Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Mark 7:24-37

Summary: Okay, this passage is really hard.  Mark goes out of his way to show how much "other" this woman is.  What do we make of this?  That Jesus is less compassionate or (gasp) more bigoted than we are today?   I don't think we want to go there.  But (gasp!) Luke dropped this story, unable to stomach it; I think many of us want to drop it as well.  But in the Bible it is.  A few possibilities for preaching
- Jesus entered a world with real cultural divisions, not the new creation.
- Sometimes we have to be persistent in prayer.
- If you can find a common language, you can solve all sorts of problems.
- Jesus did ultimately consider gentiles in his family, but this was not the natural state of affairs.

Again, the Greek offers no easy way out of this passage.

Key words:

Τορου (Tyre, 7:24) First reminder that we are away from Jewish territory. To give an example of how "bad" it was for Jesus to be there, recall the words of  Matthew 11:22 "But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you."  We almost wonder if Jesus wanted it kept secret that he was there because a good Jewish Rabbi should not have been going in that direction!

What is interesting is that in spite of all the cultural differences, they still speak a common language...

ερχομαι (απερχομαι and also εισερχομαι, numerous forms "ερχομαι" which means to go, 7:24)  There is a lot of movement in this text -- variants of ερχομαι are used throughout the text. The first movement is out into Tyre (απερχομαι ); then in to the home (εισερχομαι); the demon goes out; the woman leaves the house; the demon again has gone out; Jesus leaves the town.

Note on Greek:  ερχομαι is a very common verb, but it often appears in its aorist form: ηλθεν, or as a participle or with attached prefixes (απο (away) εισ (into)).  Learning to recognize the myriad forms of this verb can definitely speed up one's Greek reading.

ελληνις ("Hellenic" (not the rough breathing mark over the "e" or "Greek"), 7:26). For what is worth, the word Gentile should not be used here, but Greek should. (εθνη is not the word used; ελληνις is).  It is odd that such an amount of information is given about the woman.  Mark wants to drive some that this person is the embodiment of "other."

ηρατω (imperfect form of ερωταω, "beg/ask" 7:26)  What is significant here is that this verb is in the imperfect -- she was continuing to beg.  Jesus did not respond to her first request, it seems.  Kepp praying folks...

χορτασθηναι (from χορταζω, meaning "feed", 7:27) The word here for feed is χορταζω.  This word will be used in chapter 8 to describe Jesus feeding all of the gentiles...So here Jesus says he ain't gonna feed the people...but shortly after this, this is exactly what he is doing.  Which means, that when Jesus feeds the gentiles in chapter 8, Jesus is considering them children!

εβαλεν (aorist form of βαλλω, meaning "throw", 7:33)  The word translated as "put" as in "put" his fingers is βαλλω which means throw or cast.  This is normally used as a verb to describe Jesus "casting" out the demon.  In this image he casts his fingers into the man.  Kind of gross!

εστεναξεν (from στεναζω, meaning "groan", 7:34)  It is hard to say whether Jesus "sighs" here in frustration or effort.  This word will appear in some other powerful verses in the New Testament:
Romans 8:23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
2 Corinthians 5:4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
Being in this town seems to make Jesus very uncomfortable.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Mark 7:1-8; 14-15; 21-23

Summary:  This is a grand set of verses for Lutherans.  It shows a bunch of unclean people eating bread and learning from Jesus; it rebukes the piously proud; and intensifies the law so greatly that we all must confess our sins.  As easy and good sermon is clear.  I wonder if the challenge is helping people understand how to distinguish between the commandments of God (which Jesus does not abgrotate) and the dictates of men.  To put it another way, I think we will all preach a good sermon on law, Christ and forgiveness.  But what about that thorny issue -- in the religious soup we call consumer Christian America, what is from God and what is from humanity?  And how can we tell?

Key Words:
κοινος  ("common" or "defiled", 7:2, 5 and 15 and 20 as a verb)  This word can have a range of meanings.  "Koine" Greek, for example, refers to the Greek everyone held in common.  "Koinonia" means Christian fellowship of the highest degree.  κοινος in this case means common, as in unsanctified -- common to the point of being unclean and unfit for duty. 

