Saturday, April 30, 2011

...Like A Gentile Or Tax Collector (part 3)

When pressed on the fact that He is dining with “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus ultimately responds by effectively saying “I came to call sinners.”  That is, “these are the people---these tax collectors and sinners (Gentiles and those treated as Gentiles, if you will)---that I intend to gather into the kingdom of God.  I am going after these people.”  Concordantly, a regular accusation that would be leveled against Jesus, that was intended (among other things) to show that He could not possibly be Israel’s Messiah, was the manner of His table fellowship and the people with which He surrounded Himself.  In the eleventh chapter of Matthew, as we see the constant building of the story and the inter-connectivity of the pieces of the narrative, Jesus Himself gives voice to this charge, reporting what it was that was being said about Him: “Look at Him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (11:19b).  Surely, the thoughts seemed to run, God’s messiah would not surround Himself with those that are taken to be outside of His covenant---not displaying or adhering to the accepted and determined covenant markers (circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath-keeping) of the people of God.  By His consistent fraternization with and acceptance of such people, Jesus demonstrated His attitude towards and compassion for said classes of people. 

In a way that seems to run contrary to that which we have seen to this point, when we reach the tenth chapter we find Jesus sending out His twelve disciples and instructing them “Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town.  Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:5b-6).  We, right along with Matthew’s hearers, should find this to be highly unusual, as it seems to run counter to what we have seen and heard from Jesus.  We understand this a bit better when we hear what it is that is to be the content of their message, which is that “The kingdom of heaven is near!” (10:7b)  This is a fundamentally Jewish concept, and would not necessarily be understood by Gentiles and Samaritans.  So this may need to be less understood as restrictive, and more understood as being practical.  At the same time, a careful inspection of Matthew seems to reveal that Jesus limits His talk of the kingdom of heaven to His interaction with the people of Israel, which can also make sense of the practical nature of the instructions. 

Of course, we hold this tension in mind and find that it is ultimately balanced by the great commission that we encounter in the closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel.  This tension and expectation of what is to come is played out here in the tenth chapter, as Jesus continues His instructions, saying “I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves… Beware of people, because they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues” (10:16a,17), which was very much the experience of the community of Christ-followers in the years following the Christ-event and the time in which this Gospel would have been composed.  As it relates to understanding what it means to treat someone as a Gentile or tax collector, Jesus relates the greater purpose of this treatment of His disciples, saying “And you will be brought before governors and kings because of me” (10:18a).  Here, we cannot help but think of the travails of Peter, John, and Paul, and their appearances before the authorities (especially those of Paul), which would most likely have been known to the community for which Matthew is writing.  When standing before governors and kings, Jesus’ persecuted disciples would act “as a witness to them and the Gentiles” (10:18b).  Yes, Jesus was always cognizant of His mission.  His church has always been cognizant of its mission.  This mission, as Matthew’s hearers would well-know and would routinely hear, included reaching out to Gentiles so as to bring them into the plans and purposes, and the ever-widening fold of the people of the kingdom of God.

In the eleventh chapter we find some more useful information for our premise when we read/hear the report of Jesus criticizing a number of cities.  He pronounces woe to cities such as Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, which were all cities of the Galilee region, for their lack of repentance (joining up with Jesus’ new exodus movement) though they had witnessed “many of His miracles” (11:20b).  In contrast, Jesus mentions three Gentile cities---Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom---that He seems to believe would have responded differently to His call, had they been given the same opportunity.  His statement of “For if the miracles done among you had been done in Sodom, it would have continued to this day” (11:23b), along with “But I tell you, it will be more bearable for region of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you!” (11:24) would have weighed heavily on the minds of His hearers.  Such pronouncements by Jesus, among His Jewish hearers, would probably have called to mind the story of Jonah and the repentance of Assyria; and indeed, we are not disappointed to find Matthew making reference to that very story in chapter twelve, when Jesus, in response to the demand for a sign, references the sign of Jonah and goes on to say “The people of Nineveh,” the capital city of a Gentile nation that had been responsible for the oppression of Israel (thoughts of Rome and its oppression lurks in the background here), “will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented when Jonah preached to them” (12:41).      

Friday, April 29, 2011

...Like A Gentile Or Tax Collector (part 2)

The questions that must be asked are “What would this mean to Jesus’ audience?” and “What would this mean to Matthew’s audience?”  These are interesting, provocative, and interesting questions.  Jesus’ audience would not be unaware of His activities to that point.  They would have known who it was with which Jesus surrounded himself, and they would have known things that were thought and said about Jesus by both His supporters and His detractors.  In the case of Matthew’s audience, we must never lose sight of the fact that Matthew’s written narrative---apparently drawing from Mark, some unknown written collections of Jesus’ teaching, and a community-controlled oral tradition---would have been composed for a largely oral community, and would have been designed to be orally performed in a communal setting, presented from start to finish in a single sitting. 

So, what would both Jesus’ and Matthew’s audience already know, when it comes to their hearing of the words recorded in the eighteenth chapter, that would inform their comprehension of Jesus’ words about Gentiles and tax collectors?  Let’s take a look.  In the fourth chapter, Matthew records Jesus’ re-location from Nazareth to Capernaum (in the region of Zebulun and Naphthali).  This is picked up on as a historical actualization of words from Isaiah, which read “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphthali, the way by the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles---the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, and on those who sit in the region and shadow of death a light has dawned” (4:15-16).  Though we cannot come anywhere close to presuming that Jesus’ audiences would have made this connection, Matthew’s audience hears this reference to a light to the Gentiles very early on the telling of the Jesus story. 

Shortly thereafter, we read/hear that “Jesus went throughout all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of disease and sickness among the people” (4:23).  This, again, is the region that has just been referred to as “Galilee of the Gentiles.”  In addition, Matthew adds, “So a report about Him spread throughout Syria” (4:24a), which was a Gentile area.  Accordingly, owing to all that He was doing and saying, “large crowds followed Him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan River” (4:25).  Right away, we find Jesus’ ministry, as presented by Matthew, intimately connected with Gentiles. 

In the fifth chapter, we hear Jesus saying “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven… For if you love those who love  you, what reward do you have?  Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they?  And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do?  Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they?” (5:43-44,46-47)  The juxtaposition of “enemy” and “those who persecute you,” with “tax collector” and “Gentile” are undeniable.  Clearly, they are one and the same.  What is also undeniable, for our purposes, is that juxtaposition is firmly ensconced in Jesus call to love them and pray for them.  This would most definitely serve to inform what it means to treat somebody as a Gentile or tax collector, would it not?

Moving to the eighth chapter, we find that “a centurion came to Him asking for help: ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible anguish.’” (8:5b-6)  This centurion, a Gentile, was part of the oppressive, occupying Roman military machine.  His role, among other things, was to keep the people of Israel in submission.  How did Jesus respond?  Did He refuse the request of this Gentile oppressor of Israel?  On the contrary, “Jesus said to him, ‘I will come and heal him.’” (8:7) 

In chapter nine we find that Jesus “saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth” (9:9b).  Here is another opportunity for Jesus to shun one of these dastardly collaborators with the hated Romans.  Yet we hear Jesus say “Follow Me” (9:9c).  After Jesus pulls this tax collector into His growing band of disciples, He has a meal with Him.  Now, whenever Jesus, who is going about offering up messianic actions (in the eyes of His contemporaries), and who is clearly being portrayed as the Messiah in the stories told about Him by the early new covenant community (with this being the obvious pre-disposition of the author of this Gospel), sits down at a meal, the thoughts of “messianic banquet,” which indicated the coming of the kingdom of God (which Jesus consistently announced), would not be trailing far behind.  Those who participated in the messianic banquet, which can only be understood with the context of God’s covenant with Israel through Abraham, were those that would rule in God’s kingdom.  It is in that light that we read “As Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Jesus and His disciples” (9:10).  

