Monday, April 30, 2012

Deeds & Works (part 1 of 2)

maintain good conduct among the non-Christians, so that though they now malign you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when He appears. – 1 Peter 2:12  (NET)

The Gospel is inherently social.  Because it is the declaration of Jesus’ Lordship, with this Lordship being the Lordship not just of individual lives and souls, but over the whole of the cosmos, it has a social element.  This is a far cry from the Gospel being reduced to a “social gospel,” but rather, it is to say that the implications of the declaration demand to be worked out in a tangible, visible way, on display for a society to see.  Just as the worshipers or proponents of Caesar declared his Lordship, and in doing so, were not asking people to make a private confession of faith in Caesar or to cultivate a personal and private holiness that would somehow be pleasing to Caesar, neither were the proponents of Jesus.  The Gospel was and is public.  The reaction to the Gospel demanded a community context.  The presentation of Caesar’s gospel resulted in certain activities (the erecting of statues, sacrifices, festivals, submission to his earthly rule, etc…) that made it clear to all that this gospel was being accepted, so it would be expected that an alternative Gospel would demonstrate the same. 

When the Gospel was preached into a world that was accustomed to a regular hearing of a gospel message, it was preached into a world that was prepared to hear such a message, and it was preached into a world that would have expected public, community oriented demonstrations of what it was that was being trumpeted.  Yes, the Gospel was and is meant to be transformative, but that transformation was and is to be manifested in public behavior.  That public behavior is not, as we so commonly propose, merely that which takes place in our church gatherings, where singing, praying, lifting up hands, and giving are taken as the evidences of the power of the Gospel and of transformed lives.  Public behavior is not that which is primarily concerned with a dramatic abstention from participation in life’s pleasures, accompanied by thinking that it is by constant refraining efforts that holiness is demonstrated.  Those things can certainly be evidentiary, but they are only the primary evidence if we exalt the individual, rather than the body, and if we place private spirituality in the context of a personal quest to achieve heaven upon death higher than offering tangible service as and for a community.  Such a focus seems to run counter to the movement of Scripture, in which God is constantly calling a people to Himself, beginning with Abraham, so that they might exemplify divine blessing.  Persons are called, and they are called to be a part of a people, for the primary purpose of being a blessing to the world so that the God that calls them into covenant might be glorified. 

Yes, the Gospel will effect transformation in the lives of its adherents, and those effects will be seen in interactive relationships, as Christians live out their ambassadorship on behalf of their Lord and their God with respect to their interaction with others and the world.  This is the love that we see in Romans twelve and in first Corinthians thirteen, which demonstrate the tangible working out of that love based on what is learned at the meal table of the body of the church.  It is this basic demonstration of love and of preferring of one another, and of the awesome transformative power of the Gospel that is then put on display by individuals (functioning as and for their communities), which is what we then see worked out in the thirteenth chapter of Romans.  Not that Paul’s writings are determinative for the way that we approach Peter, but it is with such things in mind, as early evidences of the way in which Jesus (His death and Resurrection) is being interpreted and understood, that we look to Peter and hear him being so incredibly insistent on the social nature of the Gospel. 

It is worthwhile to first understand this aspect of Peter’s first letter before we move to what becomes the rather obvious dealings with the church’s meal table (recognizing that the church constituted itself around a meal table).  Peter insists that the church is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (2:9a), declaring that God calls the church to be “a people of His own,” that they “may proclaim the virtues of the one who called… out of darkness into His marvelous light” (2:9b).  Though there is certainly a mysterious power to be found in the very proclamation of the message that Jesus is Lord, we’ll see that the proclamation that Peter has in mind is more deed-based than word-based (though the word is not to be neglected---deeds would lead to the opportunity for words to be heard).  To this end, Peter calls this church to “maintain good conduct among the non-Christians, so that though they now malign you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when He appears” (2:12). 

In that day, Christians were accused of being atheists because they did not worship Caesar or the Roman gods, cannibals because of what was said at their meal table (eating the body of their God that they also claimed was a man who had been killed and physically resurrected), and usurpers of the social order because they refused to acknowledge the standard divisions of society in their public or private gatherings.  Eventually, Christians would become scapegoats, as blame for all manner of maladies and calamities would devolve upon them.  Peter understood that this was happening and would happen, and that much of this was owed to the fact of the radical nature of the lived-out Gospel.  For this reason, Peter, using the language of public benefaction, calls the church to be civic-minded, doing good deeds that will be recognized as beneficial for their community.  In this way, contrary to being singled out and maligned for being a negative force in society that would be specifically tied to claims about an alternative Lord, their good deeds would bring glory to the God to which their allegiance was sworn through Christ.  This would be learned at the meal table.     

Friday, April 27, 2012

Symbolic Judgment & The New Place Of God's Residence (part 2 of 2)

Luke makes a point to call attention to the nefarious desire of the experts in the law, as in the nineteenth verse of chapter twenty, after Jesus has delivered yet another parable that is deemed to be yet another scathing rebuke of these antagonistic characters, we hear “Then the experts in the law and the chief priests wanted to arrest Him that very hour, because they realized He had told this parable against them” (20:19a).  After this, Luke presents the story of Jesus being questioned about paying taxes to Caesar (20:20-26).  This is followed by a strange bit of questioning from the Sadducees in regards to marriage and the resurrection (20:27-40). 

We note, with interest, that the Sadducees here make their lone appearance in Luke’s Gospel, and this, after the Pharisees have dropped out of view.  Looking to Acts, where we have learned that some members of the Pharisees have joined with the Christian community, we also find conflict between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the twenty-third chapter (in relation to Pau’s trial), in which the Pharisees (believers in the resurrection of the dead) are pitted against the Sadducees (“who contend that there is no resurrection” (20:27) – repeated in Acts 23:8).  In addition to the fact that Luke, in the second portion of his narrative, cannot simply have the Sadducees appearing out of nowhere, but needs to have them in conflict with Jesus, our previous excursus and possible conclusion in regards to the situation with the Pharisees and their disappearance from Luke’s narrative may also serve to explain Luke’s cursory mention of the Sadducees.

Jesus then goes into a dissertation, followed by a question, about the Messiah being both King David’s son and Lord (20:41-44), with this followed by Jesus’ warning to “Beware of the experts in the law” (20:46a).  This comes on the heels of what looks like it could have been a paradigm shift in Luke’s presentation of the experts in the law.  After Jesus had answered the questioning of the Sadducees, flatly rebuking their resurrection-denying position in the process, we read that “some of the experts in the law answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well!’” (20:39).  Luke also reports that “they did not dare any longer to ask Him anything” (20:40), though this could apply equally to both the Sadducees and the experts in the law. 

Those who are listening to this story, and who are familiar with the Jesus traditions, already know what is soon to happen.  Indeed, those that may be unfamiliar with Jesus, who are hearing or reading this presentation, owing to the heightening sense of conflict, as well as Jesus’ actions in the Temple (the tremendous importance of which would be readily recognized by any denizen of the first century---or any century in almost any place for that matter), will more than realize that this story is building to a grand finale.  Throughout the story, lines of demarcation are being drawn, and by this point, it is quite clear as to who it is that is going to ultimately be playing the role of villain in this story.  Any reasonable person knows that the experts in the law have been positioned as the chief villains, and it merely remains to be seen how Luke’s telling of the Jesus story plays out.  The potential paradigm shift comes with this report about the words of the experts in the law.  It provides something of a ray of hope for them.  This, along with the fact that the Pharisees are no longer the consistent companions of the experts in the law, with their role having been almost completely taken up by the chief priests, might cause one to think that the experts in the law are going to change their position concerning Jesus.  Accordingly, perhaps Jesus will change His position concerning them. 