It is worth pointing out that Jesus does not abolish the idea of common/holy.  He disorients the previous understandings and then reorients it by including a (laundry) list of sins.

συναγονται ("gather", from συναγω, 7:1)  I love this verb!  It will come into English as "syagogue"  The image here from Mark them is a bunch of people, unclean sinners, gathering around Jesus to hear his teaching and eat bread.  There is a congregation here of sinners.  The pious are rebuked, but all recognize their guilt.

βαπτιζω ("baptize"/"wash", as noun and verb in verse 4).  The word baptize has a host of meanings in ancient Greek related to washing.  In this case, it means a ceremonial washing to cleanse something for a holy purpose.  What is worth remember here is that the baptism does not simply confer a status but prepares for use.  In the same way, our baptisms do not simply confer a status but prepare us for use.

κρατουντες ("hold", from κρατω, 7:3, 4 and 8)  This word will come into English in words like "democracy"; it means "hold" but even "sieze" or "rule."  We certainly have met people who cling to the law.  (See Obama's campaign mistake from 2008.)

παραδοσις ("handed over", 7:3,5,8,9, 13)  This word also literally means give over!  It can have a generally positive sense of tradition (that which has been handed over); it can also mean betray (again, something handed over).  The idea is that tradition is passed over from generation to the next.  And lest you think the Bible doesn't like tradition, our whole Communion ritual, Paul declares, is tradition handed over to him.

υποκριτης ("hypocrite", 7:6)  The root of this word is theatre, that one answers from stage.  Jesus doesn't want us to be actors of the word, but doers.

Translation:  meaning of Greek uncertain
The phrase:  εαν μη πυγμη νιψωνται
means little to the Greek translator.  It literally means "except by washing with the boxing fist."  We have no idea what ritual is described here, other than some form of washing.  Even with big fat lexicons, sometimes you just don't know what the author of 2,000 years ago meant!  Fortunately in this case, the meaning of the passage is not altered.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Hebrews 2:10-18: Not penal substitution

Summary:  A common way to understand the death of Jesus is "penal substitution" whereby Jesus' suffering and death "substitute" for the suffering and death we deserved before the law.   The imagery of sacrifice and Jesus' role as High Priest in the book of Hebrews often serve as proof texts of this understanding of atonement.  The problem with this way of looking at atonement is that God the Father becomes seen as a God of vengeance who needs to see Jesus tortured in order to be appeased.  I suggest that the atonement put forward in Hebrews, specifically chapter 2, does not support this view.  Rather, it supports a more complex notion of atonement, whereby Jesus death and suffering function in different ways.

μισθαποδοσιαν ("payment" or "penalty", vs 2)  The book of Hebrews makes clear that there is a consequence of our disobedience from God.  However, it never suggests this consequence is physical torture.  The consequence of disobedience is death.  By death is I do not even mean instantaneous death, but the simply the reality of death.  For example, 2:14 ascribes the power of death to the devil.  But it does not suggest that someone who sins instantly dies.  Rather, it describes the human condition.  We are human.  We are rebellious.  We die. (see Genesis 3!)

Furthermore, when the anger of God does show up, it is not directed toward torturing of humans.  Hebrews 3.11-4.3 is a long argument of Old Testament quotes supporting the idea that the rebellious Israelites received the punished of being barred from the promised land; likewise, we who are rebellious will not enter the (eternal) rest of the (heavenly) promised land.  God's justice (and I would argue love, but that is another day) demands that the promised land is for the obedient; the old creature of rebellion must die.  But God's justice is not satisfied with torture. 

