Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Testing, Temple & Israel's Story (part 2 of 2)

If the quotation from Deuteronomy conjures up a wider context, does Jesus other statement, about loving one’s neighbor as one loves self, which is taken from Leviticus, do the same?  Based upon what we know about the way that the narrative functions, we would be surprised if it did not.  Just as we were not disappointed when we turned to Deuteronomy, turning to Leviticus again disparages disappointment.  When Jesus speaks these words, He is quoting from the eighteenth verse of the nineteenth chapter.  As we examine what is to be found in the preceding verses, we are almost stunned at what we find.  Beginning in the eleventh verse, and quoting extensively (always remembering that calling to mind a larger section of Scripture, understood within Israel’s history, is the function of an isolated quotation), we read “You must not steal, you must not tell lies, and you must not deal falsely with your fellow citizen.  You must not swear falsely in My name, so that you do not profane the name of your God.  I am the Lord.  You must not oppress your neighbor or commit robbery against him.  You must not withhold the wages of the hired laborer overnight until morning” (19:11-13).  This last part, concerning the laborers, is of even greater interest if this entire section is being called to mind, taking on a more interesting dimension and revealing Jesus’ and Matthew’s theological genius, as Matthew, just before Jesus’ triumphal entry, records Jesus’ telling of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, which begins with “For the kingdom of heaven is like...” (Matthew 20:1a).  We are reminded that land, Temple, and kingdom are inseparably bound. 

Continuing in Leviticus: “You must not curse a deaf person or put a stumbling block in front of a blind person.  You must fear your God; I am the Lord.  You  must not deal unjustly in judgment: you must neither show partiality to the poor nor honor the rich.  You must judge your fellow citizen fairly.  You must not go about as a slanderer among your people.  You must not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is at stake.  I am the Lord.  You must not hate your brother in your heart.  You must surely reprove your fellow citizen so that you do not incur sin on account of him.  You must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you must love your neighbor as yourself” (19:14-18).  Now, we can all agree that this does in fact delineate the way in which the people of God should strive to live, and it would be wonderful to insist that Jesus was speaking in such a way so as to encourage His people (then and now) to live in such a way.  Certainly that is part of what He is doing, but considering the setting, we know it reaches beyond that.  Does this not remind us of something that Jesus has already said?  Does this not remind us of a narrative that has been called to mind by what Jesus said?  It should. 

Let’s back up and look at what happened when Jesus entered the Temple.  He “drove out all those who were selling and buying in the Temple courts, and turned over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves.  And He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house will be called a house of prayer,” but you are turning it into a den of robbers!’” (21:12b-13)  Then, “The blind and the lame came to Him in the Temple courts, and He healed them” (21:14).  This forces us to look to Jeremiah, from which Jesus’ words of judgment are lifted, where we can see the Levitical parallels (and stand amazed at all that is going on in Jesus’ words and Matthew’s record) when we read “Change the way you have been living and do what is right.  If you do, I will allow you to continue to live in this land” (7:3b).  Notice the connection here made between land and Temple.  “Stop putting your confidence in the false belief that says, ‘We are safe!  The Temple of the Lord is here!  The Temple of the Lord is here!  The temple of the Lord is here!’  You must change the way you have been living and do what is right.  You must treat one another fairly.  Stop oppressing foreigners who live in your land, children who have lost their fathers, and women who have lost their husbands.  Stop killing innocent people in this land.  Stop paying allegiance to other gods.  That will only bring about your ruin” (7:4-6).  Here, we can make note that the Deuteronomy reference flows into a concern that Israel not fall into idolatry---worshiping the gods of the people of the land to which the Lord is bringing them.  Continuing in Jeremiah: “If you stop doing these things, I will allow you to continue to live in this land which I gave to your ancestors as a lasting possession,” as we note the land and Temple dynamic (7:7). 

Jeremiah continues: “But just look at you!  You are putting your confidence in a false belief that will not deliver you.  You steal.  Your murder.  You commit adultery.  You lie when you swear on oath.  You sacrifice to the god Baal.  You pay allegiance to other gods whom you have not previously known.  Then you come and stand in My presence in this Temple I have claimed as My own and say, ‘We are safe!’  You think you are so safe that you go on doing all those hateful sins!  Do you think this Temple I have claimed as My own is to be a hideout for robbers?” (7:8-11a)  So not only has Jesus made reference, while dramatically acting in the Temple, to the whole of this section of Jeremiah’s seventh chapter, situated as it is within Israel’s history, its collective and active memory, and its understanding of past exiles and current subjugation to a foreign power, but He calls this to mind again, along with the Leviticus passage that Jeremiah seems to also have in mind, when He speaks about the demand to love neighbor as self.  To clinch the argument that Jesus’ words are not to be disconnected from His ongoing and primary concern with the Temple, as demonstrated in Matthew, we also point out that this section of Leviticus basically begins with “When you sacrifice a peace offering sacrifice to the Lord, you must sacrifice it so that it is accepted for you” (19:5).  The Temple, of course, was the place of sacrifice.  It seems reasonable to insist that Jesus, as He acts and speaks at and around the Temple, wants and expects these thoughts and ideas to be swirling in the air and in the minds of His hearers, as does the author of the story.

Testing, Temple & Israel's Story (part 1 of 2)

And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked Him a question to test Him – Matthew 22:35  (NET)

Immediately after Jesus has silenced the Sadducees, one of the Pharisees, said to be “an expert in religious law” (22:35b), posed a question to Him.  The language used by Matthew, which is that the purpose of the question was “to test Him” (22:36c), informs the audience that this encounter was to be understood as a rabbinic debate, which would have an honor and shame dynamic.  This is fitting, since the greatest source of honor was a connection to the Temple, and Jesus is in the midst of an extended process of shaming the Temple and those connected to it.  If they are able to overcome Jesus in a rabbinic challenge, thus diminishing His honor, then they can also diminish the effectiveness of His words and actions against the Temple. 

Jesus’ opinion in regards to the greatest commandment of the law is elicited.  Quoting from Deuteronomy and from Leviticus, Jesus responds with “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (22:37), and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (22:39).  Summing up His response, Jesus adds “All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (22:40).  Of course, we are quite familiar with these words of Jesus, as were the respective audiences of both Jesus and Matthew.  We must here consider that the Temple and His judgment upon it lies in the background of both His words and the narrative that records His words and deeds, and considering that singular quotations of Scripture are designed to call to mind large sections of the Scriptural narrative (and by extension, Israel’s history), we are forced to look at the context for Jesus’ Scriptural quotations.  In doing so, we find that they fit within the overall movement of Matthew and of this section of the story he tells. 

Prior to His triumphal entry, in multiple parables, Jesus is shown to be speaking about the kingdom of heaven (God).  Talk of the kingdom of heaven fits together with thoughts about the restoration of the promised land of Israel, which would manifest itself in independence of people and land from the rule of foreign and pagan nations.  Jesus’ triumphal entry aligns with such talk.  Jesus’ continued speech about the kingdom of heaven, in chapters twenty-one and twenty-two, following His judgment upon the Temple (which then cannot be disconnected from that which follows) fits neatly with what has been previously heard from Jesus and presented by Matthew.  So when we hear Jesus speak about love of God with heart, soul, and mind, and are thus thrust upon the pages of Deuteronomy, we would be disappointed if we did not find concerns within the same vein being voiced.  Naturally, we are not disappointed. 

The words quoted by Jesus are prefaced and followed by statements such as “Walk just as He has commanded you so that you may live, that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land you are going to possess” (5:33); “Now these are the commandments, statutes, and ordinances that the Lord your God has instructed me to teach you so that you may carry them out in the land where you are headed… as the Lord, God of your ancestors, said to you, you will have a land flowing with milk and honey” (6:1,3b); “Then when the Lord your God brings you the land He promised to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give you” (6:10a); “for the Lord your God, who is present among you,” which is a Temple/tabernacle reference---the place the Lord dwells, “is a jealous God and His anger will erupt against you and remove you from the land” (6:15); “Do whatever is proper and good before the Lord so that it may go well with you and that you may enter and occupy the good land that He promised to your ancestors” (6:18); “He delivered us… so that He could give us the land He had promised our ancestors” (6:23); and “When the Lord your God brings you to the land that you are going to occupy” (7:1a). 