Thursday, April 28, 2011

...Like A Gentile Or Tax Collector (part 1)

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.  If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector. – Matthew 18:17  (NET)

Stern words from Jesus.  The context, of course, is relationships between covenant brethren.  Jesus has said “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone.  If he listens to you, you have regained your brother.  But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses, every matter may be established” (18:15-16).  Our introductory verse follows from this statement, presenting something of a system for dealing with conflicts. 

So how do we generally interpret these words?  Upon first reading, do we think something along the lines of “Yes.  That’s right.  If we’ve made the necessary efforts, and if the response is not correct (meaning, the response is not that which we desire to see), then that individual is to be marginalized and ostracized---treated as a Gentile (or a pagan) or a tax collector, for he is unrepentant and beyond reach”?  We could venture to say that, instinctively, especially in light of our parsed reading of Scripture, that such thoughts do indeed present themselves.  In general, we are accustomed, within the church world, to the creation of an “us vs. them” mentality, with the “us” being those inside the church, and the “them” being the pagans, heathens, and veritable Gentiles and tax collectors that stand outside of and presumably opposed to the church and its claims on behalf of Christ.  This customary treatment, unfortunately, is patently incorrect. 

Without going into too much detail, it is worth recounting that Jews, in recognizing their role as God’s elect and chosen covenant people, and according to the prescriptions of the Mosaic law and the rather large assortment of traditions grafted on to that law, kept themselves separate from Gentiles.  Purity laws demanded that there be no mixing with Gentiles.  For them, and painting with an extraordinarily broad brush, Gentiles were those people that stood against the claims of their creator God, while also functioning in an ongoing role of oppressors (very much an us vs. them mentality). 

Tax collectors were the hated group that collaborated with their Roman oppressors.  This disdain went well beyond the general disgust that is almost universally felt towards those that collect taxes, as their presence and their role were constant reminders of Israel’s covenant failures, and their God’s ongoing punishment of His covenant people.  If we take these basic facts into consideration, then it would seem rather odd to say that an assessment of Jesus’ statement that affirms an isolation and ostracizing of unrepentant individuals through treating them as Gentiles or tax collectors is an incorrect statement.  Still, that statement stands, and we deny that Jesus came anywhere near to implying that an unrepentant individual should be isolated, ostracized, or condemned.  Rather, we take up His statement and affirm that he or she is to be treated like a Gentile or a tax collector.

Shortly after the statements of verses fifteen through seventeen, we find Jesus’ famous and popular statement of “For where two or three are assembled in My name, I am there among them” (18:20).  We tend to glory in this statement, while also tending to forget that it is offered in the context of conflict and what appears to be discipline.  This discipline, it shall be seen, is not necessarily the discipline of the individual in question that is being brought before groups of brothers or before the church, but rather, the teachings of Jesus that are meant to provide a disciplining effect for the covenant community---guiding their actions and behaviors.  Along with this, we do well to recognize the fact that these words on offer by Jesus, as reported by Matthew and as placed in the structure of His narrative concerning Jesus, follows immediately from the parable of the lost sheep, which presents a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep to go after just one that is lost, and closes with Jesus saying “In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that one of these little ones be lost” (18:14).  This statement must be kept in mind when we hear Jesus saying “treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector.” 

At the same time, we are forced to come to grips with the fact that Jesus, after speaking about His presence in the midst of gathered ones, is reported to have conducted a conversation with Peter, who has asked about the necessity of multiple offerings of forgiveness.  Jesus effectively informs Peter that forgiveness must be limitless.  This demands to be understood within the narrative flow of the entirety of Matthew’s Gospel, as well as the flow of the section in which it is to be found, so it can be asserted that it does have bearing on the way Jesus’ insistence in regards to treatment as a Gentile or tax collector is to be understood.   

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lending To The Poor

Be careful lest you entertain the wicked thought that the seventh year, the year of cancellation of debts, has almost arrived, and your attitude be wrong toward your impoverished fellow Israelite and you do not lend him anything; he will cry out to the Lord against you and you will be regarded as having sinned. – Deuteronomy 15:9  (NET)

The above is preceded by the following statement: “If a fellow Israelite from one of your villages in the land that the Lord your God is giving you should be poor, you must not harden your heart or be insensitive to his impoverished condition” (15:7).  This is rather straightforward, as it demands compassion towards those that are poor and impoverished.  The next verse informs us as to the response that should be undertaken as a result of this compassion, which is “Instead, you must be sure to open your hand to him and generously lend him whatever he needs” (15:8).  As we explore what surrounds this statement, we’ll also come to find that there is no insistence that there needs to a determination as to the reason for the impoverishment.  In addition, while the language of lending does indicate that this is not necessarily to be a hand-out (as the ninth verse brings in the context of the Jubilee and the release of debts), the language also carries the connotation that one should lend with the expectation that it is a gift that will not be returned. 

Also, we note with interest that the responsibility for provision for the poor lies with the community of individual Israelites, as they act with compassion towards the impoverished based on personal relationships.  This then makes these activities truly charitable, marking yet one more way in which God’s chosen people would function as lights to the surrounding nations, reflecting the glory of God as they were intended to do.  It is impossible to escape the fact that what it is that Moses, who speaks to Israel on God’s behalf, describes as sin, in that it is not lending to the poor (because of a calculation that it will not be returned) when it is in one’s power to do so, that is regarded as sin.  Certainly, this must be quite important to those that earnestly desire to avoid sin and to please God. 

Reinforcing what has been said, we then read “You must by all means lend to him and not be upset by doing it, for because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you attempt” (15:10).  Earlier in the chapter, we find it said that “there should not be any poor among you, for the Lord will surely bless you in the land that He is giving you as an inheritance” (15:4).  This seems to stand at odds with what is to be found in the eleventh verse, which is that “There will never cease to be some poor people in the land; therefore, I am commanding you to make sure you open your hand to your fellow Israelites who are needy and poor in your land” (15:11).  Clearly, the statement of the fourth verse, that “there should not be any poor among you,” is meant to be idealistic, motivating the community to sacrificial and compassionate sharing that will alleviate poverty; whereas the statement of the eleventh verse is indicative of the reality that there will always be those that, for one reason or another, are poor.  Again, we are not here asked to ascertain the reasons for the poverty.  That which we accept as the Word of God simply informs us in regards to that which experience confirms, which is that, regardless of the level of affluence achieved by a particular society, there will always be those left unreached by prosperity.  Thus, neither prosperity nor poverty is condemned, whilst God commands that poverty be addressed, directly, by His people (not through the mediation of governmental entities). 

