Sunday, March 19, 2023

March 26, 2023 -- 5th Sunday in Lent

                                                      Biblical Words                                                 [819]

Ezekiel 37:1-14Psalm 130Romans 8:6-11John 11:1-45.

As Lent nears its end, the  faithful hear rumors of resurrection to a new life in the Spirit.  
The Fifth Sunday of Lent comes just before the climax of Palm Sunday and the Passion.  It focuses on the hope for the resurrection (Ezekiel’s dry bones and Lazarus from the tomb) and the life in the Spirit to which it leads.    

Ezekiel 37:1-14. 

The first reading is from the prophet Ezekiel, his famous prophecy of the dry bones that return to life. 
As is often the case with Ezekiel, God uses something that has gotten the prophet’s attention – especially something that will annoy or anger him – to fashion a word of prophecy about Israel’s condition and destiny.  In this case, Ezekiel overhears the grumbling and cynical comments of his fellow exiles in Babylon:  “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (verse 11, NRSV).  The prophet’s inspired vision takes off from this despairing indictment about the dry bones.  
Ezekiel had a dual mission
(1) to condemn the over-confident sinners still in Jerusalem (in most of Ezekiel 4-24) and 
(2) to inspire endurance and hope among those recently exiled to Babylon (most of chapters 33-48).  
The hope is presented, however, in very large terms (in contrast to Jeremiah’s pragmatic advice to the same exiles in Jeremiah 29):  
the entire house of Israel, now seemingly so utterly dead, can have a new and vigorous life.  
Few visible objects evoke dead-and-gone as forcefully as dried bones lying in a dry valley.  The word of God to Ezekiel emphasizes the bleakness of these bones, in order then to visualize their astonishing restoration to life.  Bone by bone they reconnect, sinew appears to string them together, flesh appears to empower them, and skin comes to protect the new body.  
But bones, flesh, and skin are not yet a living being.  The essential requirement is spirit – the word is ruah in Hebrew, translated “breath” in verses 6-10 by the NRSV.  Spirit is the vitalizing power; it makes a body a living being.  In Israel’s case, for this prophecy, the living will spring up from the dead.  
An Israel slaughtered and consumed as carrion, leaving bones to litter the landscape, will live again.  That is the power of God’s spirit – when the time for its action comes.  

Psalm 130.  

The Psalm is that marvelous expression of hope that begins, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” (NRSV).  
This is a profound statement in itself.  It communicates that the speaker has fallen into severe conditions, verging on the finality of death. 
A whole story could be behind this, and in some other psalms such a story is told (for example, Psalm 32, another one of the seven “penitential” psalms).  The speaker here does not deny that sin may have contributed to the distress, but does affirm that God does not always hold sin ruthlessly to account.  “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” (verse 3). 
However, this very same opening statement declares that in the worst condition of distress, the speaker does cry out to the Lord.  
When all else is lost, that is what the suffering servant does – calls upon the Lord, the servant’s only true hope.  To be delivered “out of the depths” is equivalent to returning to life from a death sentence. 
It is this hope for resurrection that the speaker utters toward the One who does forgive sins (verse 4).  

Romans 8:6-11.  

The Epistle reading poses a sharp contrast between the domain of “flesh” and the domain of “the Spirit.”  
Those included in the new life in Christ Jesus have the possibility of living in the Spirit rather than in the bondage to the law of sin and death (verse 2).  The punch line of this new life, stated at the very end of our reading, is the resurrection yet to come through the Spirit.  “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (verse 11).  
The present situation of believers is a time of living by the Spirit rather than by the flesh (our old human nature).  “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (verse 6).  
The Greek here that translators have paraphrased “to set the mind on” is a single term, phronēma.  This word means something like “habit of thought,” or “inclination of the mind/self.”  The only place in the New Testament this term is used is Romans 8.  The disciplining of one’s thought and mental orientation so that it is exclusively on the Spirit is part of the growth of life-in-Christ appropriate to the season of Lent.  
Such habit of mind is the work and pleasure of living between the law of death and the glorification that is coming (see verse 30 later in this chapter).  

John 11:1-45.  

