Tuesday, February 18, 2020

March 1, 2020 - 1st Sunday in Lent

                                                         Biblical Words                                            [648]
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11. 

Humans disobey parents to find a world of hardships and mortality, but the Servant shows a way beyond temptation. 

The season of Lent brings a focus on the brokenness and failure of human efforts to attain righteousness and the good.  

It is a season about our defeats, perhaps especially about our own betrayals of the good we hoped for.  This is the condition of sin, as Christian language and experience has traditionally defined it.  

Lent is the 40 days in which recognition and confession of sin, contrition and repentance, are called for.  It is, therefore, a season of reversing – practicing abstention from – selfishness and worldly living.  It is a season when disciples imitate the suffering Jesus as he made the trek toward Jerusalem and the Via Dolorosa.  

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7.  

The Torah reading is the story of Eve and Adam eating the forbidden fruit.  This was, in the first instance, a folk story.  It was probably used in its present form as a didactic text for young men who have just reached puberty and are now learning to read and write in wisdom schools.  The texts they have to learn, recite, and discuss with their teacher are about their new stage of life.  

The whole story in Genesis 2:5-3:24 is a paradigm of the loss of the paradise and innocence of childhood.  

The story tells how two youngsters, who had all their desires met in a perfect garden by a super-parent, gradually woke up to the realities of the adult world – sexuality, childbirth, labor in the fields, and the resistance of the earth to the desires of humans.  And most of all, they woke up to the reality of mortality. They came to know that they would die – “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19, NRSV).  

The critical transition from childhood innocence to adult awareness comes about by eating the fruit of the tree of knowing good and bad.  (Hebrew ra‘ , “bad,” doesn’t normally have the weighty overtones of Anglo-Saxon “evil.”)  This is a fruit that gives a knowledge of consequences, knowledge of what will happen if… This is the knowledge possessed by the gods.  It is the chief advantage that gods have over humans.  (“See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil [bad]…” Genesis 3:22.)  Therefore, this is the fruit that the man and the woman must not eat.  They must not become like the gods.  

As it stands, this story is about disobeying the parental authority and in the process becoming mature adults – with all the pains and benefits appertaining thereto – in a real world instead of in the dream world of children.  This story is not about sin; “sin” is not mentioned in Genesis until the story of Cain and Abel (4:7).  

The story of Adam and Eve is never referred to in ancient Israelite times.  No historical, prophetic, or poetic book in the Judean scriptures mentions it, much less quotes it.  The story simply sat in Genesis for many centuries, enjoyed, no doubt, but making no big impression on Israelite writers.  

The earliest reasonably clear reference outside of Genesis to Eve and the forbidden fruit is in the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira (died about 180 BCE).  One of his sayings is, “From a woman sin had its beginning, / and because of her we all die” (Ecclesiasticus [= Sirach] 25:24, NRSV).  Ben Sira was a misogynist, but it is clear that by his time the story of the forbidden fruit had become the story of “original sin.”   This notion of sin that is inherited by all the human race may have first appeared in the Hellenistic age (300 BCE and after), but it had a vast future, especially through the writings of Paul of Tarsus (died about 64 CE) and, for all the Latin-speaking West, through the influence of Augustine, bishop of Hippo (lived 354-430 CE).  

As the story of the origin of sin, the Adam and Eve story is about disobedience.  A command from God’s very own self was clear and explicit.  Do not eat that fruit of knowledge.  They ate it, and the consequence was the corruption of existence as it had been in the days of innocence, including the inheritance of mortality.  All humans thereafter were enslaved by this corruption. 

The drama of human destiny then became whether there was any way out – any way back to innocence and paradise (that is, to “salvation”).  That is the point at which all later Jewish and Christian teachings pick up, insisting that there is a way, a way through obedience now –  of the Torah (two-fold torah in Rabbinic Judaism), or of the Way offered by Jesus, the Anointed One of God. 

Psalm 32.  
The Psalm for this Sunday’s reading has to do with the language and experience of sin and forgiveness, and especially of the power and blessing released by confession of sin directly to God.  
What is pretty much standard language for sin in the psalms is presented in the two opening verses:  “transgressions,” which need to be forgiven; “sin,” which needs to be covered; “iniquity,” which needs to be not imputed or “reckoned” to one; and “deceit,” which must be avoided in one’s spirit (or one’s mouth, in the Greek translation).  The first three terms are repeated in the speaker’s report of confession to the Lord in verse 5.  

The primary force of the psalm, however, has to be the apparent personal experience reported. “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long” (verse 3, NRSV).  

Transgression, sin, and iniquity (sometimes translated “guilt”) are destructive of vitality, spirit, and health.  This speaker finally resolves to confess all to the Lord, acknowledging sin, not hiding iniquity, and confessing transgressions.  The result:  “you forgave the guilt of my sin” (verse 5, NRSV; New Jerusalem Bible, “took away my guilt, forgave my sin”). 

The rest of the psalm is lessons learned from this experience, though perhaps in verses 8-9 it is God speaking rather than the forgiven sinner, warning the unrepentant not to be stubborn as mules who have to be bound and bridled to keep them where they belong.

Romans 5:12-19. 