From this, we learn that in this age, and in this present world that awaits the consummation of God’s new creation, poverty will never eradicated.  The poor will always be with us.  Some, regardless of how much compassion is exercised towards them through the members of the community, and regardless of how much is lent to them in response to their impoverished state, will always be poor.  Apparently, this is irrelevant.  We are to lend.  We are to share.  We are to exercise that compassion (again, directly, as the people of God) again and again, without regard to the fact that it may be wasteful.  While we certainly bear in mind the necessity of stewarding what has been given to us by God, we also humbly and rightly acknowledge that it is what God has given His people that He demands to be generously lent, while also trusting that He will meet the needs of His people that are seeking to please Him.  Yes, this is what God demands of His people; and honestly, it looks and feels a bit foolish.  At a certain level, it makes absolutely no sense.  Based on the fact that the lack of poor among us is an ideal, whereas the reality is that there will always be poor among us, the constant lending seems like a patently ridiculous exercise.  It is almost as if we are being informed that all of the compassion, and all of the generosity, and all of the lending without calculation accomplishes nothing. 

Indeed, it is almost as foolish as the idea that God would carry out His activity of redemption for the world through the event of the cross.  It’s as ridiculous as the notion of proclaiming that a man that was crucified as a criminal at the hands of the Romans was resurrected from the grave and now lives as the Lord of all creation.  It is as nonsensical as the idea that there is power that goes forth, transforming humanity and creation itself, when individuals speak of that individual as crucified and resurrected and Lord of all.  Surely, we have no qualms in engaging in a little bit of foolishness.        

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Love On John's Terms (part 12)

Something that must be noted as we progress through our efforts is that once the scene of this Gospel shifts to Judea, it is a final shift.  There are no more changes of location until after Jesus’ Resurrection.  From the fourteenth verse of John’s seventh chapter, all the way until the beginning of the twenty-first chapter, we never find Jesus at too great a distance from Jerusalem.  This continual change in settings may carry with it some mild significance, as it relates to another repetitive message.  Here in the seventh chapter, after a few more words from Jesus that served to prompt what are reported to be additional private exchanges amongst the Jewish leaders, Jesus is said to have “stood up and shouted” (7:37b).  Clearly, the author wants to emphasize the words that are to follow, and a public performance of this theo-drama would quite naturally follow suit.  Jesus’ hearers, along with the hearers of this Gospel story, hear “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink” (7:37c-38a). 

Where did we first hear this?  Of course, we heard Jesus say this to the Samaritan woman.  His words were “whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again, but the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up to eternal life” (4:14).  We also heard an approximation of these words after the feeding of the five thousand and His walking on water, when He said “The one who comes to Me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in Me will never go thirsty” (6:35b).  Now we hear Jesus saying “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.”  The first instance of such speech is in Samaria.  The second instance is in Galilee.  The third instance is in Jerusalem. 

Not to muddy the waters with a non-Johannine reference, but this is evocative of a statement recorded in the first chapter of Acts, in which Jesus says to His disciples “you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (1:8b).  In the case of Acts, it is an ever widening geographical circle of witnessing to the facts about Jesus and His Gospel.  In John, the order is somewhat reversed, in that Jesus presents what the author considers to be an extremely important aspect of His message first to Gentiles, and then in an area that is a mixture of Jew and Gentile (Galilee of the Gentiles is a Scriptural refrain), and then, presumably, in the Temple, which would be a message directed exclusively to Jews.  In the case of John, Jesus begins with a wide geographical circle, narrowing it down as He goes along (though this is not meant to imply any narrowing in the intended reach of His message).  This is yet another piece of information by which we can deduce the nature of the audience to which the Johannine writings are directed, and the way in which Christian love, rooted in the dissemination of the Gospel message, is to be expressed 

In the fourth chapter, Jesus’ talk of water is linked to Jacob.  The context of everything following the feeding of the five thousand, in the sixth chapter, including His talk of water, is the Moses-and-Deuteronomy-linked statement about “the Prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14b).  Here again, Jesus’ talk of water, when offered to a people that lived in expectation of a messiah and of God’s working on their behalf to bring about another exodus, and who had a constant consciousness of their history of exile and exodus (especially their primary exodus story), is linked back to Moses.  Upon Jesus’ declaration concerning water, we hear “some of the crowd begin to say, ‘This really is the Prophet!’” (7:40b)  For the author’s purpose, this would be directly connected to the similar words spoken in the sixth chapter, following the feeding of the multitude. 

Whereas in the sixth chapter, Jesus is linked to Moses by the provision of bread, here He is linked to Moses by the provision of water.  This, of course, is connected to the flowing of water from a rock during Israel’s time in the wilderness.  For these people, God’s love is expressed in such ways, and Jesus is to be seen as the embodiment of that expression of love.  It becomes more and more clear, as we go along, that love is expressed by means of bread and water, and that these things, being the staples of human existence as well as the points of reference by which Jesus is recognized as the Messiah, are far from being simply spiritual terms.    

Love On John's Terms (part 11)

Moving along to the seventh chapter and to the next use of “miraculous signs” in this Gospel narrative, we read “Whenever the Christ comes, he won’t perform more miraculous signs than this man did, will he?” (7:31b)  The immediate context is provided by “Yet many of the crowd believed in Him and said…” (7:31a)  So again, we have “miraculous signs” linked with “belief.”   Thus, we again consider the overall movement of this presentation of Jesus, in that God’s love for the world (John 3:16) is bound up with belief in Jesus.  By this, additional credence is lent to the linkage between the repetitious appearance of “miraculous signs” here in John (the only Gospel where such are to be found, save one usage in Luke), and the obvious Johannine predilection towards love, clearly rooted in God’s love for the world, as the operative Christian ethic.  The words of the thirty-first verse also forces us to consider the wider context of the statement, which are questions about Jesus’ identity as the messiah, though as we situate ourselves within the original and intended audience for the narrative, we do so with the pre-supposition that Jesus it the Messiah (the Christ), and hear the development of the Gospel presentation from that position.

Whereas Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, His walking on water, and His discourse about Himself as the bread of life took place in Galilee, these words from the seventh chapter are lifted from His being situated in Jerusalem.  Presumably then, we have a new audience, differing quite significantly from the audience that Jesus has had in the region of Galilee.  The season of the year is the Feast of Tabernacles, which is one of the fall feasts of Judaism.  The setting is presented in the fourteenth verse of the seventh chapter, where we read “When the feast was half over, Jesus went up to the Temple courts and began to teach.”  A back and forth between the Jewish leaders and Jesus stems from the commencement of the aforementioned teaching.  As we would expect by now, at least according to the structure at play, Jesus brings a reference to Moses into play.  Eventually, the back and forth leads to what is reported to be an open discussion on the part of the residents of Jerusalem as to whether or not Jesus is the Christ (7:25-26), which also results in some words from Jesus that lead to an unsuccessful attempt seize Jesus. 

In all of the back and forth, and in all of the reports within this Gospel about what Jesus has done since venturing back into Judea and Jerusalem, we do not stumble upon anything that seems like it would prompt the people of Jerusalem to mention Jesus in the same breath as “miraculous signs.”  Nevertheless, this is the very thing that is reported to have taken place.  In fact, though we can reasonably presume that word of the large-scale feeding has made its way around the countryside, the only miraculous signs that Jesus has performed to this point in the Johannine narrative are the turning of water into wine in Cana and the healing of the royal official’s son in Capernaum. 

