Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Matthew 25:31-46

This passage occurs on Christ the King Sunday, Year A, most recently November 2014.
Much like the beatitudes, it is hard to preach this text without steering off the cliff of works righteousness.  A few thoughts.  First, a goat and sheep are born that way; the sheep did not become sheep by their actions; neither for the goats.  They are declared righteous, but the text never declares them righteous because of their action.  It simply says they are righteous.  They did X, Y and Z good things.  Lutherans believe the righteous do good things.  Second, the sheep are not endeavoring to save their hides but they are simply helping people.  The goats were perfectly willing to help Jesus to help themselves, but they weren't interested if it didn't get them points.  The whole freedom in faith righteousness is that we no longer have to work about our own reputation (glory) or status before God but instead can worry about our neighbor.  The goats never got that far.  Lastly, for Matthew glory is found in judgment.  For Lutherans we believe that judgment comes on the cross, which points toward the cross being the center of glory.  Even if this seems stretching it the basic point of this text is a theology of the cross:  Jesus's glory is revealed, yet still somewhat hidden, in the brokenness of the world.

Key words:
δοξα ("glory"; 25.31)  It is interesting to note that in the Gospel of Matthew the word δοξα is almost always connected with Jesus second coming and judgment.  Perhaps it is worth reflecting on -- what is so glorious about judging?

εθνος ("gentiles" or "nations"; 25.32). When used in the plural it normally means "gentiles" ie, non-Jews.  Jesus will finally tell us to go to all the nations. 

κληρονομήσατε (from "κληρονομεω" meaning "inherit"; 25.34)  This word can mean receive, but it really involves inherit.  An inheritance means two things:  First, that someone died.  Second, that there is a gift.  The kingdom given to us is a gift in Jesus Christ and his death.

ξενος ("stranger"; 25.35) The phrase, 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me' actually has the word: "xenos" as in xenophobia.  Furthermore, the verb is "synagagete," from which we get synagogue.  To translate a different way: "I was an outsider and you gathered me to worship." "Synag-oo" as a verb does not mean invite to church, but the word underneath means gather.  I think Jesus is implying something stronger than simply welcoming strangers but more like:  ushering in freaks.

Grammar:  Unclear antecedents
Like in English, Greek uses pronouns.  Sometimes it is unclear what "it" is refering to.  For example, the Greek says, "throne of glory of his."  Is the throne his or the glory?  Probably doesn't matter in this case, but worth reminding ourselves that Greek does have ambiguities.
In 25.32 the object of the word "divide" is interesting.  Jesus has just finished talking about the εθνος (gentiles), which is a neuter noun.  The pronoun object of the word divide is a masculine plural, suggesting the nations are not what are divided, but the individuals in the nations (masculine plural pronouns can refer to a group that has both men and women).

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Matthew 25:14-30

This passage occurs in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently November 2014.
Alas, another Matthew Parable that seems to preach the Law and not the Gospel.  As a person and as a congregational leader, this passage troubles me.  Yet there is a bit of Gospel is we pay close attention here.  The master gives talents to his slaves.  Talents are huge sums of money.  What kind of person gives someone 1 or even 2 or even 5 to 10 million dollars??  What kind of person gives slaves this kind of money?  Sure, this parable may serve as warning not to hide our gifts.  Law, law and more law.  But the Gospel news is this:  God gives us his assets in a way that in unimaginable in the real world of money.  (you might also say that God blesses his slaves investments in a way unimaginable in this real world of money...)

Lastly, I wonder if the real question is:  What do we view as our talents?  Our gifts and skills?  More and more I am coming to the conclusion that the people in our lives are the talents we have been given and how we treated them will be our judgement. 

Key words:

ταλαντον ("talent", a measure of gold weight worth roughly a million dollars or 20 years worth of a standard persons wages, 25:15).  While this parable may produce guilt and anxiety in us that we don't do enough, it is worth remembering that anyone who gives away 5 talents to his slaves (not friends, slaves) doesn't value money they way the rest of us do.  5 talents would be 5-10 million dollars; 100 years worth of human labor entrusted!