His talk of the kingdom, His triumphal entry, and His dramatic and judging words and actions in the Temple, are rooted in hopes concerning God’s promise to His people and the covenant faithfulness of that God.  Occupation and possession of that land, in which God would build His temple and in which He would dwell amongst His people, was always the evidence of God’s power and of the fulfillment of His promises to His people.  So when Jesus speaks in the way that He does, when challenged by the expert in the law, He is not simply offering up aphorisms on how the people of God are to live.  Rather, He is building upon the ideological edifice that is already in place, and we must hear Him speak in the context of promise, land, Temple, and kingdom.  So even though it does not appear, on the surface, that this particular exchange is linked to His Temple concerns, we can affirm that it most certainly is, and that it continues in the narrative flow that Matthew offers.  It is not an isolated statement or encounter, but one that demands to be understood in connection to the Temple.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Parables Of A Judged Temple (part 2 of 2)

After telling the parables of the two sons and the tenants, with Matthew having interjected Jesus’ thoughts concerning the kingdom of God, and letting his audience know that “the chief priests and the Pharisees… realized that He was speaking about them” (21:45), we hear Jesus moving on to His next parable, which is that of the wedding banquet.  Having suggested that the kingdom of God, with its Temple-related connotations, was going to be taken from those that represented the Temple and its regime, this parable begins with “The kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” (22:2).  This parable, which shares similar features to the parable of the tenants, concludes with the king saying “For many are called, but few are chosen” (22:14). 

Though much can be made of this parable, and though there are obviously a great number of avenues of exploration that could be traveled (king and son and messianic understanding to say the least), as we are dealing with the issue of the Temple, with the Temple serving as the backdrop, suffice it to say that the connection between the kingdom of God being taken away from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and the kingdom of heaven being limited to those that have been chosen for it, is rather obvious.  Let us be careful to not exhume this statement about many being called and few being chosen from out of the ground in which it has been placed.  This is not an isolated statement, nor an isolated parable, from which one can construct a theology of predestination or limited atonement.  Rather, this is a statement and a parable dealing with the Temple and those that represent that Temple, as Jesus builds on His previously enacted judgment of that Temple and those that run it.  Along with the setting and the audience, Jesus’ subject of concern is unchanged.  This is not lost on Jesus’ intended audience, as Matthew moves immediately to tell us that “Then the Pharisees went out and planned together to entrap Him with His own words” (22:15). 

The Pharisees proffer a question about the paying of taxes to Caesar.  This cannot be disconnected from Jesus’ triumphal entry---an event which would have stirred revolutionary notions.  Taxes and revolution go hand in hand, and Jesus’ opinion in this area would have been used to great effect.  Also, it seems to function as an attempt to distract Jesus from His main concern, which is the judged Temple and its judged functionaries.  However, we hear Jesus’ words with the Temple as a sounding board, and perhaps even hear a critical rebuke of His interrogators when He says to “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (22:21b).

The Pharisees are stunned by Jesus answer, departing from Him only to be replaced by some Sadducees, who have made limited appearances to this point.  In fact, until now they have been rather marginal characters in the story.  They have been mentioned by John the Baptist in the third chapter and by Jesus in the sixteenth chapter, but only in pairings with the Pharisees (though the two groups had major disagreements).  Mark and Luke make no mention of them at all up until this same point, and they are completely absent from the Gospel of John.  They do have a presence in Acts, in connection with Peter and John’s arrest at the Temple and in connection with Paul’s arrest, which also took place at the Temple (a fact that should not be lost on us as we are dealing with the issue of the Temple).  These may be useful bits of information, as even though Acts was composed after Luke, the stories of Peter, John, and Paul’s arrest at the Temple, along with the “trials” that took place in connection with those arrests (all of which were carried out by the Temple authorities) were probably fairly well known to the early Christian community.  If this is the case, it is possible to presume that these stories that included the Sadducees would have been known to the respective audiences of the Gospels, because just as Israel defined itself by its history and the stories that they told about themselves that had the oppression of Egypt and the exodus as foundational, so too would the early Christian community seek to define itself, in strong Jewish fashion, by telling its own stories of oppression and deliverance.  It is not a stretch to consider the possibility that this type of thing was already taking place in the community for which Matthew primarily composed his Gospel, especially when we are able to see Herod as a new Pharaoh, ordering the death of children, which is unique to the Matthean narrative. 

So even though this is the first time that the Sadducees are going to speak, they are a group that is known to the community.  The Gospel authors make it a point to share some basic information about this group, informing (reminding) their audiences that the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection (in reference to the belief in the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the present age).  Obviously, this editorial comment carries significant weight for a post-Resurrection audience, and it would be a major point of contention for those that are claiming Jesus as their risen Lord.  Clearly, there is no respect whatsoever for the Sadducees, as they are almost comically presented, asking Jesus a ridiculously framed question about marriage in the resurrection (seven brothers, all having married the same woman, and all of which died---though there may be a mild allusion to the seven brothers of the Maccabean histories, who certainly hoped for a resurrection).  This is indeed something of a comical presentation, for if they did not believe in the concept of resurrection, then this question would be illogical for them to ask.  Jesus’ response indicates His (and the church community’s) opinion of the Sadducees, as He says “You are deceived, because you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God” (22:29)  Mark adds (Matthew subtracting), “You are badly mistaken!” (12:27b)  The bottom line, when we consider this interaction with the Sadducees, is that they are connected to the Temple (as demonstrated by Acts), and represented some level of authority.  Silencing them, as Jesus is said to do with His answer (22:34), serves to discredit them and weaken their position, thus extending His judgment against the Temple.    

Parables Of A Judged Temple (part 1 of 2)

What do you think?  A man had two sons.  He went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” – Matthew 21:28  (NET)

With the Temple as the backdrop, Jesus embarks on a series of parables.  The first one of these is known as the “parable of the two sons.”  Not only is the parable offered in the Temple, but it begins with a question, “What do you think?” (Matthew 21:28a), that is directed to “the chief priests and elders of the people” (21:23b).  They had posed a question to Jesus in regards to the authority upon which He was acting in His dramatic display in the Temple following His “triumphal entry.”  Jesus had not answered the question, but instead posed a question to them.  He continued to question them, as was just said, by prefacing a parable with a question. 

The parable of the two sons, spoken in the Temple and to the Temple authorities, uses a vineyard as its setting, with a father and two sons as the characters in the story.  Israel as the point of reference is unmistakable.  The father and two sons theme is quite prevalent in Israel’s history: Abraham with Ishmael and Isaac, Isaac with Esau and Jacob, and Joseph with Manasseh and Ephraim.  The fact that it is being directed to whom it is being directed, in the place where it is being spoken, with the conclusion drawn about a failure to believe on the part of those to whom Jesus speaks (Temple authorities), is further judgment upon the Temple and its system.  We have to remember that, prior to this, Jesus has pronounced judgment on the Temple by way of His actions and His words in the Temple.  A fig tree has withered and He has spoken of the mountain to be thrown into the sea.  The setting for all of these things has not changed.  The Temple remains in view.  So it behooves us to continue hearing Him speak in this train of thought, without any unwarranted deviations from this path. 

Following the parable of the two sons is the “parable of the tenants.”  Jesus commences with “Listen to another parable” (21:33a), thus reminding us that Jesus is speaking to the same people to whom He was speaking with the previous parable.  This parable tells a horrible story, filled with murder and shame, and Jesus uses terms such as “evil” to describe the antagonists in the tale.  Of course, Matthew removes all ambiguity when he writes “When the chief priests (Temple authorities---representatives of the Temple) and the Pharisees heard this parable, they realized that He was speaking about them” (21:45).  Jesus is calling the chief priests “evil.”  Thus, He effectively de-legitimizes them, their positions, and that which they represent.  With this, one cannot help but think about the Apostle Paul, standing before the council in Jerusalem and being struck on the mouth.  Paul responds to his abuser by saying “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall!” (Acts 23:3a)  The reply that comes to this statement is “Do you dare insult God’s high priest?”  (23:4b)  Now, this is not to say that Jesus was speaking to or of the high priest, and of course, He did not speak these words overtly, as they were implied in the parable and the chief priests made the connection themselves, but as we consider the issues of legitimacy and authority and the words of Jesus, it is interesting to note that Paul says “I did not realize, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You must not speak evil about a ruler of your people.’” (23:5) 

Because Jesus refers to the antagonists in the parable of the vineyard as evil, with the knowledge that this epithet was meant for those who were challenging Him there in the Temple, Jesus may very well have been emphasizing that these men (and even the high priest) were not legitimate rulers, and that they were nothing more than the caretakers of an illegitimate and judged Temple.  Indeed, Jesus also says “I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken from you” (21:43b), and it was the Temple---the place of God’s dwelling and the place where heaven and earth met---that represented God’s presence and His kingdom.  This carries meaning on multiple levels, especially if we consider that Matthew, using these words that are absent from Mark’s account, most likely writes in a time following the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Romans. 