Clearly the book of Hebrews builds on the Old Testament imagery of sacrificing animals as a matter of atonement.  Jesus stands in as the ULTIMATE sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all other sacrifices.  But let us remember, the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament never drew their forgiving power from the suffering of the animal.  Not once does God seem interested in having an animal be tortured or mutilated.  If we want to make Jesus the new sacrificial lamb (which I am fine with!), let us remember that the power of the sacrifice was not in the lashes but in the blood.  (The cleansing blood imagery may present a big problem for a modern reader; fine, but the point remains; the blood, not the lashes, was where the forgiveness resided)

το ιλασκεσθαι ("one of many difficult verbs meaning expatiate, atone or something like this")  We have an articular infinitive form (its own little ball of wax) of this most difficult word to translate.  There is a whole cluster of words linguistically related to ιλασκεσθαι, which again means "reconcile."  It is connected with animal sacrifices on the ark of the covenant that "appeased" God.

What is worth noting is that this particular verb is rarely, if ever, translated elsewhere in Scripture as "make atonement" (definitely not the NRSV "make a sacrifice of atonement.")  It seems most often to simply mean forgive:
Luke 18:13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'
Lamentations 3:42 We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.
Psalm 79:9 Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name's sake.
Psalm 78:38 Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; often he restrained his anger, and did not stir up all his wrath.
Psalm 25:11 For your name's sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great.
Exodus 32:14 And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

To put it another way, the verb does not mean "make a sacrifice."  The Isrealites called the "ιλαστηριον", the place on the Ark of the Covenant where sacrifices went, the mercy seat.  This is because they viewed it as a primary and sure place of God's mercy.  But to say that all mercy demands sacrificial animals (ie, that ιλασκεσθαι means "make a sacrifice of atonement") is not the case.  Scripture is filled, as I have shown, with God's mercy flowing independent of animal sacrifices and the entire temple in Jerusalem!  It can still be the mercy seat, but it does not have a monopoly on mercy!

To put it simply:  The NRSV inclusion of "sacrifice" here is really not helpful.  Jesus' death is sacrificial, for sure, but this loads a lot into this verse.

παθημα  (sufferings, 2:9)  Jesus suffering and death are bound together.  The Greek literally reads in verse nine, "the suffering of death."  However, I want to separate out, from the book of Hebrews, Jesus death and Jesus torture.  The book of Hebrews does not dwell on Jesus' gory death on the cross (it only mentions this once, 12:2).  Rather, it focuses on Jesus death, like the sacrifices of the Old Testament.

What do we make of the suffering (really torture) of Jesus on the cross?  I suggest that the letter to the Hebrews makes the case that Jesus suffering (and death) enabled him to stand in our place, or to use more 21st century language, be in solidarity with humanity.  In short, take away the old testament quotes and some other language, this is what you are left with in this passage (2:9-2:18):

Jesus might taste death for everyone....For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters...Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity...Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect...Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

In order to reconcile God and humanity ( ιλασκεσθαι!) Jesus had to be fully human, endure temptation (2:17), endure shame (12.2) and bear the sins of the world (9.28).  What does this look like?  The cross depicts humanity at its worst.  Jesus has been there.  Suffering -- not just sin -- as a boundary between divine and human was permanently crossed.

I believe that the book of Hebrews still portrays an atonement that demands the death of the old creature before the law and justice of God.  However, I think it also opens up the door to an amazingly merciful God, who totally embodies the suffering found in the human condition.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Mark 6:1-13 (RCL for July 5)

To summarize: 
In recent weeks (years) Christians (in America) have often felt discouraged by the social setting in which we find ourselves.  In this passage, the Greek makes it abundantly clear that Jesus sends out his disciples into a very difficult world, one that basically rejects him.  Into this world, the disciples are sent out
A) in teams
B) to proclaim, call to repent, and heal
C) to move on from those who reject them (ie, not live in anger, but in hope for the next interaction!). 

Sounds like good advice for the missionary church in the West today!

χειρων (from χειρ, meaning "hand", 6:2,5)  Jesus does not just preach to people, he touches their lives.  Even the disciples who go out proclaiming Christ use oil, suggesting they too touched people!  The church is a mouth-house of the word, indeed, but proclamation is not separate from getting our hands dirty!

A trifecta of words Mark words uses to show just how bad it was for Jesus:
εσκανδαλιζοντο (from σκανδαλιζω, meaning, "to take offense", 6:3):  The word comes into English as scandalized; the world was scandalized by the teachings of Jesus!  Our goal is not to make the teachings of Jesus inoffensive to the world!

