Monday, March 31, 2014

...Like A Gentile Or Tax Collector (part 13 of 13)

However, something disturbing happens.  “After he went out, that same slave found one of his fellow slaves who owed him one hundred silver coins.  So he grabbed him by the throat and started to choke him, saying ‘Pay back what you owe me!’” (Matthew 18:28).  Applying this parable to Israel’s historical narrative, Israel, forgiven by their God and restored to their land and supposedly re-committed to their role to be the Creator God’s light-bearer to the nations, once again closed ranks.  Gentiles, who had certainly been tools in the hands of Israel’s God to chastise Israel, but who had also been used by that same God to restore Israel to its land and to rebuild its Temple, were again looked up as enemies by the covenant people.  

By Jesus’ day, the barriers of exclusion had again been raised, and Israel was concerned only with their position as their God’s covenant people and with their God acting on their behalf to establish His kingdom for them and set them above all nations.  Gentiles were not only not their concern of course, but they were widely understood to be a source and locus of defilement.  At the time of Matthew’s composition, the ongoing battle within the church was whether or not Gentiles had to accede to the ancient covenant markers of Judaism (circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath keeping) in order to fully participate in the covenant.  That, presumably, and playing off the parable, was the debt that they owed to the Jews.  They had failed to understand that they were the slaves that had been forgiven a great debt, and now they carried an obligation to extend that forgiveness to their fellow slaves, the Gentiles. 

Predictably and not unlike the first slave had done when confronted with his debt and its consequences, “his fellow slave threw himself down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you.’  But he refused.  Instead, he went out and threw him in prison until he repaid the debt” (18:29-30).  Continuing to draw the analogy then, while Gentiles had been locked away from participation in the covenant, Jesus goes to them (metaphorically---they generally came to Him) and brings them within its fold.    

However, this was not a universal situation.  Not all were guilty.  One must continue to recognize the multiple levels on which this is being heard (by Jesus’ original hearers and by the church communities in the late first century), acknowledging that some had understanding and were accepting of the non-exclusive (when it came to who could participate and who could not) kingdom message that Jesus had brought.  Consequently, “When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were very upset and went and told their lord everything that had taken place.  Then his lord called the first slave and said to him, ‘Evil slave!  I forgave you all that debt because you begged me!  Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?’” (18:31-33) 

Now, this is not a judgment against the Jews, but rather an illustration of the historical situation, while also being an illustrated sermon of what Jesus has said is demanded of His people.  With the final words of this parable it is made clear what is the response of the God of Israel to those that fail to treat an offending brother as a Gentile or tax collector (according to what has been seen as the way that Jesus treats them), or if one fails to offer unending forgiveness to their covenant brethren.  Matthew writes: “And in anger his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed.  So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart” (18:34-35).  As forgiveness and love form the functional basis for relationships within the body that calls Jesus Lord, all believers do well to consider themselves fortunate enough to be considered as Gentiles and tax collectors, while also having the opportunity to consider others as Gentiles and tax collectors as well.        

Saturday, March 29, 2014

...Like A Gentile Or Tax Collector (part 12)

What comes next in Matthew is rather suggestive that Ezra is in mind at this juncture, as Jesus offers up what has come to be known as the “Parable of the Unforgiving Slave.”  This parable becomes a picture of both the type of treatment desired by Jesus and forgiveness in action.  It does so along with a word of warning of the way that the Creator God will look upon those that do not abide by Jesus’ prescription.  Here, it is appropriate to reflect on the statement offered up by Ezra, originally called to mind through and following his use of “seventy-seven,” reflecting the experience of the returnees from Babylon during the era of Persian occupation, while also serving to adequately describe the prevailing situation in Israel under the Romans, which was “Although we are slaves, our God has not abandoned us in our servitude” (9:9a).  This lines up quite nicely with what will be found in the parable. 

Together with that, in an era in which the cry of Rome, which it sought to put on the lips of all upon whom it foisted its dominion, was “No king but Caesar,” the respondent cry of an Israel that would not be assimilated and subdued was “No King but our God!”  Owing to that, thoughts and hopes and dreams concerning the coming kingdom of their God were current; and of course, Matthew presents a Jesus that is primarily concerned with the advent of the kingdom of His God.  It is in the mindset created by this set of ideas---ongoing slavery, claims concerning kingship, and concerns about a kingdom---with which one presses forward into the parable. 

As an obvious adjunct to what Jesus has just said, with no separation, division, nor delay, the parable begins with “For this reason, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves” (Matthew 18:23).  The king, naturally, is the God of Israel.  The slaves are the people of His covenant.  “As he began settling his accounts, a man who owed ten thousand talents was brought to him” (18:24).  This man is one of the already referenced slaves.  He had an obligation to his king.  However, “Because he was not able to repay it, the lord ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, children, and whatever he possessed” (18:25). 

This demands a reach into the collective memory of the respective audiences, with a recollection of Israel’s obligation under its covenant to be a light to the people of the surrounding nations and to bearing the image of their God in representing His covenant to the world.  Israel had failed to fulfill their end of that covenant, and their ongoing subjection by Rome confirmed that their failure was ongoing.  They did not meet their obligation, so it was understood to be the case that their God had “sold” them into both Assyrian and Babylonian exile, with Rome now playing the role of those two empires. 

Proceeding, Jesus says “Then the slave threw himself to the ground before him, saying, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you everything.’” (18:26)  This, because of the mindset and self-identifying history in which the hearers are steeped, is reminiscent of the prayers of repentance and restoration from exile that are to be found in the second book of the Kings, the second book of the Chronicles, Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. 

These prayers are best summed up with “if My people, who belong to Me, humble themselves, pray, seek to please Me, and repudiate their sinful practices, then I will respond from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).  The audience goes on to learn that “The lord had compassion on that slave and released him, and forgave him the debt” (18:27).  Indeed, in spite of their covenant failures, and because of His faithfulness to His plan of redemption for His people and the world through them, because of their response to this demand, the Lord allowed His people to return to the land, to reconstruct the Temple, and to rebuild Jerusalem. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

...Like A Gentile Or Tax Collector (part 11)

Continuing this look at the usages of “seventy-seven” in Scripture (in connection to the report of Jesus calling for forgiveness to be offered seventy-seven times), in regards to the lambs sacrificed, of which there were seventy-seven as part of the sin offering, reference can be made to the fact that Matthew has already called attention to Jesus as a “lamb led to the slaughtering block” (Isaiah 53:7b) with his reference to the fourth verse of that same chapter of Isaiah’s prophetic work: “but He lifted up our illnesses, He carried our pain,” which is to be found in Matthew 8:17. 

With the sacrifice of Jesus becoming so inextricably linked to forgiveness (which is, in turn, inextricably linked in the historic narrative of Israel to the end of a period of judgment and exile), this connection becomes quite overt, strengthening the insistence that Jesus also has Ezra in mind when He uses this particular number in relation to the offering of forgiveness, which is a point that Matthew is sure to drive home through his tailoring of the narrative.  The twelve male goats that were put forth as a sin offering are easily connected to the twelve tribes of Israel, and by extension to the twelve chosen and named disciples of Jesus.  Naturally then, any talk of “three days,” which is the amount of time spent Ezra is said to have spent in Jerusalem at the initial point of the return (not to mention Ezra’s connection to the end of exile and the rebuilding of the Temple), would immediately call to mind the “three days” between the crucifixion and the Resurrection---the figurative tearing down and re-building of the Temple.   

Finally, as the wider story of Ezra would be under consideration (if indeed Ezra is in view at all), then also in view are thoughts of exile and exodus (Babylonian captivity and return to the land).  Though there had been an official decree by the king of Persia that the Jerusalem Temple was to rebuilt and that the people were to be allowed to return to the land, there was no sense of liberation communicated through the historic works that commemorate this declaration and return.  In the ninth chapter of Ezra, just a few words away from the report of the return to Jerusalem and the associated offerings (according to the way in which Ezra is presented), Ezra reports on the mindset of the people by saying that “Although we are slaves, our God has not abandoned us in our servitude.  He has extended kindness to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, in that He has revived us to restore the Temple of our God and to raise up its ruins and to give us a protective wall around Judah and Jerusalem” (9:9). 