Prior to the words of the forty-third verse, and just to be sure that all understand that Jesus has the Temple in mind as He is speaking, Jesus rounds out His parable by saying “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.  This is from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (21:42)  Here, Jesus quotes from the one hundred eighteenth Psalm.  The selection on offer from Jesus, which is to be called to mind by the section that He has quoted, begins with “Open for me the gates of the just king’s temple!  I will enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.  This is the Lord’s gate---the godly enter through it.  I will give you thanks, for you answered me, and have become my deliverer” (118:19-21).  What follows that which is quoted by Jesus is “This is the day the Lord has brought about.  We will be happy and rejoice in it.  Please Lord, deliver!  Please Lord, grant us success!  May the one who comes in the name of the Lord be blessed!  We will pronounce blessings on you in the Lord’s temple” (118:24-26).  So not only is Jesus quite obviously speaking about the Temple, by using this Psalm He has actually gone back and effectively answered the question that was previously posed to Him about what He was doing and who it was that had given Him the right to do it.  He is the one who comes in the name of the Lord and He is acting in the Temple on behalf of Israel’s God.  

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Jesus As Jeremiah (part 3 of 3)

It is incumbent upon us to report the divergence in the Gospel stories surrounding Jesus’ triumphal entry.  We do not simply ignore these things and pretend that they are not there, though we do note that differences in detail do not derail from the overall message of the accounts nor do the differences really present us with much cause for concern.  We have already detailed Matthew’s account.  Owing to the fact that Mark is believed to be foundational for Matthew and Luke’s account, we bear in mind that it is Matthew’s account that is divergent, rather than Mark’s.  The divergences are accounted for by each author having slightly different goals that they want to achieve through the delivery of their accounts.  Though each has the goal of setting forth the story of Jesus, each comes at it from a slightly different angle, which is perfectly understandable.  Honestly, if each told the story in the same way, we would have no need for multiple Gospels, and we would lack the rich and manifold witness to Jesus provided to us by these evangelists, not to mention their diverse perspectives and portrayals of Jesus that serve to give us a more complete sense and picture of the one that is called Lord.

What are those divergences?  For Mark, Jesus does head to the Temple upon the occasion of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  However, Mark does not record Him immediately engaging with the buyers, sellers, and money changers, nor making His Jeremiah-esque stand.  In Mark’s telling, this takes place on the following day, which is also the day that Jesus speaks to the fig tree, while on His way to Jerusalem.  However, in Mark’s presentation of that detail, and though the fig tree may indeed have immediately withered, the disciples do not comment on this withering until the following day, which is when Jesus offers up His commentary concerning the fig tree, the mountain, and the need to offer forgiveness.  Here, we also add that rather than the withering of the fig tree being bracketed by Jesus’ actions in the Temple and a return to the Temple the following day in which He is challenged by the Temple authorities, it is Jesus’ dramatic actions in the Temple and pronouncement of judgment against it that is bracketed by the words spoken to the fig tree and the words spoken about and prompted by the withered fig tree.  It is then that Mark writes “They came again to Jerusalem” (11:27a), with Jesus being confronted with “By what authority are you doing these things?  Or who gave you the authority to do these things?” (11:28)      

So in Mark, the order of events is the triumphal entry that is accompanied by a trip to the Temple where Jesus merely looks around at everything (11:11), a departure to Bethany for the night, words to the fig tree the following day, another trip to Jerusalem and the Temple where He dramatically acts and speaks, another departure from Jerusalem (presumably to Bethany again), the disciples noticing the withered fig tree to which Jesus had spoken the following morning on their way back to Jerusalem (thus prompting the previously mentioned commentary), where Jesus makes another trip to the Temple.  By way of review and contrast, Matthew has Jesus triumphally entering Jerusalem, acting and speaking in the Temple, departing for Bethany, speaking to the fig tree which produces an immediate withering and subsequent commentary, and an entrance into Jerusalem and the Temple where He is challenged.  Luke, by way of further contrast, has Jesus entering Jerusalem (for which He weeps while on His approach), and then speaking and acting in the Temple.  He is a bit more ambiguous in His timeline, as following Jesus’ recitation from Jeremiah, he writes that “Jesus was teaching daily in the Temple courts.  The chief priests and the experts in the law and the prominent leaders among the people were seeking to assassinate Him, but they could not find a way to do it, for all the people hung on His words.  Now one day, as Jesus was teaching in the Temple courts and proclaiming the gospel, the chief priests and 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?’” (19:47-20:2)     

All that follows from the twenty-third verse of the twenty-first chapter of Matthew, when Jesus re-enters the Temple courts, until the first verse of the twenty-fourth chapter, when Jesus goes out of the Temple courts and walks away, occurs without a change of scenery.  The same is true of Mark, as the setting does not change from the twenty-seventh verse of the eleventh chapter until the first verse of chapter thirteen.  In Luke, the Temple is the scene of the narrative from the first verse of chapter twenty to verse thirty-seven of chapter twenty-one, which does not neatly change the setting, but simply breaks-up the narrative by informing the listener that “every day Jesus was teaching in the Temple courts, but at night He went and stayed on the Mount of Olives” (21:37).  For Luke, though Jesus embarks on His triumphal entry from Bethany, He does not return there each evening.  This helps to explain his omission of the story of the fig tree and its withering, which takes place in Matthew and Mark on the road from Bethany.  Throughout this entire section of the narrative, we must see and hear Jesus in the Temple courts, which provides a dramatic backdrop for all of the words that He speaks. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Jesus As Jeremiah (part 2 of 3)

Returning to Matthew, we learn that the day after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which took Him to the Temple to pronounce a symbolic judgment against it in the mode of Jeremiah (and for the same reasons), and in which He referred to the Temple authorities as robbers (for engaging in insurrection against the God of the Temple---an insurrection that will cause God to bring upon Jerusalem and its Temple the same type of judgment that God brought upon it by way of Babylon, which are the thoughts that Jesus’ words and actions would have stirred, therefore setting him at odds with the Temple authorities and the people, as happened to Jeremiah), He returns to Jerusalem and to the Temple, having spent the night in the nearby village of Bethany (the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus). 

On his way back to Jerusalem, Jesus causes a fig tree to wither for not producing fruit (echoing Jeremiah’s repeated use of fig tree symbolism, and therefore a clear allusion to the nation of Israel, which is failing in its task to be a light to the nations, and which also functions as an allusion to the curses of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, which God---Matthew writes from the post-Resurrection perspective of Jesus as God---promised to bring upon His unfaithful people).  This causing of the fig tree to wither, for Matthew, appears to stem from the reaction of “the chief priests and the experts in the law” (Temple authorities) when they “saw the wonderful things he did” (21:15a).  Matthew alone (to the exclusion of Mark and Luke) reports that following Jesus’ talk of the Temple as den of robbers, “The blind and the lame came to Him in the Temple courts, and He healed them” (21:14).  In addition, there were “children crying out in the Temple courts, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’” (21:15b), which caused the chief priests and the experts in the law to become “indignant” (21:15c). 

Those that represented Israel before God were unable to celebrate Jesus’ entry in the way of Solomon as pronounced by Zechariah, they refused to repent when one who had been attempting to be a Jeremiah (and more than a Jeremiah) to the people for three years called them to account, and they refused to rejoice in what was a rather obvious coming of their Messiah (in the mold of Isaiah 61) and His healing of the blind and the lame in the Temple courts.  Little wonder then, that Jesus spoke to and about the fig tree in such a way.  Matthew writes that “When the disciples saw it they were amazed” (21:20a), and wondered at what they had seen.  To their amazed inquiry, Jesus replied “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen.  And whatever you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive” (21:21-22). 