The Gospel reading is the story of the raising of Lazarus.  This is the last of the “signs” that Jesus does in John’s Gospel, the one that precipitates the decision of the authorities to put Jesus to death (John 11:47-53; see also 12:9-10).  
The story deliberately interweaves Jesus’ failure to prevent Lazarus’ death with God’s own intention to raise Lazarus from the dead.  
The two sisters, Martha and Mary, send word to Jesus that his dear friend is on the verge of death.  Jesus delays two days longer before starting to Bethany where Lazarus lives – making sure Lazarus was dead more than three days before Jesus finally gets to him (verse 17).  Jesus explains to the disciples that this illness is not (ultimately) fatal, but is an occasion for showing God’s glory (same motif as with the man born blind, 9:3).  Lazarus dies while Jesus, far away, discusses his case.  
Before Jesus gets to Bethany the disciples ask naïve questions that prompt Jesus to speak more bluntly.  “Lazarus is dead.  For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”  Clearly the point of the journey was not to save Lazarus.  To make the trip at all, however, is dangerous because of the hostility of the Judean leaders.  This prompts Thomas the Twin to say, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (verses 14-16, NRSV).  
Both of the women lament (read “complain”) that Jesus did not get there in time, and these laments are occasions for Jesus to make enigmatic responses to what is really going on.  
Martha comes first, and when Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha agrees somewhat stoically, believing as Pharisees and early Jesus followers did in the resurrection of the righteous in God’s final judgment.  This gives Jesus occasion to make one of the major declarations of this Gospel.  “I am the resurrection....  Those who believes in me, even though they die, will live...  Do you believe this?” (verses 25-26).  And Martha affirms that she believes Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, “the one coming into the world.”  
Mary is next.  She too laments that Jesus did not get there in time to prevent Lazarus’ death.  Mary always seems to precipitate very strong emotional responses rather than theological reflections.  She weeps.  The Judean friends who have come to the household weep with her.  Finally, having been taken to the tomb, Jesus joins in their weeping.  (Providing what I learned as a child is the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept” [11:35, King James Version].)  And at this the Judeans – and these are some of the friendly ones – express the complaint for the last time:  “He opened the eyes of the blind man.  Could he not have prevented this man’s death?” (verse 37).  
The time has come to get to the heart of God’s action here:  the miracle.  Jesus goes to the tomb and tells them to open it.  To Martha’s practical objection about hygiene, Jesus reminds her of her earlier affirmation of faith.  The tomb is opened, Jesus yells a command, “Lazarus, come out!” and the dead man, almost a mummy in his grave wrappings, stumbles out to be set loose from the garments of death, to return to life for the greater glory of God.  
The Judean friends, seeing the resurrection and the life, believe in Jesus (verse 45).  

Friday, March 10, 2023

March 19, 2023 -- 4th Sunday in Lent

                                    Biblical Words                                                           [818]

I Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14John 9:1-41.  
The God who knows the hearts of mortals sends an Anointed One to bring sight to those who have not seen.  

The readings for this Sunday in Lent are about humans coming to know and coming to see; about darkness as not-knowing, dissipation, and disbelief; and about light and sight as God’s gifts. 

I Samuel 16:1-13. 

The reading from the Prophets is the story of the anointing of David by Samuel.  This is the first appearance of David in the historical books, though the story of how Israel got kingship has already involved the complex and somewhat tragic story of Samuel and Saul (I Samuel 1-15).  Our reading is the point at which God moves to take up another candidate for kingship in Israel, one whose career will bring success and triumph for Israel.  David will be the true and original Anointed One (“Messiah” in Hebrew, “Christ” in Greek). 

The emphasis in our story is on God’s knowledge of the inner person, and God’s choice of the – outwardly – least likely candidate for great office. 

Samuel is sent on a secret mission to Bethlehem, told that he will be guided in what to do.  He knows that a new king is in the making.  Bethlehem is a small town and Jesse with his several strong sons is clearly the leading figure in the community.  Samuel comes as the officiating priest of a religious observance, which is a scary thing to the local folks, who come trembling to ask, “Do you come peaceably?” (verse 4, NRSV). 

As the ceremonies progress, Jesse’s eldest son is introduced and Samuel is sure this handsome and impressive young man must be God’s choice for the next king.  God’s response – which makes this text particularly appropriate to Lent – is, “Take no notice of his appearance…  for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (verse 7). 

The selection process continues until – all candidates have been rejected!  The person sought is not present!  There must be someone else – somewhere.  After questioning, Jesse reports that there is one youngest son who does only shepherd duties, not yet having reached warrior status.  When this handsome teenager has been brought, God says, “Rise and anoint him, for this is the one.” (verse 12). 

The figure of destiny for Israel has been selected, and David becomes the Anointed One of God. 

Psalm 23. 

The Psalm reading is an affirmation of faith by the shepherd boy who became king. 

