its way into the churches, undoing and unmaking what it is that Jesus had exampled, demanded, and defended.  The church, as a community, was marked by its table practices, which can be seen in the fact that many of the charges leveled against it, precipitating much persecution, had to do with accusations of cannibalism.  Such accusations, naturally, represented a lack of understanding about the communion.  Regardless, it shows us that there was something distinctive about Christian meal practice that drew attention.  This, of course, was an excellent follow-on to Jesus’ meal practice, as it most certainly attracted all kinds of attention. 

Any type of activity within the church of Jesus that drew distinctions between one person and another, or which treated one person or type of person as a more worthy or exalted member of the kingdom, when viewed through the lens of the Jesus tradition, would be problematic.  Distinctions could multiply quickly and become entrenched, and this would always be a risk for the church, both then and now.  Social forces are difficult to combat, but since Jesus went to a cross and urged His disciples to take up a cross as well (and we hear those words within the context of the shame and horror that the cross represented), so we can reason that difficulties in the combat of the forces in operation within this world are not to be looked upon as a deterrent for those that confess Jesus as Lord.  They are to be expected and encountered, with love and compassion, and a willingness to suffer the greatest of indignities, if need be, in the encounter. 

Though it does not initially appear to be specifically related to a meal, we will keep in mind the importance of Christian meal practice and its prominent place in the church that was seeking to embody the kingdom ethics and principles put into operation by Jesus (which were so readily seen at His table(s) that were given context by the messianic banquet that would serve to identify God’s redeeming activity on behalf of His people), while also remembering the prevailing forces of societal stratification and division, as we encounter this problem of the drawing of distinctions within the church in the book of James. 

There, immediately after elevating orphans and widows (1:27), who were among the most overlooked and ostracized groups in all of society, we can go on to read “My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1).  James is here addressing those that confess Jesus as Lord, and therefore identify themselves as participants in His kingdom movement.  Continuing on, we read “For if someone comes into your assembly” (2:2a), which is an assembly that is, most likely, going to include a common meal, “wearing a gold ring and fine clothing, and a poor person enters in filthy clothes, do you pay attention to the one who is finely dressed and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and to the poor person, ‘You stand over there,’ or ‘Sit on the floor’?” (2:2b-3) 

Though the words are not used, in this mentioning of one person being seated in a good place, with another person relegated to standing or sitting on the floor.  Because Greek culture had infiltrated Jewish culture to a point, do we not hear the language of protoklisian (chief seat) and eschaton (lowest place)?  Those in receipt of this letter, who would have been imbued with cultural understanding that made this language commonplace, would have quickly imagined the banqueting constructs that are being referenced.  The most noble and esteemed would have been given the best seats at a banquet, whereas the least would have been left standing or taken their places on the floor.  The honored guests (in the eyes of those in attendance) would have received the best food and wine, and the shameful guests (in the eyes of the attendees) within that honor and shame society, would have received items of much lower quality, if anything at all.  What does James say about this situation?  He says, “If so, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?” (2:4)  Clearly, this type of behavior had no place within the church.              

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Compassionate Brother (part 11 of 11)

Though it has taken some work to get to this point, this story of the compassionate brother sounds remarkably similar to a story offered up by Jesus.  Though Esau generally gets a bad rap, and though there is precious little positive talk of Esau in Scriptures, perhaps the man who regularly dined with tax collectors and sinners, who offered up stories commending unjust stewards and good Samaritans, and generally opened up the kingdom of God to all the wrong people, had the story of Esau as the compassionate brother in mind when He offered up the parable of the compassionate father (often incorrectly labeled as the parable of the prodigal son). 

In that story, we hear about a man with two sons.  The younger of the two demanded that his father give him the assets that would eventually come to him upon his father’s death.  This is the equivalent of wishing his father dead.  The father, who would be immensely dishonored by this action, accedes to his son’s wishes.  Though this is not precisely what happened with Isaac and his two sons, Isaac insisted on blessing Esau, the older son, indicating that he wanted to do so before he died.  However, rather than Esau receiving the blessing as the firstborn, the blessing fell to Jacob.  In the parable, as stated, the son has dishonored his father by his request, just as Jacob has dishonored his father.  In both cases, the father has every right to take vengeance on his son, but he restrains himself.  There is compassion in evidence. 