The Epistle reading gives us one of the versions of original sin that Paul developed from his Judean training and his own Christian inspiration and scriptural study. 

The passage maintains a polarity between Adam, the first man, and Christ.  Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience changed the human nature of all peoples.  Everybody inherited the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin.  Paul distinguishes between the original sin of Eve and Adam, and all the rest of the sins committed in later ages.  Only Adam’s sin changed human nature; everybody else only had ordinary everyday sins.

The same principle is applied to Christ.  Christ’s obedience to God on the cross was an ontologically potent act; it changed the being of humans who came to be included in it – “so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (verse 19, NRSV).  How one gets included in that act of grace is spelled out more fully in the following chapters of this epistle. 

Important for Paul’s overall view is the distinction between the sin everybody is involved in (from Eve and Adam) and the sin that increases because of the Law.  When the Law came with Moses, the requirements of righteousness were spelled out much more fully – a just world pleasing to God was projected, posed as a goal, by the Law.  But, alas, failure to attain righteousness before God only became greater because it was burdened with even more occasions to fail.  “But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied…” (verse 20, just past our reading). 

Whether only from Adam and Eve or also through Moses, people right and left were caught in sin and its consequence (death).  Until the dominion of grace came in -- and with it “eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (verse 21, also just past our reading). 

Matthew 4:1-11. 

The Gospel reading is the narrative of Jesus’ temptation by the devil.  Sin and temptation have always been understood to go together – thus being tempted to do evil is the way humans get caught in the bondage of sin. 

In the framework shared by all the Gospels, Jesus’ coming is a decisive event in the cosmic struggle between good and evil. The temptation of Jesus is the immediate sequel to the coming of the Holy Spirit upon him, and that coming sets in motion a conflict between the powers of the Spirit and the powers of Satan.  This conflict is fought out in the human world – which has been pretty exclusively in Satan’s power in recent times.

The temptation of Jesus is to exercise his divine powers improperly, or in the service of the demonic lord instead of the true Lord.  The devil (he is called “Satan” only at the end, verse 10) is trying to seduce Jesus over to his own side. 

The three temptations, like many in ordinary life, are a mixture of good and evil.  Increasing the bread supply from stones is not in itself a bad thing; doing it for the devil is.  If we read the passage correctly, the three temptations, in their positive potential, are in fact fulfilled in the course of Jesus’ later work, as the Gospel According to Matthew presents it. 

The first temptation is to turn stones into bread, because Jesus, who has fasted for forty days, is very hungry.  Jesus refuses by quoting Moses – which Jesus does in response to every temptation – that humans do not live by bread alone but by all that God says (Deuteronomy 8:3).  However, later in the ministry on the Galilean hills, Jesus does multiply loaves of bread and feeds the hungry who have been following him and waiting upon his words (Matthew 14:13-21).

In the second temptation (in Matthew; Luke reverses the order of the last two) the devil takes Jesus to “the holy city” and invites him to throw himself down from a pinnacle to demonstrate to the world that he has divine powers ready to protect him.  This time the devil also quotes scripture, citing a promise that God’s angels will protect the Messiah from all harm (verse 6).  Quoting Moses again, Jesus replies that you should not put the Lord your God to the test (Deuteronomy 6:16). 

The devil begins this temptation, like the first, by saying, “If you are the son of God, …”  At the crisis at the end of Jesus’ mission, others say to him, “If you are the son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40, NRSV).  The temptation was to avoid the cross, to make a great display but only one that would serve the fancies of the world and not the will of God to redeem the peoples.  In his final act, Jesus did indeed cast himself down to death – in God’s way rather than in Satan’s! 

Finally, in the third temptation the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows him “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (verse 8).  Now the full force of the devil’s lure comes out.  “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  There is a clear reply in Moses again; “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (verse 10, quoting Deuteronomy 6:13). 

But here, too, Matthew’s Gospel finds a truer and more righteous way of achieving the goal to which the temptation referred.  In the final commission, after the resurrection -- also on a mountain in Galilee -- Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19-20.)  The ambiguous good of this temptation too has been accomplished in God’s own way. 

Matthew has presented the temptations of Jesus as devious ways by which the devil would achieve his own purposes and defeat those of the Lord.  In his faithfulness, Jesus will fulfill the whole will of God and show his followers the way to go beyond temptation (usually by quoting Deuteronomy). 