ελεγεν (imperfect of λεγω, 6:4)  Jesus is repeatedly saying he has no honor!  The imperfect tense means on-going action; Jesus did not say once, but continually was telling them he had no honor.

εθαυμαζεν...απιστιαν (amaze (θαυμαζω) and unbelief (απιστια), 6:6); In spite of the fact that the crowd is amazed at Jesus' teaching, they still are reluctant to believe.

In short, the environment in which Jesus sends out his disciples is one where
- Jesus teaching is offense, in spite of wisdom (σοφια, 6:2) and miracles!
- Jesus repeatedly acknowledges the difficulty he is facing
- Jesus is not recognized as Lord and Savior

εδυνατο...δυναμιν (both from the word power/ability, ie, dynamite; as a plural noun meaning miracles, 6:5)   The word for "able" as in "able to cure them" is "dyna-mai" which in noun form is "dynamis," or power comes from.  For those preaching the 2nd Corinthians Text, this is the same power that Paul talks about.

μαρτυριον (witness, 6:11) The testimony we are to offer is not necessary against them; the Greek is ambigious. It could actually be as witness to or for them.  Regardless, we are not supposed to exhaust our resources fighting those who do not accept Jesus.

εθεραπευον (from θεραπευω, to heal, 6.5 and 6.13) I wrote about this word in a previous blog post:
Basically, Jesus turns the Bible upside-down by actually doing the service toward people, something that did not happen in the Old Testament.  Furthermore, he sends out his people into the world to serve (therapy) the world!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Mark 5:21-43 (RCL for June 28)

Summary:  This story is classic Mark:  A power struggle is at hand, between Jesus and the world, between the crowds and the religious leadership, between life and death, between despair and faith.  In the end, Jesus will serve as champion, or perhaps in a surprising way, a calm, peaceful and loving savior.  Regardless of what tact one takes in working through this passage, one should wrestle with what it means to "save."  This passage, like most in Mark, suggests a far bigger definition of save than our typical religious discourse!

Key words:
συνηχθη (aorist passive from of συναγω, meaning "gather", 5:21).  This verb has a clear English cognate:  Synagogue, where folks were gathered.  In this case we have two synagogues -- the unofficial gathering (συνηχθη) around Jesus and the synagogue (συναγωγος).  Mark lets us know that the real power is in the gathering around Jesus.

σωθη (aorist passive subjunctive of σωζω, meaning "save"; 5:23).  In American Christianity, the word save almost always connotes a future state, often hell, from which one is "saved."  In this case, the word σωθη is best translated "heal", as it can in Greek.  A few points here:
- In the Bible, saving and healing are neither distant linguistically nor conceptually.
- Salvation grows out of faith.  In both stories, faith is needed.  In the second story, Jesus supplies the faith when we have lost it.
- Salvation is necessary for living.  It proceeds it grammatically vs 23 and in our lives!
- Salvation brings new life.  In both stories, Jesus salvation brings NEW life.
- Salvation does not simply come from the spoken word.  In the later case, Jesus speaks and the girl arises.  But in the first case, simply the touch of Jesus heals the woman.  Jesus is the incarnate word -- when we think about how to heal people, it it not only our words, but also our touch.
- Saving is also for this life; I do not mean to juxtapose the importance of ultimate salvation against earthly in-breakings of the Kingdom of God.  They are related.  We can embrace the work of our savior in this life time.  The NET Bible writes, "This should not be understood as an expression for full salvation in the immediate context; it refers only to the woman’s healing."  Again, there is a real discomfort among Christians about talking about the work of Jesus Christ outside of life after death. 
To put it another way, I am becoming more convinced that when people show up at church on a Sunday, they are dying.  One could argue, they are already dead.  They need to be saved, that is, encounter the living Christ and hear his word, in order to live.

ελεγεν (imperfect of λεγω, meaning "say", 5:28)  The woman is repeatedly saying to herself -- not once -- that if she touches him, she will be healed.