This revered text by which ages of Jewish and Christian persons have hallowed moments of danger and death, regains some of its older Israelite aura if we keep the personal name of God in the translation.  Here is the translation from the New Jerusalem Bible.  
Yahweh is my shepherd, I lack nothing.  
In grassy meadows he lets me lie.  
By tranquil streams he leads me to restore my spirit.  
He guides me in paths of saving justice as befits his name.  
Even were I to walk in a ravine as dark as death
I should fear no danger, for you are at my side.  
Your staff and your crook are there to soothe me.  
You prepare a table for me under the eyes of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup brims over.  
Kindness and faithful love pursue me every day of my life.  
I make my home in the house of Yahweh for all time to come.  
Ephesians 5:8-14.  
The Epistle reading is a classic text setting darkness and light in unqualified moral opposition.  
In the psalm, the speaker envisages the sheep passing through the “valley of the shadow of death” (King James Version), but being saved by the shepherd-like God.  In the Apostle’s letter the early believers are told that they “once” were the darkness.  However, now that they are “in the Lord,” they are light.  They should live accordingly.  All kinds of shameful things go on in the dark, but the light exposes all of that.  Those who now live in the light should produce “all that is good and right and true,” which is what is pleasing to the Lord (verses 9-10).  
The Apostle clinches his argument with a poetic quotation, which he assumes the hearers will recognize.  All of modern scholarship, however, has not found its source.  It is not from the Jewish scriptures or from literary Greek poetry, as far as that is known.  There is, however, a consensus among scholars that it is a quote from an early Christian hymn.  
Sleeper, awake! 
Rise from the dead, 
and Christ will shine on you.  (Verse 14.) 
The hymn proclaims the resurrection as waking up from sleep (see Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2), and this awakening was probably a major theme at the baptism of new confessors of Christ (see Romans 6:4).  Baptism was the time new believers began to live in the light of the Lord.  
During Lent, this is the vision of the light ahead for the believer who passes through the present darkness!  
John 9:1-41.  
The Gospel reading is another very long selection from the Fourth Gospel.  
This is the story of the healing of the man born blind.  The healing happens immediately, at the beginning of the story.  The real focus of the narrative is on all the spun-out consequences of the healing.  Though the story begins as a Jesus story, it develops as a story mainly about the blind man and his discovering real sight.  
The story develops through the questioning from his friends, opponents, and Jesus himself.  Among the many bypaths of the text, we will follow only this movement to sight of the man born blind.  (The Christian fiction writers Bodie and Brock Thoene have made the blind man of this story a young hero of faith in the series “A.D. Chronicles,” the first volume of which climaxes with this miracle of sight:  First Light, Carol Stream, IL:  Tyndale House, 2003.)  
At the beginning the disciples ask about the social and religious significance of this congenitally blind person.  Who sinned, that he was born blind, punished before he even had a chance to commit his first sinful act?  Jesus’ answer repudiates this as a general question about persons born with disabilities.  He answers that it is only a case of this particular person, this blind man begging in the neighborhood of the pool of Siloam.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (verse 3, NRSV).  
To hear this answer fully, it is important to remember that blindness is the condition of all persons before faith.  Moving from blindness to sight is the salvation God’s Anointed was sent to bring about.  This movement is possible only in the presence of that Anointed One.  “We must work the works of him who sent me…” (verse 4).  

This blind man is an embodied parable, and we will now hear the meaning that he acts out.  
The details of how Jesus does this healing are repeated several times through the narrative, almost as a litany – “He put mud on my eyes.  Then I washed [in the Siloam pool], and now I see” (verse 15, for example).  These details are out there as a distraction from the real point.  People interested in magic and generally curious about the secrets of the world (such as how miracles really happen) will seize upon such matters and miss the larger meaning.  
Our formerly blind man is questioned first by his neighbors (verses 8-14).  They debate whether this seeing man is really the same man who was blind.  They ask him how it happened, and get the first recycling of the story.  Apparently wishing to get the facts from the real source, they say, “Where is he?” to which the man replies, “I don’t know.”  This is stage number two of the man’s real move from blindness to sight.  He was blind, can now see, but doesn’t know where his benefactor is.  
The man is then taken to the learned religious authorities (verses 13-17).  Before pursuing the identity of the doer of the good deed, they proclaim that he can’t be a good guy in any case, because he did “work” on the Sabbath.  (Apparently making the mud out of his spit in the dust constituted “kneading,” as if working dough for bread.)  They ask again for an exact report of the healing, and the story is repeated.  Though they are pretty clear that the healer is to be condemned, there is some doubt, and they ask the man, “What do you say about him?  It was your eyes he opened.”  The man now answers, “He is a prophet” (verse 17).  Our man has advanced to stage number three; he recognizes that the healer must have come from God.  
The religious authorities must get behind this position and they accuse the man of being a hoax, of not really having been blind.  Call the parents (verses 18-23).  They appear, and under questioning realize that they have to sail very carefully among these high powers.  They affirm only what they know indisputably.  “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind, but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes.  Ask him; he is of age.  He will speak for himself” (verses 20-21).  
Back to the-man-who-now-sees they go, and call upon him to “Give glory to God” – by admitting that the man with the mud was a sinner and that only God can heal.  The man says he only knows what happened, whether they will believe him or not.  Do they want him to keep telling them about it so they can become disciples of the healer?  (verse 27).  
The authorities now read this as a challenge to their status.  “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.  We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from” (verses 28-29).  To this the man makes an answer full of irony.  “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.  Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.  If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (verses 31-33).  
After hearing this, the religious authorities drive out the seeing man.  He can no longer share communion with them.  (See Special Note below on Judean-Christians expelled from the synagogues.)  
This exchange has prepared us for the final stage in the man’s development – worshipping the Lord.  Jesus reappears in the story in order to complete the seeing man’s movement to full sight.  Jesus asks whether the man believes in the Son of Man.  The man asks who this Son of Man is.  “Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”  Jesus says to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  The seeing man completes his faith movement, saying, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him [prostrated himself before him] (verses 35-38). 
The gospel writer sums up with a Jesus saying.  “It is for judgment that I have come into the world, so that those without sight may see and those with sight may become blind.”  
The man born blind is a walking embodiment of the disciple who has come to full faith – and lived through the consequences of his confession.  