Of course, we see that this is not to be.  After a glimmer of hope appears for them, this light is quickly extinguished, as Jesus warns the people away from them.  We should have come to expect this anyway.  Not only have they been well-positioned as the villains of Luke’s narrative, as we can imagine boos and hisses from the crowd whenever they make their appearance on the stage of the story, but after all that we have seen and heard, Jesus adds that “They like walking around in long robes, and they love elaborate greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets” (20:46).  Naturally, with Luke’s audience having heard what was said by Jesus in the fourteenth chapter, along with the parable that followed (that of the great banquet), this mention of the burning desire for places of honor at banquets will not be lost on Luke’s hearers.  They, as should we, will make the connections.  The final nail is driven into their figurative coffins as Jesus informs His hearers (and Luke’s hearers), that these experts in the law, “devour widows’ property” (20:47). 

They devour widows’ property?  This is unconscionable!  How do they do this?  Is there evidence of this?  Absolutely, there is evidence, and Jesus immediately points His hearers to the evidence, as He “looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box.  He also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.  He said, ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.  For they all offered out of their wealth.  But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.’” (21:1-4)  For too long we have looked upon this as Jesus offering a commendation to this widow, as she was willing to sacrifice all that she had for the Temple.  It must be seen, rather, as a rebuke to the Jerusalem Temple, its system, and all associated with it.  Indeed, Jesus sees the offering of this widow as a tragedy, as her property was completely devoured by a corrupt system, full of robbers, which He had already condemned.  This will become especially clear if we rightly incorporate the idea that Jesus is the true Temple.  This Temple, already “adorned with beautiful stones and offerings” (21:5b), and its functionaries, should have been lavishing care upon this poor widow, exercising justice and mercy, rather than taking that which she could not afford to give.  This would have been the proper attitude of those that were supposed to be representing the faithful and gracious God of Israel.  However, with the portrait of the experts in the law that has been painted, there is nobody, reading or hearing, that is surprised at what has just happened. 

Little wonder then, that the remaining mentions of the experts in the law to be found in Luke take the form that they do.  Along with the Temple, Jesus has condemned them, so we are not surprised to hear that “The chief priests and the experts in the law were trying to find some way to execute Jesus” (22:2a), that they played a role in an unjust and illegal trial in which “the council of the elders of the people gathered together, both the chief priests and the experts in the law” (22:66), and that “The chief priests and the experts in the law were… vehemently accusing Him” (23:10).  The point, which Luke had begun to make very early in his work (in the fifth chapter), when Jesus takes up the role of the Temple by forgiving sins, adding healing to that, with this immediately questioned by the experts in the law (their first mention), is that Jesus is the true Temple.  Luke wants all to know that Jesus, as the embodiment of Israel’s God, is the place where God resides.        

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Symbolic Judgment & The New Place Of God's Residence (part 1 of 2)

Near the close of the nineteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, “Jesus entered the Temple courts and began to drive out those who were selling things there, saying to them, ‘It is written, “My house will be a house of prayer,” but you have turned it into a den of robbers!’” (19:45-46)  Thus, with this stirring reminder of the words of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jesus, with the full weight of His messianic life providing support, enacts a symbolic judgment against the Temple.  The people who hear these words of Jesus will know that Jeremiah went on to announce, on behalf of Israel’s God, “I will destroy this Temple which I have claimed as My own, this Temple that you are trusting to protect you.  I will destroy this place that I gave to you and your ancestors” (Jeremiah 7:14).  Coming from the one that has been successfully challenging and meeting any and all challenges from the representatives of the Temple and of the Temple tradition at every turn, these are weighty words in deed. 

Those listening to Luke’s presentation, who are also aware, like the modern reader, of the way that the story proceeds, know that this is going to provoke a response.  Concordantly then, any mentions of those connected to the Temple, regularly referred to as “experts in the law,” going forward, will have Jeremiah’s symbolic judgment of the Temple in mind.  After reporting that Jesus has said these things, Luke writes that “Jesus was teaching daily in the Temple courts” (19:47a).  This would only be natural, in that if He has pronounced judgment on the Temple, and if He believes Himself to be the new Temple, then Jesus is going to locate Himself at the place where the legitimate Temple is to be found.  Now, we are better able to understand why it is that “The chief priests and the experts in the law and the prominent leaders among the people were seeking to assassinate Him” (19:47b).  Luke is explicitly linking Jesus’ pronouncement as king and His judgment against the Temple, with the desire for His assassination by those that represented the Temple’s power structure.  This most definitely feeds into the negative portrait of the experts in the law (as there is nothing inherently wrong with being an expert in the law), which will also serve to heavily inform a statement that is soon to come, and which will be sure to draw the desired response from his hearers.    

Along with this, we can note that Jesus was “proclaiming the Gospel” (20:1) in the Temple courts, thus provoking a challenge as to His rightful authority to do and say what He was doing and saying.  What was the Gospel?  Well, we know that Luke’s hearers would have already understood that the Gospel message was that Jesus is the Lord of all (in a world where the regularly pronounced Gospel message is that Caesar is lord of all), and if we back up into the nineteenth chapter we find support for the idea that this was part of Jesus’ Gospel pronouncement (as He was now openly challenging the Temple authorities, and doing so in a way that would provoke a response by the civil authorities as well), as we read about Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, in which it was pronounced “with a loud voice” (19:37), “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (19:38)  To that, Luke adds that “some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, ‘Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.’  He answered, ‘I tell you, if they keep silent, the very stones will cry out!’” (19:39-40)  Here, Jesus allows Himself to be voiced as the king, and by His words, indicates that this pronouncement will never cease.    

Quite interestingly, though the Pharisees, along with the experts in the law, have composed one half of the chief antagonists to this point in Luke’s telling, they drop out of sight after this statement.  From this point on, the antagonists are going to be the chief priests and the experts in the law, with an appearance by the Sadducees later in the twentieth chapter.  What accounts for this turn of events?  How is it that the Pharisees, according to Luke’s presentation, have no hand in the events of the twentieth through twenty-fourth chapters of Luke?  While the Gospels of Matthew and John have the Pharisees involved, at some level, in Jesus’ arrest and execution, along with the plot to counter the story of the Resurrection, Luke does not.  Neither, for that matter, does Mark.  Though we cannot know precisely why the Pharisees drop out of Mark at a point that is roughly equivalent to the time that they drop out of Luke, we can confidently surmise as to the reason why the Pharisees, who have been the constant companion of the experts in the law, drop out of Luke precisely as the events that will lead to Jesus arrest and crucifixion begin to unfold. 

It is quite likely that this has to do with a number of Pharisees, following the Resurrection and in the formative years of the church, being won to the claims of the Gospel and joining the growing community of adherents to the covenant rooted in the confession of Jesus as Lord.  As it relates to Luke’s work, we can see evidence of this in Acts.  In the fifteenth chapter, we find that the Pharisees have a role in the church community, as we read that “some from the religious party of the Pharisees who had believed stood up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and to order them to observe the law of Moses.’” (15:5).  Though the opinion that would be rendered by the church council would weigh against that opinion, it does demonstrate that some Pharisees had joined the Jesus movement.  This may serve well to explain why Luke withdraws the Pharisees from his narrative at the point of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.     

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Complaints & Challenges

The complaint about Jesus’ table companions is voiced on a regular basis.  It is an attempt to discredit Him as He went about discrediting those connected to the Temple, and it is a relatively prominent feature of the Gospel portraits of Jesus.  Considering the importance of the meal table in that day and time, this fact should go a long, long way towards informing us about a major thrust of Jesus’ ministry, along with informing us as to a major focal point of the early church and the oral traditions about Jesus, given their weight by His crucifixion and Resurrection, that would eventually be codified as Gospels. 