As we hear these words, we cannot forget that Jesus is on His way into Jerusalem.  Matthew will move immediately to add “Now after Jesus entered the Temple courts, the chief priests and elders of the people came up to Him as He was teaching and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’” (21:23).  So the story of the fig tree and the words about the mountain are bracketed by Jesus being in the Temple, where the legitimacy of His presence is challenged by the Temple authorities.  We cannot allow ourselves to casually pass by this fact.  This informs us that it is the Temple mount that Jesus has in view when He speaks about the mountain being cast into the sea.  We simply must understand that it is the Temple that is central to Matthew’s narrative (along with Mark and Luke).

For the sake of rounding out the Biblical picture, let us note what Mark presents in association with the fig tree and the mountain.  Mark reports Jesus as saying “Whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgiven him, so that you Father in heaven will also forgive your sins” (11:25).  Luke omits any mention of the fig tree our mountain, moving directly to Jesus return to the Temple courts and the challenge to Jesus’ authority.  Though we will not spill a great deal of ink with conjecture on why Matthew and Mark include the story of the withered fig tree whereas Luke does not, we could surmise that the appearances of the fig tree in the Matthean and Markan narratives, with both (Matthew most likely relying on Mark) connecting the withered fig tree with the mountain to be removed, could possibly have some bearing on the conclusions to be drawn. 

Jesus As Jeremiah (part 1 of 3)

“Jesus was going out of the Temple courts and walking away” (Matthew 24:1a).  As He did so, “His disciples came to show Him the Temple buildings” (24:1b).  A couple of days prior to this, Jesus had made His “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem.  He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  As He rode, “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road.  Others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds went ahead of Him and those following kept shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!’” (21:8-9)  This was a dramatic exhibition, full of provocative imagery, stirring passions within the people of Israel in regards to their King and Messiah and the coming of the kingdom of their Creator.  Matthew reports that “As He entered Jerusalem the whole city was thrown into an uproar” (21:10a).  Jesus was playing upon and creating certain expectations, not the least of which, was that the time of Roman occupation was coming to an end.  However, rather than leading a mob to storm the Roman governor’s residence or the fortress housing the Roman soldiers in an attempt to take up His position of earthly power by overthrowing the local representatives of those that were then ruling over Israel, Jesus directed His steps toward the Temple. 

“Jesus entered the Temple area and drove out all those who were selling and buying in the temple courts, and turned over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves.  And He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house will be called a house of prayer,” but you are turning it into a den of robbers!’” (21:12-13)  Some misguided (but perhaps well intentioned) souls look at this and see Jesus taking issue with buying and selling and money changing taking place in the Temple courts.  Unfortunately, because these things were actually legitimate and sanctioned activities that needed to take place in order to facilitate the sacrifices for the people, this is a shortsighted view and misses the context provided by what He has said, quoting from the prophet Jeremiah.  In the seventh chapter of Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of Israel’s God, we hear the prophet say “Do you think this Temple I have claimed as My own is to be a hideout for robbers?  You had better take note!  I have seen for Myself what you have done!  says the Lord” (7:11). 

What was it that they had been doing?  Was Jeremiah simply conveying God’s disgust at the activities taking place in the Temple?  Yes, but on a far larger scale than what we might have in mind.  What preceded the question and statement of the eleventh verse?  Again, speaking for God, Jeremiah has said “You must change the way you have been living and do what is right.  You must treat one another fairly.  Stop oppressing foreigners who live in your land, children who have lost their fathers, and women who have lost their husbands.  Stop killing innocent people in this land.  Stop paying allegiance to other gods.  If you stop doing these things, I will allow you to continue to live in the land which I gave to your ancestors as a lasting possession.  But just look at you!  Your are putting your confidence in a false belief that will not deliver you.  You steal.  You murder.  You commit adultery.  You lie when you swear on oath.  You sacrifice to the God Baal.  You pay allegiance to others gods whom you have not previously known.  Then you come and stand in My presence in this Temple I have claimed as My own and say, ‘We are safe!’  You think you are so safe that you go on doing all those hateful sins!” (7:5-10)  It is this---far more than the simple acts of buying and selling---to which Jesus makes reference with His words and actions in the Temple.  By quoting from Jeremiah, Jesus is accusing the Temple authorities of doing all of these things.  Therefore, He actually legitimates the ongoing rule of Rome over Israel, as part of God’s faithful covenant actions towards His people, in the face of those that might be expecting Him to act to overthrow that rule and attempt to drive out the Romans, as it was these things to which Jeremiah points that contributed mightily to God’s bringing of Babylon to destroy the Temple and drag His covenant people into exile. 

It might be of interest to note that, in order to call Jeremiah to mind, that He quotes the from the eleventh verse of the seventh chapter.  He may have been able to quote from another portion of the section provided above, but He did not.  He references the portion of Jeremiah’s polemic that speaks of “robbers.”  The Greek word translated as “robber” in Matthew is “leston.”  Now, this is not to be found in Matthew’s narrative, but in the Gospel of John, we find the man named Barabbas described as a “robber,” using a derivation of the same Greek word used by Jesus and Jeremiah.  Matthew merely mentions the fact that Barabbas was a “notorious prisoner.”  The people knew who and what he was.  Barabbas, according to Mark, “had committed murder during an insurrection” (15:7), and Luke also mentions the insurrection and murder (23:19).  This is interesting, as the Greek term applied to Barabbas by John, and directed to the Temple authorities by Jesus, carries with it the notion of insurrection and revolution---going well beyond simple thievery.  We marvel at the genius of the author as ironically, through His triumphal entry, Jesus is stirring thoughts of an insurrection to be carried out against the Romans, whereas those that run the Temple are carrying out an insurrection against the very God that they believe is going to act to deliver them from the power of Rome.  Ultimately, as we know, Barabbas, the one that seeks to participate in revolutionary activity that may serve to drive out the Romans through armed conflict, is released rather than Jesus.  Eventually, Israel will undertake a violent resurrection against Rome that will result in the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem, so that the very place in which Jesus stands and speaks will be thrown down to the ground.      

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Paul's Enactment Of His Kingdom Agenda (part 3 of 3)

Returning to Paul with an awareness that he would have been cognizant of Jesus’ meal practice, with this knowledge combined with his own knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and the picture therein painted of God’s end-time banquet, with all of it shaped by the implications of the crucifixion and the Resurrection, we see that in the letter to the Galatians, the concern with the meal table is overt.  He writes “when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he had clearly done wrong.  Until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentiles.  But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision.  And the rest of the Jews also joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led away with them by their hypocrisy.  But when I saw that they were not behaving consistently with the truth of the Gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, ‘If you, although you are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you try to force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (2:11-14) 

Peter’s (Cephas) actions, as far as Paul is concerned, stand in contradiction to that which was modeled out by Jesus, and he will not allow it to stand.  This was an area in which Paul was not going to compromise, and it eventually forced something of a showdown in Jerusalem.  The church’s meal table, clearly, was of paramount concern.  In the Colossian letter, Paul writes “do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink” (2:16a).  In the first letter to Timothy, Paul again demonstrates concern for the church’s meal table, writing about a desertion of the faith in which people will “prohibit marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.  For every creation of God is good and no food is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (4:3-4).  On top of all of this, Paul would be well aware of and count on the fact that his letters would be read to the assembly of believers as they are gathered around the table of fellowship.  Consequently, any references in the letters to their behavior at the meal table would become even more poignant, especially if it involves rebuke or correction, or if it causes the hearers to realize that they are not, to borrow words from Galatians, behaving consistently with the truth of the Gospel.

All of this again begs the question of what has this to do with Paul.  Thinking back through our study, we reflect on the kingdom agenda that was set by Jesus and the fact that, when given the chance to follow through on the principles espoused in that agenda, He did not shrink back, but carried it through.  We then looked at Paul.  The fact that a fair amount of his dealings with the various congregations to which he wrote letters deal with matters of table practice and fellowship, we can allow ourselves to be convinced that part of the kingdom agenda, as understood by Paul and as he understood the table practices of Jesus and what was implied thereby, involved principles of meal table fellowship that were to be acted upon and embodied by the community of Jesus believers.