Though they were indeed in their own land and though they had been given a degree of liberty, they were still subject to the king of Persia.  As such, their exodus remained incomplete and their state of exile continued.  So any implicit reference to Ezra would call to mind the general mindset there expressed and quite possibly still held by the people of Israel in Jesus’ time as they lived under the occupation of the Romans.  While they had a degree of liberty (based on the way that Rome operated), in no way would they have considered themselves to be free.  They were ruled over by Gentiles and their tax collectors.        

Just because there is a mention of “seventy-seven” in Ezra, does that really mean that Jesus has Ezra in His purview with his insistence of “seventy-seven” acts of forgiveness that follows His directive to treat an at-fault or offending-but-not-yet-repentant brother as a Gentile or tax collector?  Along with that question, one must continue to consider the potential reasons that stand behind the particular structure that is to be found here in Matthew, as the author uses the words and stories of Jesus to construct an ideal in the church community through which love and forgiveness will be on offer, while also being sure to deal with the continuously contentious issues surrounding Gentile inclusion within the covenant people of God.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

...Like A Gentile Or Tax Collector (part 10)

The second Scriptural use of “seventy seven” is in the book of Judges.  In the eighth chapter, as part of the story of Gideon (which would have been a very popular story for an occupied people such as the Israel of Jesus’ day, or a persecuted people such as the early church communities), Gideon is said to have “captured a young man from Succoth and interrogated him.  The young man wrote down for him the names of Succoth’s officials and city leaders---seventy-seven men in all” (8:14). 

It was at Succoth that Gideon, with he and his three hundred men pursuing the Midianites and exhausted, requested loaves of bread for his army.  The men of Succoth refused.  Gideon vowed vengeance and eventually took that vengeance, executing the city’s men (8:17).  Presumably, those executed first, if not exclusively, were those seventy-seven.  Again, if Jesus is speaking of the need for forgiveness instead of vengeance in the face of wrongs that are done, then it is more than possible that His insistence that forgiveness be offered seventy-seven times might very well be offered with this story in mind as well. 

The third and final use of “seventy-seven” in the Hebrew Scriptures comes from the book of Ezra.  Ezra is a post-exile work, chronicling the trials and travails of the Creator God’s people as many exiles returned to the land of their inheritance, joining those who had been able to remain in the land, and seeking to rebuild the Temple.  There, in the thirty-fifth verse of the eighth chapter (which, based on what is to be found there, seems as if it should be located after the second chapter), it is written that “The exiles who were returning from the captivity offered burnt offerings to the God of Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven male lambs, along with twelve male goats as a sin offering.  All this was a burnt offering to the Lord.” 

Also in the eighth chapter, Ezra presents the record of his group’s travel to Jerusalem with the expressed purpose of re-building the Temple of their God.  Reading there, one finds “On the twelfth day of the first month we began traveling from the Ahava Canal to go to Jerusalem.  The hand of our God was upon us, and He delivered us from our enemy and from bandits along the way.  So we came to Jerusalem, and we stayed there for three days” (8:31-32). 

This itself is an interesting point of comparison, as Jesus Himself, in a way, was traveling to Jerusalem.  It will not be too far down the road in Matthew’s narrative that Jesus will be seen to be triumphantly entering Jerusalem and dramatically entering the Temple.  Of course, later on, as part of Jesus’ “trial,” there will be testimony that Jesus had said “I am able to destroy the Temple of God and rebuild it in three days” (26:61b), which is an allusion to an underlying motif of the Jesus tradition, not explicitly heard in Matthew, that Jesus saw Himself as a replacement for the Temple. 

The parallels with Ezra, and with the words previously quoted, are quite striking.  If Ezra is in mind when Jesus speaks words in regards to forgiveness (and based on what follows immediately thereafter, this doesn’t seem to be a stretch at all), then He is calling attention to the wider context and story in which this use of “seventy-seven” is to be found.  For those that will be hearing Matthew’s story, which will occur well after the Resurrection and after the various components of the oral (and written, to be sure) Jesus tradition have been relatively fixed, the resonances between the Ezra passage and Matthew’s narrative practically jump off the page. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

...Like A Gentile Or Tax Collector (part 9)

Jesus goes on to add: “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.  Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you.  For where two or three are assembled in My name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:18-20).  It is following these assertions by Jesus that Peter, who is clearly presented by Matthew as making the connection between what Jesus has said about treating a brother as a Gentile or tax collector, binding and releasing and agreeing together, and the need for there to be an ongoing willingness to forgive as a marker of those that are part of Jesus’ messianic movement, asks Jesus his famous question about the quantity of forgiveness that need be on offer, suggesting that surely seven charitable acts of forgiveness ought to be enough.  Of course, based on what the audience of Matthew knows about Jesus’ demeanor and His dealings with all and sundry, there would be little astonishment to hear Jesus insist that forgiveness is to be extended “Not seven times… but seventy-seven times!” (18:22b) 

Now, some translations render Jesus phrase as “seventy times seven.”  Either way, it would have been well understood that Jesus has indicated that there is to be no end to forgiveness among brethren.  However, there are some historical considerations to be made here, which may serve to underscore an actual usage of “seventy-seven” (putting aside the importance of any use of 490 in the mind of a member of the nation of Israel in the first century).  Bear in mind that this Gospel, perhaps more than all the rest, reaches back into Israel’s Scriptures in order to shed greater light on Jesus’ status and His ministry, especially as the author goes to great lengths to show Jesus forth as the new Moses. 

Along with that, it has been well-established that Jesus’ words and deeds only make sense in the light of the history of Israel, as presented in its Scriptures.  Furthermore, Jesus’ presumptive audience would have been well-versed in Israel’s history, and based on the construction of this Gospel, the same should be presumed for Matthew’s audience.  Finally, when Jesus quotes Scripture to His hearers, or when the author quotes Scripture for his hearers in order to reinforce something that Jesus has said or to shape their thinking along certain lines, those quotations are not an isolated choosing of a statement that fits a certain need, but that single quote is designed to call an entire narrative to the minds of the hearers. 

Why make these points?  It is because of the uses of “seventy-seven” that are to be found in Scripture.  If one surmises and presumes (altogether reasonably) that Jesus is careful with His use of words, that Matthew is careful with the construction of his narrative and with those words of Jesus that he includes in that narrative, and a general familiarity on the part of the two audience’s (Jesus’ and Matthew’s) with the Scriptures that tell the story of Israel (from which they derived their sense of identity), then it is worthwhile to review those uses. 

The first use is found in the foundational story of Scripture, which is Genesis.  A verse in the fourth chapter reads “You wives of Lamech, hear my words!  I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for hurting me.  If Cain is to be avenged seven times as much, then Lamech seventy-seven times!” (4:23b-24)  Surely, this use of “seventy-seven” in connection with a wrong done and vengeance (without getting into the nature or direction of that vengeance, or the motivation for his words) would have some bearing on Jesus’ use of “seventy-seven” when speaking about wrongs done and forgiveness---dissuading any desire for vengeance. 

...Like A Gentile Or Tax Collector (part 8)

So even though Jesus has agreed to meet the need, the centurion offers a bit of resistance.  Likewise, the Canaanite woman, though not receiving the desired response upon her initial request, puts up her own resistance, which is seen in the disciples’ report about her continuing to cry out after them.  In this instance, they ask Jesus to “send her away,” which is a bit evocative of the centurion’s statement about the way that he commands those under him to “go,” to “come,” or to “do this.”  Additionally, the centurion’s statement that he was not worthy to have Jesus come under his roof, and presumably not worthy to have Jesus do that which he is asking, falls in line with the Canaanite woman’s statement about dogs eating the crumbs that fall from the table.  Effectively, she too acknowledges that she was not worthy to have Jesus come under her roof or to do what she is requesting.