We can find some of this criticism taking place in the seventh chapter of Luke.  We read that “the Pharisees and the experts in religious law rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (7:30a).  Immediately thereafter, Jesus launches into a monologue that will conclude with Jesus reciting a regular accusation against Him (which also points out the inseparable connection of His ministry and that of John the Baptist), saying “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine,” and thus making no overt references, by his actions, to the messianic feast (which should ideally accompany a pronouncement that the  kingdom of God is at hand), “and you say, ‘He has a demon!’  The Son of Man has come eating and drinking,” messianic-ly proclaiming the kingdom along with engaging in regular feasting, “and you say, ‘Look at Him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (7:33-34)  We hear this in the context of the perceived threat to power, prestige, and position that came with the sense that Jesus was presenting Himself as an adequate stand-in for the Temple.  

Considering this and looking to the fifteenth chapter of Luke, we consider the regular complaint against Jesus, bearing in mind that the hearers of Luke’s compilation of the life of Jesus have now heard this complaint on several occasions.  As they would expect, Jesus once again ignores the complaint, which is a veiled accusation that He cannot possibly be the messiah, and launches into a series of parables (the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the compassionate father---sometimes referred to as the parable of the prodigal son, though this gets the focus of the parable wrong).  In doing this (ignoring the complaint and the accusation), Jesus maintains and builds upon the now well-aserted role of rabbinic superiority over His challengers, which has been demonstrated, by Luke’s telling (reflecting the stories about Jesus that would have been circulating in a self-correcting oral tradition), through their repeated inability to respond to Him. 

In this honor and shame culture, Jesus has been repeatedly shaming His challengers, and this would have been well understood by one and all.  With this in mind, we, along with Luke’s hearers and readers (primarily hearers in the first century), can fully understand the hostility that is rising against Jesus.  Not only is He de-valuing the institution that they support and from which they receive their support, which was the Temple, but He is also bringing them into disrepute, diminishing them in the eyes of the populace and severing them from any semblance of power and God-ordained authority (which stemmed from the Temple).  As a brief aside, it must be said that through shaming His opponents, Jesus has been gaining honor for Himself, but He will ultimately divest Himself of all of that honor by going to the most shameful place, which would be the cross.  Thereby, He lives out His insistence (heard in the fourteenth chapter) that one should take the lowest place, so as to receive true exaltation.    

Looking ahead to the nineteenth chapter, we find the forty-seventh verse, in which Luke writes that “Jesus was teaching daily in the Temple courts,” and that “The chief priests and the experts in the law and the prominent leaders among the people were seeking to assassinate Him.”  This will be followed up at the beginning of the twentieth chapter with “as Jesus was teaching the people in the Temple courts and proclaiming the Gospel, the chief priests and the experts in the law with the elders came up and said to Him, ‘Tell us, By what authority are you doing these things?  Or who is it who gave you this authority?’” (20:1-2)  Thus, the Temple cannot be far from our minds or those of Luke’s hearers, just as it would not have been far from the mind of Jesus’ audience.  Predictably, maintaining the rabbinic challenge motif that Luke seeks to build through his narrative, and yielding no ground in the perpetual contest of honor and shame, Jesus answers the questions with a question of His own, related to John the Baptist (obviously, Luke intends to demonstrate the explicit connection between Jesus’ ministry and that of John), eventually eliciting an embarrassing “we don’t know” from His interrogators. 

Luke's Ironic Jesus

Within a setting that is informed by a messianic banquet reference, a challenge to the experts in the law and the Pharisees, and a rather instructive parable, Jesus offers instructions in regards about engagement in table fellowship “to the man who had invited him” (14:12a), saying “when you host an elaborate meal, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13).  Jesus then offers up a parable of a banquet (while at a banquet) in which the man who made invitations ends up inviting “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (14:21b).  The man in the parable even takes it one step further, as he sends his representatives “out to the highways and country roads” to “urge people to come in” (14:23b). 

This not only amplifies the words that an audience listening to the story on offer in Luke, and designed to be heard in a single sitting, would have heard from the thirteenth chapter, while also reinforcing the personal instruction that had been on offer by Jesus to the one who invited Him, but the punctuation of the parable, in which the subject of the parable exclaims “For I tell you, not one of those individuals who were invited will taste my banquet” (14:24), also dramatically illustrates the last to first, first to last, exaltation to humility, and humility to exaltation motif that frames this multi-chapter section of Luke.  In addition, it brings an interesting clarity to what had also been heard in the thirteenth chapter, which was a statement about those left out of the messianic banquet, in which they say “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets” (13:26), to which God (presumably) replies “I don’t know where you come from!  Go away from me, all you evildoers!” (13:27) 

The ongoing and escalating conflict between Jesus and the experts in the law and the Pharisees, along with Jesus overt challenge to them just a few verses later, makes it quite clear who it is that is the point of reference in such statements.  A delicious irony is to be found in the fifteenth chapter, because after Jesus, who is living, working, and speaking in such a way that indicates that He is the Messiah (while Luke’s audience has already heard the confession of Jesus as Messiah), makes His points about the people that were participating in meals.  While remembering that the setting has not changed and Jesus appears to still be at the same meal mentioned in the first verse of the fourteenth chapter, the “Pharisees and the experts in the law” complained that Jesus was welcoming sinners and eating with them (15:2). 

In light of all that has been said and done in the moments leading up to this statement on the lips of these people, we cannot help but imagine that those hearing the telling of this Gospel would find themselves laughing.  It is almost as if this statement demands to be read as a punch-line, in which the Pharisees and the experts in the law are presented as dupes.  Indeed, it seems as if Luke wants his audience to reach the conclusion that there is a group that is not quite getting it, even though Jesus is attempting to make things as obvious as He possibly can.  This most definitely serves to de-legitimate the role of these men.  Not only could they not answer Jesus’ simple questions, but now, even though Jesus has made things as simple as possible---offering a parable about a banquet, a directive about banquets, and then another parable about a banquet, Luke shows us that the point has been completely missed, as they go right back to one of their earliest accusatory attempts at discrediting Jesus. 

Looking to the fifth chapter, we find Luke using the phrase “experts in the law” (5:30), which was accompanied by their complaint that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners (5:30).  That, of course, was at a banquet given for Jesus (5:29).  As we are carefully attuned to the fact that this is an ongoing narrative, and that there is a certain structure and flow to Luke’s presentation (which makes sense in light of the fact that it is a dramatic presentation designed to be consumed in a single sitting, as mentioned above), we would probably not be mistaken if we surmised that Luke’s words of the fifteenth chapter are intended to cause a recall of scene of chapter five. 

Considering this, we can find that the fourteenth chapter began with a mention of experts in the law and Pharisees (Temple representatives), moved to a question posed by Jesus, and resulted in a healing.  The movement of the fourteenth chapter concludes with the fifteenth chapter’s opening complaint that “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  In chapter five, Jesus forgives sins (a Temple function), we hear about hostile thoughts and questioning on the part of the experts in the law and the Pharisees (a question), and then see a healing by Jesus.  From there, Luke moves to the complaint about with whom Jesus is eating.  Within a culture that is accustomed to listening to stories, holding ideas together over extended tellings, and processing information accordingly, this bracketing structure would not be lost on his audience.              

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tension, Temple & Table

Luke opens the fifteenth chapter of his work with “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear Him.  But the Pharisees and the experts in the law were complaining, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (15:1-2)  According to Luke’s narrative structure, this actually occurs “at the house of a leader of the Pharisees” (14:1b).  Obviously, the complaint of the fifteenth chapter is prefaced by the activities of the fourteenth chapter, and those hearing Luke’s presentation are going to rather enjoy the delicious irony of it all. 