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

February 26, 2020 - Ash Wednesday

                                                         Biblical Words                                            [647]
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. 
In a world darkened by sin, prayers of confession and pleas for forgiveness are the acceptable sacrifices to God.  
In most religions it is common to have a rhythm between fasting and feasting.  In Christianity, Lent is the season of fasting before the feasting of the Easter season.  
In the early centuries, the fasting of Lent lasted only two or three days before Easter, but after the fourth century the fasting was gradually extended in the Western Church to the traditional 40 days before Easter, not counting the six Sundays of Lent.  (All Sundays are feasts, so one does not fast on Sundays.)  
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten fasting for Christians.  It is the solemn moment that opens a period of recognizing the sinful condition in which humans find themselves.  It begins a time of contrition for acts and omissions that separate one from God; a time of mourning for what has been lost – from the world and from one’s self.  And communally, it confesses a painful falling short of God’s expectation for justice and compassion from human to human.  
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17.  
The prophetic reading presents a great crisis for the community – the very Day of the Lord, “a day of darkness and gloom” (verse 2, NRSV).  
The crisis is total; it includes everyone in the community.  
Sanctify the congregation; 
      assemble the aged; 
gather the children, 
      even infants at the breast… (verse 16).  
Though scholars have long recognized that the prophet refers to a terribly severe locust plague, the oracles seem deliberately vague and ominous.  The horror impending is not entirely natural.  It has overtones of eschatological warfare.  
Like blackness spread upon the mountains 
      a great and powerful army comes; 
their like has never been from of old, 
      nor will be again after them 
      in ages to come (verse 2). 
The psychological and spiritual tone is of ultimate doom.  All personal and communal reality is under this shadow.  Nothing else matters.  
The appropriate human response is repentance.  
Yet even now, says the Lord, 
      return to me with all your heart, 
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
      rend your hearts and not your clothing (verses 12-13).  
Fasting here is an act showing sorrow, sorrow for alienation from God.  Only a return to God can lead to relief, a return by all the social body caught in the doom of separation from the source of holiness.  
Fasting, not eating for a day, is an external sign of emptiness, of the absence of God from the depths of the soul, communal and personal. 
Psalm 51:1-17.  
This psalm selection is the quintessential text for Ash Wednesday.  It is the most profound personal confession of sin in the psalms.  
The “lament” psalms are all arguments for the defense.  The speakers are in trouble of some kind and they are pleading before the high judge to deliver them from this trouble.  The arguments and rhetorical strategies developed in a particular lament psalm depend on the source of the trouble.  Whose fault is it?  There are three possibilities.  
(1) Most commonly, the trouble is caused by enemies, that is, by others.  These are the prayers of the falsely accused righteous ones, and the prayer asks God to deliver one from the enemies.  Psalm 7 is a striking example.  
(2) Less commonly, the trouble is caused by oneself.  The speaker is the cause of his or her own trouble, which in some way or another is sin.  It is especially sin against God, but may include sin against others.  These are the “penitential” psalms, confessing sin and begging for forgiveness, rather than the destruction of one’s enemies, though accusations against enemies are sometimes thrown in for good measure.  The seven traditional penitential psalms are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143, but the greatest of these is psalm 51.  
(3) Very occasionally the cause of the speaker’s trouble may be God, which poses a very tricky problem for the speaker of a lament.  (It is necessary to indict the judge!)  The speaker’s misery leads to desperate and daring accusations.  
I am silent; I do not open my mouth, 
      for it is you who have done it. 
Remove your stroke from me; 
      I am worn down by the blows of your hand (Psalm 39:9-10, NRSV).  
This complex type of accusation is at least hinted at in psalms 39 and 88, and has its full blown expression, of course, in the book of Job.  
The power and profundity of Psalm 51 stand on their own.  Read it, carefully and thoughtfully, preferably in more than one translation.  Only a few features of the reading will be noticed here.  
The language of sin and forgiveness.  The psalm speaks of “transgressions,” “iniquity,” and “sin” (singular) and uses verbs “to sin” and “to do evil.”  For purposes of this psalm, these are all synonyms.  “Against you, you alone, have I sinned…” (verse 4).  The personal relation to God has been alienated by the sin, transgressions, and iniquity.  
The speaker affirms that sin is a kind of power that threatens one’s whole existence.  It extends back to conception and birth.  “I was born guilty, / a sinner when my mother conceived me” (verse 5, NRSV.  The Tanak [Jewish Publication Society] version translates, “I was born with iniquity; with sin my mother conceived me.”).  This does not refer to sexuality as somehow  sinful, of course, but to the inevitability of sinning as humans live in the real world.  
A variety of images are used for God’s forgiving sin.  “Blot out transgressions” views sin as illegally crossing a boundary (trans-gress).  Such action leaves tracks in the sand, and forgiveness means that these tracks are erased – removing evidence that one stepped over the line. 
“Wash me from my iniquity” is scrubbing off dirt and filth from one’s body.   “Cleanse me from my sin” is a ritual expression, meaning to purify someone or something that has become “unclean” and thus is denied access to sacred precincts, to the divine presence.  An extension of this last image is, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (verse 7).  Hyssop was the branch of a shrub that was used as a brush to sprinkle holy water or blood in ritual settings (Leviticus 14:4 and Exodus 12:22).  
Expressing a more personal action by God are “wash me and I shall be whiter than snow,” “hide your face from my sins,” and, “let the bones that you have crushed rejoice,” that is, let there be a wholly new recovery of my health and wholeness before you!  
The climax of praying for forgiveness, however, is the plea for full personal transformation.  
Create in me a clean heart, O God, 
      and put a new and right spirit within me….
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, 
      and sustain in me a willing spirit (verses 10 and 12).  
A final argument for why God should forgive and renew this person is the witness it will create among others.  “O Lord, open my lips, / and my mouth will declare your praise.”  Then, the speaker declares, a true offering will be made to God.  
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; 
      a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (verses 15 and 17).  
That final declaration is the essential message of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.  
II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10.  
The epistle reading begins, “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (NRSV).  Reconciliation to God is the long-range goal of self-examination, of sorrow for sins, of confession of emptiness apart from God, and of trust in the promise of forgiveness.  
There follows a remarkable statement of the divine action in Christ.  The statement is a little clumsy but is the more striking for that reason.  Very literally it reads, “The one knowing no sin [Christ], … he [God] made sin, in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (verse 21).  
The expression “Christ was made sin” probably plays on the double meaning of the Hebrew word for sin (ḥattā’t).  This same Hebrew word means both a sinful condition and a sin-offering that removes that condition.  Sinners bring a sin-offering to the altar which the priest sacrifices for them and they are freed of their sinful condition.  That is how the ritual cult worked.  Paul is saying that Christ went to the altar (read “cross”) as a sin-offering on our behalf.  Therefore, as long as we are “in him” (included in the effect of his sacrifice) we live in the benefit of that sin-offering and are reconciled to God.  
In the remainder of the passage Paul elaborates the roles of the apostles as “ambassadors” of Christ (5:20a), ambassadors who bring to sinners the message that reconciliation is available.  He emphasizes the great hardships and acts of self-denial that the ambassadors of Christ go through in this work for God (6:4-10).  
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.  
The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is subordinate to the prayer of confession in the psalm.  This selection from the Sermon on the Mount warns against conspicuous consumption in religion – against public displays when one practices charity (verses 2-4), prays in public (verses 5-6), and when one fasts (verses 16-18).  Such religiousness for public consumption is its own reward.  It leaves the relation of God and sinner unaltered.  
What must be sought instead is something that makes a difference in heaven, not just in the media or opinion polls, not just accumulating earthly treasures (verses 19-21).  In a word, true religion – “the sacrifice acceptable to God” (Psalm 51:17) – is not about externals, but about the inner being, about “a clean heart” and “a new and right spirit within.”  
One may take ashes on one’s forehead at the Ash Wednesday service, but what counts is the awareness of the darkness in the world and in oneself – the darkness exposed by the proclamation of the Day of the Lord, and illuminated only by the promise of God’s forgiveness.  