In the eighth chapter, it is the combined statement of the centurion that produces Jesus’ statement that He had not found such faith in Israel.  Similarly, in the fifteenth chapter, it is the woman’s statement that causes Jesus to exclaim upon her great faith.  To the centurion, Jesus makes reference to the great messianic banquet in which people from all nations will feast together.  It is possible that the Canaanite woman makes an oblique reference to that same messianic banquet, potentially doing so in her mention of the table from which crumbs will fall.  Jesus spoke to the centurion and said “just as you believed, it will be done for you.”  He spoke to the Canaanite woman and said “Let what you want be done for  you.”  The stories conclude with “the servant was healed at that hour” and “her daughter was healed from that hour.” 

It must be said that it is with his inclusion of such stories, together with his ingenious construction, that this Gospel’s author continues to present his audience with an understanding of the nature of that which is His primary concern, which is the kingdom of heaven and its dramatic and surprising introduction into the world through the person of Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah.  As part of that construction, the flow of the narrative, including the subject of this study, continually points towards Jesus’ parting words to His disciples. 

This trek through Matthew, spurred on by Jesus’ statement that concluded with “treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector,” now returns to Matthew’s eighteenth chapter.  By this point, owing to Matthew’s clear presentation of Jesus’ treatment of Gentiles and tax collectors, it can be rightly and comfortably concluded that treating an at-fault brother as a Gentile or a tax collector, if he refuses to listen to the correction of an individual, to a small gathering of brothers, or to the church, does not constitute a rejection of that brother.  Quite the contrary, in fact. 

If the example presented by Jesus is of any value to those that call themselves by His name, then there should be a re-doubling of efforts towards reconciliation and fellowship, as these are the people to whom Jesus is constantly addressing Himself.  The hand of fellowship and forgiveness should be extended indefinitely.  Yes, in this there is a potential risk of taking suffering, shame, loss, and humiliation upon oneself in an attempt to reconcile and restore a broken relationship, but in the end, is that not what the Creator God did for His people and His world through His Christ and the cross? 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

...Like A Gentile Or Tax Collector (part 7)

Here also is an opportunity for Jesus to prove His previously made point, which was that if Tyre and Sidon were able to see the miracles that had been seen by the denizens of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, that they would respond in an appropriate manner.  However, given this opportunity, it is to be noted that Jesus says that He “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Undeterred by Jesus’ seeming aversion to Gentile outreach, this woman that had made her initial messianic proclamation, and who had followed and continued to cry out after Jesus, bows down before Jesus and says simply, “Lord, help me!” (Matthew 15:25b)  Surely now one would expect Jesus to respond in the way to which His observers have grown accustomed.  He again disappoints expectations by saying “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (15:26).  Undaunted, the desperate woman offers her reply, saying “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (15:27). 

Putting aside the apparently problematic use of “dogs,” which has not yet been on offer from Jesus in His previous dealings with Gentiles, and so apparently is meant to play a rhetorical role in a conversation that has taken the appearance of a rabbinic debate (thereby, in point of fact, elevating this woman---is this encounter taking place at a meal, amplifying Jesus’ point and removing the possibility of insult from His comment?), rather than being used as a demeaning and blanket statement (considering the possibility that Jesus already has in mind what He is going to do for this woman and how He is ultimately going to respond to her), she has taken up the words of Jesus, accepted His statement without challenge, and then added “master” to the fact of her already referring to Him as “Lord” and “Son of David.”  Finally, this is productive of what would be expected from Jesus from the beginning, as He answers her with “Woman, your faith is great!  Let what you want be done for you” (15:28a).  The closing report is that “her daughter was healed from that hour” (15:28b). 

When stepping back from this for a moment and viewing the exchange as a whole, one can find tremendous similarities between the encounter between Jesus and the centurion in Capernaum, and between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon.  While viewing the similarities, one must also consider Jesus’ statement about Tyre and Sidon and their potential response to the miracles that He performed.  As indicated, Matthew neatly introduces this story into the narrative of Jesus that he is telling, and both ends---Jesus’ statement about Tyre and Sidon juxtaposed against the “woes” He pronounced and what takes place here in Tyre and Sidon with this woman---are heavily suggestive when it comes to considering the prescribed treatment of an erring member of the new covenant community as a Gentile or tax collector. 

In the previous story, the centurion comes to Jesus with a request.  The Canaanite woman does likewise.  Jesus responds positively to the centurion, but does not respond to the Canaanite woman (perhaps the Roman commander, as part of the Gentile, tax collecting, oppressive force, would be looked upon as a greater enemy by the majority of Jesus’ and Matthew’s audience, therefore Jesus offers greater compassion and praise to Him, whereas the Canaanite woman would merely be considered a nuisance?).  Upon Jesus’ response, the centurion, even though his request has been granted, says “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.”  The audience then goes on to find out the reasoning behind these words, as well as the way that He perceives Jesus’ power and authority, as he says “For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.  I say to this one, ‘Go,” and he goes, and to another “Come’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (8:9)  

Monday, March 24, 2014

...Like A Gentile Or Tax Collector (part 6)

Though this passage does not include a messianic reference, what is found there is reminiscent of what was already seen in the eighth chapter, in Capernaum, when the centurion (a Gentile) came to Jesus saying “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible anguish” (Matthew 8:6).  Jesus responded with a simple “I will come and heal him” (8:7b).  This study’s initial recounting of that meeting did not go into great detail---a situation that shall now be rectified.  The centurion, who must have been pleased with Jesus’ response, replied to Him by saying “Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof.  Instead, just say the word and my servant will be healed” (8:8).  Jesus is shown to be somewhat dumbstruck by the response.  In fact, Matthew’s report about Jesus is that “He was amazed” (8:10a).  He was so amazed that He said “I tell you the truth, I have not found such faith in anyone in Israel!” (8:10b) 

To that, in order to benefit His Jewish hearers and to make a point about the Creator God’s kingdom and its reach, Jesus adds a reference to the messianic banquet by saying “I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (8:11).  His hearers, along with those hearing the Matthew narrative, are clearly intended to make the inference that the kingdom of the Creator God is certainly not going to be restricted to Israel alone.  Punctuating the encounter, Jesus says “Go; just as you believed,” which is that Jesus could simply command the healing, “it will be done for you” (8:13b).  Matthew’s report, in demonstration of the in-breaking of the Creator’s kingdom through the very word of the Christ, is that “the servant was healed at that hour” (8:13c). 

Certainly, this story aids in setting a tone for the remainder of Matthew’s Gospel.  So when a later point in the story is reached, and the Canaanite (Gentile) woman, who clearly recognizes Jesus’ power to heal and to rectify the situation, can be heard to say “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!  My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!’”, the reader would expect a response from Jesus that will be similar to that which was on display in His dealings with the centurion in Capernaum.  Strangely, this is not what is to be found there.  In fact, the author reports that “He did not answer her a word” (15:23a).  Beyond that, the disciples express a bit of irritation on their part, as they are reported to have begged Jesus to “Send her away, because she keeps on crying after us” (15:23b).  Quite obviously, this woman was persistent.  On her part, it seems to express a deep-seated faith in the power of Jesus to set things right. 

Jesus eventually relents and speaks.  Based on what has been presented to this point, and even though an observer could express a bit of surprise at His not responding to her at all (especially with the situation with the centurion in Capernaum in mind---as this Gospel narrative is presented as a dramatic story in a single sitting), one would be expecting Jesus to oblige this woman.  So it is natural for an observer, along with Matthew’s audience, to be a bit perplexed when He answers her by saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). 