There in the fourteenth chapter, as Luke builds a narrative tension between Jesus and the experts in the law and their associates (which, if Jesus is being critical of them and of the Temple that they represent, is eventually going to come to a head) it is said that Jesus was being watched closely (14:1c).  Based on all that that they would have heard to that point, the audience that sits and listens to the particular telling of the Jesus tradition that has come to be known as Luke, knowing what they already know about Jesus through the narrative and through the oral tradition (just as we approach Luke in the midst of a body of knowledge about Jesus, albeit informed by the New Testament and our own traditions), should expect Jesus to present an open challenge.  After all, with the pronouncements of woe that occurred before these events, everybody is well aware that there is and was hostility.  Luke does not let us or his audience down, as he informs us that “Jesus asked the experts in religious law and the Pharisees” (14:3a) a question. 

An answer was not forthcoming, and in fact, we hear that “they remained silent” (14:4a).  If we presume that Jesus’ is challenging the legitimacy of the Temple and those that support its claims while also deriving their personal support from that same structure, then this inability to proffer an answer is an apt demonstration of the ineffectiveness of these people in their duty to represent God.  Whether they simply did not desire to engage in another rabbinic challenge, or whether they refused to offer an answer because the question was posed to them by Jesus (rather than from them to Him), with a response serving the purpose of validating the standing of the questioner (they were seeking to de-legitimize Jesus), Jesus, by posing another question that is actually an answer to His first question, makes them look foolish with what appears to be a rather obvious and simple answer to a simple question. 

As Jesus offers his question-as-answer that is related to the first question, the sense of the ultimate ineffectiveness and illegitimacy of the experts in the law and Pharisees seems to grow, as Luke informs his hearers that “they could not reply to this” (14:6).  From there, without a change of scene from the house of the Pharisee at which Jesus had gone to dine (14:1), “Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honor” (14:7a)---a very important consideration in a meal-table-oriented-and-demonstrating honor and shame culture.  In response, He tells a parable (14:7b).  Without recounting the parable, we can note that it is summarized by Jesus saying “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (14:11).  Crucially, Luke’s hearers would have heard this parable and its summation within the echo of Jesus having spoken of another meal table, as He has previously been reported as saying that “people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table in the kingdom of God” (13:29).  This is the messianic banquet that, without going into too much detail, indicates that the rule of God on earth, through His Messiah, has begun.  To that statement is tagged, “But indeed some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (13:30). 

So in the fourteenth chapter, when Jesus makes reference to a meal table that will be at least partially occupied by experts in the law and Pharisees, and we hear that Jesus was noticing how some guests chose their places of honor, and then we hear about humility and exaltation, we do so with ears that have just heard Jesus make reference to a messianic banquet, wherein Jesus has used words about the last becoming first (exaltation) and the first becoming last (humility).  These two things cannot be disconnected.  Furthermore, because the fourteenth chapter begins with Jesus challenging the experts in the law and the Pharisees, and because there is no change of setting until the seventeenth chapter, we have every reason to believe that all that follows from that initial, un-responded to challenge is at least tacitly directed to those same groups. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Critical Statements

In the ninth chapter of Luke we hear Jesus say that “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (9:22).  This comes on the heels of Jesus proffering two questions to His disciples, which were “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (9:18b) and “But who do you say that I am?” (9:20a), along with Peter’s response of “The Christ of God” (9:20b).  Peter’s response is better translated as “the Messiah of God,” which, based upon the myriad of beliefs concerning what it is that the messiah would do, which included, based on the way that previous messianic claimants had gone about their business, the throwing off of Rome’s yoke.  Peter’s confession is a highly charged political statement, and owing to that, widespread and public voicing of the claim could lead to an open and premature conflict with the governing Roman authorities. 

Though other messianic figures desired to bring about a confrontation with Rome in the mold of the Maccabean heroes, this was not Jesus’ intention.  Luke shows us that Jesus did not want His disciples getting ahead of themselves or getting the wrong idea, thus explaining his reporting that Jesus “forcefully commanded them not to tell this to anyone” (9:21).  Rather than press concerns over Rome and the rule of the land, Jesus’ response to Peter, in which He spoke of the need to suffer and die at the hands of the Temple authorities (though Rome would be instrumental in His execution), continues to frame Jesus’ issues with the “experts in the law” (and the always attendant Pharisees) in terms related to the Temple and its activities.  If Jesus thinks of Himself as a replacement for the Temple, which He would do if He saw Himself as the Messiah---the embodiment of Israel’s God acting within history and therefore the place of God’s dwelling, then this narrative presentation of a conflict with those that represented the Temple makes a great deal of sense.  As Luke writes a narrative that will be useful for the people of God that largely saw themselves as a new Temple, a portion of Luke’s purposes, as we remember that the Gospels were historically rooted theological tractates, comes squarely into focus.

Advancing to the eleventh chapter (while remembering that there were not chapter and verse divisions in the original text and that the narrative was most likely designed to be read aloud in an oral performance in a single sitting), we come to the fifty-second verse and hear Jesus say “Woe to you experts in religious law!  You have taken away the key of knowledge!  You did not go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were going in” (11:52).  Obviously, this is another statement that cannot be taken as anything less than highly critical.  This is followed by Luke’s report that “When He went out from there, the experts in the law and the Pharisees began to oppose Him bitterly, and to ask Him hostile questions about many things, plotting against Him, to catch Him in something He might say” (11:53-54).  This artfully builds on the tension that Luke weaves into his narrative.  If we were to review Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ adversaries, we would see that they began with a voiceless questioning of Jesus’ legitimacy, that they moved to an open complaint about His activities, that they proceeded to a desire to be able to accuse Jesus that grew into a mindless rage against Him, and that all of that has now reached a fevered pitch of bitter opposition that is part of a larger plot to bring Him down.  There is a rising hostility here, and it is related not to some issues of the preaching of grace versus an outmoded legalism, but rather, to issues surrounding the Temple, its function, and its functionaries.  Indeed, we can see as much in this particular passage.

This section began with the report that “One of the experts in religious law answered Him” (11:45a) in regards to accusations that Jesus has just made against the Pharisees, concerned that Jesus’ insults against the Pharisees were insults against them as well.  Not backing down in the least, but rather, creating an even more tense situation, Jesus responds with “Woe to you experts in religious law as well!  You load people down with burdens difficult to bear; yet you yourselves refuse to touch the burdens with even one of your fingers!  Woe to you!  You built the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed” (11:46-47).  This dissertation by Jesus culminates in what we saw in verse fifty-two.  Without getting into an effort to exegete precisely what is implied by Jesus accusations attached to His repeated pronouncements of “woe” against the experts in religious law, what we find being said prior to the final offering of “woe” in the fifty-second verse, crystallizes the locus of Jesus’ problems with the experts in the law and the Pharisees.  Jesus makes reference to the Temple as He mentions Zechariah, “who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary” (11:51b).  The reference to the Temple is unmistakable, and would be rightly understood by His interlocutors.    

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Replacement Temple

In the forty-fifth verse of chapter twenty of his Gospel, Luke informs us that Jesus was speaking specifically to His disciples, but that “all the people were listening.”  As these two groups of people were listening to Jesus, they heard Him say “Beware of the experts in the law” (20:46a).  This phrase, “experts in the law,” is an oft-recurring phrase in all of the Gospel accounts.  At this point in Luke’s narrative, it has already been used a number of times, thus creating an expectation on the part of those that are hearing this Gospel read aloud (in a performance fashion) in a single sitting. 

The first time we hear this phrase is in the fifth chapter.  Jesus has healed a paralyzed man, while also informing him that his sins were forgiven (5:20).  Without going in to all of the nuances of what was connoted by this forgiving of sins in first century Jewish thought, we can see that it prompts a response on the parts of the “experts in the law and the Pharisees” (5:21a), as they “began to think to themselves, ‘Who is this man who is uttering blasphemies?  Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” (5:21b)  To that thought must be added the fact that the Temple in Jerusalem, with its attendant priesthood, was the place of God’s mediation of forgiveness of sins.  Therefore, by His words and actions, Jesus is offering implicit information about His own mission and the way that He perceives Himself. 