In the parable, the actions of the son would have quickly spread through the community, creating a growing hostility towards this presumptuous and shameful son with his life possibly in jeopardy (as was Jacob’s), so it is quite likely that he quickly sells the assets in order to gain liquidity and leaves.  As did Jacob, with death looming, the son leaves on a journey to a distant country.  Jesus informs His hearers that the son “squandered his wealth with a wild lifestyle” (Luke 15:13b).  Jacob did not squander his wealth, though as we have seen, life was a bit wild.  Like the prodigal, in his exile from his father’s house, fortune had eluded Jacob though others had gotten rich at his expense.  The son of the parable experiences the effects of destitution, as a famine grips the land.  Seeking whatever income he could find, he attaches himself to a citizen of that country, much like Jacob was attached to Laban because of the need to pay him for all of the wives, and is sent to feed the citizen’s pigs.  Naturally, as the hearers of Jesus’ parable were predominantly Jewish, and because they would naturally assume that the family in the story is Jewish, they would see this as an attempt by the man to get rid of an unwanted hanger-on, expecting that the young Jewish man would resolutely refuse to lower and defile himself in such ways.  We saw this as a possibility in Laban’s business deal with Jacob, which, based on Laban’s actions after striking the deal, indicated a desire to rid himself of Jacob. 

Eventually, while feeding the pigs, but while still hungry, the young man in the parable is said to have come “to his senses,” saying “How many of my father’s hired workers have food enough and to spare, but here I am dying from hunger!” (15:17)  Similarly, Jacob comes to his senses, and with the documented hostility that he is experiencing, wonders why it is that he remains where he is, when he could return to his father’s house, rather than continuing to serve under a man who clearly did not want him around.  The younger son, however, knowing that he has shamed himself and his family, and knowing that harsh consequence, up to and including the possibility of death, await him if he returns to his father’s house.  Owing to that, considering the fact that his father’s hired workers make earn enough to feed themselves with money to spare, he devises a plan that will allow him to pay back his father over time, and in the process allow him to regain the honor that he had lost.  He says “I will get up and go to my father and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired workers.’” (15:18-19)  This is the same thing that we saw with Jacob.  He cannot simply return.  He has a brother that has declared his desire to kill him, and a father that he dishonored.  Therefore, he must devise a plan, and clearly, because his father, though it was done unwittingly, passed the convenantal blessing on to him, his primary concern is with the wrath of his brother.  Thus, we see the planning taking place with the division of the families, and then the gifts of animals, with the messengers of the servants.  Effectively, with the language that we see on the lips of Jacob, bowing as he refers to himself as Esau’s servant while also referring to him as “my lord” and telling him that seeing his face is like seeing the face of God, we are hearing Jacob say something like “I have sinned against heaven and against you; treat me like one of your hired workers.” 

In the parable, the younger son returns, knowing that he is taking his life in his own hands, for if he is seen and recognized by the community, he is possibly going to be subject to stoning.  However, “while he was still a long way from home his father saw him, and his heart went out to him: he ran and hugged his son and kissed him” (15:20b).  Like Esau, the father ran.  Like Esau, rather than inflicting suffering on Jacob, the father shamed and dishonored himself, rather than allow his son to suffer.  As Esau hugged and kissed his brother, taking shame and extending compassion, so too did the father hug and kiss his son, in a similar demonstration of merciful compassion.  The son attempted to execute his plan, but before he was able to deliver his prepared speech, the father cuts him off, restoring him to the position of honor as if he had never wronged his father, his family, or his community.  Likewise, we saw that Jacob’s planning and preparations were wholly unnecessary, as Esau welcomes him with open arms, celebrating a joyous reunion, with no thought of retribution or a need to re-pay. 

The father in the parable exclaims that “this son of mine was dead, and is alive again---he was lost and is found!” (15:24a).  Esau, who had wished his brother dead, and to whom he was effectively dead, celebrates the return of his brother---alive again.  Here we have a compassionate brother and a compassionate father, dealing with a brother and a son whose stories shared some common features.  Both had been dishonored and both had been shamed.  Both had the right to take vengeance.  Both exercised compassion.  Both stories, as told to and for a people of the covenant, creative, and providential God that seeks to reconcile His image-bearers and His world to Himself, reveal a God that revels in compassion---willing to take the pain and shame and suffering that rightfully belong to others upon Himself (there was no greater shame than the curse of the cross) so as to set His world to rights and show forth His kingdom and His glory.           

