Friday, June 24, 2022

July 3, 2022 -- 4th Sunday after Pentecost

                                  Biblical Words                                      [779]

II Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20.

Prophets and apostles bring healing and a time of decision for villages along the way.  

II Kings 5:1-14. 

Elisha is mostly about miracle stories. 

The closest parallels to Jesus’ healing miracles in the Bible are the Elisha stories (e.g., the stories in II Kings 4).  The miracles of Moses are always woven into the narrative structure of the plagues in Egypt or Israel’s trials in the wilderness, and the miracles of Elijah are mostly subordinated to his reenactment of the sacred history as a prophetic revolution.  But with Elisha, there are miracle stories just for the sake of good miracles – or sometimes not so good miracles (e.g., II Kings 2:23-24).  The story of Naaman the leper comes to us in such a collection of Elisha’s miracles. 

The story is well told (with considerable humor at the expense of royal and noble egos).  

Naaman, top general for the victorious forces of Aram, has a scaly skin-disease he can’t get rid of (conventionally called “leprosy”).  An Israelite girl captured as a slave and working for Naaman’s wife lets word drop about Elisha the miracle healer in Samaria, capital of the kingdom of Israel.  Naaman gets his king’s endorsement and goes to Samaria.  A letter to the King of Israel throws that gentleman into a fit of paranoia because his current overlord demands that he heal leprosy – as if he were God! 

Hearing of his king’s panic, Elisha sends word to pass the problem on to him.  Accordingly, Naaman appears at Elisha’s residence, only to receive a curt message, “Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored…”  

Such treatment is a gross insult to Naaman, and we hear an excellent speech expressing indignation at the affront to his noble dignity and the insult to the fine rivers of Damascus compared to the muddy Jordan.  When he has left in a fury, his more pragmatic-minded servant says, “If he had asked you to do something really difficult wouldn’t you have done it?” 

Naaman didn’t get this far without some good sense, so he goes and washes in the Jordan and is healed.  (Bless the sharp-eared Levites who kept this story going for us!) 

Psalm 30. 

The Psalm reading is a thanksgiving for deliverance from death – or, as it might be construed, from the near-death of severe disease.  Should we play with the idea that Naaman, the recovered leper and Secretary of Defense for Damascus, might have uttered such a psalm? 

There is more to the Naaman story than we heard in the above reading.  The story goes on to tell how Naaman returned to Elisha and made a glowing confession of the great God of Israel.  “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel,” and he takes two mule-loads of earth from Israel to Damascus to set up an altar to the Lord of Israel (II Kings 5:15-17, NRSV). 

At that altar to the Lord that he has set up in Damascus, it is perfectly credible that Naaman could have said,

O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,

      and you healed me.
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
      restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. 
           (verses 2-3, NRSV) 

Naaman might also have previously said, “I shall never be moved,” for when he was in his original power God had established him “as a strong mountain” (verse 7).  Then, however, the divine face was turned away:  “you hid your face and I was dismayed.”  That is, the proud Naaman was brought low by the onset of his leprosy and finally, learning humility with Elisha’s help, came to accept the true source of healing, which would turn his mourning into dancing (verse 11). 

Because he has not died or been banished to a leper colony, Naaman can say, “my soul may praise you and not be silent, O Lord my God…” (verse 12). 

Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16. 

The Epistle reading includes the last words of Paul’s letter dictated to the Galatians, with a postscript written with his own hand. 

The last words of the dictated part (verses 7-10) are an assurance that God will reward perseverance in doing good by giving a good harvest.  Living “toward the flesh” will be rewarded with “corruption,” that is, only decayed flesh.  Living “toward the Spirit” will be rewarded with “eternal life,” that is, a life as free from boundaries and burdens as is the wind (the spirit).  Doing good will have its “opportunity,” its “right time” (kairos, verse 10), and those living by the Spirit will discern the times and realize the opportunities for “the good of all.” 

Paul’s own postscript (verses 11-18) is a bit rough and ready.  It is mainly a quick punch at his opponents in the Galatian churches who are promoting circumcision:  

“It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh [pun certainly intended] that try to compel you to be circumcised…” (verse 12, NRSV).  He includes a personal note that he has nothing to boast of except being crucified to the world with Christ. 

Then he makes the final declaration repeating the hammer-blow of the whole letter:  “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” 

So Paul hopes to keep his non-Judean Christians free from literalistic conformities – which will only cause them to “bite and devour one another” (5:15). 

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20. 

The story of Naaman had to do with God’s grace to a non-Israelite officer, and Paul’s concern for the Galatians was that they not be discriminated against for not conforming to Judean law.  At first sight the Gospel reading does not seem to continue this emphasis on non-Judean people. 

But Luke has significantly complicated the missions of the disciples that Jesus sends out. 

Luke has the same account of Jesus sending the Twelve on a mission in Galilee that Mark and Matthew report (Luke’s version of the Twelve is in 9:1-6, paralleling Mark 6:6-13 and Matthew 10:1-16).  Matthew has Jesus restrict this mission of the Twelve exclusively to Israelites; no one from the nations and no Samaritans were to be approached (Matthew 10:5-6). 