The latter two of those three, which could be supplemented by the walking on water, would not be prone to massive dissemination.  To this point, the only miraculous sign that Jesus has performed in Jerusalem is the healing of the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda.  In this story (John’s Gospel), the remainder of Jesus’ activity in Jerusalem, so far, is confined to teaching and speaking about Himself.  We find little reason to wonder, then, that the story informs us that there is not an outright acceptance of Jesus’ claims about Himself.  At the same time, we also find ourselves wondering at the paucity of miraculous occurrences to be found in the very Gospel that is loaded with references to miraculous signs.  However, we never forget the over-arching/underlying context of love and the love of God for the world as it is being expressed through Jesus, that seems to inform every aspect of this presentation of the life of our Lord.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Love On John's Terms (part 10)

As our hearing of the story continues, and as we find ourselves duly impressed with the structure and flow of this Gospel, we are not able to move much further along before we are again struck by what it is that the author is presenting.  Still in the sixth chapter, and following Jesus’ comparative mention of Moses and the giving of bread from heaven, we hear Jesus say “For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (6:33).  Again, this serves in the role of comparison and contrast with Moses and the manna, in an exile and exodus framework, in which eternal life is equated with the kingdom of heaven, the presence of which is connected to Jesus’ presence, that belief in Him as the foundation of that kingdom, and that the love of God that is the tool to be used in the founding and spread of that kingdom is on display by and through Jesus and His disciples. 

We must never allow ourselves to lose sight of the fact that the presence of the kingdom of God on earth, with the restoration of God’s creation, is always a front and center, primary concern for Jesus and for His church, as it was for the Jews.  The primary concern was and is never, ever escaping earth and going to heaven, or its antecedent---seeking heaven to avoid hell.  If this becomes the motivating force underlying the Jesus movement, then it stands somewhat in opposition to the ideal to be realized by action of God, which, according to this Gospel presentation, involved His stepping into His creation, in contemplation of a supreme act of love and sacrifice, in order to redeem it whole and to set things right.

This time, the response of the people to the words of Jesus concerning the bread from heaven is “Sir, give us this bread all the time!” (6:34)  This is a good response.  Jesus does not appear to be displeased with this response, as His reply is “I am the bread of life.  The one who comes to Me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in Me will never be thirsty” (6:35).  If we are paying careful attention to the narrative on offer in John, these words, and the entire scenario that has brought forth this portion of the recorded exchange, should alert us to something that we have already heard.  Remember, it has been said to Jesus, after He has spoken about what God requires, “Then what miraculous sign will you perform, so that we may see it and believe you?  What will you do?  Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (6:30-31)  As we have seen, Jesus took this as a reference to Moses.  Of course, we have already seen the direct reference to Moses through the citation from Deuteronomy, in regards to the “Prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14b).  Why bring this up again?  Of what should we be reminded by this portion of the story? 

All of this sounds remarkably like the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.  Though that conversation begins with Jesus saying “Give Me some water to drink” (4:7b), rather than with the woman requesting water in the manner of the people requesting bread with their statement of “Sir, give us this bread” (6:34), the parallels are fascinating.  As we consider those parallels, we keep in mind what it was that we learned about love and the community that was being addressed with this Gospel, in that it gave us an insight into concerns with Gentiles, the role of women in the church, and the way that a mixed community of disciples were to treat each other.  Likewise, we do not find ourselves surprised by yet another parallel, as the story of the Samaritan was found to nicely parallel the story of Mary Magdalene, her encounter with the resurrected Christ, and what stemmed from that encounter. 

The Samaritan woman replied to Jesus by saying “How can you---a Jew---ask me, a Samaritan woman, for water to drink?” (4:9a)  How did Jesus respond?  He said “If you had known the gift of God and who it is who said to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (4:10).  The response of the woman at the well was “Sir…you have no bucket and the well is deep; where then do you get this living water?  Surely, you’re not greater than our ancestor Jacob, are you?  For he gave us this well and drank from it himself, along with his sons and his livestock” (4:11-12)  Is this talk of Jacob and his giving us this well and its water not echoed by the people’s mentioning of Moses in the sixth chapter?  What was Jesus’ reply?  He said, “Everyone who drinks some of this water will be thirsty again.  But whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again, but the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up to eternal life” (4:13-14).  What is it that Jesus says in the sixth chapter, after the bread-seeking response of the people to Jesus’ talk of bread from heaven and the connection to Moses (similar to Jacob and the well) implied by such words?  Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.  The one who comes to Me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in Me will never go thirsty” (6:35). 

The Samaritan woman’s response was “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water” (4:15).  With this, we find the comparison with the record of the sixth chapter rather obvious.  A short while later, after Jesus tells the woman something about herself that He could not possibly have known, the woman said “Sir, I see that you are a prophet” (4:19).  This again calls our attention to the talk of Jesus as the Prophet like Moses that was to come.  As we know, the encounter with the woman closes with Jesus saying “I, the one speaking to you, am He” (4:26).  In chapter six, Jesus speaks words that take much the same form, when He says “Everyone whom the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will never send away” (6:37).  What happened in the fourth chapter?  The woman went and told people about Jesus, many came to see Him, and many believed in Him (4:39).  Continuing in the sixth chapter, Jesus said “For I have come down from heaven not to do My own will but the will of the One who sent Me…  For this is the will of My Father---for everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him to have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (6:38,40).  With the story of the Samaritan woman, it is a chorus of Samaritans (again, telling us something about the community for which this is written and the issue of Gentile inclusion in the church) that says “for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this one really is the Savior of the world” (4:42b).          

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Love On John's Terms (part 9)

We have already mentioned the use of “miraculous signs” in the second verse of the sixth chapter of John, as it is this instance that sent us traveling down this particular path.  The sixth chapter contains another usage of the phrase, occurring following the story of the feeding of the five thousand.  There, when pressed as to how it is that He had been able to make it to the place at which He was now encountered, Jesus says “I tell you the solemn truth, you are looking for Me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate all the loaves of bread you wanted” (6:26).  To that He adds, “Do not work for the food that disappears, but for the food that remains to eternal life” (6:27a).  Here, as in the third chapter and the conversation with Nicodemus that stemmed from His actions in the Temple as recorded in the second chapter, the witness of miraculous signs is tied to “eternal life,” which the hearers of this story know is linked to the need for belief in Jesus as the harbinger of the kingdom of God. 

The notion that Jesus’ miraculous signs, especially as they relate to the provision of bread, are connected to the kingdom of God, is given further concretion by the people’s response, which is “What must we do to accomplish the deeds God requires?” (6:28b)  This, of course, as Jesus expresses the love of God, and as we desire to know what it means to express our love to and for one another in aspiration towards discipleship, is what Jesus desires from His people.  Relating to the belief in Jesus in connection to the presence of the kingdom of God, Jesus says “This is the deed God requires---to believe in the one whom He sent” (6:29).  Here, belief must take on the form of a loyal allegiance to God and His purposes to lead His people in an exodus and to bring them into that which He has promised to them, as the statement makes a push towards the previously mentioned reference to Moses.  This push towards Moses culminates with the response to Jesus’ statement about the deeds required by God, which is “Then what miraculous sign will you perform, so that we may see it and believe you?  What will you do?  Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (6:30-31) 

Amazingly, the author presents the people as having already forgotten about the bread that was in fact provided, though it has just been referenced by Jesus.  Interestingly enough, if we were to examine Jesus’ statement closely, which was “I tell you the solemn truth, you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate all the loaves of bread you wanted” (6:26), we might be inclined to think that Jesus draws a distinction between the performance of miraculous signs and the provision of bread.  However, this might be drawing the distinction a bit too sharply.  Surely, the multiplication of the loaves must be taken as a miraculous sign---as much as was the provision of manna in the wilderness.  So it seems as if Jesus is indicating that it was not the miraculous sign of the bread being multiplied that has caused the people to continue to come to Him, but rather the filling of their bellies.  This appears to function as a reflection upon Israel in the wilderness, in that even though daily bread was miraculously provided to God’s people, the story of their time in the wilderness is underlined by a startling lack of belief in their God’s ability to fulfill His promises.  Even though the people were faithful to go out to gather the manna each and every day (excluding the Sabbath), they did not follow through on the deeds that God required, which was a faithful belief in His ability to perform on behalf of His people, according to His covenant promises, as He intended to bring them into the promised land and set them on high as a kingdom for His glory. 