Compassionate Brother (part 10)

One could go on at great length in discussing the honor and shame connotations so as to be able to gain a more robust reading of Scripture, but it seems as if the point has been made.  Considerations of honor and shame are more than necessary if we are to rightly understand the stories and movement of Scripture, as this cultural component looms large.  Approaching the text from this angle allows us to make sense of the stories on their own terms, rather than reading terms and ideas into them, however noble or uplifting those things might be, that simply are not there.  Additionally, as was previously said, proceeding along these lines allows us to hear the narrative as it would have been heard by the people for whom it was written, while also allowing us to better comprehend the movement of Scripture, and therefore, better able to comprehend and serve the God of the Scriptures.  This, of course, allows us to better understand the words and deeds of God made manifest among us, Jesus of Nazareth.    

So what have we seen in the course of this study?  What is it that set us down the path that has revealed to us that Esau, perhaps surprisingly, was the compassionate brother?  To answer that question, let us briefly review the story of Jacob in broad terms.  Jacob, as we know, was one of two sons.  He was the younger of fraternal twins.  In a deceptive and dishonorable action, he secured for himself the blessing of his (purportedly dying) father---a blessing that belonged to his brother.  This generated anger on behalf of his brother, and most likely, on the part of his father as well (due to the shame that would have been generated by the deception).  His brother was determined to kill him, so rather than staying, Jacob left, putting distance between himself and those that he had shamed, ending up in the house of his uncle, Laban. 

As we saw, Jacob lived a rather interesting and tumultuous life.  In particular, we described the scene with his wives competing for his attention and his affection, with them offering up their female servants as wives to their husband, as rather riotous.  When one considers the lifestyle, the adjective “wild” comes to mind.  By all indications, he worked very hard for his uncle.  It appears to be the case that he served to increase his uncle’s wealth, but when it came to his own wealth, possessions, and honor, though he had received the blessing of his father (which promised the richness of the earth along with plenty of grain and new wine), it was as if his life was gripped by famine.  Seeking to rectify this situation, he struck a deal with his uncle.  Though at first it seems like a legitimate agreement, closer inspection causes us to realize that Laban may very well have intended to cause Jacob to become discouraged and despondent over his situation, hopeful that this would result in Jacob leaving (and leaving behind his wives and children). 

Eventually, after realizing there was nothing more to be gained by staying where he is, and continuing to live in what was going to be a difficult and ultimately unsatisfying situation, Jacob expresses a desire to return to his father’s house.  He shares with his wives the reasons for acting on this desire.  However, there is the problem of his dishonored and angry brother (not to mention the dishonored and angry father, whose son had brought shame on the entire family).  Jacob had no idea how Esau would respond, and he figured he would meet up with him somewhere along the journey to his father’s house.  With this in mind, he devises a plan by which he will attempt to soothe his brother, even if it means dishonor for himself. 

With the gifts of a substantial number of animals, the words of the messengers, the bowing before Esau, and the repeated use of “servant” and “lord,” we saw that plan unfold.  However, we also learn that Esau felt it to be completely unnecessary, as he runs to his brother, welcoming him with open arms, demonstrating compassion in his words and actions.  Basically, though Esau will begrudgingly accept the gifts that are on offer from his brother, Jacob’s well-rehearsed plan is dismissed out of hand, as Esau counters Jacob’s attempt to dishonor himself in order to elevate his brother, with his own act to bring shame upon himself---running to his brother and not taking action to avenge the dishonor done to him many years prior.  Whereas Jacob expected conflict, Esau appeared to be in favor of celebration.  Though Jacob had been dead to him, and thought he had wanted him dead, it was now as if Jacob had returned to life.        

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Compassionate Brother (part 9)

The scene of Jacob and Esau’s reunion continues, as “Esau looked up and saw the women and children,” asking “Who are these people with you?” (33:5a)  Continuing his effective prostrations before Esau, Jacob answers with “The children whom God has graciously given your servant” (33:5b).  With this, the pattern established by their husband and father is carried forward, as “The female servants came forward with their children and bowed down.  Then Leah came forward with her children and they bowed down.  Finally Joseph and Rachel came forward and bowed down” (33:6-7).  Surely, this pleased the compassionate Esau.  Searching out his brother’s intentions, Esau goes on to as “What did you intend by sending all these herds to meet me?” (33:8a)  Of course, we, along with the hearers of the narrative know the answer, as Jacob replies by saying “To find favor in your sight, my lord” (33:8b). 