Luke, however, also has a second mission of disciples, the one reported in our reading.  This second mission has Jesus send out, not twelve disciples, but seventy-two.  (Prefer the NRSV marginal reading.  Many texts, especially later ones, make the number just seventy.)  The instructions given to the seventy-two partly repeat what was said to the Twelve earlier, but some other instructions to the larger group are more elaborate.  (These additional instructions are mostly from the Q source, common to Luke and Matthew.) 

Luke places this second mission at the beginning of the “journey” to Jerusalem that began in 9:51.  These seventy-two disciples are sent “on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go” (verse 1, NRSV).  They seem to be an advance guard, a softening up force, preparing people for the real show still to come. 

Luke’s narrative, however, does not seem to follow up this line.  We do not have a village-to-village circuit carried out by Jesus.  (Such a village-to-village narrative might have organized the materials of Luke chapters 10-19 more effectively than we now have them.)  Nevertheless, Luke intends us to understand that the villages sooner or later were to encounter these pairs of vagrant preachers, and to be told that “the kingdom of God has come near to you” (verse 9). 

Certainly Luke, and the churches he wrote for, understood that these instructions from Jesus were to guide missionary work long after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  In that case, Jesus sent out two missions, one to Israel and one to villages far and wide, meaning the nations beyond Israel.  (The alternate number for the disciples, seventy instead of seventy-two, may be intended to match the number of nations in the world listed in Genesis 10.)  Thus, these second-wave missionaries, commissioned after Jesus had “set his face toward Jerusalem,” anticipate the spreading of the gospel narrated in the book of Acts. 

The journey of Jesus toward Jerusalem begins with a mission of apostles, sent potentially to all the nations of the earth.  As these apostles come to a village, it is that place’s time of judgment.  The people there may hear and offer hospitality to the mendicant messengers of the Lord, or they may reject the message and have the dust of their streets witness to their condemnation. 

Our reading concludes with the return of the apostles (verses 17-20) and Jesus’ rejoicing at the fall of Satan because of them.  We seem to be leaping pretty far ahead, anticipating a success that is in fact only yet hinted at.  But when the Gospel was written, Luke already knew about many years of work among the nations by such disciples as these, and he would begin to tell about them in his second volume, the Acts. 


June 26, 2022 -- 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

                                                        Biblical Words                                         [778]

II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62. 

       God’s Spirit empowers followers, makes great demands, but opens a life of mutual love. 

II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14. 

The reading from the prophets is the story of the passing of the mantle from Elijah to Elisha.  

For the age of the kings, Elijah is as massive a founding figure as Moses is for the Sinai age.  When Moses was taken by God (Deut. 34), all the provisions had been made for Israel’s life in the promised land, but the work of occupying that land was yet to be done.  It was Joshua who was to complete the work (Deut. 31:14-15, 23). 

The same was true of Elijah.  He had been the model of zeal for the Lord:  he had defeated a mob of Baal prophets on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18), he had received the new revelation on the holy mountain authorizing him to overthrow the royal houses of Damascus and Israel (I Kings 19), and he had delivered the word of judgment on King Ahab and Queen Jezebel (I Kings 21).  What was left undone at Elijah’s departure was to be finished by Elisha.  Both Moses and Elijah were taken away to God (in approximately the same geographical location!), and both were taken away before the completion of their work. 

The enigmatic but clever story of Elisha hanging on to Elijah to the last second shows that Elisha was worthy of Elijah’s mantle (which he actually picks up in verse 13).  As the story is presented, Elijah, on his way to his rendezvous with God, keeps trying to put off Elisha, telling him there is no need for him to go further.  But Elisha knows better.  (Verses 3-5, omitted from the reading, present several speeches to Elisha by the local companies of prophets, who sound like the chorus of a Greek tragedy:  he is leaving you, you know!) 

Elisha hangs on, and is rewarded by being present when God’s fiery horses and chariot whisk Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind.  At the last minute, Elisha had been wise enough to ask Elijah for a “double share” of Elijah’s spirit.  (In inheritance law, the first-born son received twice as large a share as the rest of the sons, Deut. 21:17.)  Receiving this prophetic spirit is the real mantle of the prophet.  Elijah, for his part, was such a favored one of God that, like Enoch before him (Genesis 5:24) he was taken to God without seeing death. 

Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20. 

The Psalm reading presents a speaker who is in trouble and cannot find comfort.  As the psalm goes on the speaker resorts to reciting to God the mighty deeds of the past. 

An outflow of powerful liturgical poetry reminds God of the spectacular explosions with which the Storm God made the cosmos shudder in order to lead the redeemed people through the flood – as Moses and Aaron led out the people of Israel.  The speaker yearns for a new redemption of that kind. 

The psalm refers particularly to Jacob and Joseph (verse 15), ancestors especially of the northern Kingdom of Israel – Elijah and Elisha’s territory.  Thus Elisha could be thought of as reciting such a psalm, after he had acquired Elijah’s mantle, during his long wait before he could initiate the divinely-sanctioned Revolution.  During those years, while he was busy with the routine tasks of a miracle-working leader of “the sons of the prophets” (told in II Kings 3-8), Elisha could have groaned with the suffering of Israel and consoled himself with such magnificent recitals of the world-changing deeds of God in the past as are given in this psalm. 