Special Note on Christians Expelled from the Synagogue.  
In recent decades, specialists in the Gospel According to John have concluded that the faith journey of the man born blind reflects the actual progression of Jesus believers in the decades after the death of Jesus.  
The story of the man born blind speaks of “the Jews” expelling from the synagogue those who confess Jesus as the Christ.  “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.” (verses 22).  More literally, anyone who confessed Jesus became an apo-synagōgos [beyond-synagogue-person], a term similar to apo-state, one who has deserted the community of faith, in this case the community of the synagogue.  
There are two other references in this Gospel to such expulsion from the synagogue, one in John 12:42:  “Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him.  But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue…”  Also, in Jesus’ farewell discourses he says to the disciples, “They will put you out of the synagogues” (16:2).  
Scholars recognize that these references to expulsion from the synagogue make no sense in Jesus’ own time.  There were no organized communities of Jesus confessors then against which such synagogue policy was needed.  Also, according to Mark, Jesus was not publicly confessed as Messiah by any humans, until near the very end.  These references to Jesus confessors expelled from the synagogues are informed by conditions long after the time of Jesus, long after even the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (70 CE).  These references are to the time when Rabbinic Judaism was re-forming itself after the disaster of 70 CE.  They reflect the actions of Palestinian Judean communities to protect themselves and consolidate their self-definitions.  
The wording of 9:22 – “for the Jews had already agreed” – sounds like some official or semi-official action had been taken against the Jesus confessors.  J.L. Martin (History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, Harper, 1968), and many others in the following decades, concluded that such a ban on Christian confessors had been promulgated from the Rabbinic authorities of Yavneh (=Jamnia), the center from which the re-forming of Judaism was initiated after 70 CE.  
An important change was made in the standard daily prayers of observant Judeans.  Three times a day, a fully observant Judean recited the Eighteen Benedictions – which by the time of Yavneh actually had nineteen blessings in it.  (Note that “blessing,” in this case, is in fact a euphemism for “curse.”)  The twelfth of these benedictions concerns heretics or apostates.  In the later Babylonian version of this “blessing,” it read:  
And for informers let there be no hope; and let all who do wickedness quickly perish; and let them all be speedily destroyed; and uproot and crush and hurl down and humble the insolent, speedily in our days.  Blessed art thou, Lord, who crushest enemies and humblest the insolent.  
(Quoted from Emil Shürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, new English version revised by G. Vermes et al., T&T Clark, 1979, vol. II, p. 457.)  
In modern times an older, Palestinian version of the Eighteen Benedictions was found (in a sealed chamber of an old synagogue in Cairo).  It contains what many scholars think was the version of the daily prayer after the Rabbinic authorities at Yavneh had revised it.  Here the twelfth benediction (referred to as birkat ha-minim, blessing of the apostates) reads as follows:  
And for apostates let there be no hope; and may the insolent kingdom be quickly uprooted, in our days.  And may the Nazarenes and the heretics perish quickly; and may they be erased from the Book of Life; and may they not be inscribed with the righteous.  Blessed art thou, Lord, who humblest the insolent.  (Quoted from the same source as above, p. 461.)  
This “blessing,” which directly curses confessors of Jesus of Nazareth, could not be recited in synagogue worship by Christians, even if they were observant Judeans in other respects.  This blessing seems clearly designed to exclude and ban such confessors of Jesus.  
When was this blessing revised to exclude the Nazarenes?  There is a tradition in the Babylonian Talmud about how this benediction got revised.  
Our rabbis have taught on Tannaite authority:  Simeon Happaquli in Yavneh laid out the eighteen benedictions before Rabban Gamaliel in proper order.  Said Rabban Gamaliel to sages, “Does anyone know how to ordain a ‘blessing’ [curse] against the Sadducees [minim = apostates]?”  Samuel the younger went and ordained it [i.e., revised the blessing].  
(Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 28b; quoted from The Babylonian Talmud, trans. Jacob Neusner, Hendrickson, 2005, Vol. I, pp. 190-91.) 
Rabban Gamaliel was the most prominent leader of the Rabbinic circles in Yavneh from about 85 CE into the second century.  Thus he was prominent at just the time that the Gospel According to John was reaching its final stages.  Assuming that what “Samuel the younger” produced was the Palestinian version of the twelfth “blessing,” that revised “blessing” refers directly to the “Nazarenes,” those who confessed Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah.  All of which fits the view that the expulsion of Christians from the synagogues became official Rabbinic policy at Yavneh somewhere around 85 to 110 CE.  
Some scholars have challenged the dating and precise application of the Blessing of the Heretics to Christians. (An example is, Reuven Kimelman, “Birkat Ha-Minim and the Lack of Evidence for an Anti-Christian Jewish Prayer in Late Antiquity,” Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, vol. II of “Aspects of Judaism in the Greco-Roman Period,” ed. E.P. Sanders; Fortress, 1981, pp. 226-244.)  It is clear from the Gospels, however, that some Pharisees and other “Jews” had developed local opposition to Jesus confessors on a consistent basis.  Besides the references in John, see Luke 6:22 (= Matthew 5:11):  “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you , revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man” – which sounds much like the severe language of the blessing of the apostates in the daily prayer.  
George Beasley-Murray concludes his discussion of this issue this way:  “The decision of the Pharisees in [John] 9:22 should be viewed as typical of what took place in varied localities prior to Jamnia’s [Yavneh’s] promulgation of the twelfth benediction; it will have been by no means universally observed, or regarded as irrevocable when taken. [But, summarizing the whole discussion]…The church of the Evangelist’s day does not simply have its back to the wall; it proclaims Christ and the gospel – to the Jew first, and also to the Greek!”  (John, Word Biblical Commentary, 36; 2nd ed., Nelson, 1999, p. 154.) 