We can see that Jacob has done well in keeping up the language of servant and lord.  Undoubtedly, he is still fearful and hopeful.  What we have seen from Jacob, though assuredly genuine, is a negotiation tactic.  Jacob has sent the animals ahead of him, laying the groundwork for their face to face meeting, but Esau does not immediately acquiesce in acceptance.  Things will not be so simple for Jacob.  He is not going to be able to give Esau some animals and get himself off the hook.  He is going to have to demonstrate some penitence.  Esau makes it clear that this is not a matter of property.  He says “I have plenty, my brother.  Keep what belongs to you” (33:9).  Jacob insists, and even ups the ante, moving beyond the use of servant and lord while also presuming Esau’s satisfaction, saying “If I have found favor in your sight, accept my gift from my hand.  Now that I have seen your face and you have accepted me, it is as if I have seen the face of God.  Please take my present that was brought to you, for God has been generous to me and I have all I need” (33:10-11a).  With this, we’re told that Esau relents and accepts the gift, though it seems as if he does so in a way that is actually against his wishes, especially as he has demonstrated such compassion and mercy, and because there is nothing in the Scriptural record to suggest that this compassion was not genuine. 

As an aside, we find a similar story of give and take and relent in connection with Abraham, which reminds us that there is a cultural component at play in this exchange between Jacob and Esau, and that it is informed by the constant struggle for honor in almost every transaction.  The twenty-third chapter of Genesis opens with the report of the death of Abraham’s wife (Jacob’s grandmother), Sarah, has died.  Abraham desires to obtain a burial site for Sarah, and speaks to a group of men, saying “I am a temporary settler among you.  Grant me ownership of a burial site among you so that I may bury my dead” (23:4).  Though we do not lose sight of Esau’s compassion, of his willingness to shame himself, and the fact that great honor accrues to him because of his extension of compassion, we keep the encounter between Jacob and Esau in mind, along with the culture of honor that even extends to routine transactions, as we listen to the exchange between Abraham and these men.  Abraham receives a favorable answer, as he hears, “Listen, sir, you are a mighty prince among us!  You may bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs.  None of us will refuse you his tomb to prevent you from burying your dead” (23:6).  The negotiations have begun. 

Abraham “got up and bowed down to the local people,” saying “If you agree that I may bury my dead, then hear me out.  As Ephron the son of Zohar if he will sell me the cave of Machpelah that belongs to him… Let him sell it to me publicly for the full price, so that I may own it as a burial site” (23:8-9).  Though this will be a great honor for Ephron, an immediate acceptance of payment from Abraham would be a source of dishonor.  Also, as every such transaction is an opportunity to elevate oneself in the honor and shame struggle, getting Abraham to purchase more than that for which he has expressed interest will gain him some honor, as it demonstrates his shrewdness and savvy.  Of course, this will not be unexpected by Abraham. 

The negotiation continues, as Ephron, couching the offer as a demonstration of magnanimity while also extending the range of purchase (a rather regular feature in transactions in the culture) says, “No, my lord!  Hear me out.  I sell you both the field and the cave that is in it.  In the presence of my people I sell it to you.  Bury your dead” (23:11).  Ephron has called attention to the fact that there are many witnesses to this negotiation, which is a tacit reminder of the honor game that is being played.  Hearing this, Abraham bows again and says “Hear me, if you will.  I pay to you the price of the field.  Take it from me so that I may bury my dead there” (23:13b).  We’ll notice that Abraham does not yet name a price, leaving this to Ephron to propose---another feature of the game of honor.  Abraham receives the response of “Hear me, my lord.  The land is worth four hundred pieces of silver, but what is that between me and you?  So bury your dead” (23:15).  Though Ephron has been forced to name the price (and thus losing that end of the game), by his words, he attempts to position the price as so low that it is practically a gift to Abraham, as the game continues.  Those that have spent any amount of time in the east, whether living there or simply visiting, will be familiar with this type of exchange.           