It might be the case that Jesus is here making the same type of point, while we also find a reflection back to the people’s desire to acclaim Him as their king, so that He might take on, overthrow, and drive out the Romans, which would be yet another instance of not following through on the deeds that God requires, with a faithful belief that God will enter into history, on His own terms and timing, to perform on behalf of His people, according to His covenant promises.  This could be akin to the instances in the wilderness in which the people took it upon themselves to act to bring themselves into God’s purposed kingdom, with these instances never turning out well.  While we consider all of these things, while also continuing to consider the fact that the author is making a presentation to a community that is hearing this in a single sitting, that is ensconced within an oral tradition, and is well-versed in the history of Israel, it would not be a mis-step to consider the provision of bread, prima facie, as an act of love to which disciples of Jesus should aspire.  Even though it was not met with a proper response, or at least with the response that Jesus may have desired, Jesus still met a physical need, and did so, as far as this Gospel is concerned, as an action of the incarnate God of Israel.  As a loving and compassionate God revealed Himself to His people on a continual basis through the provision of manna, in spite of consistent failings, so Jesus acted out of love and compassion to reveal God in much the same way.       

Friday, April 22, 2011

Love On John's Terms (part 8)

To this point, we have limited our look at “miraculous signs” to the plural.  However, we must not overlook its usage in the singular as well.  It cannot be said that the singular phrase is limited to the Gospel of John alone, as a singular use is also to be found in Luke’s Gospel.  However, as it is a single instance, it does not appear to play a role in the overall structure and movement of Luke, and this most certainly cannot be said of John.  If we add the uses of the singular “miraculous sign” to that of the plural, we have an additional five instances of its role in the Gospel, bringing the total number of “miraculous sign” language to fourteen.  Clearly, it is a key component of what is being communicated.  This makes sense, especially as we reflect on the fact that the pre-supposition of this Gospel is a very high Christology, operating on the premise that Jesus is the incarnation of Israel’s God.  The hearers then, are not going to be surprised that miraculous signs follow Him. 

“Miraculous sign” makes its first appearance in the fourth chapter, following the healing of the son of a royal official.  This is recorded as “His second miraculous sign when He returned from Judea to Galilee” (4:54).  It makes two of its five appearances in the sixth chapter, which is heavy with “sign” language.  All told, between the singular and the plural, the listener and the reader encounter this language four times in this chapter.  Considering the fact that the chapter contains both the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walk on the water, along with His discourse related to bread (which ultimately springs from the feeding), this is unsurprising.  Does love play a role in any of this?  In this chapter that is filled with miraculous signs, and references to the same, are we able to make any additions to our understanding of what “love” means on John’s terms?  As is almost always the case, the qualifying answer is “perhaps.” 

In the fourteenth verse, we read “Now when the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus performed, they began to say to one another, ‘This is certainly the Prophet who is to come into the world.’”  This is an allusion to a statement from the book of Deuteronomy---a component of the Hebrew Scriptures that weighed heavily on Jewish self-understanding in the second Temple period.  In the eighteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, as Moses continues to address Israel, we find him saying that “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you---from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him” (18:15).  Because Moses, of course, was understood as the man that God had raised up to lead Israel out from under Egyptian oppression, we must hear these words, as reported by John, in that light.  The people were affirming Jesus as the new Moses.  Therefore, He must be the one that is going to lead them out from under Roman oppression and occupation.  For the crowds, this is confirmed by the fact that Jesus has miraculously provided bread to a multitude of people there on the mountainside, just as Moses (though it was Israel’s God at work---we can say the same for Jesus from the perspective on offer by John) miraculously provided bread to the nation of Israel in the wilderness.

This is not simply conjecture on our part, because it is obvious that this is the way that these things are meant to be understood.  To this point, later on in the sixth chapter we hear Jesus saying “I tell you the solemn truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but My Father is giving you true bread from heaven” (6:32).  This explicit mention of Moses (in the wake of the implicit mention of Moses in the fourteenth verse), in the midst of a section of the Gospel full of references to miraculous signs, calls our attention to the single use of the plural “miraculous signs” that is to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures.  That use is in the one hundred fifth Psalm.  There we read, within a context of the Psalmist speaking about Moses and Aaron and the display of divine power that precipitated God’s delivery of Israel from Egypt, that “they executed His miraculous signs among them” (105:27a).  Thus, we can surmise that John’s “miraculous sign” structure, especially here in the sixth chapter, plays on the exile and exodus motif that was established in the third chapter. 

When it comes to the question of love on display, we return to the fifteenth verse and find it written that “Jesus, because He knew they were going to come and seize Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again up the mountainside alone” (6:15).  How does this show love?  This self-restraint on the part of Jesus, as He refuses to succumb to the people’s desire to make Him king, and perhaps even the temptation to receive the acclimation, must at least partially stem from the fact that an acclimation of Him as king is going to come with a declaration of war against Rome.  Of course, the author writes from a position of the knowledge of what happened when the Jews rebelled against Rome a few decades preceding the time of the written composition of this work (though we do admit that it is a possibility that the oral tradition that eventually took this written form preceded the written work by a number of years), whereas Jesus is implicitly presented as having knowledge of what will happen if He allows Himself and His people to travel the path that will follow from their desire to make Him king.  Not only will destruction come to Israel, but the plans for the kingdom of God, and how it is to be brought about, will be nullified.  Here, by this withdrawal, Jesus preserves His disciples, these people, and His nation, in a way that does not derail the purposes of the kingdom.  So yes, this could be looked upon as an example of love to be worked out, understood, and manifested by the community of those that claim allegiance to Jesus.   

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Love On John's Terms (part 7)

The events of the sixth chapter of the Gospel continue to add to the insights on love that we are gaining through our approach to John.  This is where we find the Johannine account of the “feeding of the five thousand.”  Just before we find the author delving specifically into the account of the feeding, the reason for the large numbers that are following Jesus is given.  Verse two informs us that “A large crowd was following Him because they were observing the miraculous signs He was performing on the sick” (6:2).  Surely this presentation of Jesus as concerned with the sick is a component of the defining of the way that the love of Jesus is to be on display by, for and through His disciples.  At the same time, this use of “miraculous signs” is something in which we can take interest. 