In light of Jesus’ treatment of Gentiles to this point, this just does not seem to fit.  Though it appears to fit with His previous instruction to His disciples about not going to Gentile regions or any Samaritan town (10:5), it also appears to run counter to the words of His mouth and to His mode of operations.  Indeed, the very fact that He is standing in the region of Tyre and Sidon stands in fairly stark contrast to those previously given instructions. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

...Like A Gentile Or Tax Collector (part 5)

In the eleventh chapter of Matthew, the author offers up some more useful information for the premise of this study when we reporting Jesus’ criticisms of a number of cities.  He pronounces woe to cities such as Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, which were all cities of the Galilee region, for their lack of repentance (their lack of repentance was seen in the fact that they were not joining up with Jesus’ new exodus movement) though they had witnessed “many of His miracles” (11:20b).  In contrast, Jesus mentions three Gentile cities---Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom---that He seems to believe would have responded differently to His call, had they been given the same opportunity.  His statement of “For if the miracles done among you had been done in Sodom, it would have continued to this day” (11:23b), along with “But I tell you, it will be more bearable for region of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you!” (11:24) would almost certainly have weighed heavily on the minds of His hearers. 

Such pronouncements by Jesus, among His Jewish hearers, would probably have called to mind the story of Jonah and the repentance of Assyria; and indeed, one is not disappointed in that regard, finding Matthew making reference to that very story in chapter twelve of His narrative.  There, in response to the demand for a sign, Jesus references the sign of Jonah and goes on to say “The people of Nineveh,” which was the capital city of a Gentile nation that had been responsible for the oppression of Israel (thoughts of Rome and its then current oppression of Israel lurks in the background here), “will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented when Jonah preached to them” (12:41).      

Following up on the record of Jesus’ earlier statements about Tyre and Sidon, a reader is unsurprised at what is found upon reaching the fifteenth chapter of Matthew.  Unsurprisingly, based on what He had previously said, “Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon” (15:21b).  This follows from Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ opinions about that which constitutes true defilement.  In that day, dietary restrictions and ceremonial washings were quite important, and there was much concern about becoming defiled through that which was eaten.  In addition to that, and though it goes unmentioned (it would be well known by both Jesus’ and Matthew’s audiences), it was held to be a veritable certainty that a Jew would be defiled by entering the home of a Gentile or by passing through Gentile territory. 

Jesus however, in broadly addressing the issue of that which defiles, says “Listen and understand.  What defiles a person is not what goes into the mouth; it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person” (15:10b-11).  When pressed on this assertion, He adds “Don’t you understand that whatever goes into the mouth enters into the stomach and then passes out into the sewer?  But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person.  For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.  These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person” (15:17-20). 

Having presented these words of Jesus, Matthew gives substance to Jesus’ words about that which truly defiles by moving the Jesus story on to Gentile ground.  While there, he reports that “A Canaanite woman from that area came and cried out, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!  My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!’” (15:22)  Amazingly, this is a Gentile woman calling out to Jesus and using a messianic title in the process.  Interestingly, these words spring from this woman’s mouth in the very wake of Jesus’ disciples asking Him “Do you know that when the Pharisees heard this saying (about what defiles) they were offended?” (15:12b)  Presumably, the Pharisees had given voice to this offense---it had come out of their collective mouth.  Thus, the presumed words of the Pharisees and the reported words of the Canaanite woman, following hard on what Jesus has said about that which defiles, present quite the provocative contrast. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

...Like A Gentile Or Tax Collector (part 4)

When pressed on the fact that He is dining with “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus ultimately responds by effectively saying “I came to call sinners.”  That is, “these are the people---these tax collectors and sinners (Gentiles and those treated as Gentiles, if you will)---that I intend to gather into the kingdom of the Creator God.  I am going after these people.”  Concordantly, a regular accusation that would be leveled against Jesus, that was intended (among other things) to show that He could not possibly be Israel’s Messiah, was the manner of His table fellowship and the people with which He surrounded Himself. 

In the eleventh chapter of Matthew, recognizing the constant building of the story and the inter-connectivity of the pieces of the narrative, Jesus Himself gives voice to this charge, reporting what it was that was being said about Him: “Look at Him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matthew 11:19b).  Surely, the thoughts seemed to run, Israel’s messiah would not surround Himself with those that are taken to be outside of the Creator’s covenant---not displaying or adhering to the accepted and determined covenant markers (circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath-keeping) of the people of the Creator God.  By His consistent fraternization with and acceptance of such people, Jesus demonstrated His attitude towards and compassion for said classes of people, while also providing the example to be followed by all those that would come to cast their lot with Him and His kingdom way. 

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

Of course, this tension is held in mind and ultimately balanced by the great commission that will be encountered in the closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel.  This tension and expectation of what is to come is played out here in the tenth chapter, as Jesus continues His instructions by saying “I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves… Beware of people, because they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues” (10:16a,17), which would come to be the experience of the community of Christ-followers in the years following the Christ-event and in the time in which this Gospel would have been composed and shared. 

As it relates to understanding what it means to treat someone as a Gentile or tax collector, Jesus relates the greater purpose of this treatment of His disciples, saying “And you will be brought before governors and kings because of me” (10:18a).  Here, one cannot help but think of the records of the travails of Peter, John, and Paul and their respective appearances before the authorities (especially those of Paul), which would quite likely have been known to the community for which Matthew has compiled his narrative.  When standing before governors and kings, Jesus’ persecuted disciples would act “as a witness to them and the Gentiles” (10:18b).  Yes, Jesus was always cognizant of His mission.  Accordingly, His church has always been cognizant of its mission.  This mission, as Matthew’s hearers would well-know and would routinely hear, included reaching out to Gentiles so as to bring them into the plans and purposes and ever-widening fold of the people of the kingdom of the Creator God.

Friday, March 21, 2014

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

Shortly thereafter, Matthew reports that “Jesus went throughout all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of disease and sickness among the people” (4:23).  This, again, is the region to which Matthew refers as “Galilee of the Gentiles,” which would certainly play into the statement about the covenant community treating an individual like a Gentile or tax collector.  In addition, the Matthean author adds, “So a report about Him spread throughout Syria” (4:24a), which was also a Gentile area.  Accordingly, owing to all that Jesus was doing and saying, “large crowds followed Him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan River” (4:25).  Nearly from the outset, Jesus’ ministry, as presented by Matthew, is intimately connected with Gentiles. 

In the fifth chapter, Jesus is heard to say: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven… For if you love those who love  you, what reward do you have?  Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they?  And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do?  Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they?” (5:43-44,46-47) 

The juxtaposition of “enemy” and “those who persecute you,” with “tax collector” and “Gentile” are undeniable.  It would appear to be clear that they are to be taken as one and the same.  What is also undeniable for the purposes of this study, is that such a juxtaposition is firmly ensconced within Jesus call to love them and pray for them.  This would most definitely serve to inform an audience as to what it means to treat somebody as a Gentile or tax collector, would it not?

Moving to the eighth chapter then, it is said that “a centurion came to Him asking for help: ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible anguish.’” (8:5b-6)  This centurion, a Gentile, was part of the oppressive, occupying Roman military machine.  It is likely that he would have been treated with contempt by the citizens of Israel, and a presumed Israelite messiah-figure would be expected to take up an adversarial role with such a person.  The role of the centurion Gentile, among other things, was to keep the people of Israel in submission.  How did Jesus respond?  Did He refuse the request of this Gentile oppressor of Israel?  On the contrary, “Jesus said to him, ‘I will come and heal him.’” (8:7) 

The record of chapter nine of Matthew records that Jesus “saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth” (9:9b).  A tax collector---a Jew that collaborates with the oppressors that are keeping Israel in exile from the promises of its covenant God---would attract a special type of scorn from his fellow countrymen.  So here is another opportunity for Jesus to shun one of these dastardly collaborators with the hated Romans.  Yet Jesus instead says “Follow Me” (9:9c).  After Jesus pulls this tax collector into His growing band of disciples, He has a meal with Him. 

Now, whenever Jesus, who is going about offering up messiah-like actions (at least in the eyes of His contemporaries), and who is clearly being portrayed as the Messiah in the stories told about Him by the early new covenant community (with this being the obvious pre-disposition of the author of this Gospel), sits down at a meal, the thoughts of “messianic banquet,” which indicated the coming of the kingdom of the Creator God (which Jesus consistently announced), would not have been trailing far behind.  Those who participated in the messianic banquet, which can only be understood with the context of the Creator God’s covenant with Israel through Abraham, were those that would rule in that God’s kingdom.  It is in that context that the author writes “As Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Jesus and His disciples” (9:10).         