So with all of these things presented and on the table (so to speak), are we able to find an instance in which Paul demonstrates behavior that would line up with that of Jesus?  Do we find Paul, in a time of duress, following through on the principles of his kingdom agenda, as this agenda centers upon the incredibly important issue of meal practice in the world he inhabited?  Indeed we do.  Turning to the twenty-seventh chapter of the book of Acts, we find Paul aboard a ship.  Ultimately, he is not on board this ship by choice.  He is there because of the events on record in chapter twenty-one of Acts, which is his arrest in the Temple in Jerusalem.  From that point, Paul has been a prisoner of the Roman authorities, and much like Jesus was taken prisoner (basically owing to His words and actions against the Temple), with that imprisonment eventually resulting in an appearance before the Roman governor, Paul is now on board a ship, as a prisoner, on his way to Rome, presumably to stand trial before the Caesar, as he had requested.  The ship on which Paul is sailing is populated by himself, other prisoner, members of the Augustan Cohort, a centurion, and presumably others, the total number of people on the ship being two hundred seventy six.  The ship was being battered by storms, with this occurring for two weeks (27:33).  The attitude shared by those on the boat, apart from Paul, was that they had “finally abandoned all hope of being saved” (27:20b). 

In the midst of all of this, storms raging and despair rampant, we find the evidence we seek as Luke writes, “As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, ‘Today is the fourteenth day you have been in suspense and have gone without food; you have eaten nothing.” (27:33)  Paul, living out the principles of the kingdom and, like Jesus, opening wide his arms and inviting all and sundry to share a table with him in a recognition of the promise of the God that had told him “Do not be afraid, Paul!  You must stand before Caesar, and God has graciously granted you the safety of all who are sailing with you” (27:24), goes on to say “Therefore I urge you to take some food, for this is important for your survival.  For not one of you will lose a hair from his head” (27:34). 

Prior to that, with words that could inform the church’s ecclesiology, if indeed Paul is enacting the principles of his kingdom agenda as we are insisting, “Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers,” as some men were attempting to escape the ship, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved” (27:31).  Returning to Paul’s urging the men to join him in table fellowship and his comforting words, we read “After he said this, Paul took bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all, broke it, and began to eat” (27:35).  As Paul breaks bread with this varied group of men, the implications are clear.  In this action that Paul undertakes, as he breaks the bread (as the author calls to mind, from the first half of his work, which was the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ feeding of the multitude) begins eating, we read that “all of them were encouraged and took food themselves” (27:36), eating “enough to be satisfied” (27:38a).

Paul draws on his understanding of the Jesus tradition when it comes to living out the kingdom of God, considers the implications of the crucifixion and the Resurrection, molds his embodiment of the agenda of God’s kingdom around the church’s meal table, shares his insights with his fellow believers, and enacts the principles of that agenda even when under significant duress.  Surely, as we can safely take our cues from both Jesus and the church which sought to live out their understanding of the implications of His life, death, and Resurrection in the world; and, owing to the prominence of the meal tables in the life of Jesus, as they were encouraged to and indeed lived out that comprehension around the meal table, we can agree that the Lord of all creation demands no less from those who continue to raise His banner and herald His kingdom.                  

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Paul's Enactment Of His Kingdom Agenda (part 2)

What has this to do with Paul?  Paul does not necessarily set forth a principled kingdom agenda in the way that we see Jesus doing via Matthew.  However, we do see a recurring theme in Paul, which is that of the his being concerned with the meal gatherings of the believing communities.  If we look at Paul’s letters sequentially, we’ll see this play out.  Beginning with Romans, we find him concerned with the meal table in chapter fourteen.  It takes up the bulk of the chapter.  We won’t here recount all of the meal-related words found in the chapter, but will say that within the wider context of Romans, we find that Paul is very much concerned with creating unity in the church body, specifically between Jewish believers and Gentile believers.  Due to social custom, this unity, or disunity if unity is not achieved, will be best seen at the meal table of the assembled congregation of believers.  Paul insists that none be excluded or made to feel marginalized at the church’s meal, for if they do, then the church’s visible manifestation, which was the meal (as meals were the most important social occasion), would look no different than any other gathering of people around a table.  Thus, the church’s witness is damaged and the Gospel proclamation of a new King and kingdom is robbed of its power. 

We can carry that theme into the eleventh chapter of Paul’s first Corinthian letter, which also has Paul addressing the church’s meal table.  Before he offers up what would become the popular passage which many associate strictly with the act of taking communion, as Paul recounts the “Lord’s Supper” that took place “on the night in which He was betrayed” (11:23b), he is very much concerned with how the believers are treating the meal table.  He writes “when you come together as a church I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it.  For there must in fact be divisions among you, so that those of you who are approved may be evident.  Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper.  For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper.  One is hungry and another becomes drunk.  Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink?  Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing?” (11:18b-22a)  Here again, Paul is concerned with the unity of the church and the picture of the kingdom of God that is presented to the world by the church’s meal table.  Paul desires that there be no division or social stratification at the meal table, encouraging the church, based on his understanding of the meal tables of Jesus according to the Jesus traditions that he would have learned, to cast off the standard and divisive meal practices of their world.  Later in this letter, Paul, much like we see him doing in the letter to the congregation at Rome, deals even further with activity around the meal table. 

Speaking of the traditions of Jesus’ meal table practices, what is it on which Paul might have based his understanding?  As we utilized Matthew in recounting Jesus’ kingdom agenda, demonstrating its presentation in chapter five and its fulfillment in the course of chapters twenty-six and twenty-seven, for sake of consistency we will stay with Matthew as we ascertain Jesus’ meal practice.  Now Matthew, as it has come down to us, is not something that Paul would have known or to which he would have access, as it is generally accepted that it was composed in the latter third of the first century, after Paul’s period of ministerial activity had been brought to an end.  However, even though Matthew has a theological construct that guides his narrative, which causes him to arrange his presentation of Jesus in a certain way and to highlight certain aspects of Jesus’ ministry, some of the traditions and stories about Jesus that Matthew weaves into a purposeful narrative would have been known by Paul. 

In the ninth chapter of Matthew, we learn that “Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house,” and that this meal was attended by “many tax collectors and sinners” that “came and ate with Jesus and His disciples” (9:10).  This type of behavior is puzzling to some observers, especially when it comes from someone who is presenting Himself in a messianic way, so “When the Pharisees saw this they said to His disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (9:11)  Jesus’ ultimate response to this was “I did not come to call the righteous,” meaning those that are already in right covenant standing with the God of Israel, “but sinners” (9:13b).  This points to a pattern of Jesus’ meal practice, which will lead to a standard accusation, recounted by Jesus when challenged, as He says “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’  The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at Him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (11:18-19a). 

In chapter fourteen, we read about the feeding of the five thousand, in which all ate, all ate the same food, and all were filled with food to spare.  This would have run counter to standard public meal gatherings, in which the most honored ate first, ate better, and ate to their fill, while the less honorable guests in attendance (along with the women, children, servants, etc…), received less food, of poorer quality, and would most likely not be able to eat their fill.  The same could be said of the feeding of the four thousand, which is recounted in chapter fifteen.  In chapter twenty-two, we encounter a parable about a wedding banquet.  In the parable, invitations were given to a specific group of people, all of which offered up flimsy excuses for their failure to fulfill their obligation to what would have been a previously accepted invitation.  In response, the host of the banquet “said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but the ones who had been invited were not worthy.  So go into the main streets and invite everyone who find to the wedding banquet.’  And those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all the found, both bad and good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests” (22:8-10).  If we were to rely on Luke’s telling of this parable, along with its placement in his Gospel and the possibility that Paul was also aware of the traditions from which Luke draws, then it would be made quite clear that this is the type of banquet and meal table that Jesus envisions as demonstrative of His kingdom.  

Friday, January 20, 2012

Paul's Enactment Of His Kingdom Agenda (part 1)

After he said this, Paul took bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all, broke it, and began to eat. – Acts 27:35  (NET)

The Apostle Paul, as might be expected, attempted to model his life and ministry based on his understanding of what he had learned about Jesus, His life, His ministry, and the implications of both the crucifixion and the Resurrection.  Part of that modeling would take the form of setting forth a ministerial principle, and then when given the opportunity, in a time of great distress, of living according to what you have set forth. 

Do we see this in the life and ministry of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels?  Indeed we do.  In Matthew’s Gospel, in the course of Matthew’s construction of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” we hear Jesus say “You have heard that is was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer.  But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well.  And if someone wants to sue you and to take your tunic, give him your coat also.  And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two” (5:38-42).  Without getting in to the sociological, historical, and honor/shame constructs of this statement, nor the significance of the geographical location from which these words are on offer as part of Matthew’s narrative, we can acknowledge that these are principles espoused and encouraged by Jesus.  To determine whether or not He lived by these principles, which we could also refer to as Jesus’ “kingdom agenda,” we need merely advance forward in Matthew’s Gospel, to the scene of Jesus’ “trial” and crucifixion. 