As a forgiver of sins, He is usurping the role of the Temple and the priests, while becoming a threat to their livelihood.  This usurpation is also a commentary on the legitimacy and need for the Temple.  Thus, the reaction of the experts in the law and the Pharisees cannot be disconnected from this commentary on the Temple, which these two groups served and legitimated.  By calling the Temple itself into question through His actions and His mediation of forgiveness, Jesus is calling into question the roles of the experts in the law and the Pharisees as well.  Now, just in case His words and actions of healing and forgiveness were not quite explicit enough, and just in case the challenge that He was offering to the Temple, which would have been well understood by Luke’s Jewish hearers, Jesus adds “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (5:24a).  So not only is Jesus acting in a messianic fashion, stoking hopes of rebellion and revolution and the overthrow of Rome that will bring an end to their occupation of Israel and thus making Himself a target for the empire, Jesus is making Himself a target for the Temple regime as well. 

Shortly thereafter, we are made to encounter the experts in the law again, as we read that “the Pharisees and their experts in the law complained to His disciples, saying ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” (5:30)  On the heels of Jesus presenting Himself as a viable alternative, and indeed, even a replacement for the Temple as He also presents Himself as a messiah-figure with all of the expectations that come with such a presentation, we hear this criticism of His actions in relation to Jesus’ table fellowship.  The statement that follows Jesus’ response, which was “John’s disciples frequently fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours continue to eat and drink” (5:33), is also critical of Jesus’ meal practice and His influence, and is a part of the preliminary efforts to discredit this man who seems to be gaining a problematic standing amongst the people.  This, at least, is what Luke appears to be making an effort to portray. 

Moving on to the sixth chapter, we find in the seventh verse that “The experts in the law and the Pharisees watched Jesus closely to see if He would heal on the Sabbath, so that they could find a reason to accuse Him.”  In the twenty-first verse of the fifth chapter, Luke reports what the experts in the law, along with the Pharisees, were thinking.  In the thirtieth and thirty-third verses, voice is given to their thoughts, and we see what are essentially rabbinic challenges through which the experts in the law and the Pharisees seek to gain the upper hand on Jesus in what is essentially going to be an ongoing activity of thrust and parry throughout the course of Luke’s Gospel between Jesus and those who challenged Him.  Now, with these words from early in the sixth chapter, Luke has moved his hearers from an implied understanding of a desire to discredit Jesus through the common and well-understood means of rabbinic challenge, to an open effort to find a basis for accusation against Him.  This is amplified by Luke’s report that, following Jesus’ response challenge to them and His subsequent healing on the Sabbath, and what appears to be Jesus’ victory in the eyes of the people in this particular challenge (based on the response that Luke records), that “they were filled with mindless rage and began debating with one another what they would do to Jesus” (6:11). 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Disciples As Abraham

As we hear or read the Biblical stories of Jesus as individuals fully ensconced within the story of Israel, it becomes undeniable that Abraham and God’s covenant with him are in view as Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John (to an extent) tell the Gospel stories of Jesus’ calling of His disciples, that Jesus Himself is relying upon a broad-based Abrahamic covenant-shaped worldview to inform the response to His words and deeds, and that this is functional for informing our perspective on the narrative.  Not only that, but it should become clear, as we take a wide angle view of what is going on if this is the case, that one of the points being made is that a disciple of Jesus, then and now, is called to be for the world what Abraham (and ultimately his descendants) were called to be for the world.  Abraham and his descendants were to be the means and the mediators by and through which the Creator God enacted His plan to redeem the world.  In essence, it could be said that the disciples were called to be living embodiments of Abraham. 

It bears repeating here then, that all disciples of Jesus---those that join Him in the way that He is marking out for the enactment of God’s kingdom in and for this world---are called to be Abrahams.  To what can we look to make that point?  There is a portion of Matthew’s narrative that we can include in our argument for this assertion that aids in the building of our case.  Comparing the call of Abraham with the call of disciples, it is not at all surprising to find it included almost directly and immediately following the call of Simon, Andrew, James, and John, with the additional information that James and John left their work and their father and followed Jesus.  It must be said that mentioning a call by Jesus, who was being recognized and worshiped as God by the author of Matthew (who is constructing his historical narrative not necessarily as a chronological biography, but constructing his narrative in a certain way and for a certain purpose to communicate certain facts about the activity and nature of the God that is being more thoroughly revealed by Jesus), and adding the leaving of a father as a response to a summons, is sure to call Abraham and the Abrahamic covenant to mind. 

In rounding out his fourth chapter, Matthew describes Jesus’ ministry throughout Galilee, and concludes by telling us that “large crowds followed Him” (4:25a).  Then,  coming to the beginning of the fifth chapter, we read that “When He saw the crowds, He went up the mountain.  After He sat down His disciples came to Him” (5:1).  While we are tempted to notice the Moses motif that is also being laid into the narrative (teaching from a mountain, mentioning the law and recounting some of the “ten commandments”), we merely keep it in mind while remembering the more foundational and perhaps wider-ranging Abrahamic context.  Though there are large crowds following Jesus, the author, very specifically, says that “His disciples came to Him.”  Though there were most likely more than just the four called and named disciples at this point, making mention here of the disciples, having just presented the calling of the first four, must be completely purposeful. 

What does Jesus do?  “He began to teach them” (5:2).  What does He say?  He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (5:3-6).  With a call from Jesus, the leaving of a father, words that are presented as being directed to those called---which are the disciples (though obviously there is a much larger audience present), and now this talk of “Blessed are…”, it is nigh impossible to not hear God speaking to Abraham (after he had heard “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you”) and saying “Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you.”  Verses three through six clearly spell out God’s directing of blessing to the called one’s of Jesus, with them being given a nation (kingdom of heaven), comfort, and an inheritance (here, we think about the promise of an heir to Abraham and that which would be possessed by his descendants). 

Of course, Jesus did not stop there.  He continued on to say, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (5:7-9).  Here, we can see that blessings are now bi-directional.  This sends us back to God’s words to Abraham in Genesis, in which Abraham was told “I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing.”  Certainly, we can see that these three uses of “Blessed are…” are outwardly directed, in that Jesus’ called ones are to demonstrate mercy and purity of heart, while being peacemakers.  By this, they will exemplify divine blessing and be sources of divine blessing for the world, while also continuing to be blessed by God (also an exemplification of divine blessing, which obviously works on two levels), in that they will receive mercy, see God, and be called children of God. 

Jesus continues, saying “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.  Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of Me.  Rejoice and be glad because of your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way” (5:10-12).  Does not this strike a chord in similar fashion to what Abraham was also told, which was “I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse”?  Beyond that which we see in chapter twelve of Genesis, this talk of a great reward in heaven reminds us of the fifteenth chapter of Genesis and where God speaks again to Abraham and says, “Fear not, Abram!  I am your shield and the one who will reward you in great abundance” (15:1b).  For sake of context, this follows the account of Lot being captured and Abraham defeating his captors to rescue Lot, after which he received the blessing from Melchizedek (persecution, blessing, and reward). 

Finally (for our purposes), Jesus says “You are the salt of the earth…  You are the light of the world… let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven” (5:13a,14a,16).  What rounded out God’s first words to Abraham?  “All the families of the earth will bless one another by your name.”  Abraham was called to be salt and light in a way that would reveal God’s glory and gather to Him the praise that He deserves---the abounding of blessing at the hand of God being quite obvious as it flows out in all directions.  The disciples of Jesus were called to do and effect the same. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sent Out

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus sends His disciples on mission.  In Matthew we read “Jesus sent out these twelve, instructing them as follows: ‘Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town.  Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” (10:5-6)  Luke’s sending is different from that of Matthew, in that there is no national, ethnic, or geographic restriction to Israel in their exemplification of divine blessing when “He gave them power over all demons and to cure diseases” (9:1b), sending “them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (9:2).  Let us take the time to notice that Matthew’s and Luke’s record operate on a dual level.  At one level, as they report the instructions of Jesus, they are also informing us as to what it was that these disciples were going to go out and do.  There is no reason to believe that they did not go out and follow these instructions, and indeed, Luke, ever the historian, moves from Jesus’ instructions to mentioning that “Then they departed and went throughout the villages, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere” (9:6). 