As we consider that the Gospel writer has a structure in mind, and that, rather than throwing together stories and sayings haphazardly, we see that structure being carried out across the whole of the Gospel (think about the comparison between the story of the Samaritan woman and that of Mary Magdalene).  Thinking along those lines, we find that this use of the term “miraculous signs” is something of a “trigger phrase.”  When it comes to the Gospels, it is unique to John, and it is encountered on nine occasions.  Taken together with the preponderance of the use of “love” in the Johannine corpus, the repeated use of “miraculous signs” becomes significant.  Though we do not go so far as to make a direct correlation that says that the miraculous signs are the evidences of “love”, though it would be difficult to disconnect the signs from the conception of the love of God that was on display and being outworked through His Christ, one cannot help but think that the “signs” are somehow closely related to the way that “love” is to be understood, and how it is to be expressed by those seeking to truly understand what it means to be disciples of Jesus. 

Let us take a look at the uses of “miraculous signs.”  In the second chapter we see its use in conjunction with the changing of the water into wine, as the author writes that “Jesus did this as the first of His miraculous signs” (2:11a).  This was said to have been a way in which “He revealed His glory, and His disciples believed in Him” (2:11b).  Consequently, the presentation of the signs are often linked to the issue of belief.  In the twenty-third verse of the same chapter, we read that “while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, many people believed in His name because they saw the miraculous signs He was doing.”  Interestingly, this mention of miraculous signs is not connected to any account of the performance of miraculous signs.  It is simply an assertion on the part of the author that seems to rely on the knowledge of the Jesus tradition in the community for which this Gospel was composed. 

At this point in the record, all that Jesus is said to have done in Jerusalem was the driving out of those changing money and selling animals (2:15), along with making a statement about the Temple being His Father’s house (2:16).  In response to His activity in the Temple, unsurprisingly, Jesus is questioned by the Jewish leaders, with a demand to know why, and under what authority, He had done what He had done.  In fact, as it relates to our purposes at this point, it is even asked of him “What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?” (2:18b)  Here, the use of “miraculous” is not offered.  Jesus responds to the query with “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again” (2:19), but there is certainly nothing in this story that approaches the level of “miraculous sign”.  From there, John immediately moves us to the story of an encounter between Jesus and a Jewish leader named Nicodemus.  With no chapter breaks in the original composition, and with it most likely designed to be performed orally at a single setting, the listener hears about a direct movement from Jesus speaking to a group of Jewish leaders, to Jesus speaking with one Jewish leader.  Presumably then, it is to be understood that Nicodemus is coming to Jesus as a direct result of what took place in the Temple.  It is probable, for the purpose of this Gospel and its author, that the listener is supposed to presume that Nicodemus was himself present at the event in the Temple and heard what Jesus said. 

In his opening statement to Jesus, Nicodemus says “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.  For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with Him” (3:2b).  Once again, this talk of “miraculous signs” presumes a shared knowledge within the community, for there is nothing in the Jerusalem-situated narrative, to that point, that could truly be labeled as such.  In Jesus’ response to Nicodemus, we have the first use, in John, of the all-important phrase “kingdom of God.”  Jesus said to Him, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3).  This will go on to tie in quite well with Jesus’ talk, within the same conversation, of perishing and eternal life (which, as we have already established, is linked to conceptions of exile and exodus, both of which speak to the nature of the rule of God over His people, and through them, the whole of creation), and of the salvation and redemption of the world that is part of God’s design and purpose for the Christ.  Naturally, Jesus goes on to speak about the need for belief (3:12,16,18), thus relating Nicodemus’ use of “miraculous signs” with belief.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ears To Hear (part 4 of 4)

The last of the Gospel presentations of an “ears to hear” statement by Jesus is to be found in Luke.  It has no correlate in the remainder of the Gospels.  By this point we should find ourselves unsurprised that the statement is delivered in connection with Jesus’ telling of parables.  The precise location of this particular utterance is the thirty-fifth verse of the fourteenth chapter of Luke.  There, with striking familiarity, we find “The one who has ears to hear had better listen!”  It follows from Jesus declaring and asking if “Salt is good, but if salt loses its flavor, how can its flavor be restored?” (14:34a).  The conclusion presented is that “It is of no value for the soil or for the manure pile; it is to be thrown out” (14:34b). 

Now, the attentive reader will quickly realize that this is not the only time that Jesus is said to have utilized “salt” terminology.  Though there is no correlate of this particular usage of ears to hear in the other Gospels, we find Jesus speaking of salt in all of the synoptic Gospels.  In Matthew, during the course of His “Sermon On the Mount,” Jesus speaks and says “You are the salt of the earth.  But if salt loses its flavor, how can it be made salty again?  It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people” (5:13).  Coupled with this declaration about salt, we also find Jesus saying “You are the light of the world.  A city located on a hill cannot be hidden.  People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds, and give honor to your father in heaven” (5:14-16).  These same words of lights and lampstands are to be found on the lips of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, though not in the context of the mountaintop message.  Additionally, Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ use of salt symbolism is disconnected from lights and lampstands, as Jesus speaks of salt while in Capernaum, saying “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other” (9:50).  Does that mean that the authors have gotten the placement of Jesus’ words wrong?  Not at all.  It merely serves to demonstrate that Jesus hit upon the same themes, while utilizing the same symbolic language, on a regular basis.  This fact is further demonstrated by the placement of the “salt” language in Luke in the context of what is known as “the travel narrative” (Luke 9:51-19:44), as Jesus is making His way to Jerusalem. 

Along with all of these details, we do well to notice something else of considerable importance that attends these statements about salt (and lampstands), which is that they are spoken in the context of Jesus’ pronouncements concerning the kingdom of heaven.  In Matthew, not only does Jesus begin His “sermon” with a mention of the kingdom of heaven (5:3), and not only does He repeat His words of the kingdom of heaven just a moment later (5:10), but shortly thereafter He also speaks of the kingdom of heaven three times in rapid succession, following His speaking about salt, light, and lampstands.  After speaking of the law, He says “So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell  you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:19-20).  Clearly, Jesus attaches a great deal of importance to the realities and the presence of the kingdom of heaven, being quite adamant that it is the living out of life in accordance with the principles of the kingdom of heaven that is paramount. 

The words of Jesus associated with His salt statements in the ninth chapter of Mark take a different tone but accord well with what we have just heard from Matthew’s report.  There Jesus is reported to have said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone tied around his neck and to be thrown into the sea.  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off!  It is better for you to enter into life crippled than to have two hands and go into hell, to the unquenchable fire.  If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off!  It is better to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.  If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out!  It is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched” (9:42-48).  So again, salty language is linked with Jesus’ abiding concern for the kingdom of God.  Though some would look upon this as Jesus’ definitive pronouncements about hell, we are probably better served to grasp what it is that He is communicating about God and His kingdom, which is a far more pressing concern for Him.  So here, as we should expect (just as we have come to expect with all of Jesus’ ears to hear statements), Jesus is concerning Himself with the practices, principles, and ethics associated with the manifestation and operation of the kingdom of heaven.     

Ears To Hear (part 3)

As mentioned, both Matthew and Mark present a series of roughly equivalent parables that begin with the parable of the sower.  Mark however, slips in one additional parable, that being the “parable of the lamp.”  In it, Jesus says, “A lamp isn’t brought to be put under a basket or under a bed, is it?  Isn’t it to be placed on a lampstand?  For nothing is hidden except to be revealed, and nothing concealed except to be brought to light” (4:21-22).  This is then followed by an additional presentation of “If anyone has ears to hear, he had better listen!” (4:23)  In the wake of this, Jesus goes on to say, “Take care about what you hear.  The measure you use will be the measure you receive, and more will be added to you.  For whoever has will be given more, but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him” (4:24-25). 