While Jesus and His disciples are in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Judas, one of the twelve, arrived.  With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent by the chief priests and the elders of the people… they came and took hold of Jesus and arrested Him” (26:47b,50b).  Jesus does not resist.  However, “one of those with Jesus grabbed his sword, drew it out, and struck the high priest’s slave, cutting off his ear” (26:51).   This is precisely antithetical to the introduction of the principles that formed Jesus’ kingdom agenda.  In response, Jesus commands the erring disciple to “Put your sword back in its place,” reminding him that “all who take hold of the sword will die by the sword” (26:52), which is certainly a play on the sensibilities created by “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 

There in the twenty-sixth chapter we also find that “they spat in His face and struck Him with their fists.  And some slapped Him” (26:67).  Though we do not have a record of Jesus’ response, if we allow ourselves to be led according to Matthew’s purposes, what we here find is that Jesus does not resist.  Drawing out what the author obviously intends, we have to imagine Jesus responding by offering the left cheek as well.  In chapter twenty-seven, as Jesus is in the residence of Pilate, we read that “They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe around Him… When they had mocked Him, they stripped Him of the robe and put his own clothes back on Him” (27:28,31a).  Here again, Matthew’s intention is clear.  Though a one to one comparison is not on offer, and we don’t see Jesus being stripped of His tunic and then His coat (much like we don’t actually read about Him turning the other cheek), there are two instances of stripping, which certainly stand in quite well for tunic and coat.

Jesus’ principle concerning the second mile does require a bit of explanation, as it has to do with fact that a Roman soldier could requisition a subject individual to carry his pack, but for no more than a mile.  So as not to engender any additional malice towards Rome, a soldier could not force a person to carry his pack beyond a mile.  Again, without getting into the sociological issues that Jesus is addressing in this portion of His kingdom agenda, it is not at all difficult to equate the pack of the Roman soldier with the burden of the Roman cross.  Though we do not attempt to insist that Jesus carried the cross for two miles, and while we recognize that Simon of Cyrene, according to the Gospel tradition, was drafted from the crowd to carry Jesus’ cross when Jesus was unable to do so, it stands that Jesus, when faced with the task at hand, did not shirk from the duty that He believed to be required of Him as the God of Israel worked through Him to establish His kingdom.  Of course, it can also be said that the fact that Jesus went to the cross could very well be considered to be going the second mile.   Either way, Matthew succeeds is his mission of demonstrating that Jesus sets forth his principled agenda, and when pressed, is found to be faithful to His words.  

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Shame & The Cross (part 4 of 4)

Crucifixion, of course, was the greatest source of shame.  One could not experience a more emphatic shaming than the cross.  Rome used it to assert its superiority, deploying the full arsenal of the power of the cross within the honor and shame culture, while the Jews believed that one that was hung on a tree was flatly accursed.  We know that the transformation of the cross from the place of shame to the pinnacle of honor was not immediate.  Within a couple of decades of Jesus’ death, the Apostle Paul writes “we preach about a crucified Christ,” which was a severe oxymoron, as one could not be Christ (Messiah, King) if one was crucified.  It made no sense.  Indeed, he states that such is a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).  So yes, the reversal of the overt message that was communicated by the cross of Jesus took some time, especially as we consider that crucifixion continued to be routinely employed well beyond the time of Jesus.    

With all of these things said, and with the shame of the cross now firmly entrenched alongside our consideration of the matter, we now return to the crucifixion scene as presented by the synoptic Gospels, that we may look at a particular part of the story, analyzing how it sits in relation to what was understood about crucifixion.  For our purposes, we’ll utilize Mark’s Gospel, from which we once again hear “Those who passed by defamed Him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha!  You who can destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself and come down from the cross!’” (15:29-30)  As if it was not enough that Jesus was hanging there naked (shame), having been scourged and mocked by the Roman soldiers (shame), which was standard practice when dealing with the royal pretenders that were shortly to be subject to the terrible cross (shame) as they felt the heavy, crushing boot of Rome’s domination, but He was now subject to the scorn of those witnessing the event (shame). 

Continuing again with Mark: “In the same way even the chief priests---together with the experts in the law---were mocking Him among themselves: ‘He saved others, but He cannot save Himself!  Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, that we may see and believe!’” (15:31-32a)  Here, those who had been subject to shaming at Jesus’ hand, as subjects of His parables and in the verbal honor challenges that arose during the course of His public ministry, along with being the implied subjects of His withering discourse concerning the corrupted and soon to fall Temple, were now exacting their revenge, as they now seized the opportunity to add to His shame, at the same time taking the opportunity to recapture the honor that they had routinely lost to Him. 

We can imagine how the story is heard as it is told.  These honor and shame components would not have to be drawn out at all.  They were a regular and well-understood feature of life in the ancient Near East of Jesus’ day.  Though those hearing the story, for the most part, know how it is going to end, these painful details would be felt, as the scorn, contempt, and shame that fell upon the one they looked to as Lord, in some sense, now fell upon them.  With that in mind, let us consider those that are being crucified with Jesus.  Their experiences are going to be roughly similar.  There’s no reason to believe that they were not subject to the same type of scourging and mocking as was Jesus.  They too were nailed to the cross.  They too hung there naked, exposed to the world.  They too were suffering the ultimate shame that could be heaped upon a person in that time.  Their families and associates would also be fearful of reprisal and subject to shame, as were the family and associates of Jesus. 

What happens?  “Those who were crucified with Him also spoke abusively to Him” (15:32b).  In the midst of their experience of the greatest possible shame, and in the midst of Jesus’ own suffering of the greatest shame, those that are being shamed right along with Jesus take it upon themselves to speak abusively to Him---extracting what little honor Jesus has left, and attempting to accrue it to themselves to somehow lessen their own shame and increase that of Jesus.  What’s more, the Gospels report it.  Though Luke offers a different telling that we have no reason to doubt, as we said earlier, the fact remains that the synoptic Gospels, in their recounting of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, report that in the midst of His suffering and shame, He is reviled by those undergoing the exact same fate.  Let it be said, that when Jesus went to the cross, He willingly allowed Himself to be subject to not only the greatest shame, but shame upon shame upon shame.  As we hear the story, and just when we think that the shame could not be intensified, we are shown that it certainly can. 

Luke’s story, of one of the crucified men rebuking the other and then being honored by Jesus, not only shows Jesus’ response to this final round of shaming, but it is also one final instance of Jesus making the last first, insisting that this fellow recipient of the greatest shame would shortly be joining Him in paradise.  There was no lower place in the world than the cross, and there was no more shameful person than one that was experiencing the cross.  Yet Jesus somehow manages to make it an even lower place---the lowest of all lows---than we may have ever even imagined, by accepting the shaming of those being crucified with Him.  For those with ears attuned to the constructs of honor and shame, this would had to have been yet another stunning development. 

Yes, the cross has been transformed, and the transformation is revolutionary---a veritable resurrection of that which is associated only with death.  However, the example provided by the one that calls His disciples to take up their crosses, a shocking request indeed that involves disavowing of any pretensions towards the honor on offer in the world that so often stands against the kingdom of God and an embracing of shame and what is shameful in a challenge to the system of the world that attempts to carry on as if its Creator has no claim on it, has not been transformed.  It remains the same.  The call to follow Him to the place of suffering and shame, and shame upon shame if need be, still stands.  If we are true to Him, and if we call Him Lord, we follow.           

Shame & The Cross (part 3 of 4)

 In the year 1913, a song was penned by a gentleman named George Bennard.  The name of that song is “The Old Rugged Cross.”  It’s lyrics are as follows: “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame; and I love that old cross where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain.  Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world, has a wondrous attraction for me; for the dear Lamb of God left His glory above to bear it to dark Calvary.  In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, a wondrous beauty I see, for it was on that old cross Jesus suffered and died, to pardon and sanctify me.  To the old rugged cross I will ever be true; its shame and reproach gladly bear; then He’ll call me some day to my home far away, where His glory forever I’ll share.”  The song’s refrain is “So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it someday for a crown.”