μαστιγος ("whip" or "illness", 5:29)   The word for "disease" here comes from the word for whip; as in Jesus was whipped.

εξ αυτου ("of him", 5:30).  Here I beg to differ with the translation, "The power went out from him."  The Greek here does not say this.   It reads "The from him (εξ αυτου) power went him."  The positioning of "of him" means that it modifies the noun (power) not the verb (going-out).  The translators are lumping this preposition in with the verb and missing the connection between Jesus and the power.  Furthermore, this "of/from him" (εξ αυτου) is kind of interesting...the power that arises from him?  Again, the preposition εκ/εξ can describe all sorts of relationships that encompass movement from/out of/originating in.  The power originating in him?  The power arising out of him?  The power belonging to him?  Regardless, the power is connected to Jesus, not simply in the air!

"Get up".  In vss 41 and 42, two words are used to describe the young girl getting up:  either εγειρω in vs. 41 or ανεστη in vs. 42.  Both are words used for resurrection in the New Testament; the reaction, εκστασει (if you sound it out in English, ecstasy!), is that of the women at the tomb in Mark 16.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Mark 4:35-41 (RCL for June 21)

A guest post for this week by Rev. James Rowe of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Kingston, NY:

The assigned Gospel reading for this Sunday (Lectionary 12) is the powerful story of Jesus calming the storm. By itself, it is a wonderful story. But knowing the surrounding context can be quite helpful. This story begins with the little phrase "on that day, when evening had come" (4:35a) which means that Mark has set this story as a continuation of the parables of the kingdom Jesus has just spoken (4:1-34). In addition, it also serves as the introduction to story about the Gerasene demoniac (5:1-20), the first Gentile encounter Jesus has in Mark's Gospel.  The calming of the storm can serve both as a reflection on what the kingdom is like and also as an introduction to what it means to live in that kingdom as disciples.

Mark's Gospel tends to use the disciples as foils to Jesus, people who witness the unbelievable in Christ again and again and still struggle to understand who he is and what he is up to. Mark 4:35-41 highlights that usage in a few ways. First, Jesus is referred to as "he" (αυτον) as distinct from the  disciples.  Second, when they wake up Jesus, they do not refer to him as "Lord" (κυριος) but as "Teacher" (διδασκαλος) which seems to imply that the disciples still do not know who he truly is. 
Finally, the question of the disciples ("Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" 4:41b) goes unanswered, both showing their unbelief and also giving us readers a question to ponder as Jesus will soon be casting a legion of demons into pigs and ultimately into the sea he has just overpowered with a word.
When it comes to preaching this text, it could be interesting to end the sermon with the same question: "Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?" We preachers tend to tie our sermons off with pretty bows and end with "amen" or some Pauline phrase, but Mark's Gospel gives us a variety of texts where the lack of conclusion opens us up to the possibility of what God is doing in the "storms" of the world and in our lives. 

Rob's response to Jim's post:
In Jim's post, he put something in parenthesis that I wanted to unpack.  He wrote, "The Greek for awake is actually 'arose'."  Indeed, the word here is εγειρω, which also means raised up or even resurrected.  Once again, a subtle foreshadowing of the unfolding mystery in Mark's Gospel.  In this passage of Jesus calming the storm, the word μεγας (mega, meaning big) shows up three times:  a BIG storm; a BIG calm and a BIG fear.  When Jesus power is revealed, it brings both calm and fear, an ironic, if not dialectical combination of emotions.  Perhaps the bigger the demonstration, the bigger the fear!  This also points to the resurrection in Mark's Gospel, when the full revelation of Jesus power is accompanied by great calm in the tomb but also also fear in the first witnesses (φοβεω, Mark 16.8).  

One other little grammar point on fear:
Cognate Accusative:  This fancy term is when the verb and object both are from the same word, like "I rode a ride."  It is considered bad English, but is quite common in Hebrew and in NT Greek.  In this case, Mark says they "feared a big fear" (εφοβηθησαν φοβον)  The weird conjugation of an aorist passive 3rd person plural makes this tough to see.  But it is really simple:  They feared a big fear!