Galatians 5:1, 13-25. 

While the prophetic reading dealt with the transmission of the prophetic spirit, in the Epistle reading Paul contrasts the old life under the law with the new life in the Spirit. 

The Galatians have known the power of the Spirit – “Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” (Galatians 3:2).  What other Judean-Christians are trying to persuade the Galatians to do is add the works of the law, beginning with circumcision, to make them fully-qualified Christians.  Circumcision is a matter of the flesh, and Paul argues that to resort to such group-identifiers as circumcision (which divide people from each other) is to become slaves again to “the flesh.” 

He portrays “the flesh” in opposition to the Spirit, and in this passage they are roughly equal to a life of self-obsession (the flesh) as opposed to a life of committed mutuality (love in the Spirit).  

As other Judean teachers, including Jesus, did, Paul says the whole law can be summed up in the one saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Note, it is not total absorption in the other; it is love for the other as one loves oneself.  It is mutuality.)  Living out of love will fulfill God’s will more truly than working at hundreds of commandments of the law. 

Someone said, “the Devil is in the details,” and Paul turns to the details.  

What is life like when guided by the flesh?  He lists fifteen pejorative terms to describe the misery of such self-absorbed existence (verses 19-21), and contrasts with them a list of nine terms to describe the life of mutual love guided by the Spirit (verse 22).  In fact, all the details of how to live by the law of love cannot be spelled out.  The right things to do are given, moment by moment, by the Spirit; it is a spontaneous life.  Or, as Paul said at the beginning, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (verse 1, NRSV).   

Luke 9:51-62. 

The Gospel reading presents Jesus with some overtones of Elijah and Elisha.  

For people who compare the Gospels with each other, Luke 9:51 is the point at which the Gospel According to Luke departs from Mark.  Up to this point, Luke has mainly followed Mark’s outline of Jesus’ activities in Galilee, but from here to Luke 19 or so, Luke gives episodes and teachings not found in Mark. 

For Luke, this is a solemn turning point. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to Jerusalem” (verse 51, NRSV).  Everything that follows is encompassed by Jesus’ sacred destination; everything is set within the “journey” of the Anointed One to the holy city.  Therefore, the immediate incidents have to do with how Jesus was received along the way and with what is required to “follow” Jesus on this journey. 

The direct route from Galilee to Jerusalem takes you into the territory of the Samaritans.  (This can be avoided by a long route east of the Jordan River down to Jericho.)  These Samaritans, however, will have none of Jesus.  They regard him as another of those snobbish Judeans who read Deuteronomy as referring to Jerusalem instead of to Mount Gerizim for the single place of proper worship.  They have no hospitality for him!  

Jesus’ disciples James and John, called “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17), think Jesus should treat these Samaritans as Elijah treated the arrogant soldiers who came to arrest him; that is, they should call down fire from heaven to consume them (verse 54, referring to II Kings 1:9-15).  Jesus rejects this violent proposal.  

Some later copyists of the Gospels felt that he should have explained more fully why this was a bad idea.  Many late Greek manuscripts of Luke add Jesus’ reproach to the disciples:  “You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them” (verse 55, reading the NRSV translators’ note.)  

From Luke’s overall viewpoint there would be a better way to deal with Samaritans.  He describes it in Acts chapter 8.  When Jesus had accomplished his mission in Jerusalem, there was a new word of forgiveness and acceptance for Samaritans – instead of a word of judgment and doom. 

The beginning of the journey is the time to assess the requirements of the traveling companions.  Luke accordingly gives here three sayings about the extraordinary demands of discipleship for following Jesus.  There is a curious alternation of initiative between Jesus and the would-be followers.  First a volunteer offers himself, and is warned that he is joining the homeless (verses 57-58).  Jesus then calls one who has just lost his natural father, and tells him (harshly, it seems to us) to forget about the funeral ceremonies (verses 59-60). 

A third candidate wants a short leave to go home and arrange matters for the family he is leaving behind.  This person is like Elisha, who answered Elijah’s call by saying, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.”  Elijah concurred with this request, and Elisha dissolved his large farming business by slaughtering his oxen and giving a going-away banquet for all the people (I Kings 19:19-21).  

Jesus in his time, starting his journey to Jerusalem, will not make even this accommodation:  “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (verse 62).  

What Jesus has come for has an urgency that will allow no compromises or delays! 

Saturday, June 11, 2022

June 19, 2022 -- 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

                                          Biblical Words                                                        [777]

[Note:  Readings below are incorrect -- wrong year.  Correct readings for 2022 are:  I Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a; Psalm 42 and 43; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39.  However, see the Note below on Elijah and Elisha.]

I Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39;  Psalm 96;  Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10.

The Lord performs awesome wonders that change things for peoples and nations.  

Ordinary Time.  