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

March 12, 2023 -- 3rd Sunday in Lent

                                              Biblical Words                                              [817]

Exodus 17:1-7Psalm 95Romans 5:1-11John 4:5-42. 

Lent is a time of trial and testing, when God provides water and a discipline for new life.  

The readings for the third Sunday of Lent lead us into times of trial and testing, with special reference to water.  (Translations are from The New Jerusalem Bible.)

Exodus 17:1-7. 

The Torah reading is one of the sharpest and most incisive stories of the Israelite “trials” in the wilderness.  The people who have been rescued from bondage have not yet reached the holy mountain, where the law and covenant will be given.  They are still an unruly crowd without discipline and tested faith. 
The wilderness is a place where the common good is threatened.  The stories of Israel’s trials or tests in the wilderness deal with four kinds of threat to the common life.  The people lack water, they lack food, they are attacked by enemies, and they rebel against their own mission and leadership.  
Our story has two statements of the crisis that now impends (verse 2 and verse 3).  First, lacking water, the people expect Moses to provide it.  Moses says why are you blaming me, “why do you put Yahweh to the test?” (verse 2).  Moses shifts the accusation away from himself and insists that an attack on him is in fact an attack on God.  
The second statement of the crisis is even sharper.  “Why did you bring us out of Egypt ... only to make us, our children and our livestock, die of thirst?” (verse 3).  In their distress, the people call into question the whole enterprise that started with the exodus.  None of this wandering in the wilderness is God’s doing.  This is only a wicked scheme by Moses, who is really intent on destroying the people in this hostile and deadly environment.  That is the charge for which Moses now stands on trial before the people.  And he turns in desperation to God:  “How am I to deal with this people?”  
God instructs Moses to strike a certain rock at the holy mountain with the stick that worked wonders in Egypt.  Water flows from it – and not only is Moses vindicated as really God’s man and not a charlatan on his own, but the exodus enterprise is sustained as truly the doing of God, even though it leads through many hardships and trials in the country that comes before the promised land.  
Names.   And to be sure that the people remember the lesson here, the place is given names that are to ring down through Israelite tradition.  Massah [accent on the last syllable] means (Place of) Testing, and Meribah [also stressed on the last syllable] means (Place of) Contention or Quarrel.  
Whatever the urgency about water and murmuring, the ultimate issue is clearly revealed in the final statement:  “Is Yahweh with us, or not?” (verse 7).  
In the world of semi-nomadic herdsmen, places with names like Massah and Meribah would have been oases where disputes were settled between tribes, places where tribal justice was dispensed when the clans were gathered in from the grazing lands.  But in Israelite tradition, the greatest Testing, the greatest Contention, was whether Israel would trust the Lord enough to become a truly faithful servant. 