As has been stated, we stand in a world that essentially has no real experience of the cross.  Therefore, when our thoughts turn to the cross, though we can acknowledge the suffering, our thoughts are rightly influenced by the majesty of the Resurrection.  This should not prevent us from viewing the cross through first-century eyes, nor hearing about the cross with first-century ears.  The cross has become a beautiful symbol, as conveyed by the song, of pardon, sanctification, and glory.  Though that would certainly have been the case for the believing community as well, who came to understand that the cross had been trumped by the Resurrection, which subsequently transformed their view of the cross, the account of the crucifixion, as presented by the synoptic Gospels, still demands to be heard on its own.  An isolated hearing of the story of the cross, though lacking in gruesome details such as that which is offered by the first century Roman historian Seneca, wherein he writes “Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once and for all?  Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing out the breath of life amid long drawn out agony?”, presents interesting details that should not be missed.  One of those details is what has sparked this study, and we shall examine it shortly.

The song quote above presents the dichotomy of the cross quite well.  In Jesus’ world, nobody would have thought anything like “I love that old cross.”  There was no “wondrous attraction” to the cross, and it was certainly not heralded as a “wondrous beauty.”  No one in their right minds would have thought to proclaim that they “will ever be true” to the cross,” nor happily and “gladly bear” that which it symbolically conferred on its victim.  The disciples of Jesus were in hiding following Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion primarily they knew that His fate was shortly to be their fate, as the powers that be rounded up and eliminated the closest associates of the crucified rebel leader.  The last thing anybody wanted to do was “cherish” the cross, nor “cling” to it, so horrible was the experience and so terrible was its effect.  Again, this is the mark of the transformation effected by the Resurrection.  However, the song’s author does capture ideas that we do not take as seriously as they should be taken.  He speaks of the “suffering and shame” of the cross, its being “despised by the world,” and its “shame and reproach.”  These are important considerations, especially in the context of a world that is defined by the concepts and constricts of honor and shame. 

We cannot allow ourselves to consider the stories of the crucifixion of Jesus without also considering the honor and shame culture.  Honor was sought after as the greatest of public goods.  Shame was to be avoided at all costs.  One’s social status was determined, not by possessions or wealth (though these things could certainly accrue to those that were considered honorable), but by the perception of one’s accumulation of either honor or shame, as determined by the court of public opinion.  Consequently, public interactions consistently took the shape of honor and shame challenges.  In almost every interaction, whether it be the debate of ideas or the purchase of goods, both sides, while naturally attempting to win the argument or to gain the best deal for themselves, would also be attempting to increase their honor and to avoid shame, while simultaneously attempting to shame the opposing party (though this does not necessarily have to imply hostility).  It is helpful to look at the various verbal challenges answered by Jesus, or even posed by Jesus, through the lens of the contest of honor and shame.  Though the wide angle view of Jesus’ ministry, as presented by the Gospels, is one in which He subjects Himself to criticism and embraces shame, especially the shame of the cross, He does participate in debates in such a way that He in fact gains honor at the expense of His opponents, whom He shames.  
When considering honor and shame, it is important to bear in mind that honor was thought to be a limited good, so the accumulation of honor by one person necessarily meant the diminishing of the public perception of the honor of another.  Shame, on the other hand, would have been unlimited.  There are also existential considerations to be made here.  Theoretically, if one accumulated enough honor, one could achieve a type of immortality.  On the other end of the spectrum, because honor necessarily implies life, shame was equated with death.  If one could have enough shame heaped upon them, or accrued enough shame based on one’s own actions, that person could very well be considered dead while still alive.          

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Shame & The Cross (part 2)

As it is understood that Jesus occupied the cross that had been marked out for Barabbas, whom Mark describes as one “who had committed murder during an insurrection” (15:7b), it is not at all difficult to see that Jesus would have also been looked upon as an insurrectionist.  In his description of Barabbas, Luke adds “This was a man who had been thrown in prison for an insurrection started in the city, and for murder” (23:19), along with “He released the man they asked for, who had been thrown in prison for insurrection and murder” (23:25a).  To this portion of the Jesus tradition, John adds “Now Barabbas was a revolutionary” (18:40b).  The word that is translated as “revolutionary” is “lestes,” which has as its root “lestai.”  Matthew, for some reason, does not highlight Barabbas’ resume, merely reporting that he was “a notorious prisoner” (27:16).  However, we understand that his notoriety is linked to the fact of his attempting to overthrow Roman rule through some type of demonstration in Jerusalem.

Jesus of Nazareth, the upstart from Galilee, now hangs on a cross.  Presumably, those witnessing the event, and those who would hear about the event, have been disabused of their notions of His status as Messiah or His messianic pretensions.  For above all, the fact that He was undergoing crucifixion flatly indicated that He was not the king and savior of Israel or the liberator of the people, but that He was an abject failure.  Though the cross has been romanticized and forever transformed, because of the Resurrection, into a symbol of God’s grace, mercy, and love, such thoughts would have been more than out of place in Jesus’ day. For those watching, Jesus’ execution was like every other Roman crucifixion that had preceded it.  It was not particularly unique, as many were scourged, endured a mock coronation, and enjoyed a crown of thorns.  These things were familiar components of a crucifixion.  It was not until the followers of Jesus became absolutely convinced that the person that had been put to bodily death was the very same person that had risen to new bodily life, which they and those that came after them and joined them could only describe as Resurrection (using the very specific Greek word “anastasis,” or “standing up”), that profound meaning related to God’s purposes in and for His world begins to be ascribed to the cross.  

Until that point, it could only be said that crucifixions were grotesque scenes filled with horror and despair both for those undergoing it and for those observing.  This is hinted at when the Gospel narratives avoid the specific details of the three hour crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth---a yawning chasm in the stories of the crucifixion that anyone living in the Roman Empire would have been able to quite easily fill in for themselves.  The words of Cicero, a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, orator, and political theorist, serve us quite well.  He sums up the widespread and general opinion of crucifixion that would have been held by those who were Jesus’ contemporaries: “Even if we are sentenced to death, we may die free men. But the executioner, the veiling of the head, and the very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts his eyes and his ears… indeed the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.”

Before moving on, it is worthwhile to briefly revisit Luke’s previously mentioned “divergence” from the records of Mark and Matthew.  Though Luke’s record of one of the criminals speaking to Jesus in the way that he records appears, on the surface, to be contradictory to Mark and Matthew, this does not necessarily have to be the case.  We are not here attempting to provide a harmonization of the accounts so as to preserve the inerrancy and plenary inspiration of Scripture, but to simply note that the apparently divergent accounts do not necessarily stand in conflict.  It is perfectly reasonable to accept the accounts of Mark and Matthew along with Luke, realizing that Luke provides a level of detail not to be found in Mark and Matthew (with the crucifixion scene not being an isolated occurrence of such), while also telling his story for a different purpose.  It is possible that both Mark and Matthew knew of the tradition of one of the criminals speaking to Jesus, but chose not to mention it because it did not fit with their theological agenda.  That is a perfectly reasonable position to which to ascribe.  We do note that, with what he includes, Luke highlights the fact that Jesus was a revolutionary, but not at all in the common mold.  This does not run counter to the basic fact that is preserved in Luke’s telling and is crucial to this study, which is that Jesus was mocked and derided by those suffering the same fate as Him.  This is a fascinating and telling tidbit, especially as we better understand the common view of the cross.       

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Shame & The Cross (part 1)

Those who were crucified with  Him also spoke abusively to Him. – Mark 15:32b  (NET)

In recounting the story of the crucifixion, Mark’s Gospel tells us “they crucified two outlaws with Him, one on his right hand and one on his left.  Those who passed by defamed Him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha!  You who can destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself and come down from the cross!’  In the same way even the chief priests---together with the experts in the law---were mocking Him among themselves: ‘He saved others, but He cannot save Himself!  Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, that we may see and believe!’  Those who were crucified with Him also spoke abusively to Him” (15:27-32). 

Matthew’s description of the horrid event, which is generally understood to rely upon the account of Mark, is quite similar in its details.  However, the author, after reporting the mocking statement of “If he comes down now from the cross, we will believe in Him” (27:42b), adds “He trusts in God---let God, if He wants to, deliver Him now because he said, ‘I am God’s Son’” (27:43).  Matthew also adds to the description of those crucified with Jesus, elaborating on the fact of their being “outlaws,” by adding “The robbers who were crucified with Him also spoke abusively to Him” (27:44).  Though this particular translation uses “outlaws” and “robbers,” it is the same Greek word that is being translated, which is “lestai.”  This word does not denote a common thief or criminal, but rather, somebody that is a revolutionary---a rebel.  The same can be said of Mark, as “outlaw” is the translation of “lestai.”  Consequently, those looking at Jesus on the cross would consider Him to be a “lestai” as well, especially considering the fact that crucifixion was used as the death penalty for rebellious subjects.