Shortly thereafter, again playing the historian, Luke reports that “When the apostles returned, they told Jesus everything they had done” (9:10).  Luke even expands upon this in relation to the time that Jesus, at the beginning of the tenth chapter, appoints and sends out a much larger group of His disciples with nearly identical instructions as that which was given to the twelve (either seventy or seventy-two disciples, depending on the manuscripts in use), informing his audience that “the seventy-two returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name!” (10:17)  Though the analogy is not precise, if the Abrahamic covenant is foundational, as it truly is for the whole of the story of Israel, and therefore for Jesus as the summation of the story of Israel, then the twelve can be looked upon as Abraham, while the seventy-two can be looked upon as Israel. 

At the second level, the instructions to the disciples are something of an elaboration on God’s words to Abraham.  When we hear Matthew and Luke recount Jesus’ instructions to His disciples, can we not also hear “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing”? (Genesis 12:2)  Luke rounds out Jesus’ instructions very quickly.  For Luke’s purposes in this setting, Jesus is done speaking at the fifth verse of the ninth chapter, concluding His remarks with the “shaking of dust.”  Matthew, on the other hand, extends this time of instruction all the way to the close of the tenth chapter.  In fact, the eleventh chapter of Matthew opens by informing us “When Jesus had finished instructing His twelve disciples, He went on from there to teach and preach in their towns” (11:1).  Though the fact that the disciples acted on Jesus’ instructions is implied by Matthew’s presentation, Luke seizes upon the opportunity to make it explicit.  Though Matthew certainly implies that the disciples fulfilled the Abrahamic call to exemplify divine blessing, Luke wants to be sure that his audience knows that this is what took place.     

In the end, for Matthew, because he does not provide any type of report on the activity of the disciples themselves in relation to Jesus’ instructions, what is important is that Jesus went out teaching and preaching and presumably doing all of those things that He had instructed His disciples to do.  Does this mean that Matthew was unconcerned with the activity of the disciples?  Clearly, that is not the case.  In all of this, we do not forget that Matthew and His audience (like the other Gospel writers) are viewing the story of Jesus through Resurrection-colored goggles as a community that recognized and worshiped Jesus as God.  What this serves to communicate, keeping in mind the context that has been created through the way that the story is being told and the covenantal context in which the life of Jesus unfolds and in which His teaching is presented, is that it is God’s activity that is of paramount importance. 

Even in Abraham’s case, it was the God of Abraham that was to be recognized through Abraham’s life and actions---not Abraham himself.  It was God that was to be revealed through Israel---they were not to be made into a great nation (as promised to Abraham) simply to be blessed by God and to no greater purpose that simply being a great nation.  Being a blessing and exemplifying divine blessing, as these disciples were being called to do and be, is meaningless if it does not derive glory for the Creator.  Foundationally, it would be God at work, through Abraham.  It would be God at work, in Christ; and it would be God at work, through Christ’s disciples, when they carried out (and continue to carry out) His instructions. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Leaving Their Father (part 3 of 3)

Is the call from Jesus to follow Him, combined with an account of leaving a father behind the extent of the similarities to the call of Abraham?  Of course not.  That would hardly be enough of a basis from which to build a credible argument.  Considering that God’s redemptive plan for His creation begins with Abraham, climaxes with Jesus and is to be continually carried out through His disciples, there must be far more points of contact between the Abrahamic covenant and the call to discipleship.  Fortunately, there are. 

Returning to Mark’s Gospel, we venture to the third chapter, and there find that Jesus “appointed twelve (whom He named apostles), so that they could be with Him and He could send them to preach and to have authority to cast out demons.  He appointed twelve” (3:14-16a).  The duplication of “appointed twelve” could easily be heard as an emphasizing of the re-gathering of the twelve tribes of Israel.  As God ordained Israel to be a light to the nations, so too Jesus has ordained twelve to the same end.  Naturally, any implicit references to God’s covenant with Israel also carries with it an implicit reference to the Abrahamic covenant, as there is no Israel without Abraham, and there would be no Mosaic covenant without the Abrahamic covenant. 

So as we understand the Abrahamic mental triggers that would be pulled by the appointment of twelve, we can make a rather broad analysis based on what Mark says next.  If the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are in mind when Mark writes “so they would be with Him and He could send them,” then this is yet another recapitulation of the charge to Israel, for God had promised Israel that He would dwell among them if they carried out His commandments.  Ultimately, this dwelling among them would be for the purpose of their revealing His glory to all peoples.  Certainly we can see this as Israel both being with their God and being sent by their God.  If that is the case, then we are forced to revert further to that which is foundational to Israel’s relationship with their God, which is the promise to Abraham. 

In Genesis twelve, following the directive to “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you” (12:1b), from which we could infer a being with (I will show you) and a sending out (go out from), we hear “Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing” (12:2).  This could very well serve to round out what Mark intends to convey with his talk of the disciples being with Jesus to be sent by Jesus.  It is not difficult in the least to here create one of those points of contact between the Gospel narrative and the Abrahamic covenant.  The disciples being with Jesus is functionally equivalent to God’s making Abraham into a great nation, blessing him, and making his name great, which clearly leads us to comfortably assert that the sending of the disciples to preach and to have authority to cast out demons is an exemplification of divine blessing. 

Turning again to Matthew, we find the same motif at work, as the tenth chapter commences with a record that “Jesus called His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits so they could cast them out and heal every kind of disease and sickness” (10:1).  After an interlude in which Matthew takes the time to name the disciples as part of his narrative that will be primarily communicated orally, we can pick up at the fifth verse and find that “Jesus sent out these twelve” (10:5a).  Clearly, conceptions concerning the Abrahamic covenant are again at play, with this mindset having been created by speaking about the leaving of a father (in the fourth chapter), along with the general Abrahamic mindset held by the people as part of their self-definition and self-understanding.  After restricting them, at this point, to the land of Israel, Jesus further instructs them to preach that “The kingdom of heaven is near!” (10:7b)  This actually makes sense of the temporary limitation of the message to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6b), as this message of the kingdom of heaven being near would not be comprehensible to Gentiles.  In a sense then, this is part of the “being with Him” that we saw in Mark. 

Jesus describes the activities that would exemplify divine blessings to be carried out in their sending, by saying “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.  Freely you received, freely give” (10:8).  Then, a little bit later, and just in case we were doubting that the story of Abraham is in mind, Jesus is reported to have called to mind the story of Abraham and Lot, doing so in relation to Sodom and Gomorrah.  He effectively describes the story, before making this explicit at the very end, by adding “Whenever you enter a town or village, find out who is worthy there and stay with them until you leave.  As you enter the house, give it greetings.  And if the house is worthy, let your peace come on it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.  And if anyone will not welcome you or listen to your message, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or town.  I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town” (10:11-14).  