Psalm 95.  

The Psalm reading is, first, an enthusiastic call to worship, a call to worship God as “a king greater than all the gods,” and as the Lord of creation whose chosen ones are “the people of his sheepfold, the flock of his hand” (verse 7). 
The call to worship leads, however, to a direct recall of the Massah story of the people’s rebellion. 
A liturgical leader cries out, “If only you would listen to him today!”  Then the assembled leaders hear God’s own speech, summoning them to learn from the terrible lesson of the past.  
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, 
as at the time of Massah in the desert,
when your ancestors challenged me, 
put me to the test, and saw what I could do!  
... Then in my anger I swore 
they would never enter my place of rest.  
      (Verses 8-11; the NJB follows Greek more than Hebrew here.) 
(The oracle in the psalm refers not only to the rebellion at the watering place, but to the rebellion that was punished by forty years wandering in the wilderness, narrated in Numbers 14.)  
The psalm summons the people to discipline the unruly hearts that tend to rebel in times of stress.  

Romans 5:1-11.  

The Epistle reading continues Paul’s exposition of righteousness as understood from Abraham’s example.  
Paul’s view of Jesus’ saving work includes the understanding that everybody has been at Massah and Meribah.  Everybody has rebelled – actually at God, even though they may think it is only Moses they reject.  Thus, everybody is or has been in trouble and needs a fresh start.  The chance for such a start has been given.  “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of [God’s] Son” (verse 10, NRSV).  
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 1).  
Even having this peace, however, we are still in the wilderness – that is, we still face trials and tests.  Paul speaks of anticipating God’s glory by boasting, that is, celebrating, speaking ecstatically about the good things we have to look forward to.  We have a hope that instills the excitement and delight of common worship and celebration.  
But Paul also says that we should “boast” because of our sufferings or hardships (verse 3).  It is this line of thought that picks up the wilderness testing.  We exult in our sufferings because such discipline is good for us.  It leads us forward into more excellent service of God and humans, knowing that “hardship develops perseverance, and perseverance develops a tested character, something that gives us hope …”  (“Tested character” translates dokimē, which precisely means proven, tested, esteemed character, just the right term to refer to those who survived Massah and Meribah.)  This hope is a sign that “the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (verse 5).  
We rejoice – exult or boast – in our hardships or sufferings, in our trials endured without rebelliousness, because such sufferings cultivate in us the love of God, which may then flow all around us with hope.  

John 4:5-42.  