Thursday, March 20, 2014

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

Shortly after the statements of verses fifteen through seventeen, Jesus makes His famous and popular statement of “For where two or three are assembled in My name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).  So many tend to revel in this statement, while also tending to forget that it is offered in the context of conflict and what appears to be discipline.  This discipline, it shall be seen, is not necessarily the discipline of the individual in question that is being brought before groups of brothers or before the church, but rather the teachings of Jesus that are meant to provide a disciplining effect for the covenant community---guiding their actions and behaviors. 

Along with this, one does well to recognize the fact that these words on offer by Jesus, as reported by Matthew and as placed in the structure of His narrative concerning Jesus, follows immediately from the parable of the lost sheep.  That parable presents a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep to go after just one that is lost, and closes with Jesus saying “In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that one of these little ones be lost” (18:14).  This statement must be kept in mind when Jesus is heard to say “treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector.” 

At the same time, the reader is forced to come to grips with the fact that Jesus, after speaking about His presence in the midst of gathered ones, is reported to have conducted a conversation with Peter, who has asked about the necessity of multiple offerings of forgiveness.  Jesus effectively informs Peter that forgiveness must be limitless.  This demands to be understood within the narrative flow of the entirety of Matthew’s Gospel, as well as the flow of the section in which it is to be found (not to mention that seventy times seven, or 490, would have a strong connection to Daniel and the end of exile), so it can be asserted that it does have bearing on the way Jesus’ insistence in regards to treatment as a Gentile or tax collector is to be understood.   

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

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

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

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

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

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

So how are these words generally interpreted?  Upon first reading, is there a thought of something along the lines of “Yes.  That’s right.  If the necessary efforts have been made, and if the response is not correct (meaning, the response is not that which the community wishes to see), then that individual is to be marginalized and ostracized---treated as a Gentile (or a pagan) or a tax collector, for he is unrepentant and beyond reach”?  

One could venture to say that, instinctively, especially in light of an often all too parsed reading of Scripture, that such thoughts do indeed tend to present themselves.  In general there is a custom, especially within the church world, to the creation of an “us vs. them” mentality, with the “us” being those inside the church, and the “them” being the pagans, heathens, and veritable Gentiles and tax collectors that stand outside of and presumably opposed to the church and its claims on behalf of the Christ and His cosmic and unquestioned Lordship of all.  This treatment, though probably stemming from a customary reading of the text, would also and unfortunately be patently incorrect. 

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

Tax collectors, of course, were the hated group (often of their fellow countrymen) that collaborated with their Roman oppressors to continue their ongoing exile from the place and situation that it was believed their God had promised to them.  This disdain went well beyond the general disgust that is almost universally felt towards those that collect taxes, as their presence and their role were constant reminders of Israel’s covenant failures, and their God’s ongoing punishment of them as His covenant people. 

If these basic facts are taken into consideration, then it would seem rather odd to say that an assessment of Jesus’ statement that affirms an isolation and ostracizing of unrepentant individuals through treating them as Gentiles or tax collectors is an incorrect statement.  Still, that statement stands, and this study resolutely denies that Jesus came anywhere near to implying that an unrepentant individual should be isolated, ostracized, or condemned.  At the same time, His statement is unquestionably affirmed, and said individual should absolutely be treated like a Gentile or a tax collector.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 30 of 30)

With that said, and at risk of being redundant, one cannot allow himself to drift too far from awareness of the fact that Jesus’ hearers, along with those for whom the account recorded in John is prepared (again, relying on both oral and written components of the Jesus tradition that became relatively fixed at a very early stage), would have been thoroughly immersed in a worldview that had the entire history of Israel that stretched back to Abraham (including the creation narrative in which Israel’s God orders the cosmos) in view, as the story was told and re-told (much like can be seen in the book of Acts).  This would have been true even of Gentile members of the church, as the story of Jesus would not have been presented without instruction related to proper background, lest the Jesus story become void of any real meaning. 

Without this immersion, and without this critical historical framework, Jesus would not have been able to be understood by His contemporaries.  If every attempt is not made to become immersed in much the same way, so as to be able to hear Jesus and the stories of Jesus with the same mental construct as that which was possessed by first century Jews and those who made up the early Christian communities, hearing the story of God’s redemptive plan as presented through Israel, there will be a failure to understand Jesus.  If there is a failure to understand Jesus, then there is a failure to understand the God whom Jesus shows forth; and, at least for the purposes of this author, if one fails in those things, then one fails to understand what is truly meant by love.     

So, getting back to miraculous signs and the Moses/exodus motif that is prevalent in this Gospel, consider the previously referenced signs provided by Moses before Pharaoh.  In the second chapter of John, after Jesus performs an action in the Temple, “the Jewish leaders responded, ‘What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?’” (2:18)  In the sixth chapter, after Jesus feeds the multitude, walks on water, and speaks about Himself as the bread of life, there one finds the inquiry of “what miraculous sign will your perform, so that we may see it and believe you?  What will you do?” (6:30)  What can be seen in Exodus?  In the seventh chapter, when the Creator God commands Moses to go before Pharaoh to demand the release of His people, He tells Moses that Pharaoh will say “Do a miracle” (7:9).  The miraculous signs come forth, but Pharaoh’s heart is hardened.  This same type of thing can be seen being played out in John, with Jesus obviously playing the role of Moses. 

Early on, Moses signs are mildly effective, but they are said to be matched by Pharaoh’s servants that are practiced in the secret arts.  Indeed, the signs aren’t quite good enough, which is also reflected in John.  Moses begins with the signs for Pharaoh, but then come the plagues.  Though these are meant to convince Pharaoh to set Israel free while also demonstrating the supremacy of Israel’s God and the impotency of Egypt’s gods (much like the creation narrative in Genesis is meant to, among other things, show forth the supremacy of Israel’s God over the gods of the other nations, answering their various creation mythologies with that which is presented as the creative action of the one true God), they have the greater role of proving to Israel that Moses is the deliverer that their God has provided, and that their God is acting on their behalf in faithfulness to His covenant. 

It is not difficult to imagine that faith in this fact---in Moses as God’s appointed deliverer---grew over time as the miraculous signs came forth.  With the signs, there is a growing tension between Moses and Pharaoh, and the final plague results in the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh in which the freedom of the people is finally granted.  The people are given their freedom, though Pharaoh quickly attempts to rise up and re-assert himself to no avail, and even in the freedom there will be a long and difficult journey to their land of promise.  In John, the author indicates that Jesus signs are mildly effective, gaining him a following in which people begin to express their loyalty to him.  He even has John the Baptist as something of a mouthpiece, just as Moses had Aaron.  Within John’s narrative world, these miraculous signs culminate in the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  In that story, it is Jesus’ love for Lazarus and his family that prompts Him to act to raise him---to give him an exodus from the exile of death. 

This point does not go un-noticed in an attempt to comprehend the Johannine conception of love.  In the end, the author suggests that “the chief priests and the Pharisees,” quite alarmed by what has happened, “called the council together and said, “What are we doing?  For this man is performing many miraculous signs.  If we allow him to go on in this way, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation” (11:47-48).  In this, does one not hear echoes of Exodus and of Pharaoh’s decision to pursue Israel?  There it was said, “What in the world have we done?  For we have released the people of Israel from serving us!” (14:6b) 

For the author of John (and the Johannine corpus), who appears to have a specific notion concerning love, this miraculous sign of raising Lazarus from the dead is a dramatic turning point, as it is said to be that which was responsible for the crowds gathering to hail Jesus in His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, “because they had heard that Jesus had performed this miraculous sign, the crowd when out to meet Him” (12:18).  It is what ultimately leads to Jesus’ death on the cross, which was ultimately the supreme act of self-sacrificial love (going down into death to bear the curse of an entire people) to which the entire narrative points and upon which the fate of the cosmos rests.  This, of course, leads to the Resurrection, which, following His paramount act of love (endured in suffering and shame), is Jesus’ exodus to the long-awaited promised land of the redeemed creation of the Creator God, there to be joined by those that cast their lot with Him and share in a world now re-shaped and re-formed by the supreme ethic of love.  