After Pentecost and Trinity Sundays, the Christian year has over six months of  “ordinary time,” time between the holy seasons of Advent-Epiphany and Lent-Pentecost.  The Lectionary selections for this period are not fixed by sacred themes, but are designed for general exposure of the people to the scriptures.  Each of the three years of the Lectionary cycle has its own strategy, but when people have gone through the cycle two times (six years) their Sunday readings have exposed them to most of the Christian Bible.

In Year C, the primary readings from the Hebrew scriptures provide a history of prophecy. The selections move from the work of Elijah through the great eighth century prophets Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, then dwell at length on the words of Jeremiah in the last period of the kingdom of Judah, and conclude with some post-Exilic prophesies. 

In the same period the Epistle selections are taken from Paul’s letters, reading most of Galatians and Colossians for two months, and, after a period on the Letter to the Hebrews, continuing with the Pastoral letters written in Paul’s name.  A block of readings from the Letter to the Hebrews is included in each year of the Lectionary cycle, approximately a third of the Letter in each year.  The readings in Year C are the third part (chapters 11-13), dealing with the Christian pilgrimage in the world. 

The Gospel readings during Ordinary Time of Year C are taken entirely from Luke, covering much of chapters 7 through 21, though mainly selected from the materials of the Journey to Jerusalem in chapters 10-19, where many teachings found only in Luke are given. 

I Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39.

For the next several weeks our readings from the Hebrew scriptures concern the prophets Elijah and Elisha.  The Special Note below on the background to Elijah and Elisha may be useful for this group of readings. 

Our reading presents a great ordeal – contest – to determine what religion the people of the kingdom will follow.  

On the surface it is a one-sided contest:  one prophet for Yahweh against 450 prophets for Ba‘al (with another 400 backups in the wings, see 18:19).  It is an all-or-nothing contest, with drastic political consequences.  The kingdom is not big enough for both Elijah and Jezebel; one will have to go, and even though he wins the contest, it is Elijah who becomes the hunted man (19:1-2).  (This non-sequitur is probably due to the conventional story-pattern also reflected in the Exodus story:  after winning release from Egypt in the tenth plague [Exodus 12], the Israelites are still pursued by Pharaoh out into the wilderness [Exodus 14:5-9].) 

The contest is to decide which deity controls the weather – who can make it rain.  The first words of the Elijah story-cycle announce to the king the coming of a three-year drought.  The drought raises to the Nth degree the issue of who gives rain (I Kings 17:1).  The contest on Mount Carmel settles the issue in favor of the one true God, Yahweh, God of Israel.   (The Canaanite Ba‘al was a storm god bringing the rainy season, just as was Yahweh in his youth, e.g., Judges 5:4-5; Nahum 1:3b-5.  Psalm 29 is apparently a Ba‘al hymn to the storm-god adapted for praise of Yahweh.) 

The details of Elijah’s procedure are intriguing (verses 30-35).  He rebuilds an old Yahweh altar.  He uses exactly 12 stones, he pours 12 jars of water over the wood and altar, and he digs a trench around the altar, all of which is probably cosmic symbolism.  The Ba‘al prophets in their turn (in the optional reading, verses 22-29) had performed ritual dances and bodily mutilations, presumably congruent with their deity’s character. 

It is clear that in northern Israelite tradition this contest on Mount Carmel was the equivalent of the Exodus:  it was the violent triumph of Yahweh over the gods of the land, determining the future of the chosen people.  Though this was a north-Israelite event, its truth would outlast that kingdom and endure for prophets and reforming kings in the later kingdom of Judah. 

Psalm 96

The psalm is certainly a response to the prophetic reading:  the triumphant Yahweh of Mount Carmel is celebrated as the lord of all – cosmos and nations. 

It is well to hear the key verses in a translation (the New Jerusalem Bible) that retains the proper name Yahweh, the God who emerged from the polytheistic world of Canaan to take possession, in time, of a modest servant people with astonishing destinies before them. 

Give to Yahweh, families of nations,
give to Yahweh glory and power,
give to Yahweh the glory due his name!

Say among the nations, “Yahweh is king.”
The world is set firm, it cannot be moved. 
He will judge the nations with justice.

[For he is] coming to judge the earth,
he will judge the world with saving justice,
and the nations with constancy.
            (Verses 7-8a, 10, 13, New Jerusalem Bible.)

Galatians 1:1-12. 

While the prophetic and psalm readings proclaim that there is no other God, the opening of Paul’s letter to the Galatians insists that there is no other gospel. 

This is the first of six Sunday readings from Galatians, which will cover most of the contents of that fiery letter.  The opening is unusual among Paul’s letters because he leaps into his urgent business after only a short address and greeting.  “I am astonished...,” he probably shouted to his amanuensis.  How could these “foolish” Galatians (3:1) so quickly distort the central message Paul had brought to these non-Judean folks in central Asia Minor? 

After pronouncing a couple of curses on those who distort the gospel, Paul insists that the true gospel is not human (not variable) but the result of divine revelation.  “[T]he gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (verses 11-12, NRSV).  Next week’s reading will develop this claim in detail. 

Like Elijah, Paul was a witness to something decisive for the future of God’s people, and his life was at stake in proclaiming it to the peoples of the nations. 

Luke 7:1-10.