February 23, 2020 - Trasfiguration Sunday

                                                            Biblical Words                                            [646]
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2;  II Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9. 
The hidden glory of God’s Servant occasionally shines out for a select few. 

The last Sunday of the Epiphany season is Transfiguration Sunday, which emphasizes the Glory of God’s Son. 

Transfiguration, however, is immediately followed by Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday in Lent, which emphasize the humility and obedience unto death of that same Servant of God.  Thus, these two Sundays are the peak and the depth of the divine-human presence of God to a waiting and longing humanity.  

Transfiguration is a sharp intrusion of the divine element into the human world.  It is not about ordinary human events or powers.  It is a radical affirmation that beyond human efforts there is a reality that can and will ultimately work a redeeming will of God in spite of all human appearances and expectations to the contrary.  Therefore, the Transfiguration readings are about marvelous, miraculous events.  They are about the “other” that is finally the basis of all faith, hope, and love.  

Exodus 24:12-18.  

The Glory of God at Mount Sinai led to the gift of the Tabernacle.  

The exodus has happened, a first round of testing in the wilderness has passed, and the people have witnessed the awesome and earth-shaking power with which God delivered the first installment of the law required of the covenant people – the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19-20).  The people have bound themselves to obey the law, and their representatives have ventured up on the holy mountain to consummate the covenant agreement with a sacred meal in the divine presence (Exodus 24:1-11).  

Thus, God had been directly present to the people – for a moment. 

What remained was to provide a means of God’s continuing presence among the people.  That was the purpose of the Tabernacle.  

“And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it” (Exodus 25:8-9, NRSV).  

It was to receive the instructions for this tabernacle that Moses again went up the mountain, waited six days, and then on the seventh day entered the brilliant cloud to be in God’s presence for forty days and forty nights (verses 15-18).  

Psalm 2.  

The Glory of God at Mount Zion was the Son Anointed to rule the nations. 

While the Torah reading lifts up God’s glory around the servant at the making of the covenant and the giving of the true sanctuary, the Psalm reading features the rule over the worldly powers of God’s Anointed One who has been enthroned upon Mount Zion.  This psalm is a coronation psalm; it presents the ideal picture of the king on Zion as God’s agent for ruling the rebellious powers that would destroy the peace of God’s realm.  

The psalm has four parts, the first three of which are dramatic scenes that conclude with direct speech from the participants.  

In Scene One, a heavenly observer speaks with astonishment about an uprising of the nations against God’s rule.  The speaker describes the scene and allows us to overhear directly the rebellious words:  “The kings of the earth set themselves, … against the Lord and his anointed, saying, / ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, / and cast their cords from us’” (verse 3, NRSV).  

In Scene Two the heavenly observer turns from the earthly rebellion to describe the response in the heavenly throne-room.  “He who sits in the heavens laughs…” (verse 4).  The laughter soon turns to annoyance, however, and God makes a pronouncement intended to shatter the rebellion:  “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill” (verse 6).  From the heavenly viewpoint, that concludes the matter.  The rebellion against God’s Anointed (Messiah, Christ) is overthrown by the appearance of the (new) king on Zion.  