Looking to Luke’s record, as he is also widely believed to base his report largely on that of Mark, we read “Two other criminals were also led away to be executed with Him.  So when they came to the place that is called ‘The Skull,” they crucified Him there, along with the criminals, one on His right and one on His left… The people also stood there watching, but the rulers ridiculed Him, saying, ‘He saved others.  Let Him save Himself if He is the Christ of God, His chosen one!’” (23:32-33,35).  Here we add that John does not include a record of the activities of those crucified with Jesus.  Staying with Luke then, interestingly, at this point, Luke’s story diverges from that of Mark and Matthew.  Whereas Mark and Matthew make mention of Jesus being spoken to in an abusive manner “by “those who were crucified with Him,” Luke informs his audience that “One of the criminals who was hanging there railed at Him, saying, ‘Aren’t you the Christ?  Save yourself and us!’  But the other rebuked Him, saying, ‘Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we rightly so, for we are getting what we deserve for what we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.’” (23:39-41) 

Though this is not especially pertinent to this study, when we hear this, we need to keep in mind that for which they are being condemned, which is rebellion.  So the revolutionary that speaks to Jesus and the other man in this way is not speaking to the idea of Jesus being without sin.  He is acknowledging, in a way that would have been particularly useful for those being instructed, through Luke’s telling of the Jesus story, as a community that looks to Jesus as King and Lord of the world’s true and legitimate kingdom, contra Caesar and Rome, that Jesus was not hanging on the cross for the reason that landed the others on a cross.  Pertinently then, we must bear in mind the meaning of the cross in that day, the types of people that landed on crosses, and the message that was being sent.  These things would have been well known to a first century observer or to one that heard the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.

It must be said that crucifixion was a highly effective tool in the hands of all that used it.  The Romans, as others, employed it to make public examples out of those who resisted or sought to usurp Roman rule.  It also had the useful function of warning spectators against making the same type of fatal error as that of their fellow countryman now hanging naked for all the world to see---a testament to the power and glory of Rome.  A portion of the public ceremony of crucifixion was the employing of a “titulus,” which was a placard hung above the head of the victim that stated his crime.  We see this in the record of Jesus’ crucifixion, and the sign which read “King of the Jews.”  This was yet another way of confirming, as if the fact of the crucifixion was not sufficient, that the one being crucified, Jesus in this case, was presumed to be guilty of sedition against Rome.  It should be added that crucifixion was also employed as a punishment for slaves that committed crimes against their masters.  Either way, the message of the cross was quite clear, whether employed against a revolutionary against Rome or a slave that countered his master’s wishes, that usurpation of order, be it public or private, was not going to be tolerated.  When employed against a potential revolutionary, the message was clear---all were slaves of Rome.      

Monday, January 16, 2012

Laodicea & The Church's Meal Table (part 5 of 5)

Jesus tells this church that “All those I love, I rebuke and discipline.  So be earnest and repent!” (3:19)  With what has already been said about their need to imitate the other churches in their area and the vomit-inducing and obviously displeasing nature of their practice, as well as the mocking words of “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (which are only mocking to those that are failing to adhere to Jesus’ insistence to provide food, water, clothing, and support to the least while actually considering themselves to be adequately representing their Lord and His kingdom) what follows, when heard within the contextual narrative (both the isolated narrative of this particular letter and the larger narrative of God’s redemptive plan) is obviously going to be quite severe. 

These dreadful words of “Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking,” combined with “If anyone hears My voice I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with Me,” would be quite telling.  This is where they are failing.  Like a number of other churches, their meal table is corrupted.  For a variety of reasons, it is not a representation of the kingdom of God; rather, it is a representation of the world, its power, and its order.  The church’s meal table is designed to teach its participants how to live as the kingdom of God, while showing a watching world what the kingdom of the sovereign and Creator God looks like in action.  It must look different, and it must be part of a process that produces people that look different, as they willingly enter into suffering and shame as need be, in following the ideal of the cross.  This is learned by conscientiously seeking and taking the lowest place amongst those that comprise the people of God, so that such behavior becomes the virtuous practice of those same people when they regularly and constantly encounter those that stand outside of that kingdom, in an exile from what God intends for the creation that is made in His image, and in need of being exodus-ed into the world of resurrection and new creation that is being modeled out by the confessors of Jesus’ Lordship and God’s kingdom.   

As was the case in Corinth, and probably in the church addressed by James, an unfortunate stratification has taken place in the Laodicean church.  In Corinth, the stratification, and its subsequent ordering of the church based on principles of honor and shame, appeared to be connected to “spiritual gifts.”  For the situation addressed by James, wealth seems to be a factor.  Without going into the rest of the churches addressed in the New Testament, what we can see here in Laodicea, is that wealth is the issue.  Clearly, it’s behavior is destructive and damaging to the kingdom and to the church’s witness of its Lord.  Consequently and understandably, it is looked upon as being abhorrent, and the most stern and damning words that are delivered to any of the seven churches of Revelation are directed to the church that is corrupting the meal table.  While other churches receive their criticisms, Laodicea seems to be in a unique position amongst the churches here addressed, and this appears to be the case because it is the church that, because of their corruption of the meal table, stands in the position that most flatly contradicts the ethos of the Gospel as presented by what is a focal point of Jesus’ ministry---the meal table. 

Their contravention of the demands of the Christian meal table (the Lord’s Supper in its fullest, messianic-banquet-themed sense), puts the Laodicean church in the most negative light of any of the other churches to which Jesus speaks in Revelation.  The others have their problems, no doubt, but it is Laodicea (lukewarm) that stands the most condemned and most in need of repentance, while also being instructed to consider the ready-at-hand examples of the meal tables of the churches at Hierapolis (hot) and Colossae (cold), who are apparently, owing to the fact that Jesus wishes that the church at Laodicea would be more like them, are getting the meal table right.  It is quite right that this particular letter has received so much attention, even though much of that attention has been lavished in ways that made no attempt at understanding the message of the letter in its proper context, as it is the one church that receives its rebuke in relation to that which so heavily defines the church, which is its table practice.  

There is social commentary taking place here, and in each case, it is directed first (and only?) to the churches.  This makes sense in light of the fact that Jesus is concerned with the advent of the kingdom of God.  Because His churches are the emissaries of that kingdom, they are charged to learn from Him the ways that they are to be its representatives.  That way, of course, is love; and that love is properly learned at a properly modeled meal table.  The weight of the meal table, as a definer of life and relations in the world, simply cannot be over-stressed. 

This study concerning an oft-misunderstood letter from an oft-misunderstood and misrepresented book, while dispelling the popular mythology derived from this abused passage within this abused book, has been an effort to situate the meal table, and its indisputable importance, in its rightful place in the New Testament, while offering the requisite social applications that are demanded by our understanding of the social implications and applications (which gain their significance from the heavily Jewish theological, soteriological, Christological, and eschatological aspects of Jesus’ words and deeds) of the record of Jesus’ ministry.  Theology, quite simply, must be done, it must be done constantly, and it must be converted to practice.  Jesus’ social commentary was thoroughly rooted in His theology, as the practice of that theology, so often seen at the meal table, was rooted in the His understanding of the kingdom of God.  That said, it is the cross that takes center-stage, especially in the world-shaping and ethic-forming area of meal practice. 

Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to filter all of our considerations as to what it means to live as denizens and citizens of God’s kingdom through the message of the cross, never forgetting the hope embodied by the Resurrection.  As Christians, we must keep the meal table and its importance, especially as we participate in communion, consistently in our minds as we attempt to engage this world that God so loves.  By embodying the cross and taking the lowest place, with that happening first and foremost as we gather together as church bodies and learn how to be the people of God for His world, we will avoid the judgment of being vomited out of God’s kingdom, and we will never hear Jesus telling us that He stands outside of our fellowship, as He is looked upon as unworthy as we jostle for positions of honor and trample upon the ones with whom Jesus identified through His ministry and when He went to the accursed cross.  He will, in contrast to what was told to the church at Laodicea, never have to stand and the door, begging to be present in our churches, and this will redound to His glory.  How will Jesus be present?  He will be present when we are serving and suffering with the wretched, the pitiful, the poor, the blind, and the naked, for as we serve these, we serve Him.  May God give us ears to hear, always allowing us to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.