The Gospel reading is not a mighty act of God, settling the destinies of peoples.  Instead it is an episode in Jesus’ Galilean ministry that proved to have many meanings for the later followers.  Our reading is one version of Jesus healing the servant (or son) of an Officer in Capernaum. 

Second generation Christians told (at least) three versions of this story:  (1) Matthew 8:5-13; (2) Luke 7:1-10; and (3) John 4:46-54.  Each version has its own emphasis. 

Matthew presents the basic story in its simplest form:  the Centurion with the sick servant declares that Jesus can heal simply by giving a command.  Jesus’ authority is like that of a military commander:  he speaks and it is done.  Matthew adds a special point:  This great faith on the part of a non-Judean person is a prophecy that the peoples of the nations will replace the current Judeans in the kingdom to come (Matthew 8:11-12). 

In the Gospel of John, the “royal official” does not make a fancy statement about Jesus’ word of command.  When, however, Jesus, in Cana, says that the officer’s son, in Capernaum, is now healed, the officer believes (has faith in) Jesus, and his faith is subsequently justified by the healing that happened at a distance in Capernaum (John 4:50-53). 

Luke’s version of the story has several distinctive features.  (1) Here the Centurion never comes in contact with Jesus.  Instead, he sends messengers to Jesus.  In fact, he sends two sets of messengers, one made up of Judean elders of the community (verse 3) and one made up of his own “friends,” perhaps not all Judean (verse 6). 

(2) The Judean messengers give powerful reasons why Jesus should help this foreign resident in their community:  “...for he loves our people [ethnos, nation], and it is he who built our synagogue for us” (verse 5, NRSV). 

Thus, what Luke presents is a Roman career soldier who is a decided friend of the Judean people in Galilee.  (There were no Roman military units based in Galilee, so such a man would have been in the service of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee from 4 BCE to 39 CE.)  The rest of the story shows that this non-Judean pillar of the community was a man of faith.  Besides his great sympathy for the Judean tradition, he has acquired a firm belief in Jesus’ power to heal, and seeks the benefit of this power for his servant, who is at the point of death. 

What Luke has in common with Matthew is the Centurion’s long declaration about the power of an authoritative command.  “But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed,” for he, the Centurion, is also a man of authority whom subordinates obey without hesitation (verses 7-8).  This is what Luke and Matthew see as the great “faith” of this foreigner.  He has heard the message of Genesis 1.  God speaks, and it happens.  THAT is the “faith,” of which Jesus says, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” (verse 9). 

(It is a bit ironic that in Luke’s text Jesus never utters that word of power!  Luke doesn’t bother to say, “ And Jesus said, ‘Let him be healed.’”  Hearers are expected to fill in the gaps themselves!) 

Commentators have spotted other links for this multivalent story. 

Some think the non-Israelite military commander who seeks healing power from an Israelite prophet is like Naaman, the chief-of-staff of the Syrian army whom Elisha healed from leprosy (II Kings 5:1-19).  Perhaps more likely is the suggestion that this Centurion who gets help from Jesus anticipates the later Centurion, representing non-Judean folks, whom God directs Peter to bring into the chosen community (Acts 10).  Luke seems to make a big deal of keeping Jesus separate from the non-Judean man and house, but Luke knows that will change in good time, in God’s time, and thus he can maintain Jesus’ separateness in Galilee. 

Others make the following point:  There are only two cases in the Gospels where Jesus heals foreigners (Samaritans don’t count), and both of those are healing of a child (or servant) at the request of a master or parent.  Also, both healings take place at a distance.  Besides the Centurion with his servant in Capernaum, there is the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter is healed after the woman wins her word contest with Jesus (Mark 7:24-30). 

Special Note:  The Elijah and Elisha stories.  

It was in the time of Elijah (and Elisha) that Israel’s obligation to serve “Yahweh alone” became a great public issue.  The revelation that Israel must have no other God than Yahweh was the point of the battle of the gods on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18), and the rest of the Elijah-Elisha cycle of stories demonstrates at length how radically serious that revelation had to be taken in Israel.  (Jehu’s revolution, II Kings 9-10, slaughtered many people, ostensibly for religious reasons, but clearly to eliminate supporters of the old dynasty who could become future threats.) 

The overall framework of the Elijah-Elisha block of materials in I Kings 17 through II Kings 10 is that of a great dynastic revolution.  The framework is clearer if we concentrate only on the following passages, which are the essential components of the Elijah-Elisha and King Jehu story: 

I Kings 17              Elijah brings drought and works miracles.

I Kings 18              Elijah brings rain, defeating Baal prophets on Mount Carmel.

I Kings 19              Elijah receives God’s revolutionary commands on Mount Horeb. 

I Kings 21              Ahab and Jezebel are condemned for Naboth’s vineyard. 

II Kings 1               Elijah condemns Ahab’s son Ahaziah. 

II Kings 2               Elijah’s Mantle passes to Elisha. 

II Kings 8:7-15       Elisha sanctions revolution in Damascus. 

II Kings 9:1-13       Elisha anoints Jehu king for revolution in Israel. 

II Kings 9-10         Jehu executes the judgment of the Lord on Ahab’s house. 