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 29)

So when it comes to paying attention to the wider narrative on offer by the Gospel of John, what assistance does the author provide?  He provides assistance with his record of the people saying “everything John said about this man was true!”  This forces the listener and the reader to recall what it was that was said by John the Baptist.  Just as the statements by the Baptizer form the foundation for the introduction of Jesus into the Gospel narrative (and into the long-running story of Israel itself), this recapitulation of statements forms the bedrock for the transition to the second half of this narrative. 

Therefore, it is important to know what Jesus’ cousin said about Jesus, so that these things are in mind while proceeding.  He offered: “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because He existed before me.’” (1:15)  He also said, “Among you stands one whom you do not recognize, who is coming after me.  I am not worthy to untie the strap of His sandal!” (1:26b-27).  He said “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because He existed before me.’  I did not recognize Him, but I came baptizing with water so that He could be revealed to Israel” (1:29b-31).  This speaks quite strongly to Jesus’ first identifying Himself with John’s movement, as He underwent the exodus-themed baptism (symbolically crossing the Jordan River into a new land that reflected the Creator’s promise to His people) so that He might fit into a recognizable pattern for the covenant people of Israel. 

John also said of Jesus: “I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and it remained on Him.  And I did not recognize Him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining---this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’  I have both seen and testified that this man is the Chosen One of God” (1:32-34).  Finally, John saw Jesus and said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” (1:36b) 

Amazingly, this recollection of statements by John, accompanied by another mention of “miraculous signs,” is immediately followed up by the author’s presentation of that which he presents as the most significant of Jesus’ miraculous signs (outside of the Resurrection), which is the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  The raising of Lazarus, in this Gospel, is presented as the catalyst that causes Jesus’ ultimate fate to come cascading down upon Him.     

This is yet another reflection of the Moses motif that the author has seemingly gone to great lengths to create, though it is not one that is immediately obvious.  Because this study is concerned with defining love, and because Moses and the exodus appears to be a prominent feature of the background construct (as the exodus was always a crucial component of the way Israel understood themselves as a nation and of the way that they understood their relationship with their God), one must make note of the way that the story of the Creator God’s deliverance of Israel from out of Egypt effectively begins. 

In the second chapter of Exodus it is reported that “During that long period of time the king of Egypt died, and the Israelites groaned because of the slave labor.  They cried out, and their desperate cry because of their slave labor went up to God.  God heard their groaning, God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob, God saw the Israelites, and God understood…” (2:23-25).  The words immediately following are “Now Moses” (3:1).  This is a very tight grouping of highly important people and concepts.  The author of John, naturally and as would be expected, has a firm grasp on the fact that the Creator God’s covenant underlies all of His activity throughout history, and as has been seen, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses (but not Isaac) are mentioned in the narrative. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 28)

The uniqueness of the miraculous signs in John does not simply lie in the fact of the occurrence of the miraculous.  It could also be seen that Jesus gained a following, with people believing in Him, His message, and His movement, through the witnessing and reporting of miraculous signs.  Others before Jesus (and after Him) had and would gain substantial followings as well.  However, in contrast to Jesus, their followings often grew with reports of their rebellious and subversive activities (Jesus was shown to be subversive, but in a more subtle manner), their incitement to violence against their oppressors, or their military exploits against the vaunted Roman military machine.  Jesus’ following achieved no growth along such lines.  He certainly did not go about achieving His popular support in the usual or largely expected way. 

Though John the Baptist is reported to have been caustic in his speech (though not in John’s Gospel), what was said of his cousin (Jesus) could also be said to be true of him, as he did not gain his following along the lines of the usual or expected means.  How could he?  Had he engaged in overtly revolutionary activities, he certainly could not have heralded himself or have been heralded as preparing the path for the type of messiah that Jesus presents Himself to be, nor would Jesus have aligned Himself and identified Himself with John’s movement (the signaling of a new exodus for Israel, and through Israel for the world) by undergoing a baptism at John’s hands.

The regular references to Moses in the Gospel of John, whether those references be explicit or implicit, are both an adjunct to the mentioning of miraculous signs and a reminder of the way in which Moses went about proving that he was charged with representing the covenant God to His people.  It must be said that Moses gained a following, though the following was not gained (as he may have hoped or expected), when he raised his hand to kill an Egyptian that was abusing one of his fellow Israelites.  That action merely sent Moses into his own period of exile, possibly delaying the Creator God’s plan to deliver Israel from their Egyptian bondage. 

Initially, Moses gained his following through performing miraculous signs, which is what he was instructed to do by the Creator God when he returned to Egypt with the demand to “let My people go.”  When Moses had questioned God as to how he was going to convince Pharaoh and Israel that he spoke for the God of Israel and that he was the vessel through which that God was bringing about the deliverance of His people, Moses was provided with a series of miraculous signs to perform.  The book of Exodus records the performance of these various signs.  This point shall be taken up again shortly. 

Returning to the text then, the author seems to take pains to hammer home a point previously and repeatedly made (this would have been second nature for his audience, but not so much for members of a modern Christian culture which has a tendency to separate, divide, and pluck passages and stories from their setting and examine them in isolation), which is that the Gospel narrative must be heard as a unified presentation, rather than presented through selected portions of the narrative. 

While it is certainly possible and appropriate to elaborate on circumstances, situations, and statements, such things demand to be considered within their wider context.  Any statement by Jesus, or the author for that matter, that is pulled out of the text and examined on its own without being placed in its appropriate theological, soteriological, sociological, cultural, political, and eschatological framework (at the very least), will end up as nothing more than an ingredient in a recipe for fallacious and anachronistic exegesis.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 27)

The author of John provides an excellent example of the necessity of hearing the story as a whole in what follows from the presentation of Jesus as the good shepherd.  In the twenty-second verse of the chapter, there is a change of scenery in Jerusalem, as the author writes “Then came the feast of the Dedication in Jerusalem.  It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the Temple area in Solomon’s portico” (John 10:22-23).  Clearly, this represents a substantial shift in timing, because all that has been heard from the seventh chapter up to this point has occurred in conjunction with the Feast of Tabernacles, which does not take place in the winter. 

The temptation, then, is to pick up right here with these verses and treat this story separately.  To do so would be foolish, as when Jesus is heard to say “My sheep listen to My voice and I know them, and they follow Me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (10:27-28a), it can only be heard correctly in the context provided by all that has come before in the narrative, which is also dependent on a knowledge of Israel’s history along with then current understanding of Jewish hopes that would have informed Jesus’ use of eternal life (otherwise, Jesus could not expect to be understood).  As stated, the narrative continues to build, demanding to be heard as a whole. 

Again, the concepts as presented, and especially ideas concerning what is meant by love, demand to be heard on their own terms.  So to understand John’s notion of love, which is prefaced by the description of the way that the Creator God loved the world, and to do so without retrojecting preconceived notions about its definition, it is entirely necessary to take this step by step journey through the Johannine text, so as to come to grips with this author’s theology and its accompaniments (Christology, soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology, etc…) that will define the ethic. 

A fair amount of space in this study has been spent on the issue of “miraculous signs” in this Gospel, with nine such appearances in the text having already been reviewed.  The phrase has not been encountered since the seventh chapter, but it reappears at the close of the tenth chapter, where the author reports that “Many came to Him and began to say, ‘John performed no miraculous sign, but everything John said about this man was true!’  And many believed in Jesus there” (10:41-42).  This is prefaced by a reference to the fact that “Jesus,” following his time spent specifically in Jerusalem, where He has His dealings in the time periods of the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of Dedication, “went back across the Jordan River again to the place where John had been baptizing at an earlier time and He stayed there” (10:40).  This mention of John at the close of the tenth chapter is mildly intriguing, as it obviously calls attention to the words and work of John the Baptist.  It takes the step of re-identifying Jesus with John and the exodus-themed movement that John had begun at a place not terribly distant from Jerusalem. 