The Gospel reading is a long passage continuing the Lenten selections from the Gospel According to John.  This selection describes how a Samaritan woman was tested at the well of ancestor Jacob.  (While the passage is long, it is worth including the whole reading.)  
The story, like the reading from the Torah, begins with thirst and a request for water.  
The Samaritan woman knows the religious rules that would not allow a Judean to drink from a foreigner’s water jug, and she asks Jesus what he is up to.  As with Nicodemus in the previous story, Jesus’ reply seems to come from left field.  He says, in effect, if you knew who I am you would ask me for water instead of me asking you.  We are immediately clear that we are not talking about just a cool sip on a hot day.  
As usual, Jesus’ dialogue partner can’t quite get up to speed.  She says, this well is deep and you don’t even have a bucket!  In reply Jesus gives the first punch line of this dialogue.  
[N]o one who drinks the water that I shall give him will ever be thirsty again:  the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water, welling up for eternal life.     (Verse 14, NJB.)  
Then, in what seems a little friendly chatter, Jesus asks the woman to invite her husband to join them.  This leads to some revelations from the all-knowing Jesus about the lady’s private life, and she perceives that he is a prophet.  
She is sufficiently adroit to see an opportunity to escalate this encounter into some socially valuable religious talk.  She asks about the great division between Samaritans and Judeans concerning the proper place of worship.  The Judeans have their temple at Jerusalem; the Samaritans have theirs at Mount Gerizim, near where they are talking.  The two faith communities share the same Torah, though each has its own reading of the book of Deuteronomy (which requires a single place of worship), and the Samaritans have never accepted any of the books of the prophets, which are all oriented to Zion in Jerusalem. 
Jesus responds to her question, as usual, with something she didn’t expect.  
Believe me, woman, the hour is coming 
when you will worship the Father 
neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem....
But the hour is coming—indeed is already here—
when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth:  
that is the kind of worship 
the Father seeks.  
      (Verses 21 and 23).  
The woman realizes he is talking about the time when the Messiah comes, and Jesus is unusually candid when he replies, “That is who I am, I who speak to you” (verse 26).  
The disciples now enter the picture and converse with Jesus about food, which they have been in town purchasing.  Meanwhile, the woman goes into her town and tells the Samaritans about Jesus.  They then come out to see for themselves, and subsequently say to the woman, “Now we believe no longer because of what you told us; we have heard him ourselves and we know that he is indeed the Saviour of the world” (verse 42).  (The indigenous folk have made the gospel their own!)  
As R.H. Lightfoot observed (St. John’s Gospel, Oxford 1956, p. 125), the significant thing here is that the Samaritan woman develops.  She is inquisitive, even if not too swift.  But unlike Nicodemus in the previous chapter, she makes progress.  She moves on from the water lesson to the sanctuary lesson to the recognition of the Messiah.  Then she goes into town and makes an effective witness.  
The new reality that Jesus brings to people who are already burdened with religious traditions is a new birth and a new growth in the Son and in the Holy Spirit.  The Samaritan woman has met the tests that came to her at the well, and is spreading the witness about the living water that God has provided. 

Friday, March 3, 2023

March 5, 2023 -- 2nd Sunday in Lent

                         Biblical Words                                                       [816]

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17. 

Abraham responded to God’s promise with complete faith, but not all can accept such a challenge.  

The Lectionary readings for the second Sunday in Lent each year direct our thoughts to Abraham, the father of faith for the monotheistic religions.  

Genesis 12:1-4a.  

The reading from the Torah presents the beginning of the Abraham story.  God summons him to make a new start, after the various failures and losses of blessing in the generations after Adam and then after Noah. 

This call and promise to Abraham is the beginning of the story of Israel; it will be the sole motivation for God’s actions in all the rest of the sacred histories.

This promise has no prior motivation; it is the divine initiative out of the blue – it is the 100 per cent act of grace.  All subsequent movements of God into the destinies of the selected peoples take place because of this one unqualified divine start.  The fulfillments of these promises are strewn out over the histories of Joshua, David, Nehemiah, the Rabbis, and the Apostles. 

In the context of Lent, the emphasis here is on the new departure, the break with an old and degenerate world.  

The preceding chapter of Genesis has introduced Abraham’s father Terah and his extended family, all of whom live in the ancient city of Ur, in the south of modern Iraq.  From there, after Abraham and his brothers are married, Terah starts everyone on a migration.  They are going “to go to the land of Canaan.  But on arrival in Haran [a city in the north of Iraq], they settled there” (Genesis 11:31, NJB, New Jerusalem Bible, used in this set of readings). 

Terah and the rest of the family made only half of the journey. 

It is Abraham who is called to complete the move, to go all the way from ancient Ur to the promised land of Canaan.  “Leave your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a country I will show you” (verse 1).  The promise is that there Abraham will be blessed and will be a blessing to “all clans on earth” (verse 3, NJB). 

The new story of faith begins when we hear that Abraham did as he was told, that he went (verse 4). 

Psalm 121. 

The Psalm reading is a dialogue of faith and assurance appropriate to those descendants of Abraham who continued his journey of faith. 

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains; where is my help to come from?” (verse 1, NJB). 

Canaan, the promised land, is a land of mountains.  This opening question, like a call to worship, is answered by an extended assurance of God’s presence and help.  
He neither sleeps nor slumbers, 
      the guardian of Israel (verse 4).  
The care will persist to the journey’s end.  
Yahweh guards you from all harm, 
... Yahweh guards your comings and goings, 
henceforth and for ever (verse 8, NJB).  

This is an assurance that guides the steps of a pilgrim of the promise! 

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17. 

The Epistle reading is two portions of Paul’s fullest discussion of the faith of Abraham. 

The emphasis here is that Abraham’s faith preceded the law. 

Abraham is viewed as one who based his life on God’s promise.  “Abraham put his faith in God and this was reckoned to him as uprightness” (verse 3, quoting Genesis 15:6).  In Paul’s language, “uprightness” (“righteousness” in the NRSV) is the condition of being OK with God, of being on the right journey or even at the right destination.  How did Abraham reach that state?  By trusting God’s promise rather than by carrying out the requirements of the law, is Paul’s answer.  “For the promise to Abraham and his descendants that he should inherit the world [!] was not through the Law, but through the uprightness of faith” (verse 13, NJB). 