τα υπαρχοντα ("possessions", 25:16)  see below for a grammatical explanation of this word.  This word does mean possessions, but it comes from the verb for "to be" an does not simply mean goods, but really the entirety of one's resources and means.  For instance, in Genesis 12:5, Abraham and his family take τα υπαρχοντα of theirs when they are moving countries.  Second Peter 1:8 actually describes personality traits as υπαρχοντα.  This word is probably better translated as "assets"

εκερδησεν ("gain" from κερδαινω, 25:16)  Worth remembering that Paul said that all of his achievements were "dung" in order that he might gain Christ.  Also worth noting is that Jesus, in all three synoptics, warns of "gaining" the world (same word) but losing the soul.  Jesus is not simply teaching financial advice, but spiritual.

εκρυψεν ("hide", κρυπτω, 25:18)  The word here literally means "encrypt."  The sin here is not having enough gifts, but hiding that which we have.  I wonder too if it is worth playing with this word "hide" and how people hide their gifts.

Grammar Review:  I thought substantive participles were easy!
Generally, one of the easiest participles to translate are a group called "substantive."  Basically, the form is 'the word the'+'participle' and it is translated the 'one(s)/thing(s) that do this verb'.  So in verse 14, you have τα υπαρχοντα.  The second word is a verb meaning "to be" so this substantive participle is translated, "the things that are."  In this case, this is an idiom which means something akin to "possessions" or "assets" but at its core, it is a participle made into a 'substance' by the word 'the'.

However, Greek can get pretty fancy with the substantive participle.  They can stick words in between the 'the' and the partciple.  For example, in 25:18
ο δε το εν λαβων means "But the one having one (talent)."  First, it is tricky because you have to figure out that the words το εν refer to "the one talent" but it is especially tricky because you have to realize that ο goes with λαβων and becomes "the one who has."  Lastly, you have to unpack the middle and put it on the end to translate it because in English you cannot have, outside of poetry, "the one one talent having." 

The nice thing about such participles is that they allow Greek to build some monster phrases, which ultimately are not that hard to translate.  You just have to identify the participle pieces (in this case the 'the' and the participle), translate them and then go after the middle.

Friday, November 4, 2011


The First Sunday in November is often called "All Saints."

A word on the "Saints"

The word saint is a translation of the adjective holy (or hagios) in Greek. Like in English, you can make an adjective a person-noun by sticking the word “the” in front of it: the poor, the rich, the lazy. What we translate as saint simply means “the holy” or “the holy one(s).”

More importantly, the phrase “oi hagios” (the holy ones) does not refer to a specific group of people within the church, but to all of those who bear Christ’s holy name. Take for example Philippians 1:1, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” You can read the first few sentences in almost all of Paul’s letters and you discover that he is addressing the congregation as the saints. You can also see this outside of Paul. For example, in Acts Ananias complains about what Paul has done to the saints in Jerusalem (9:13); the writer of Hebrews addresses the congregation as saints (13:24). In Revelation the blood was shed for all the saints (5:9). And so forth. It was no until much later that the church began distinguishing between “real” Christians, aka, the Saints, and the rest of us. In this sense, Luther returns to the Bible and the early church by claiming that all Christians are, by virtue of Christ, holy ones.

What does it mean to be a Holy One, a Saint, then? This is where the rubber meets the road. Holy (hagios) in Greek means to be put aside for God’s use. Some Christians emphasize the moral purity associated with or even necessary for God’s use. To avoid a long debate, I will simply say that the whole Lutheran orientation of holiness is distinct. I would offer that holiness as humans consists of joyful suffering for the sake of the other. I think one can get there with the beatitudes, often a text for All Saints. We do not seek to suffer to add to our own glory, but that as we follow Christ, we will suffer and that as we suffer, the Holy Spirit will meet us to renew and resurrect us, that is, once again, make us holy.