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Compassionate Brother (part 8)

Jacob extended his instructions, as he “gave these instructions to the second and third servants, as well as all those who were following the herds, saying ‘You must say the same thing to Esau when you meet him.  You must also say, “If fact your servant Jacob is behind us!”’” (32:19-20)  Notice the language that is being used.  Jacob is asking his servants to refer to him, before Esau, as “your servant,” while also asking them to refer to Esau as “my lord.”  The goings-on could not be more obvious.  Jacob’s plan is in full effect, now.  He knows that this must be done in order to, as he hopes, deflect the vengeance that he knows is due him.  The author confirms this, once again sharing Jabob’s thought process (with this forming part of the oral tradition that has, no doubt, been passed down through the generations, beginning with Jacob’s own telling, before it would be composed in written form), that “Jacob thought, ‘I will first appease him by sending a gift ahead of me.  After that I will meet him.  Perhaps he will accept me.’” (32:20b)  This process of appeasement would be terribly important, as Jacob, having brought shame upon his father, his brother, himself, and his entire family, is well aware that he deserves something far different.

The thirty-third chapter (though we are always cognizant of the fact that there would have been no chapter and verse divisions, especially considering that the primary means of conveying the story would have been orally rather than as a written story to be read) begins rather ominously.  “Jacob looked up and saw that Esau as coming along with four hundred men” (33:1).  At this point, the herds of animals have already been presented to Esau.  The servants have already made repeated references to Jacob as Esau’s servant.  Esau has already heard him referred to as lord on a number of occasions.  Yet here he is, coming with his four hundred men.  What must Jacob be thinking at this point?  If this story was being told afresh into a community shaped by honor and shame concerns, or if it being read for the first time by an individual who has grown up steeped in a culture that values honor and shame, what would the hearer or reader be thinking?  Clearly, Jacob is still fearful.  He can surmise that his plan has been unsuccessful to this point.  Taking further steps, “he divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two female servants” (33:1b).  These, lest we forget, are Bilhah and Zilpah---his other two wives.  “He put the servants and their children in front, with Leah and her children behind them, and Rachel and Joseph behind them” (33:2).

Jacob, with a lavish display of humility on his part, and in a last ditch effort to avert his brother’s wrath (while also knowing that, if he survives, he will still have to deal with the wrath of his dis-honored father), “went on ahead of them, and he bowed toward the ground seven times as he approached his brother” (33:3).  We cannot underestimate what this would have communicated to all involved---Esau included.  Jacob is actively humbling himself.  He is divesting himself of his honor, and demonstrating that he is willing to shame himself before his brother.  The total effort has been a substantial gesture, indicating Jacob’s penitent spirit, and willingness to do whatever it takes to rectify the shame, while preserving his own life.  So how does Esau respond?  We learn that “Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, hugged his neck, and kissed him.  Then they both wept” (33:4). 

This is a remarkable response.  Esau has every right to be angry.  He was grossly dishonored.  He is in a position to lord himself over Jacob until such a time as Jacob recompenses him for the wrong that has been done to him.  However, he runs to Jacob, embracing him, kissing him as a brother, and weeping with him.  This is a tremendous act of compassion on the part of Esau.  In this very act he reveals himself as the quintessentially compassionate brother.  As Jacob goes through a process by which he is effectively attempting to divest himself of honor (effectively shaming himself through behavior that is set at quite a distance from behavior that works towards the accrual of honor), Esau’s gracious compassion shines through, as he takes shame upon himself (divesting himself of honor) by running to Jacob.  It was well understood that men, in that culture, did not run.  A man’s honor was measured by the slowness of his walk.  It was shameful for a man to even show his legs, and this would be necessary for running to take place.  Now, one might believe that Esau was being disingenuous, harboring resentment towards Jacob, but the fact of Esau’s running to Jacob takes this out of play.  This is extraordinarily revelatory when it comes to providing knowledge of the character of Esau, and this would not be lost on the hearers or early readers.  