Paul affirms that Abraham is a model for his descendants as to how to get “right” with God.  The priority is not to prove oneself worthy, by doing good works, or works of the law, but to entrust oneself wholly to God, go forward wholly in that faith, and let God direct one to the land of promise with the challenges and trials along the way.  

The faith to make a new start that leaves behind the old securities – the old bonds, and bondages – is what sets one right with God.  That is living by faith; that is being a true descendant of Abraham ⎼ a pilgrim of the promise ⎼ whether one also has the Law or not. 

John 3:1-17. 

In this year of the Lectionary cycle, the Gospel readings for Lent are mostly taken from the Gospel According to John.  John’s Gospel does not have a year of its own in the three-year cycle, but the Lectionary turns to it at certain high points of the year.  Lent in Year A is one of those times, and we will hear Gospel readings from John from now until Palm Sunday.  

This Sunday’s reading is Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus, the Judean leader and Pharisee who, like Abraham’s father Terah, starts on the journey but can’t go all the way. 

The paragraph just before our story sets the stage for Nicodemus’ approach.  “During [Jesus’] stay in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he did, but Jesus knew all people and did not trust himself to them…” (John 2:23-24, NJB).  That is, Jesus knew that signs and wonders were not an adequate basis for real faith. 

Nicodemus expresses this traditional Judean position in his opening words.  “Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher; for no one could perform the signs that you do unless God were with him” (verse 2).   

Before Nicodemus can go any farther – before he can ask the question he came in the night to ask – Jesus makes a provocative statement. 

“In all truth I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (verse 3, NJB). 

A word-play.  Translators’ footnotes show that “from above” has a double meaning; it can also mean “again.”  It’s like our expression, “take it from the top,” meaning do it over again.  Capitalizing on such double meanings is a deliberate teaching device often used in this Gospel. 

Nicodemus takes the meaning “again,” and says, How can a grown man reenter the womb and be born again?  Jesus’ reply repeats his original declaration with only a couple of changes.  “In all truth I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born through water and the Spirit” (verse 5).  The message is that there must be a rebirth.  The birth is “again,” but it is also “from above,” that is, it is a rebirth through baptism – a rebirth in the water of the sacrament and in the new being of the Holy Spirit. 

Nicodemus remains puzzled through the rest of Jesus’ talk about this rebirth in the Spirit, and finally says, “How is that possible?” (verse 9).  To which Jesus replies, “You are the Teacher of Israel, and you do not know these things!”  If this is the extent of the Pharisee teacher’s resources, someone is in trouble! 

Nicodemus appears again later in John’s Gospel:  at 7:45-52, where he speaks somewhat in Jesus’ favor to his fellow Pharisees, and in 19:39-40, where he joins Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial.  Always, Nicodemus is almost there.  In the right place – though maybe at night instead of in the light of day – on hand for the right question, but not completing a life commitment. 

The Nicodemus story in John speaks of “the kingdom of God (verses 3 and 5).  This is the only place in John that that expression is used.  Later in this story and in the rest of the Gospel, Jesus speaks instead of “eternal life” (for the first time at 3:15, and many times after).  

There is a story told in the other three Gospels about a Judean leader who comes to Jesus and asks about – not the kingdom of God, but – eternal life.  “He was setting out on a journey when a man ran up, knelt before him and put this question to him, ‘Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Mark 10:17, NJB).  The man in this story is often called “the rich young ruler.”  He is rich in Mark 10:22, young in Matthew 19:20, and a ruler in Luke 18:18. 

This story is the only place in Mark that the phrase “eternal life” is used – instead of “the kingdom of God,” as it is everywhere else in Mark.  And this rich leader is like Nicodemus in only going part of the way.  He has obeyed all the commandments, and asks “what more?”  After Jesus tells him to sell his goods and give to the poor, “his face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth” (Mark 10:22, NJB).  He could not make the complete commitment.  In this case because of his riches, in Nicodemus’ case apparently because of the ties of his fixed tradition. 

Nicodemus, that other keeper of the commandments and seeker after “what more,” could not break away from his old country, he could not give his whole soul to be reborn.  He hung around to the end, assisting with the dead body, but he stands as one who did not make it beyond the half-way station, toward that new and eternal life.  

Friday, February 24, 2023

February 26, 2023 -- 1st Sunday in Lent

                                                     Biblical Words                                            [815]

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7Psalm 32Romans 5:12-19Matthew 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).