In Scene Three we hear that king, the Anointed One, speak.  He quotes, for all peoples to hear, what God had said to him when he was enthroned on Zion.  “You are my son; today I have begotten [or “borne”] you” (verse 7).  

And the heavenly declaration continues by promising the Anointed One that his inheritance consists of the nations, and he is given discretionary powers to discipline them (verses 8-9).  

(In verse 9, read “you may break them with a rod of iron, and you may dash them in pieces…”  This is not a prediction – “you shall break them…” – but a granting of discretionary power to the Anointed One over vassal rulers, up to complete destruction.)

In the final Scene, a mini-sermon is delivered (by the heavenly observer) to the rulers of the earth, warning them to serve the Lord with reverence, because the Lord is quick to discipline rebellious outbursts.  The concluding word is that obedience to the Lord is its own reward:  “Happy are all who take refuge in him.”  

At his coronation ceremony on Zion, the Anointed One is proclaimed in a glorious way and is endowed with a mission concerning the nations.  

II Peter 1:16-21 

This reading contains the only New Testament report of the transfiguration event outside the synoptic Gospels.  

II Peter is written as the last testament of Peter – “I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me” (II Peter 1:13-14, NRSV).  Probably written rather later than the time of Peter (many writings had been attributed to Peter by 150 CE), it was accepted as scripture by the later church (third and fourth centuries) because it is not fabulous (as most of the false-Peter writings are) and there was a chance that it was an actual surviving report of apostolic faith.  

The writer is discussing the truth of the teachings about Jesus’ second coming, his return in power at the final judgment.  In the writer’s time this coming had been long delayed, and “scoffers” had arisen who challenged such a belief.  They said, “Where is the promise of his coming?  For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were…” (II Peter 3:4).  Promises, promises, but nothing has changed!

In support of the tradition about Jesus’ coming glory, “Peter” reports what he and the other disciples saw and heard at the transfiguration.  “For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory,” and he quotes the words of God at the transfiguration.  The writer concludes, “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain” (verse 18).  

The appearance of the heavenly Jesus attested by the voice of God – these things of the transfiguration – were foretastes and guarantees that the enthroned Lord will finally come in full force.  

(The consummation this writer expected is given in II Peter 3:10.  “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”)  

Matthew 17:1-9. 

The Gospel reading is Matthew’s version of the transfiguration event.  It follows Mark pretty closely, though with some distinctive Matthean touches.  

The transfiguration narrative – the moment when the veil is lifted and the real Jesus of heavenly glory is revealed, briefly – stands as a twin pillar to the baptism narrative (Matthew 3:13-17).  There too the voice of God testifies to Jesus as Son of God.  The baptism and the transfiguration are the moments in Jesus’ ministry that give heavenly authority for the saving work in Galilee (Baptism) and that then re-direct that saving work toward its culmination at Jerusalem (Transfiguration).  These two pillars of the story bring the power of God into the human world and, in the case of the transfiguration, give divine authorization for the mission of the dying savior on his way to Jerusalem. 

The disciples see Jesus “transformed” (the Greek word is meta-morpheō), which in Jerome’s Latin translation became transfiguratus est, the source of the English “transfiguration.”  Matthew shapes his description of the newly revealed glory in poetic parallelism:  “And his face shown like the sun, / and his clothes became white like the light” (verse 2, more literal than NRSV).  

Along with the heavenly light there appear two ancient worthies who, in their times, had brought in God’s great ages of the covenant in the past – Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets.  The disciples see these holy men of the past conferring with Jesus.  Clearly, another great – the greatest – age is about to begin for Israel and the nations.  

Peter speaks up and proposes to erect three “tents,” one each for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.  (The word “tent” is the term used in the Greek torah for the “tabernacle.”)  Peter’s proposal implies that Jesus is to stand in the esteem of the people alongside Moses and Elijah, as a third.  It is this proposal that precipitates the interruption of God’s voice.  Peter’s proposal is a foolish one – as both Mark and Luke say explicitly.  Here, “while he was still speaking,” Peter is interrupted and God announces who you are really dealing with.  “This is my Son, the Beloved…  listen to him!” (verse 5). 

The reaction of the disciples to the voice of God, and then Jesus’ response to them are reported only by Matthew.  “They fell to the ground and were overcome by fear” (verse 6, NRSV).  Jesus then comes to them and “touches” them, instructing them to stand up and not be afraid.  “And when they looked up, they saw no one except him – Jesus only [’Iēsoun monon]” (verse 8, translation conformed to Greek word order).  

In Matthew, the transfiguration concludes with the uniqueness of Jesus (Jesus only). The one who touches and speaks gently – who looks deceptively like only a kind man – is the only Lord for those who have truly recognized him.  