An attempt will not be made here to determine precisely what it is to which Jesus is making reference.  Rather, we will point out that, because this parable, along with the parables that follow, are presented in the context of Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the sower, which in turn is presented in the context of His revelation of the “secret of the kingdom of God” (4:11a), it is quite likely that it is to be understood in terms of the principles, practices, and ethics of that kingdom that Jesus has declared to be “near” (1:15).  It should be becoming patently obvious to us that Jesus is engaging His hearers with a desire that they understand His words as being applicable to the situation in which He has found them. 

We cannot move on to Jesus’ final Gospel insistence of the need to have hearing ears, without giving attention to a further statement made here in the parable of the lamp.  That statement is “Take care what you hear.  The measure you use will be the measure you receive, and more will be added to you” (4:24).  This demands further consideration because it can be useful in cementing the notion that Jesus is speaking to actual, physical people about actual, physical goings-on and events that demand a response, with that response conditioned and modified by a proper understanding of the kingdom of heaven and its demands.  In this instance, the phrase is quite similar to what we find in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Luke.  There, we hear Jesus saying “Give, and it will be given to you: A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be poured into your lap.  For the measure you use will be the measure you receive” (6:38). 

Because Luke presents Jesus as immediately launching into a parable following this statement, we would not be over-reaching if we imagined Him demanding some ears to hear on the part of His listeners.  These words, of course, form part of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke, which begins with Jesus making mention of the kingdom of God (6:20).  Therefore, everything that follows begs to be understood within that context.  Of course, this passage is one regularly ripped out of context and employed as a statement of Jesus concerning the giving of money, but such does damage and despite to the words of Jesus.  The immediately preceding statement made by Jesus is “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven” (6:37).  This is what is said before Jesus then goes on to say “Give, and it will be given to you…” 

If we were to back up a bit, we would find that the context that Jesus provides for these words of giving, measuring, and receiving, which may provide us with a clue towards understanding the passage in Mark that has been under consideration, begins with “But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  To the person who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well, and from the person who takes away your coat, do not withhold your tunic either.  Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your possessions back from the person who takes them away.  Treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you…  love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back.  Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because He is kind to ungrateful and evil people.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (6:27-31,35-36). 

The “enemies” within Jesus’ audience, of course, would be the Romans that occupied their land and oppressed them in a variety of ways.  Jesus’ words of giving, measuring, and receiving demand to be considered in the light that is cast by that fact.  This is most certainly true of their presentation in Luke, and might also be true of their presentation in Mark.  Regardless, there is an obvious practical outworking in response to a given and identifiable situation that demands a correct response.   

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ears To Hear (part 2)

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we are presented with the “parable of the sower.”  It is a familiar parable, so does not need to be detailed.  All three tellings conclude with Jesus saying “The one who has ears had better listen!” (Matthew 13:9, Mark 4:9, Luke 8:8)  In Matthew and Mark, Jesus goes on to tell more parables, with the kingdom of heaven the point of reference in each one.  This serves as a reinforcement of the notion that Jesus believed that the kingdom of heaven was then a going concern in His day, primarily due to His presence and what appears to be the rather obvious self-understanding of Himself as the Messiah (though this potential self-understanding is the subject of much debate).  So obviously, the ones with “hearing ears” need to continue to be alert so that they might learn the nature of this kingdom and thereby know how it is that Jesus expected His hearers to engage the world as potential citizens of that kingdom. 

In all three instances Jesus’ disciples ask Him to explain the parable.  That is worth noting, because it indicates that they too understood that there was a truth to be grasped, and that this truth was most likely related to something that was taking place and which they should understand.  In all three tellings, Jesus answers the query of the disciples that they “have been given the opportunity to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11a, Mark 4:11a, Luke 8:10), which alerts us to the fact that Jesus is, once again, speaking about the need to have “ears to hear” in relation to His communications about the kingdom of heaven.  In this, the kingdom talk and the ears to hear talk become self-reinforcing and begin pointing to the idea that there are kingdom principles and ethics in play and at stake whenever Jesus uses such language.  Additionallly, in each instance the author records Jesus making a reference to the sixth chapter of Isaiah and saying that He tells parables that “although they see they may not see, and although they hear they may not understand” (Luke 8:10b, Isaiah 6:9). 

Who are the “they” to whom Jesus makes reference?  It seems like this would be a relatively important question and consideration.  We could say that Jesus was referring to His “enemies,” but the record at this point is unclear that such would be the case.  Without any clear reference, it is possible that an identification of the “they” is not important at this point, though the “they” will present themselves to us shortly.  It is possible that what is more important at this point is what needs to be added to a statement already made. 

Yes, we should be well nigh convinced that when Jesus speaks of ears to hear, that He is speaking of events that are in play or unfolding or that need to be addressed, but cannot necessarily be addressed openly, directly, or overtly due to circumstance.  What needs to be added to this is that in association with the parable of the sower and its explanation is the context for the statement lifted from Isaiah.  Jesus would not have expected His hearers to have limited themselves to thinking about those words alone, as if He was proof-texting the prophets to find support for His insistence of the need for ears to hear and His explanation that some would hear and not understand.  To that we can add that the Gospel authors would also not expect the readers or the hearers of their messages (especially those thoroughly steeped in an atmosphere and environment that lived and breathed the Hebrew Scriptures by the constant telling of Israel’s history and the efforts made to assist Israel in understanding their present situation through the words of the prophets) to have limited themselves to those words.  Both Jesus and the author would have expected those that are encountering these words to think about the entire passage in Isaiah from which these words were taken. 

In turning to Isaiah then, we find these words within the story of Isaiah and his vision of a throne, a temple, seraphs, and a coal that touches his lips.  This vision follows from the fifth chapter’s prophecy that destruction is coming to Israel for their disobedience.  With the touching of the hot coal to his lips, Isaiah is told, “Look, this coal has touched your lips. Your evil is removed; your sin is forgiven” (6:7).  A listener in first century Judaea, who would have this entire section from Isaiah in mind, would understand the removal of evil and the forgiveness of sin with a return from exile.  In that day, this would mean the removal of the Roman yoke, which would imply the establishment of the long-awaited kingdom of heaven.  One would think that this might be a cause for jubilation.  However, because of what comes next, we find that this cannot be the case. 

Isaiah, who stands as the representative for an entire people “whose lips are contaminated by sin” (6:5b), asks when this removal of evil and forgiveness of sin will be complete.  He is told that, because of the lack of seeing, hearing, and understanding, that it will not take place “Until cities are in ruins and unpopulated, and houses are uninhabited, and the land is ruined and devastated, and the Lord has sent the people off to a distant place, and the very heart of the land is completely abandoned” (6:11b-12).  This could be a reference to both Assyria and Babylon, and the destruction that those empires would bring.  Those without “ears to hear” what Jesus is saying would only hear Him talking about the kingdom of heaven, and “they” would miss His explanation of how this kingdom would come into being and function.  Because of that, “they” would end up pursuing the standard course of violent rebellion and revolution.  History informs us that, as a result, what Isaiah describes in relation to Assyrian and Babylon would descend upon Judaea at the hands of Rome.  As Jesus is very much dealing with real-world events with practical application, and making clear reference to this entire selection from Isaiah (rather than just quoting a verse), we are able to discern that those with ears to hear would be able to avoid this horrific path.           