By making mention that it was being said that “John performed no miraculous sign,” it seems that the author wants to hang a substantial amount of weight on the miraculous signs performed by Jesus, as reported in his Gospel.  It would appear to be the case that the miraculous signs are what, in the author’s mind, set Jesus apart from all those that had come before Him.  With the Resurrection from the dead following His crucifixion being the ultimate miraculous sign, it could be said that the church was fully agreed that Jesus was quite unique.  

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 26)

Just as it has become apparent that it is a self-sacrificial love as supremely demonstrated in Jesus’ talk of Himself as the good shepherd that comes to undergird the life of the church, and that the absence of self-sacrifice or a willingness to undergo suffering and deprivation will be fatal to the Jesus movement, so also it can be affirmed, as part of an approach to the Scriptures so as to hear them on their own terms and in their own voices, the hearers of the Gospel of John will know that pulling out isolated pieces and examining them independently of the entire narrative, would be damaging to the story and to the message of the Christ as a whole. 

Clearly, the issues of love, Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s Creator God, miraculous signs, the concept of eternal life (with its exile and exodus subtext that hinges on an understanding of the history of Israel), sight and blindness, the idea of Jesus being the prophet like Moses, Gentile inclusion, bread and water, and talk of Jesus as possibly being demon possessed are to be held in mind while the story is being told (whether it is being heard or read). 

The narrative is constantly building, and it is clearly designed to be consumed as a whole, rather than treating passages in isolation, as this will lead to a consistent mis-construal of the author’s intentions as it relates to his attempt to convey that which he wants to be known about Jesus.  As one considers how strange it seems that the Gospels were originally designed to be heard as dramatic presentations for an orally attuned community rather than read as part of a devotional experience, one is also forced to confess that our post-Gutenberg press culture is just as foreign to John’s author, as would be John’s author’s pre-Gutenberg culture.    

The Gospel reader must subject himself to this reminder because it has a bearing on the entire project of discerning love on John’s terms, related to the whole of the Johannine corpus that does not explicitly reference an author by the name of John (John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John).  If one intends to understand the ethic of love within the community of Christ-followers, which is an ethic that would appear to be of paramount importance to this author and therefore the community addressed by his composition, it is entirely necessary to take a wide-angle approach to his story of Jesus, attempting to interpret the presentation in a way that allows for an accurate glimpse of the issues with which are being dealt in the early decades of the Christian movement (presumably in the latter part of the first century) through this particular telling of the Jesus tradition. 

Not only must it be said that individual scenes in John’s Gospel are not to be taken in isolation, but it must also be said that histories are not created in isolation.  That is, there is no such thing as a truly objective representation of the facts.  In the process of doing history, and especially when one is doing history that is heavily tinged with theology, as can be seen in the Gospel of John, one is forced to realize that all facts and events are viewed through a lens that is colored by the worldview with which one approaches a given set of facts.  There is nothing wrong with that, but the reader does himself a disservice by failing to acknowledge such things.  Along with that, any creation of a historical narrative will be affected by a culture that is constantly conditioning its members respond to events along certain lines. 

Love On John's Terms (part 25)

Not only does this remind the observer of the fact that the setting in which Jesus is presented as speaking is the same setting in which He has given sight and standing within the covenant community (no longer ostracized) to the man blind from birth (who was looked upon as cursed---much like a Gentile), but it also informs the same observer that the author is reaching back even further, tying this event to the events recorded in the seventh chapter of the Gospel, which is the point of commencement of this particular portion of John’s wider narrative. 

There, Jesus is reported to have said “My teaching is not from Me, but from the one who sent Me.  If anyone wants to do God’s will, He will know about My teaching, whether it is from God or whether I speak from My own authority” (7:16b-17).  This dovetails quite nicely with the Father language of the tenth chapter.  In the seventh chapter, in conjunction with His words about God, Jesus says “Hasn’t Moses given you the law?  Yet not one of you keeps the law!  Why do you want to kill me?” (7:19)  In the tenth chapter, Jesus speaks of laying down His life. 

Following His accusation that there are those that want to kill Him in chapter seven, the crowd responds by saying “You’re possessed by a demon!” (7:20b).  In chapter ten, the author presents the conclusion of a similar pattern, with the aforementioned reference to accusations that Jesus is possessed by a demon.  Back to the seventh chapter, one finds “Then some of the residents of Jerusalem began to say, ‘Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill?’” (7:25), which will ultimately, within this story, culminate with Jesus’ declaration that He is willing to lay down His own life---no man takes it from Him.  From that point, an interesting exchange commences, with a back and forth between and amongst Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Jewish leaders. 

Keeping in mind the close of the scene in chapter ten, questions are raised about the geographic location from which Jesus has sprung.  Questions about His pedigree are raised because He is believed to be from Galilee, and it is said that “no prophet comes from Galilee” (7:52b).  When this is considered, one must not forget this use of “prophet” in John and its connection to Moses.  Jesus responds to this challenge by speaking of Himself as “the light of the world” (8:12b), apparently contrasting following Him with living a life of darkness.  Darkness, of course, could easily be a euphemism for blindness. 

Shortly thereafter, Jesus begins making repeated references to His “Father,” which will set the tone for its use in the tenth chapter, which forms part of this same extended story.  Also, the issue of the possibility of Jesus killing Himself is raised (8:22), which is answered by Jesus’ firm declaration in the tenth chapter that He will lay down His own life, with the ability to lay it down and take it up again.  Because of what precedes that statement, which was His referencing false messiahs, which would remind His hearers of those who had had their lives snuffed out by the enemies of the Creator God’s people, the issue of whether or not Jesus may take His own life is put to rest. 

In the forty-eighth and fifty-second verses of the eighth chapter, Jesus is once again accused of being possessed by a demon, which adequately continues the narrative flow, reminding the hearer of John’s story about what has been heard to this point.  Though He leaves the Temple area, the events of the ninth chapter, in which the man born blind is healed, informs the reader that the story begun in the seventh chapter is continuing.  The query of “A demon cannot cause the blind to see, can it?” is an overt reminder of the healing of the blind man, along with being a reminder of the exchange between Jesus and some of the Pharisees in which sight and blindness are discussed (9:39-41). 

This also serves as a reminder (along with the other things that have been pointed out in these recent paragraphs) that these several chapters are designed to hang together to form a unified treatment within a larger unified treatment, with the exaltation of the ethic of love as displayed by the Christ and by Israel’s God through His Christ (the mentions of miraculous signs come to mind) as that which is intended to predominate the inter-personal relationships of the covenant bearers, as well as their relationships with the wider world (those whom the Creator God also loves and seeks to bring in to His covenant family as part of His restoration of His once good creation). 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 24)

As it relates to Jesus, the scattering of the sheep under the false shepherd can be understood as another reference to the words of Zechariah (13:7), while also serving to make the point that Jesus, though with the path that He was traveling, certainly had an inkling as to what was in store for Him in His pending crucifixion, was not going to flee from the wolf (the Romans and their cross) and leave His sheep unguarded.  No, He was going to be the shepherd that cared for His sheep, faithfully seeing His role through to the very end for their salvation and life in His kingdom.  Driving this point home, He reiterates that He is “the good shepherd” (John 10:14a), and says “I lay down My life for the sheep” (10:15b).     

Expanding upon this thought in a way that plays into the sensibilities towards Gentiles that have been created throughout the Johannine narrative, and doing so in a way that would have been readily identifiable by the respective audiences (that of both Jesus and John), Jesus says “I have other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold.  I must bring them too, and they will listen to My voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd” (10:16).  Without spending too much additional time with this story or attempting to unpack the final words of Jesus, it is abundantly clear that it is the willful laying down of His life, especially in a way that is quite contrary to what would be expected of a presumed Messiah that is ushering in the kingdom of the Creator God, that is to be taken as a supreme manifestation of love.  This, among other things of course, is what sets Jesus apart from previous messianic claimants. 