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

February 16, 2020 - 6th Sunday after Epiphany

                                  Biblical Words                                       [645] 
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8;  I Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37. 
God’s law aims to bring God’s people to maturity, to grown up choices and conduct. 
Deuteronomy 30:15-20.  
Deuteronomy is the final speech (or speeches) of Moses to the Israelites at the end of their 40-year wilderness sojourn. 
The dates given in the scroll have Moses delivering these speeches during the eleventh month of the fortieth year after the exodus. (Deuteronomy 1:3, the speeches begin  on the 1st day of the eleventh month of the 40th year; 34:8, the Israelites mourn for Moses for 30 days, the whole 12th month; Joshua 4:19 and 5:10 show Joshua leading the people into the land in the first month of the 41st year.  Thus the speeches of Deuteronomy fill the eleventh month.) 
The whole of Deuteronomy is a sustained argument that it is urgent for the Israelites to keep the law when they live in the promised land.  This is not simply a restatement of the law; this is intense and powerful preaching!  It is full of passion urging the people to love God – which means here, as in ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties, to keep the stipulations of a covenant between an overlord and subordinate beneficiaries. 
Scholars have long recognized that the actual historical situation in which Deuteronomy was a powerful political and religious force was the time of Josiah’s reform in Judah in the 620’s BCE.  The core of Deuteronomy, at least chapters 12-28, was the foundation for a constitutional convention held by Josiah in the year 622.  This core, called the “scroll of the Torah” (“book of the law,” NRSV of II Kings 22:8), was explained to the world as having been found during a renovation of the temple, and the makers of Josiah’s reform proclaimed it as the ancient and authentic law of Moses, lost during all those centuries of rule by unfaithful kings of Israel and Judah (II Kings 22:8-23:3).  As some have observed, what are really revolutions often claim to be reforms, that is, returns to an older and truer state of justice or political correctness.  So it was with Deuteronomy in Josiah’s days.
Our reading is a paragraph from the intense peroration that concludes Moses’ speeches (or specifically the speech that begins in 29:1).  This paragraph seeks to sum up the challenge in one or two final dichotomies:  “I set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” (verse 15, NRSV); “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life... loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (verses 19-20). 
This fits as spoken to all the Israelites about to enter on their great adventure in the given land – where keeping that land as well as flourishing in it depends on obedience to the torah (“law”). 
The same urgent speech fits the time of Josiah – where turning back to Yahweh and regaining independent power in the world of nations depends on obeying the torah, particularly those parts of the torah that prohibit non-Israelite religious practices and require all religious service to be centralized at the Jerusalem temple. 
At a critical historical moment, the urgent speech of Deuteronomy marked a great either/or in Israel’s life with its Lord, Yahweh.  Later generations returned repeatedly to this challenge as the word of the Lord, driving always toward continual reform and renewed love of the Lord. 
Psalm 119:1-8. 
The Torah reading – as also the Gospel reading – concentrates on God’s law as the direction for life.  The Psalm reading is a selection from a great composition embodying deep devotion and love for God’s law. 
A psalm of torah devotion.  (I repeat here the introduction to this psalm used for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost in Year C.)  
The 119th psalm, all 176 verses of it, is a kind of on-going polyphonic fugue.  It is an alphabetic acrostic, each group of eight verses beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet – from aleph to taw.  The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each receiving eight lines of verse, produce the 176 verses of the psalm. 
Each group of eight verses also presents its praise of and devotion to God’s instruction, torah, by using a set of synonyms for torah that are repeated throughout the psalm. 
Each of the twenty-two stanzas uses most of these words for God’s law – the terms (in NRSV translation) are law, decrees, ways, precepts, statutes, commandments, and ordinances.  These seven are used, in this order, in our reading, verses 1 through 8.  Verse 8 repeats the term statutes, already used in verse 5, instead of using another synonym of the group such as dabar, word (used in verse 9), or imrah, word or promise (used in verses 11 and 38).  
(Our reading is the aleph stanza, every line beginning with the silent Hebrew consonant corresponding to A in the Roman alphabet.) 
The first word of this stanza, and thus of the psalm, is ’asherey, “happy are” (“blessed,” in old translations).  This is the same term as the first word of the whole Psalter, and corresponds to the opening words of the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  
Blessed, fortunate in the eyes of others, are those who walk in the law of the Lord – who have, therefore, chosen “life and prosperity.”  Mostly the verses make declarations of this good fortune, but there is also a note of appeal for divine help in seeking to be wholly faithful to the torah (“O that my ways may be steadfast... do not utterly forsake me,” verses 5 and 8). 