It may be noticed that the Elijah-Elisha story is parallel in basic structure to the traditional Israelite story. 

Elijah and Elisha replicate the work of Moses and Joshua.  

Elijah’s defeat of the Baal prophets on Mount Carmel is the same kind of decisive mighty deed of the Lord as the defeat of Pharaoh in the Exodus.  Elijah’s trip to Mount Horeb (with miraculous feeding in the wilderness) and the revelation there of God’s plan parallels Moses at Mount Sinai.  And the revolution precipitated by Elisha, parallel to Joshua, equals the Conquest of a new life order for God’s people (meaning the reign of a new dynasty with a radically new religious policy). 

The history behind the tradition.  All of the Elijah-Elisha materials were preserved in later generations in Jerusalem, harmonized with a Jerusalem viewpoint.  Somehow that Jerusalem viewpoint had accepted the internal rationale of this story cycle, accepted the Jehu dynasty’s own view that the God of Israel had sanctioned Jehu’s rule in Israel just as God had sanctioned the dynasty of David in Jerusalem.  It was by Yahweh’s own command that Jehu and four generations of his heirs reigned over the northern kingdom from 842 to about 745 BCE, the longest single dynasty of that kingdom.  Jehu’s revolution was a religious war, fought to the finish, leaving no doubt that there is only one God in Israel’s destiny. 

As Jerusalem saw it, a hundred and thirty years later (in the time of king Hezekiah), the northern kingdom did not sufficiently learn that lesson, and suffered the fate of defeat and exile because of their apostasy from Yahweh.  Jerusalem preserved the stories of Elijah and Elisha to make sure that Judah mastered the lesson of Yahweh as the Only God of Israel.  It was to that God that the Judeans looked for their own deliverance and whatever peace was possible for them. 

“Minimalist” historians would have it that all the Elijah-Elisha stories are simply fiction.  As a serious historical issue, however, there is no satisfactory explanation of the details and few tight connections with external history that these stories reflect without some historical core to the Elijah figure and Jehu’s religiously-based dynastic revolution.  The Elijah era, with the emergence of the Yahweh-Only religious-political movement, was a decisive point in the evolution that created the Hebrew scriptures as we know them. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

June 12, 2022 - Trinity Sunday

                              Biblical Words                                  [776]

 Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15. 

The Being of God, revealed in creation and redemption, reflects its image in the Human, male and female.

In Christian tradition the first Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday. With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to generate and guide the church, the fullness of God has been revealed as containing three aspects – power, vulnerability, and sustaining presence.  Or, as some might prefer to express it, as the parental, brotherly, and mother-sisterly powers of being.

Proverbs 8:1–4, 22–31.
The reading from Proverbs presents an intimate companion of God the creator.

In older wisdom rhetoric, wisdom is the acquired learning and insight that makes possible successful living.  In some later parts of Proverbs (e.g., 1:20–33), and even more in books of the Hellenistic period (Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon -- both in the "Apocrypha"), the qualities of wisdom, which shape the whole character and being of a wise person, are personified and represented as Woman Wisdom.  (The noun “wisdom” is feminine in both Hebrew and Greek.)  

Woman Wisdom offers humans the benefits of her divine knowledge and insight.  Even some language appropriate to goddesses in a polytheistic world is applied to Woman Wisdom to lift up her divine origin and powers.

The reading in Proverbs 8:22–31 is the most striking presentation of Woman Wisdom in that book.

Wisdom is a divine quality pervading the created world. The creation reveals the masterly design, deep foresight, and intricate harmonies of a profound mind. Thus wisdom was the very first element in the process of world creation, and continues as a sovereign quality of the ongoing nature of the created world.  These ideas are expressed in the poetry of Wisdom’s joyful declarations and celebrations in our passage. “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, / the first of his acts of long ago” (verse 22, NRSV).

At the successive stages of world-structuring (verses 24–29), Wisdom was present, collaborating as it were.   Woman Wisdom is a cheerful and exuberant companion, who sums up her companionship as follows:

I was with Him as a confidant,
A source of delight every day,
Rejoicing before Him at all times,
Rejoicing in His inhabited world,
Finding delight with mankind [literally, “sons of Adam”].
            (8:30–31, New Jewish Publication Society Version)

In other words, God had a lot of fun in his creative exuberance!

It is not surprising that such language prompted later interpreters to see here anticipations of the Logos as God’s agent of creation, substituting the masculine logos for the feminine sophia.  (“He [the Word] was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him…” John 1:2–3.)  

Or that Christian hymns declared about the beloved Son, “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17, NRSV).   And though it is about sustaining creatures rather than creating them, the voice of Woman Wisdom may echo in Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all you that are weary …” (see Matthew 11:28–30).

Psalm 8.

The marvel of the created world is also the cause of praising God in the Psalm reading.  It is not so much the intricate wisdom of the creation that is celebrated here as the place of the human in the glory of the created world.

This hymn is ecstatic in its acclamation of the majesty of God’s work in all the universe.  Its poetic skill directs the attention of the hearer over the dimensions of that universe. The attention moves in vertical and horizontal contrasts, closing in from outer extremes to the central motion, that of elevating the human being to rule.