Now this is not to say that previous messianic claimants did not act out of a love for the covenant God and His people, but it does indicate that there was a limiting factor with which Jesus does away, in that His love and His willingness to lay down His life due to that love was not limited to Israel.  This would speak quite loudly to Jesus’ audience and to John’s community, while also speaking quite loudly (when its context and referents are well understood) to all that would come to encounter this love-rooted narrative.  For the Johannine writings, which reflect the ongoing understanding of Jesus amongst the growing and persecuted Christian community, the fact that Jesus is believed to be the Creator God-manifest, and that He is willing to lay down His life for His sheep (encompassing all nations) in a humble self-sacrifice that would brand Him with unspeakable shame in an honor and shame culture, speaks untold volumes about that which is expected from those that strive to rightly bear the image of the Creator God. 

With that understood, and before offering up a change of scenery within Jerusalem, the Johannine audience finds itself ushered out of this story with “Another sharp division took place among the Jewish people because of these words” (10:19).  “These words” were, presumably, His words about sheep, sheepfolds, laying down His life, and His taking that life back up again (10:17-18), along with His speaking about “the Father” (10:17) being “My Father” (10:18).  Not only had Jesus effectively castigated many of the revolutionaries that had come before Him, who were often looked upon as heroic champions of the Jewish people (which presents its own set of problems for Him), the “Father” language that He was employing could have been quite troubling for His hearers. 

Though those that hear this Gospel tale are not going to be troubled by such usage, they would have more than well-understood the reaction recorded within the story, which had “Many of them saying, ‘He is possessed by a demon and has lost his mind!  Why do you listen to him?’” (10:20)  Naturally, this response was not universal, as “Others said, ‘These are not the words of someone possessed by a demon.  A demon cannot cause the blind to see, can it?’” (10:21)  This last statement stands as a reminder of the larger movement (the healing of the man blind from birth) in which the author presents this discourse in which Jesus casts Himself as the good shepherd.  

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 23)

As Jesus speaks in a way in which He appears to present Himself as the Messiah that came to do the will of His Father, He said “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b).  When Jesus speaks of this giving of life in abundance, is that gift to be thought of as being directed to Israel?  Naturally, that answer is yes.  However, the giving of life abundant cannot be disconnected from the statements about the stealing, killing, and destroying that had been employed by the thieves and robbers that had come before Him (and after Him, as was likely to have been quite well known to John’s audience). 

It must be understood that Jesus is also offering that gift of life abundant to the Gentiles that were then in possession of the land---the gift of the blessings of the covenant God of Israel---in His establishment of the kingdom of God.  This would have been contrary to a good portion of the then-current ways of thinking by a large percentage of the populace.  Quite a significant number of the people wanted their Messiah to steal from and kill and destroy the oppressors (those would not necessarily have been considered stealing, but liberation), but Jesus intended the opposite, desiring to establish the kingdom through acts that were the extension of the love of the Creator for His world.  Yes, Jesus intended that the hated Romans and all Gentile nations were to have the blessings of abundant life as well.  This was a component of the love of the Creator God that was first referenced in the third chapter (3:16), put into action for the world.      

Making what would then seem to be a point about the nature of His kingdom and His role as Israel’s Messiah, Jesus adds to this and says “I am the good shepherd” (10:11a).  This use of “good shepherd,” owing to its usage in the Hebrew Scriptures (the book of Zechariah most especially), as well as being something of a reference to Moses (the prophet that was to come into the world and Isreal’s great shepherd), was another way of speaking about the Messiah.  In this capacity Jesus says “The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (10:11b).  In its utterance (and quite obviously in retrospect), this was designed to begin preparing the covenant people for the fact that their Messiah was going to be killed at the hands of the very ones that so many of the people thought He would forcefully overthrow, which also answered the criticisms of those that stood opposed to the ongoing Jesus movement post-crucifixion and Resurrection, who would have pointed to the fact that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans and therefore could not possibly have been the Messiah. 

It had always been the case that when a potential messiah arose to do battle against the enemies of the Creator God’s people, the evidence that the person in question was obviously not the messiah was his eventual death at the hands of those same enemies.  Execution or death at arms was the clear signal of another failed messiah, but this was not going be the case for Jesus.  This pattern of potential revolution leading to death and destruction had been repeated numerous times both before and after Jesus, so these words of Jesus not only take on a prophetic role when directed to His hearers, but also an apologetic role when constructed in this way for the community as they learned to tell the story of Jesus.   

Elaborating on this thought, Jesus presents a short analogy in reference to would-be messiahs that had risen before Him (thieves and robbers), saying “He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (10:12-13).  How many men before Him had risen up to lead the people in revolution?  How many, when the pressure came and death threatened, ran away, leaving those whom he had previously led to suffer gruesome deaths?  

Monday, March 10, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 22)

Without rehearsing the history of attempted rebellions under Israel’s various oppressors, a simple acknowledgement that a long line of attempts at violent overthrow (most of which came to naught) backed by messianic claims and provided tenuous foundation by hopes concerning their God responding to rebellious actions by acting on behalf of His people to legitimize the activity and establish His kingdom will suffice.  That acknowledged, it is possible to confidently propose that when Jesus speaks of thieves and robbers that came before Him, He was making a reference to previous messianic claimants. 

Jesus was referring to all of those who had risen up in revolt in efforts to overthrow the nations that ruled over the land of Israel, grasping at that which was not theirs to take and attempting to set themselves up as kings and rulers of the Creator God’s land and people.  Not only could this be directed towards all of those that could be looked back upon as potential and failed messiah figures, but it could be rightly applied to Israel’s then current ruling and dynastic family, as Jesus adds “the sheep did not listen to them” (John 10:8b).  Certainly, there were very few in Israel who looked upon the Herods as legitimate rulers of the covenant people.  In many ways, they were as despised as the Romans. 

Jesus repeats Himself and says, “I am the door.  If anyone enters through Me, He will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (10:9).  Keeping in mind that the notion of being “saved” had everything to do with participating in the fullness of the Creator God’s covenant faithfulness by participating in the kingdom of God, the renewal of creation (by those living at the time of its expected in-breaking), or the resurrection of the righteous dead (by those who had died as people faithful to the covenant), the covenant people were in constant expectation of the re-establishment of national sovereignty and subsequent superiority to the surrounding nations, as in the halcyon days of David and Solomon. 

By and large, the covenant people were expecting their God to break in upon history and set up His kingdom in and through them.  This was a motivating force behind the repeated messianic movements and claimants, and the associated revolutionary activities.  Many looked to the long-held promise of a land of their own in which they ruled themselves, knowing that as long as the present situation of being ruled by foreign powers continued, that they were still in a state of exile from their God’s promises to them. 

It is in this context that Jesus informs the people that the way in which they were attempting to regain control of their land was not the way that their God had intended for them.  It was not the door, so to speak.  Jesus told them that He was the door, and that entrance into the kingdom of the Creator God was going to be provided through Him and through following on the path of love and self-sacrifice that He was forging.  The people would find their pasture, their land, through what it was that He was going to do, through their believing in Him as Lord and KIng, and through their loyally adhering to His instructions and examples concerning the way that He was presenting---which would ultimately be the way of the shame and suffering and the cross. 

Presumably turning His thoughts to the thieves and robbers who were the pretenders and presumptuous usurpers that had come before Him (in no way at all is the Satan in view here as the thief and robber), while also considering those that would have followed after Jesus and been known to the Johannine community (especially considering the fact of the destruction of the Jewish revolt of 66-70, the destruction of the Temple, and the burning of Jerusalem), Jesus offers commentary on their methods by saying that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (10:10a).  This method was not the Creator God’s intention for His people and His kingdom.  Then, as it is now, it was not the Creator God’s design for His chosen people to establish and extend His kingdom by force of arms and violent revolution.  There was no need to steal and kill and destroy, as such would be quite counter-productive to His plans.  That is the method of the thieves and robbers.