This is the devotion of those who have chosen life – and become mature in the faith. 
I Corinthians 3:1-9. 
The Epistle reading is not directly about devotion or obedience to the law.  It is about growing up – about becoming mature in the way of life offered through the new revelation of God’s grace and will. 
In the early stages of Paul’s work with the Corinthian believers they were children in the faith.  “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ” (verse 1, NRSV).  The main sign of their continued immaturity is their divisiveness, their competing parties within the larger community.  “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?  For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?” (verses 3-4).  
The choice, the challenge, Paul puts before the Corinthians is to take a proper view of their status before God.  Founding missionaries and talented teachers are not embodiments of God’s presence, not themselves objects of devotion.  They are servants.  It is God to whom everyone belongs – not even Christ ultimately, who always leads back to God.  “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (verse 7). 
Maturity in the faith is seeing beyond all the immediate and short-term circumstances and leaders; it is seeing the work of God in the big picture and joining in the choice of life and the common good (“a common purpose,” verse 8). 
Matthew 5:21-37. 
The third reading from the Sermon on the Mount is directly and in detail about the Law. 
In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus repeats commandments and precepts from the Torah and contrasts his own teaching with them.  Sometimes he intensifies the Torah’s requirement – anger and not just murder, lust and not just adultery.  Sometimes he extends the Torah requirement in wholly new directions – non-resistance to enemies instead of an eye for an eye (next week’s reading).  
Today’s reading is Jesus’ reinterpretation of three of the Ten Commandments.  The Commandments addressed are from the “second tablet,” as tradition organized the ten.  They are:  You will not murder, you will not commit adultery, and you will not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Murder.  “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’...” (verse 21, NRSV).  The NRSV here, in Exodus 20:13, and in Deuteronomy 5:17, correctly translates “murder,” not simply “kill.”  (The Hebrew verb used in the commandment “specifically denotes the killing of a fellow countryman,” quote from V. Maag in Koehler-Baumgartner, The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Study ed., 2001, page 1283.)  All of the last five commandments of the Decalogue concern crimes against community members:  murder, adultery, theft (kidnapping), false witness in court, and coveting the neighbor’s household. 
Jesus says, the letter of the law is not enough.  Not just the action of murder, but what leads to the crime is the violation of God’s commandment.  Cain (in Genesis 4) became intensely jealous, leading to anger – also being warned by God that this is how Sin works – and then to murder.  This whole chain, says Jesus, is what must be headed off.  Not murder itself, but anger that causes all kinds of strife in the community.  That is the offense against God. 
The anger may take three forms:  simple anger against a brother or sister, insulting a brother or sister, or declaring “You fool!” to a brother or sister (verse 22).  Resolving conflicts with fellow community members must take priority even over doing religious devotions (verses 23-24), and incidentally is to one’s own advantage (verse 25). 
Adultery.  Jesus quotes what is usually called the Seventh Commandment, prohibiting adultery, and immediately  transposes it into a prohibition of lust.  If you have lusted after a woman, you have already committed adultery in your heart (verse 28).  This is followed by advice to do violence to oneself if one has evil inclinations:  tear out your right eye if it contemplates evil action, or lop off your right hand if it is inclined to sin (verse 30).  This advice is motivated by fear of hell fire, at least as second generation believers in Syria heard Jesus saying it. 
The adultery commandment is extended to the related topic of divorce (verses 31-32).  The rule in Matthew’s churches is that no divorce is allowed – except for sexual unfaithfulness (Matthew’s clause, as opposed to Mark’s and probably Jesus’, see Mark 10:2-12).  But even if divorce is allowed, remarriage is not.  (“...whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery,” verse 32.)  You can get out of a bad marriage, but the woman cannot get into another without sin.  So it was in the Jesus communities in Syria sixty years after Jesus’ death. 
Swearing Falsely.  The Ninth Commandment was about swearing under oath during judicial procedures.  The prohibition was against swearing to a lie, robbing some party of their justice.  Jesus really doesn’t treat the issue of justice; he focuses only on oath taking as such. 
To take an oath was something like, May God do so-and-so to me if I am not telling the truth.  The Jesus of the Sermon sees this as an infringement on the holiness or reverence of God.  Don’t do it.  Don’t swear either by your own head (“May I be decapitated if ...”?) or even by the sacred city Jerusalem (“May Jerusalem fall into ruins if ...”). 
Jesus’ alternative is:  Keep it simple!  “Let your words be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (verse 37). 
The Torah – the Law – is a guide to grown-up behavior by those who have committed themselves to seek and serve the will of God. 