First God’s glory “above the heavens” is celebrated, contrasted with the mysterious babbling of infants protected by God from surrounding enemies (verses 1–2).

Next, the attention goes up again, but only to the visible heavens, not above them. “When I look at your heavens…” with the intricacy of their stars and moon cycles, what a contrast there is, looking downward again, with the modest humans down below.  It makes one ask, “What are humans,” that you (God) take care of them in your way?  Even within the visible intelligible world, God’s creation is awesomely vast in its vertical contrast.

Now there is a motion, a vertical motion.  “Yet you have made the human a little lower than God [the Greek says “angels”], and crowned the human with glory and honor” (verse 5, NRSV modified).  The human has been enthroned, elevated to a position of rule and authority.  Literally, God “has caused the human to rule” (Hebrew māshal in the causative mode).

To rule over what?  Over the works of God’s hands, over everything now set under the human’s feet.

And now our attention follows these things that are under the feet:  “…all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field [as we move out from the center], the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea” (the mysterious horizontal movements around the lower places).  God’s “majesty” is great in all the earth – as exercised through the crowned human being.

Given this utterly lofty status and role of the human, is it any wonder that later interpreters saw in this Human, not just generic people, but an exceptional being of God’s own sending?  In the New Testament, this rule over God’s creation can be exercised only by the true Human, the Anointed One of God, elevated to heavenly status (I Corinthians 15:27; Ephesians 1:22; Hebrews 2:5–9, all quoting this psalm).

Romans 5:1–5.

The Epistle reading is a transition passage in Paul’s epistle to the Romans.  It sums up the preceding argument about justification by faith as exemplified in Abraham (chapter 4), points toward the view of Jesus Christ as the New Human (chapters 5–7), and knows the Holy Spirit as the giver of the New Life (chapter 8).

This transitional passage is itself trinitarian.

  • Justification establishes “peace with God” and leads to the “hope of sharing the glory of God” (verses 1–2).
  • The justification was brought about by the Lord Jesus Christ who leads the justified ones into suffering, endurance, (new) character, and hope, all of which imitate the self-sacrificing obedience of the Son (verses 3–4).
  • And finally the hope that is the culmination of the new life is caused by the gift of the Holy Spirit, which empowers the new life of the justified ones (verse 5).
John 16:12–15.

The Gospel reading is the final selection in this post-Easter season from the farewell discourses of Jesus in John’s Gospel.  Like the Epistle reading, this is a short text that is marked by its trinitarian balance, though the three aspects of divine being are intermingled throughout the passage.

The speaker is the Son.  What is emphasized at first is the promised gift of the Spirit of truth, but it is the work of the Spirit to “glorify” the Son and to transmit to the disciples what belongs to both the Father and the Son.

The discourses emphasize throughout that there is more to come.  Continuity between Jesus’ teaching when present and what the disciples will need later is provided by the Spirit.  The disciples cannot comprehend it yet, but as they go on more will be unfolded by the Spirit of truth.  Nevertheless, it is also emphasized that what the Spirit will later unfold is only what the Son has already made available, which was in turn what the Son received from the Father.

“All that the Father has is mine” (verse 15).  The kind of personal intimacy that Wisdom shared with the Lord at the dayspring of creation is shared between these personas of God, as this passage presents them.

Much later, Christian bishops and theologians would attempt to give these insights abstract expression in the doctrine of the Trinity.  At the time the Gospel was written, however, the Jesus followers were still experiencing the ongoing “insight by hindsight” provided by the teaching of the Holy Spirit!

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

June 5, 2022 - Pentecost

                                                      Biblical Words                                         [775]

Genesis 11:1-9;  Psalm 104:24-34, 35b;  Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, (25-27).

The Spirit of Pentecost transcends the diversity of languages, and is carried by disciples into an unknowing world.

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit that is celebrated in the Christian Pentecost includes (1) the language miracle of communication among foreign-speaking people of faith, (2) the testimony of prophets and apostles to the age of the Spirit, and (3) the birth of the community of believers later called the church.

Genesis 11:1–9.

(This is the alternate reading; the regular reading from Acts is given as the Epistle reading below.)

The Genesis reading is a story about how there came to be many languages over the earth.  In its familiar English form, this story is about “the Tower of Babel.”  In Hebrew, however, it is the story of the Tower of Babylon. (The name in Genesis 11:9 is the usual Hebrew word for Babylon.) Popular legend knew of a ruin at Babylon that had once been a “ziggurat,” a pyramid-like structure, the upper-most chambers of which were in “heaven.” (Old Babylon flourished as an empire under Hammurabi in the early 1700’s BCE, about 800 years earlier than the time of David and Solomon.)

The story of the Tower of Babylon is that of a grand enterprise that failed to make it. There is a certain note of pathos at the grandeur aimed at, including some admiration for the technology of the builders. There is also, however, some mockery at the hubris and foolishness that aspired to reach the heavens and to avoid the wide diversity of the peoples and nations.

As in some other stories in Genesis 1–11, the human players come off better morally, if more tragically, than the divine ones. As with the events in the paradise garden, humans acquiring advanced knowledge and skills become a threat to the powers above.