Friday, March 18, 2011

Compassionate Brother (part 7)

As we hear the Exodus narrative, and as we allow it to cast light on the Genesis narrative (as the Exodus narrative is probably more important to Israel than the Genesis narrative, especially when it comes to their self-understanding and the interpretive model of God’s interaction with them and with the world in the ongoing theme of exile to exodus), we find that “When it was reported to the king of Egypt that the people had fled, the heart of Pharaoh and his servants was turned against the people, and the king and his servants said, ‘What in the world have we done?  For we have released the people of Israel from serving us!’  Then he prepared his chariots and took his army with him.  He took six hundred select chariots, and all the rest of the chariots of Egypt, and officers on all of them” (Exodus 14:5-7).  It is at this point that the results of the two stories radically diverge, as the armies of Egypt are destroyed at the Lord’s hand, whereas Laban, after overtaking and confronting Jacob, ends up kissing his grandchildren and his daughters goodbye, blessing them, and returning to his home (31:55).   

It is important to draw out these Scriptural connections, as past is always prelude to present, and the words of the prophets, when they would come, draw on a collective understanding that is structured upon the history of Israel---a history which stretches back to Abraham.  If we will recognize the importance of Israel’s foundational narrative (the Torah/Pentateuch), then we position ourselves to gain deeper insights and appreciation of such things as the parables of Jesus.  Thus, as stated earlier, we gain deeper insights into the character of, and appreciation for, the creator God that chose out a people for Himself to accomplish His purposes in and for His creation.

It is as soon as Laban departs that Jacob’s thoughts turn to his brother.  He knows that he has a serious problem on his hands.  He knows that he has wronged his brother---dishonored his brother and his entire family.  He devises a plan.  Indeed, “Jacob sent messengers on ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the region of Edom.  He commanded them, ‘This is what you must say to my lord Esau: “This is what your servant Jacob says: I have been staying with Laban until now.  I have oxen, donkeys, sheep, and male and female servants.  I have sent this message to inform my lord, so that I may find favor in your sight.”’” (32:3-5)  Jacob is right to be concerned.  This concern, and the reasons for the concern (cultural) will be well understood by those that are hearing in this story independently as part of the oral tradition being shared amongst the Israelites, or as those that are hearing/reading this story as a post-exodus people after the stories have been codified and taken the shape in which we now have them.  Though all will already know the outcome (much like the initial church communities that were the hearers of the Gospels do so with knowledge of their outcome), they can still share in the tension by which the story is shaped. 

Having made this initial effort at what Jacob believes to be necessary for the assuagement of Esau, “The messengers returned to Jacob and said, ‘We went to your brother Esau.  He is coming to meet you and has four hundred men with him.’” (32:6)  Understandably, and with full cognizance of what he had done to his brother, “Jacob was very afraid and upset” (32:7a).  Owing to this, he took some precautions.  Knowing that the shame that he had foisted upon his brother could be satisfied with a certain level of vengeance, and expecting the worst, Jacob “divided the people who were with him into two camps, as well as the flocks, herds, and camels” (32:7b).  Jacob’s reasoning process, steeped in an honor and shame culture (as the stories are being circulated within communities that also function in the dialectic of honor and shame), is on display, as he thinks “If Esau attacks one camp… then the other camp will be able to escape” (32:8).  Jacob reasons hopefully that the shame which he has foisted upon his brother will be satisfied by Esau’s slaughter of half of Jacob’s people and possessions. 

After devising this plan, Jacob prays to the Lord, saying “Rescue me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, as well as the mothers with their children” (32:11).  He then repeats the promise that has been conveyed to him, reminding the Lord of His words in which He had said “I will certainly make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand on the seashore, too numerous to count” (32:12).  Having offered up this prayer, and perhaps gaining a bit of confidence in light of this recollection and of all that has happened to him to this point, Jacob makes a change to his plans.  “He sent as a gift to his brother Esau” (32:13b) a sizable number of animals, in the obvious hope that doing so would make up for what Jacob had stolen from him, and as something of a symbolic (and tangible) transfer of honor.  Is this a semblance of humility here on Jacob’s part?  Perhaps.  We read that “He entrusted them to his servants” (32:16a), telling them to “’Pass over before me, and keep some distance between one herd and the next.’  He instructed the servant leading the first herd, ‘When my brother Esau meets you and asks, “To whom do you belong?  Where are you going?  Whose herds are you driving?” then you must say, “They belong to your servant Jacob.  They have been sent as a gift to my lord Esau.  In fact Jacob himself is behind us.”’” (32:16b-18)  There is an element here, however faint it may seen, of Jacob attempting to shame himself as he approaches Esau.