Monday, January 27, 2020

February 9, 2020 - 5th Sunday after Epiphany

                                                            Biblical Words                                                 [644]
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9 (10); I Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20. 

God seeks authentic devotion and life, from God’s Spirit as well as from God’s Law. 
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12).  
The prophetic text speaks of a people who appear to know the Lord and delight in God’s instruction (verses 1-2).  They have fasted, they have performed rituals of contriteness, but in their view God has not responded as God should!  
Perhaps the deficiency is on God’s side rather than their own?  
The divine reply indicts them for hypocrisy – “you serve your own interest on your fast day” (verse 3, NRSV).  
On their holy days they pursue quarrels.  That is, they pursue court cases that can be processed only when all the clans are gathered at a religious assembly, mixing greed and party conflict with days of devotion and divine service. 
God contrasts such deceitful conduct with a true service of the Lord:  
Is not this the fast that I choose:  
      to loose the bonds of injustice, 
      to undo the thongs of the yoke, 
to let the oppressed go free, 
      and to break every yoke?  
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, 
      and bring the homeless poor into your house; 
when you see the naked, to cover them, 
      and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  (verses 6-7)
So, after three generations of Babylonian exile, when the religious assemblies in backwater Judah became rowdy and unseemly, the prophet heard God requiring something different of the people.  The prophet heard God requiring a truer reflection of the divine model. 
A truer expression of the divine image would be compassion for the downtrodden and abandoned.  
Psalm 112:1-9 (10).  
The psalm reading is one of two little alphabetic acrostic poems spun out by the devotion of the teachers and students of a Jerusalem school (the other is Psalm 111).  
The ten verses of this poem, after the opening Hallelujah, contain one line for each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Mostly, the poem is a devotional arrangement of twenty-two clichés memorized in school exercises.  
The thought achieved in this arrangement of the letters is a contrast between the righteous person (the ṣaddîq, verses 4b and 6b) and the guilty (traditionally “the wicked,” the rāshā‘, verse 10).  (NRSV, for gender reasons, uses plurals in place of the Hebrew singulars throughout.)  
The righteous one will prosper:  be a hero (gibbôr, verse 2a) and have wealth – and therefore be in a position to help others through lending (without interest) and enforcing justice (verse 5).  Such a person will have longevity, be reliable, be well remembered, and “will look in triumph on their foes” (verse 8b).  
Our reading focuses almost exclusively on this character and destiny of the righteous one.   We could almost omit the succinct statement about the opposite number, the guilty (or “wicked”) described in verse 10.  
The fate of the guilty is there to complete the contrast between the true and the inauthentic among the religious folks.  
I Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16).  
This reading has two parts:  
Verses 1-5 reviews how Paul conducted his preaching when he first came to evangelize the Corinthians.  
“I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  (This refers back to the “Logos of the Cross” which he has just recited in 1:18-31.)  “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.  (Emphasis added.)  This is a transition to another of Paul’s “topics,” another speech Paul needed to give, in various settings and at various lengths, in his preaching and teaching.  
Verses 6-16 are a version of the topos of Charismatic Wisdom, that is of wisdom given only by the Spirit.  
Paul came without flowery speech of worldly wisdom, but now he wants to insist that there IS also a “mature” teaching about the gospel.  “Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age…” (verse 6).  The true wisdom of God is hidden, except from those to whom the Spirit of God reveals it.  
This topos also begins and ends with quotations from scripture.  Verse 9 is Paul’s variation on Isaiah 64:4, and the concluding verse 16 is a variation on Isaiah 40:13.  Both quotations refer to “what no eye has seen …” and to “the mind of the Lord,” which no human knows. 
In this Topic Paul insists that the divine spirit reveals to God’s chosen ones the mysteries of creation, election, and the present work of salvation.  
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.  And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual” (verses 12-13, NRSV).  
This is an audacious claim for the charismatic revelations that came to the early followers of the Jesus movement!  (This topic is pursued at length in chapters 12-14.)  But in this passage, it is clear that Paul was sure they had unqualified inside knowledge about God’s own mysterious being and the course of salvation that was unfolding among the Corinthian believers. 
And they had this knowledge because the Spirit had spoken such things to them.  This charismatic knowledge was not subject to criticism by ordinary human reason.  Only God could judge the charismatic revelation:  
Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them…  Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.  (2:14-15.)  
The “mature” teaching of the believers was accessible only as a gift of the Spirit, which the Corinthians had to grow up to – to finish their diet of milk before they went on the solid food (3:1-3). 
The Spirit finally distinguishes between the authentic gospel and its fancy, if not deceptive, imitations. 
Matthew 5:13-20.  
The Gospel reading is the passage in which Jesus insists more strenuously than anywhere else that he stands in unbreakable continuity with the Law of Moses.  The only contrast is that Jesus’ righteousness goes even further than that of the custodians of the Law.  
The whole passage begins with two famous contrasts about the presence of good in the world:  
·        Salt enhances food, unless it is diluted and has lost its savor.  
·        A lamp is useless in a hidden place; it is to be out in the open and held up high, so “it gives light to all in the house” (verse 15, NRSV).  
The implications of these two sayings is that Jesus followers have to be conspicuous, they have to get up and out, on the move.  They have to speak up, make a public appearance, taking whatever consequences may follow (see 5:11).  
The Law.  
The rest of our reading is Jesus’ affirmation of the endurance of the Judean Law.  “This is perhaps the most difficult passage to be found anywhere in the Gospel” (Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 1993, p. 46).  The difficulty is that, in the long run, the Judean Law cannot be binding on Jesus’ followers. 
There are three statements, each apparently very emphatic – yet each with an ambiguous loop-hole.  
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (verse 17, NRSV). 
The loop-hole here is, What does it mean to “fulfill” the law?  
I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished (verse 18).  
The loop-hole here is what does “until all is accomplished” mean? 
Whoever annuls [NRSV margin] one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (verse 19).  
The loop-hole here is how one can be least or greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  
If the apparent meaning of these sayings had been strictly adhered to by subsequent Christians, it could only have produced a Christian pharisaism in competition with the Rabbinic kind – which would have guaranteed that Christianity would never have conquered the Roman empire.  
Nevertheless, the rhetorical effect of this very Judean-oriented passage insists that Jesus followers do not reject the Law.  And the last verse of the passage (verse 20) goes even further:  “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 
What a heavy challenge, aiming the new faith toward a religious elitism that would have guaranteed its remaining a Judean sect.  
Somewhere between this extreme statement on one end and the “great commission” (“teaching the nations to obey everything that I have commanded you,” Matthew 28:20) on the other end, a new Christian reading of the Torah came into being.  
The many contrasts that Jesus presented to the disciples began with the sharp one between the righteousness of the Law and the righteousness of the Messiah (the Christ).  
The Christians resolved this tension by living it out in their everyday lives!