Ears To Hear (part 1)

The one who has ears had better listen! – Matthew 11:15  (NET)

Jesus’ use of “ears to hear” statements are sprinkled throughout the record of the Gospels.  In terms of Scriptural order, though the Gospels are not ordered chronologically in terms of their development, the first instance is in Matthew, and we hear Jesus saying “The one who has ears had better listen!” (11:15)  He says this while speaking about John the Baptist, and in the wake of saying “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it” (11:12), He then goes on to reference John as Elijah.  Following the “ears to hear” statement, Jesus continues to speak about John, as well as the Son of Man, and then goes on “to criticize openly the cities in which He had done many of His miracles, because they did not repent” (11:20). 

Perhaps most importantly, Jesus’ words about needing to hear, which are connected with John, are uttered in the context of His already saying, in reference to whether or not He was the “one who is to come” (11:3), “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them” (11:5a).  With these words, Jesus is speaking to the expectations of the people concerning the coming of the messiah, when their God would act on Israel’s behalf and bring the age of His kingdom to pass.  Jesus seems to be saying that the long-awaited kingdom has arrived with Him, as evidenced by the seeing, walking, cleansing, hearing, raising, and the Lord’s being set on high as king (the Gospel proclaimed), but that it has arrived in an unexpected way; and that John the Baptist, owing to all appearances, was certainly an unexpected forerunner of that kingdom (he is Elijah, who is to come-11:14b). 

One would have to have ears to hear Jesus talking about the arrival of the long-awaited kingdom of God, because for a variety of reasons (political, religious, social, economic) Jesus could not simply announce that God was now present and working through Him.  A flat announcement could have the effect of either derailing His ministry from the path that He intended, through the stoking of nationalistic and revolutionary tendencies that Jesus clearly wanted to avoid, or it could result in His own untimely death (which He, if He expected that His path would lead to His eventual death, would want to put off until the opportune moment).  The ones with ears to hear would not only need to draw out the kingdom-present implications from what Jesus has said before, but would also need to connect that with the “Son of Man” references that would follow shortly thereafter, along with Jesus’ reference to that Son “eating and drinking” and being “a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (11:19b)  This, of course, does not necessarily mean that this was true of Jesus (though focusing on this would be missing the point), because it is possible that Jesus was making a reference to the rhetorical polemic that had been used against John and would also be employed against Him, thus subtly identifying Himself with John’s counter-Temple authorities movement, rooted in familiar exodus imagery. 

Going beyond that, Jesus’ listeners would need to stay tuned to what He was saying when He would go on to say that “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father.  No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son decides to reveal Him” (11:27).  With the implicit talk of the advent of God’s kingdom that had come before, coupled with the reference to the Son of Man that He has already made, the astute listener would be able to find Jesus making reference to the ever-so-popular imagery of the seventh chapter of Daniel, in which “one like a son of man…went up to the Ancient of Days and was escorted before Him.  To Him (son of man) was given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty.  All peoples, nations, and language groups were serving Him.  His authority is eternal and will not pass away.  His kingdom will not be destroyed” (7:13-14).  Jesus was clearly addressing the people in a way that makes it clear that they needed to understand a fact of their present situation.

Those that had ears and were listening, and who were sitting as diligent students, would also hear Jesus speaking about them as He says, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to little children” (11:25).  It is interesting that we find there a possible connection between having ears and listening, and being compared to children.  Perhaps this hearkens us to the teacher-student relationship, in which the student (of any age) is forced to come to the proper conclusion through their exercise of God-given reason, while also giving us a fresh sense of what Jesus might very well mean when He says, “Let the little children come to Me and do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  I tell you the truth, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it” (Luke 18:16b-17).      

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Love On John's Terms (part 6)

Jesus, undeterred by the violation of cultural norms, which are also put on display when His disciples return and we find that they were “shocked because He was speaking with a woman” (4:27b), engages in a rather in depth conversation with the Samaritan woman.  Not only is he speaking with a woman, and not only is He speaking with a Samaritan woman, but He is effectively engaging in a conversation that takes the shape of a rabbinic debate.  Of course, this simply does not happen.  In that day, women were not considered at all worthy to be involved in such things.  The encounter begins with a request for water, and then moves to a conclusion in which Jesus utters words in confirmation of His messianic status, with this following a fascinating give and take. 

Most often, the focus of the story becomes the content of the conversation---the questions of the woman, the responses from Jesus, her responses to His words, and the woman’s present marital status.  These are legitimate things on which to focus, but they can also create a situation in which we miss seeing the forest because we are looking at all of the trees.   With the conversation and its content, not only is Jesus doing cross-cultural ministry, but Jesus is also elevating this woman---flattening out the social dynamics.  This causes us to reflect on the developed and developing theological tradition within the church that operated on the basis that there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.  Is this not love at work?  Is this not an advance illustration, at least as far as the presentation of the narrative is concerned, of the power of the Gospel. 

What follows from Jesus’ declaration of His status as Messiah?  The woman returns to her town, saying “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.  Surely He can’t be the Messiah, can He?” (4:29).  In response to this, the author reports that “they left the town and began coming to Him” (4:30).  Effectively then, this woman becomes the first evangelist.  We cannot underestimate how odd it would have been for John’s hearers to learn that “many Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the report of the woman who testified” (4:39a), especially if we consider that a woman’s testimony was considered to be worthless.  We also cannot underestimate how significant it is that a group of Samaritans, at the instigation of a woman with what would have been a rather disreputable standing in the community (on top of the fact that she was a lowly woman) are apparently the first to believe Jesus en masse.  This tells us something about the Johannine community, and does so on multiple levels.  On one level, it points to the sensitive issue of Gentile inclusion in the church, answering those that may have wanted to reserve the message of the Gospel to Jews alone.  On another level, it indicates that there may have been those who believed that women were not to have a prominent role within the church, and serves to silence those that gave voice to such unwarranted opinions.  On a third level, it informs us that women were most likely already in prominent roles---including non-Jewish women, with the story serving to underscore the legitimacy of their status. 

Now, one may think that this is reading too much into a single instance, but this fits quite well with what is to be found at the end of this Gospel, when Mary Magdalene Jesus’ tomb.  She “saw that the stone had been moved away from the entrance” (20:1b), and “went running to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved” (20:2a), who was the un-named author of this Gospel, with a report that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb.  With this, a woman becomes the first witness to an empty tomb.  Then, after Peter and the other disciple left, “Mary stood outside the tomb weeping” (20:11a).  She went inside the tomb, is reported to have a conversation with “two angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been lying” (20:12b), which is something of an echo of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, and then is said to “have turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus” (20:14b).  So a woman who becomes the very first person to see the resurrected Jesus.  This parallels the fact that, according to this same Gospel’s witness, that a woman (and a hated Samaritan woman at that) was the first person to hear an explicit declaration from Jesus that He was, in fact, the Messiah, while subsequently becoming the first successful evangelist. 

Not only does Mary become the first to see Jesus, but she speaks with Him and is instructed to “Go to My brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.’” (20:17b)  So “Mary Magdalene came and informed the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord!’  And she told them what Jesus had said to her” (20:18).  Interestingly, there seems to be an indication that Jesus’ own disciples did not necessarily believe Mary’s report, whereas the Samaritans believed the report of the woman.  This also gives witness to the nature of the spread of the Gospel and of the church in the days of the composition of this Gospel narrative.  Taken together, these two instances provide a context that pushes us into a deeper understanding of what “love” means for this author, for his community, and for the church.