Look, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech (verses 6-7, NRSV).

[The Greeks had their Prometheus; the Babylonians their Tower.]

When the heavenly powers carry out this proposal, the great enterprise is abandoned and the foreign-speaking peoples are dispersed.

Peeking out of this story, pretty conspicuously, is the polytheistic background of the good old stories taken over in Israelite teaching materials from Canaanite culture.  Israelite youths aspiring to high office in the Kingdom of Judah had to learn some foreign languages for their diplomatic service.  Here, as they practiced their reading and writing in Hebrew, they discussed why there were all these languages!  In the long perspective, they learned, the diversity of languages was a judgment of God because of impious ambitions — or because of perverse disobedience by humans.

Only prophetic powers of later ages (see the Joel prophecy in the Pentecost story) would transcend these human divisions.

Psalm 104:24–34, 35b.

The Psalm reading is the last portion of one of the great hymns of praise for God’s work in creating and structuring the world.

The earlier sections of the psalm fondly viewed the organization of God’s heavenly residence (verses 1–4), the establishment of the earth within the cosmic waters (verses 5–9), the blessings of waterways and the harmony of plants and animals in the lands (verses 10–18), and the rhythms of time obeyed by animals and humans (verses 19–23).

In our reading the psalmist pauses in wonder.  “Lord, you have done so many things! / You made them all so wisely!” (verse 24, Common English Bible).  The particular interest in God’s Spirit (ruach) is as the agency of renewal in the cycle of life and death in the world of animals and humans.

When you hide your face, they are terrified;
      when you take away their breath [their ruach, spirit]
      they die and return their dust.
When you let loose your breath [ruach], they are created,
      and you make the surface of the ground brand-new again.

            (Verses 29–30, CEB.)

The psalmist portrays the dynamics of life in a harmoniously created world, a creation dependent on the sustaining and renewing work of God’s Spirit.

Acts 2:1–21.

In the reading from Acts we move to the work of God’s Spirit in transcending the diversity of human languages, producing a kind of reversal of the Tower of Babylon event.  The Acts passage emphasizes the unity of the assembled group, like the oneness of humans in Genesis 11:1–4. “They were all together in one place.”  As they are thus gathered, a mighty wind and tongues of fire fall upon them, and they were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues…” (verse 4, NRSV).

The passage elaborates this language miracle.  A long list of peoples and regions is given (verses 5–11) whose languages were understood on this occasion.  The hearers are identified as foreign Judeans resident in Jerusalem.  The phenomenon of speaking in tongues (called “glossolalia,” from Greek glossa, tongue) was familiar in the New Testament world (see I Corinthians 14:1–25) and right on down to present times, but that phenomenon does not involve speaking in other languages.

Those who told the Pentecost story thought of this as a one-time event. (Later references in Acts to speaking in tongues after the Spirit is given, 10:46 and 19:6, make no reference to speaking other languages.)  Here, however, a bunch of religious ecstatics are heard to speak languages native to many foreign-speaking immigrants in Jerusalem.  Skeptical onlookers, of course, regarded them as tipsy (verse 13), but the hearers are assured that the speaking had meaning to many.  The message of repentance and forgiveness through Jesus the Christ transcends limitations of language.  

The power of the Spirit breaks through linguistic boundaries among people of faith.

What the foreign-language speakers heard, presumably, is what we learn from Peter’s speech to all the Judean people present (verses 14–36).  

In our reading we hear only the first part of that speech, the part that proclaims these events as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel, quoted at length by Peter.  That prophesy tells us that the pouring out of the Spirit of God on “all flesh” will be the beginning of great and new wonders of God’s work, and the outcome of that work is that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (verse 21).

Peter and the disciples are there to declare what that Name is, which will be such a blessing to those who respond.  (The “name” of Jesus is used very powerfully by Peter and John in the next three chapters of Acts.) 

John 14:8–17, (25–27).

The Gospel reading may be an anticlimax after the previous selections.

Chapter 14 of John continues a series of dialogues that began with Peter’s question in 13:30.  There are four questions asked by disciples, Peter (13:30), Thomas (14:5), Philip (14:8), and Jude (14:22).  Each question gives Jesus an opportunity to spell out further to uncomprehending disciples how he can go away now and yet be present to them in the times ahead.  

When presented as a Pentecost text, verses 16–17 are the primary statement.

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever [literally “until the (new) age”].  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

This is about as clear a promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit as Johannine rhetoric will allow:  “You know [the Spirit] because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”  Only the actual bestowal of God’s Spirit by the Risen Jesus in 20:22 is a more direct statement of the coming of the Spirit to the disciples.

The effect of the Holy Spirit on the disciples will be to separate them from the world. (“…the Spirit of truth, whom the world…neither sees…nor knows…”)  The world cannot know the reality brought by the Spirit; but that reality is the “truth,” the divine reality that will be fully manifested when the world has passed away in the age to come.

The final problem of the Spirit in the world is not just language; it is the lack of that gift of life that unites humans with the divine reality – agape, love of God and neighbors.