Compassionate Brother (part 6)

As we begin to examine Jacob’s return trek to Canaan, and as we bear in mind the dishonoring of both his father and brother that took place many years earlier (he will have to deal with this, and of course, it is on his mind), let us also bear in mind that Genesis and Exodus (and the whole of the first five books of the Bible---as they are presented) constitute a continuous narrative.  Just as it is impossible for us to understand Jesus apart from some level of comprehension of second Temple Judaism, it is impossible to understand what is going on in Exodus apart from an understanding of Genesis.  At the same time, we are in the position, along with those that would have heard or read the Genesis and Exodus narratives together as the story of how Israel came to be a people, of allowing Exodus to inform a more thorough understanding of Genesis.  Learning to take in the entire narrative will make us better able to comprehend the movement of Scripture, and therefore, better able to comprehend (and serve) the God of the Scriptures.

Why make mention of this here?  It is because of what we find in association with the story of Jacob’s departure from Laban.  In verse nineteen of the thirty-first chapter, we learn that “While Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole the household idols that belonged to her father” (31:19).  The passage then turns immediately back to Jacob, saying “He left with all he owned” (31:21a).  This is an interesting interlude, as we have already read that Jacob had gathered up all of his property and had “set out toward the land of Canaan to return to his father Isaac” (31:18b).  So, with the inclusion of the story about the stealing of the household idols---a story that will play out in short order, though it does not seem to have much ultimate bearing on the story going forward, we have to wonder why it is mentioned. 

On the surface, together with the fact that “Jacob also deceived Laban by not telling him that he was leaving” (31:20), it provides the pretense for what comes next, when we learn that “Three days later Laban discovered Jacob had left.  So he took his relatives with him and pursued Jacob for seven days” (31:22-23a).  When Laban catches up with Jacob, he protests this treatment by Jacob (we remember conflict and contest of honor and shame), and concludes his protest with “Yet why did you steal my gods?” (31:30b).  Obviously, all of this serves a greater purpose.  How would this story be heard by a post-exodus Israel?  Naturally, they would hear their own exodus story in the tale of Jacob’s departure from Canaan, his time spent in labor, his departure from Laban to return to his homeland, the taking of the household gods, and Laban’s pursuit. 

Israel had labored under Egypt’s oppression, enriching Egypt at their expense, as Jacob had done for Laban (at least initially).  Israel yearned to be free from Egypt’s yoke, just as Jacob yearned to leave Laban.  Just as Jacob received a message from the Lord to “Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives” (31:3), so too would Israel hear the voice of their God through Moses.  When Israel left Egypt, it is said that “The Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, and they gave them whatever they wanted, and so they plundered Egypt” (Exodus 12:36).  Though it comes in a slightly different order, this is not at all dissimilar to Jacob’s becoming “extremely prosperous” (30:43), generating the complaint from his brothers-in-law that “Jacob has taken everything that belonged to our father!  He has gotten rich at our expense!” (31:1b)  Rachel’s taking of her father’s household gods would fit right into this milieu (while also, in correlation to the story of Israel’s exodus, demonstrating that Laban, and therefore Egypt, was powerless to change what was happening). 

In continuing this comparison, we can back up to the thirtieth chapter of Genesis, and find a precursor to Moses’ repeated requests to Pharaoh to free Israel, as “Jacob said to Laban, ‘Send me on my way so that I can go home to my own country.  Let me take my wives and my children whom I have acquired by working for you.  Then I’ll depart, because you know how hard I’ve worked for you.’” (30:25b-26)  Laban’s response is mildly-Pharaonic, as he does not accede to Jacob’s request.  He sends Jacob back to the fields with a new deal (much like Israel’s work is made more difficult after Moses’ first encounter with Pharaoh).  Of course, much as it would be the case for Israel in Egypt, it won’t be long until Jacob has plundered all of the wealth of Laban and departs.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Compassionate Brother (part 5)

Chapter thirty-one opens with a report on the disposition of Laban’s sons towards Jacob.  We read that “Jacob heard that Laban’s sons were complaining, ‘Jacob has taken everything that belonged to our father!  He has gotten rich at our father’s expense!” (31:1).  This is owing to the fact that, in line with the interesting breeding practices that were employed by Jacob even after Laban had attempted to undermine he and Jacob’s arrangement, “the weaker animals ended up belonging to Laban and the stronger animals to Jacob” (30:42b).  Laban was well aware what had happened.  Though he had attempted to force Jacob to depart, Jacob had gotten the upper hand.  Now, with the words that were on the lips of his sons, it is clear that Laban’s honor had been diminished.  It is no wonder then, that “When Jacob saw Laban’s face, he could tell his attitude toward him had changed” (31:2). 