Leaving Their Father (part 2 of 3)

In substance, those hearing these stories of the call of the disciples, as they are presented in the synoptics, are hearing a recapitulation of the call of Abraham.  If this is the case, an objection might be raised that Abraham was not actually called to leave his father, or at the least, that he did not have to make that difficult decision, as the eleventh chapter of Genesis appears to close by recounting that Abraham’s father died in the land of Haran before Abraham received his call from God.  That objection falls flat, as the text does not indicate a chronological progression of events.  Understanding that the account is not necessarily a progression takes a step in the direction of reconciling the Genesis account with the account of Abraham provided by Stephen in Acts.  There, Stephen says “The God of glory appeared to our forefather Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your country and from your relatives, and come to the land I will show you.’  Then he went out from the country of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran.  After his father died, God made him move to this country where you now live” (7:2-4).  
If we consider that the Genesis narrative does allow for this account by Stephen, then any supposed difficulties vanish.  We dare not say that Stephen somehow got the account of Abraham and his call wrong or that he was mistaken.  This is especially important if we consider that Luke, as the author of Acts, clearly presents Stephen as speaking “under the inspiration” if you will, as Luke intends to make the point that it is Jesus Himself that has given Stephen the words he is to speak.  Luke knows what he is doing in his writing, and has written “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you, handing you over to synagogues and prisons.  You will be brought before kings and governors because of My name.  This will be a time for you to serve as witnesses (martyrs).  Therefore be resolved ahead of time not to make your defense.  For I will give you the words along with the wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict” (21:12-15). 

Obviously, Jesus, if He is speaking through Stephen, which appears to be the conclusion that Luke desires his hearers to reach, is going to get the story of Abraham correct.  That said, it is interesting that Stephen omits the portion of the call in which Abraham is directed to leave his father.  This is probably a bit of a smoothing out of the Abraham narrative, since it is clear that, though the call came at an earlier point in his life, he did not leave his father until after his father had died.  The point is, the call came to Abraham when his father is still alive, not after he is dead, as one might presume if simply reading Genesis and contemplating a straight chronological progression from the end of chapter eleven to the beginning of chapter twelve, which, if read in such a way, makes the call to leave his father make little sense.  So yes, Abraham is given a difficult choice.  Will he stay with his father or will he leave his father, as God has directed him to do.  We know that Abraham chose to stay with his father.  In a sense then, and it is okay to point these things out because we do not deify Abraham, we can assert that Abraham failed in this area.  Of course, Abraham failed in other areas too, so it’s not as if this is groundbreaking news.  Where Abraham failed, in that he did not undertake the journey in response to God’s call until after his father had died, these disciples succeeded in their response to the call, leaving their father when called. 

Though there is no reason whatsoever to take a dogmatic stance here, thinking about the call of the disciples in conjunction with the call of Abraham, along with the similarities and differences to be found, gives a new twist to one of Jesus’ most provocative statements, as recorded by both Matthew and Luke.  Using Luke’s treatment, we read that “Jesus said to another, ‘Follow Me.’” (9:59a)  This, according to our theory, is going to have brought Abraham’s call to the minds of Luke’s audience.  What is the response to Jesus’ call?  “He replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’” (9:59b)  Might this rather standard excuse for not taking action be an oblique reference to Abraham?  If Abraham didn’t do something that God had commanded him to do until after his father died, surely his descendants should not be expected to do so.  To this, Jesus responds, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (9:60).  Perhaps Jesus is here insisting that His countrymen go beyond the example provided by Abraham?  For Luke’s purposes (and Matthew’s), the audience that is hearing his construction of a Jesus narrative, has already seen two disciples respond to His God-to-Abraham-like call by leaving their father, and here, with the addition of another story from Jesus’ life, builds on that premise.

The fact that only two of the disciples are said to have left their father is irrelevant.  The simple mention of leaving their father, when called by the one that is worshiped as God by the community that is hearing the story, creates an Abrahamic frame of reference to be applied to the rest of the callings.  In this Abrahamic light, we can take a moment to stretch the analogy just a bit further, calling attention to the fact that James and John leave their father together.  The call of Abraham, according to Genesis, was to “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household.”  We know, however, that Abraham took his nephew Lot with him.  So even though these two disciples (James and John), unlike Abraham, made the difficult decision to leave their father (Zebedee), that decision was made a little bit easier, as they did so in conjunction with their brother.  The fact that the first four called disciples were business partners, according to Luke, probably made the decision to leave their occupations and to follow Jesus just slightly less tenuous.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Leaving Their Father (part 1 of 3)

The calling of Jesus’ initial group of disciples has an interesting feature that would have had significant historical resonance for the community of believers that had been and were being rooted in the story of Israel that gave meaning to the story of Jesus.  That feature is the mention of the father of James and John, Zebedee, and the fact that he is left when Jesus makes the call.  Now, this is not an overlooked feature by any means.  Long has it been the case that expositors and preachers have drawn attention to this feature of the Gospel narratives, pointing out that when Jesus calls, He expects a wholehearted devotion that transcends family ties.  Of course, at the same time, it is often said that Jesus prizes family values above all else, and this event does seem to fly in the face of the commandment to honor father and mother, but that is a subject for another day. 

Reviewing the record then, we hear Mark telling us that “Going on a little farther, He saw James, the son of Zebedee, and John his brother in their boat mending nets.  Immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed Him” (1:19-20).  Matthew lets us know that “Going on from there he saw two brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in a boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets.  Then He called them.  They immediately left the boat and their father and followed Him” (4:21-22).  Luke’s record is a little less explicit, in that there it is reported that Peter had been astonished at the haul of fish, “and so were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s business partners” (5:10a).  Following that, Jesus directs words to Peter (5:10), which then flows into a report of their bringing their boats to shore, leaving everything (which would include James and John leaving their father), and following Jesus (5:11).  We see that Luke does not specifically mention James and John leaving their father, but as is obvious, it is implied in the narrative.    

Why mention Zebedee at all?  Why this identification of James and John in this way?  Is it for purposes of delineation, so that there would be no confusion due to the presence of multiple men named James in the record of the earliest church?  Why mention the fact that they left their father?  Did Zebedee have some type of standing in the early church and used that as a way to influence these authors to include a mention of him in their stories of Jesus?  Is it purely to make the point that following Jesus may very well involve the sacrifice of livelihood and of family relationships?  Are we to take from the fact that James and John are identified in this way, and that they are said to have left their father, while Andrew and Simon and others are not reported to have had to leave their father behind as an indication that the call comes differently to different people---some will be called to leave their family while others will not be asked to do such things?  While all of these conclusions could certainly be drawn, and while we do not raise a protest to any of these ideas, there is something far more basic happening here. 

That “basic” happening would have been readily identifiable to the original hearers of these Gospels, as the majority of the audience would have been well-versed in the history of Israel and the story of God’s people, ready (and rightly so) to hear, process, and interpret this story of Jesus according to the worldview that was constructed and given shape by that history.  Much like those that confess Jesus as Lord and believe in His Resurrection are conditioned to a pre-disposition to accept accounts of the supernatural and miraculous, so too would the audience of the Gospel accounts, following His Resurrection that was understood to have shown Jesus forth as Israel’s Messiah and therefore God-in-flesh acting on behalf of Israel and the world, be conditioned to place the story of Jesus and His ministry within the context of God’s redemptive plan for His people and His world.  That plan, of course, was intimately connected to Israel and is shown forth in the story that they told and the history that they shared, by which their identity and their interaction with the world was shaped.

So when we hear the Gospel authors telling us about Jesus calling His disciples, and we hear it with a post-Resurrection understanding as the human voice of Israel’s Creator God (realizing that all of these accounts, though seeking to relate pre-Resurrection history, are presenting a post-Resurrection narrative with a theological bias), and we hear this seemingly minor detail about the father of two of these disciples and the fact that they were called to leave him, our thoughts take flight to Genesis and to Abraham, where we can find “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you” (12:1). 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Matthew's Call

In Mark’s Gospel we read that “Jesus went out again by the sea.  The whole crowd came to Him, and He taught them” (2:13).  Jesus is near the sea of Galilee, and He is teaching.  “As He went along, He saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the tax booth.  ‘Follow Me,’ He said to him.  And he got up and followed Him” (2:14).  From Matthew we hear: “As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth.  ‘Follow Me,’ He said to him.  And he got up and followed Him” (9:9).  Luke writes that “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax booth.  ‘Follow Me,” He said to him.  And he got up and followed Him, leaving everything behind” (5:27-28). 