Providentially, and with the glaring reality that he has completely worn out his welcome with Laban staring him in the face, “The Lord said to Jacob, ‘Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives.  I will be with you.’” (31:3)  This conforms with the word of the Lord that we heard in the twenty-eighth chapter, when Jacob was at Bethel, in which Jacob heard the Lord say to him, “I am with you!  I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land” (28:15a).  As Jacob, at this point, is still going to be unsure as to Esau’s disposition towards him, he needs the reassurance of these words.  Regardless, the situation with Laban, with the fact that Laban really did not want him there (as evidenced by his dismay at Jacob actually achieving what it was that was proposed in his wage agreement), causes Jacob to come to his senses, re-orienting him towards the house of his father.  Accordingly, he sends a message to Rachel and Leah, asking them to come to him in the field where he was with his flocks, and said to them “I can tell that your father’s attitude toward me has changed, but the God of my father has been with me” (31:5).  He presents his reasoning process behind the decision that he has taken to return to his father’s house, saying “You know that I’ve worked for your father as hard as I could, but your father has humiliated me” (31:6-7a), drawing out the honor and shame component that we have submitted as being an underlying factor in the growing tension between Jacob and Laban, “and changed my wages ten times.  But God has not permitted him to do me any hard” (31:7b). 

Making this point, and underscoring his gathering of honor in spite of Laban’s desire to shame him, he adds, “If he said, ‘The speckled animals will be your wage,’ then the entire flock gave birth to speckled offspring.  But if he said, ‘The streaked animals will be your wage,’ then the entire flock gave birth to streaked offspring.’” (31:8)  Reinforcing the fact that Jacob has accrued honor (and possessions), while Laban’s possessions (and honor) have been devoured, Jacob says, “In this way God has snatched away your father’s livestock and given them to me” (31:9).  Jacob piles further divine sanction upon his pending departure by speaking of a dream in which the angel of God (31:11) spoke to him and said “Observe that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled, or spotted, for I have observed all that Laban has done to you.  I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed the sacred stone and made a vow to me” (31:12-13a).  To this is appended the message of “Now leave this land immediately and return to your native land” (31:13b). 

Dutifully, his wives respond with “Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father’s house?  Hasn’t he treated us like foreigners?” (31:14b-15a)  This insistent query in regards to being treated like foreigners would certainly take an interesting connotation upon itself when heard by the people of Israel after the receiving of the law, as the Mosaic law dealt provided detailed proscriptions for dealing with foreigners.  Prior to the receipt of the law, and though the circumstances are not entirely applicable (Jacob had grown rich at the hand of the one that treated him as a foreigner), we can imagine how the words of this story would have been heard by an oppressed Israel in Egypt.  In later years, when the tribes of Israel were scattered and exiled as strangers in strange lands, it is certain that the story of Jacob’s exile from home, along with these words on the lips of his wives, provided a hope for restoration to their promised land (as it also would have for Israel in Egypt). 

Jacob’s wives continued on to say, “He not only sold us, but completely wasted the money paid for us!” (31:15b).  Reinforcing the idea of their father’s diminished standing (and honor), they add “Surely all the wealth that God snatched away from our father,” as they echo the words of Jacob (that were an echo of the words of Laban’s sons), “belongs to us and to our children.  So now do everything God has told you” (31:16).  Here, Jacob, realizing his plight, has come to himself, while his wives have confirmed his thinking.  In response, “Jacob immediately put his children and his wives on the camels.  He took away all the livestock he had acquired in Paddan Aram and all his moveable property that he had accumulated.  Then he set out toward the land of his Canaan to return to his father Isaac” (31:17-18).  One problem still loomed large, which was how he was going to deal with his aggrieved brother.  Undeniably, if he had shamed his uncle Laban, then he had also shamed his brother through his deceptive act.  Indeed, if he had shamed his brother, had he not also shamed his father and his entire family, for did he not defraud his father as well?  This appears to be a larger problem than we have traditionally presumed it to be.