As we can see, the synoptics are essentially univocal in their witness to this event.  John, however, does not present the call of Matthew.  In all three narratives, the calling of Matthew follows the healing of the paralyzed man that had been brought to Jesus by his friends.  In Matthew, there is a significant textual gap between Jesus calling His first four disciples and the call of Matthew, and we do not see this gap in Mark and Luke, as the call of Matthew comes quickly on the heels of the calling of Simon, Andrew, James, and John.  Not only do all three synoptic accounts of the call of Matthew follow immediately after the healing of the paralyzed man, what follows the record of the call is nearly identical in all three as well.  With the differences to be found in these Gospels, as they frequently diverge in their order of presentation, this nearly identical presentation of three events in sequence, with minor differences in detail, is quite remarkable. 

Utilizing Mark’s narrative, we find that following Matthew’s (or Levi’s) leaving of the tax booth and following Jesus, that “Jesus was having a meal in Levi’s home,” where “many tax collectors and sinners were eating with Jesus and His disciples, for there were many who followed Him” (2:15).  The language suggests that Jesus either had many disciples following Him, or that Jesus was eating with many tax collectors and sinners because many tax collectors and sinners were following Him.  Combining the two, one could surmise that many tax collectors and sinners were disciples of Jesus (as we always keep in mind that there were more than twelve disciples---twelve were chosen and named because of the symbolic re-constitution of the twelve tribes of Israel, with Jesus leading a new exodus movement as a new Moses). 

Mark continues: “When the experts in the law and the Pharisees saw that He was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, ‘Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?’  When Jesus heard this He said to them, ‘Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” (2:16-17)  To this, Matthew adds a report of Jesus saying, “I want mercy and not sacrifice,” thus calling their attention to the entire story and prophetic work of Hosea, whereas Luke adds “to repentance” (5:32) to Jesus call to sinners.  These are minor differences in detail, with these being commensurate with the overall movements of the Matthean and Lukan narratives. 

Sticking with Mark, and even though they are at a meal, we next hear that “John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.  So they came to Jesus and said, ‘Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don’t fast?’” (2:18)  Keeping in mind that the setting for this question is a meal being hosted by Matthew, “Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?  As long as they have the bridegroom with them they do not fast.  But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and at that time they will fast.  No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse.  And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed.  Instead, new wine is poured into new wineskins” (2:19-22). 

So here, with Mark’s record adequately standing in for the three synoptic witnesses, we have gone from the final record of a called disciple to a feast where Jesus mentions a wedding and wine.  Why mention this?  Well, fascinatingly, and even though there is significant divergence between the synoptics and John when it comes to Jesus’ calling of His disciples, this is a similarity in theme, though not in detail, that does not pass un-noticed.  In the synoptics, Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew.  In John, Jesus “calls” Andrew, Simon, Philip, and Nathanael.  In the synoptics, the final recorded call of a disciple is followed by a meal (or “great banquet” according to Luke), in which there is talk of wedding and wineskins.  In John, the final recorded call of a disciple is followed by Jesus and His disciples attending a wedding (which would have been accompanied by a meal or great banquet), at which Jesus will convert water into wine.    

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Differences In Details (part 2 of 2)

Looking at the first chapter of John, we find ourselves in the setting of the time of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.  On the day after the baptism, “John was standing there with two of his disciples.  Gazing at Jesus as He walked by, he said, ‘Look, the lamb of God!’  When John’s two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus” (1:35-37).  Momentarily, we learn that one of these disciples was Andrew, though we do not see Jesus calling him to follow.  Instead we find that “Jesus turned around and saw them following and said to them, ‘What do you want?’  So they said to Him, ‘Rabbi’ (which is translated Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’  Jesus answered, ‘Come and you will see.’  So they came and saw where He was staying, and they stayed with Him that day.  Now it was about four o’clock in the afternoon” (1:38-39).  The use of “they stayed with Him that day” seems to convey a double meaning, indicating that they stayed with Jesus at the place where He was staying, while also indicating the fact that it was from that point on that they stayed with Jesus. 

Immediately after that we go on to find that “Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two disciples who heard what John said and followed Jesus.  He first found his own brother Simon and told him, ‘We have found the Messiah!’ (which is translated Christ).  Andrew brought Simon to Jesus.  Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon, the son of John.  You will be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).  On the next day Jesus wanted to set out for Galilee” (1:40-43a).  We’ll notice that, in contrast to Mark, Matthew, and Luke, there is no mention of fishing, Andrew and Simon are not together, Jesus does not explicitly call either to follow Him, and they are not even in the region of Galilee.

In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus moves directly from calling Andrew and Simon, to calling James and John, who, according to Luke, are all partners in the fishing business.  The fishing motif is strong.  In John, we move from the non-call of Andrew and Simon, who are not portrayed as fishermen, to the very first overt call of Jesus, which is to Philip.  The story of this call is completely absent from the other three Gospels.  Having learned that Jesus wanted to set out for Galilee, we go on to find that “He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’  (Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter.)  Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets also wrote about---Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’  Nathanael replied, ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’  Philip replied, ‘Come and see.’” (1:43b-46) 

So rather than moving from calling Andrew and Simon to calling James and John, the story of Jesus’ gaining of disciples moves to Philip and Nathanael.  Here, we expand on a previous notation, and make emphasize that the calls of Philip and Nathanael are to be found only here in John’s Gospel, which probably serves as an indication that they were somehow connected to the community for which this record of Jesus is composed.  We also notice that Philip is the one that calls Nathanael, rather than Jesus, which will be reinforced momentarily.  Moving along, “Jesus saw Nathaniel coming toward Him and exclaimed, ‘Look, a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’  Nathanael asked Him, ‘How do you know me?’  Jesus replied, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’  Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel!’  Jesus said to him, ‘Because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe?  You will see greater things than these.’  He continued, ‘I tell all of you the solemn truth---you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’” (1:47-51) 

Thus ends the record, in John, of Jesus’ “calling” of disciples (“calling” is in quotes because only Philip is explicitly commanded to follow).  So not only does John not provide a record of the calling of James and John, we do not see a forsaking of occupation (fishing) or of family (James and John leaving their father), as is to be found in the rest of the Gospels, which simply reminds us that John’s Gospel is quite unique in many ways.  Strangely, and though there is no mention of fishing in connection to their initial call, it is following the crucifixion, Resurrection, and appearance of Jesus that the Gospel of John provides the first inkling that the disciples had been fishermen.  In the twenty-first chapter we find that “After this Jesus revealed Himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias.  Now this is how He did so.  Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael (who was from Cana in Galilee), the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples of His were together” (21:1-2).  As an aside, the mention of Nathanael being from Cana in Galilee provides a clue as to why Jesus, His mother, and His disciples were at the wedding feast in Cana, which is presented immediately following Jesus’ words to Nathanael at the close of the first chapter.  Returning to the text of the twenty-first chapter: “Simon Peter told them, ‘I am going fishing.’ ‘We will go with you,’ they replied.  They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing” (21:3) 

Where Mark, Matthew, and Luke have Jesus calling His first disciples in Galilee, John has them being called outside of Galilee, and there are no boats or fish anywhere in sight.  At the close of their narratives, Mark concludes with the report of the Resurrection, Luke (and Acts) has Jesus speaking to the disciples in Jerusalem, and Matthew has the disciples on a mountain in the Galilee.  John follows Matthew’s account, at least in terms of region, with the final appearance of Jesus to His disciples taking place in Galilee.  Ironically, Mark, Matthew, and Luke have the disciples fishing when Jesus first calls them, and it is an occupation to which they do not return, whereas John, which offers up a completely different setting at the time of their calls, has the disciples off and fishing after Jesus makes His first post-Resurrection appearance to them, and it is at this time that they catch a great number of fish.