Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Matthew 2:1-12

This passage occurs in both the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary during the Christmas season.
Summary:  Don't get hung up on the meaning of the word magi and who they were.  The issue at stake is:  Who is Jesus?  The epiphany of our Lord has begun.  He is Messiah, King, and Shepherd.  Deconstruct the titles and gifts as you will; a good sermon on this text should focus on Christ's identity.  Especially interesting are the parallels between this passage of Matthew 2 and the later scenes with Herod, the chief priests, the scribes and Pilate.

Key words:
μαγοι ("magoi", meaning "magi", 2:1)  as Liddell Scott puts it:  "one of the wise men in Persia who interpreted dreams."  They were probably not kings...but they do bring royal gifts and are granted a royal audience.  They were almost certainly not Jews.  Rather than fixate on their wealth or non-wealth, I think their gentile status is a powerful point, especially in Matthew's Gospel, which spent chapter 1 in a Jewish genealogy.  Jesus is for everyone.

χριστος ("Christ", meaning "anointed", 2:4)  This is a crucial term in Matthew's Gospel.  Jesus is the anointed one, prophesied about for centuries in Judaism.  Matthew uses the term three times in chapter 1.  It will be featured in Peter's confession of faith (16:16) and will later be used in Jesus' suffering and trial (various points in 26 and 27).  In fact, almost all of these titles here for Jesus show up again in Jesus passion:

King of the Jews:  βασιλευς των Ιουδαίων (2:2)  Later in Jesu's life, this will be the accusation made against him, that he claims this (Matthew 27:11); finally, this will be put on Jesus cross (27:37).  It is worth asking -- should only Herod be scared?  No.  All of Jerusalem.  Why?  There is a political-historical reason, but I think a spiritual reason we can all connect with -- what does it actually mean if Christ is king of our life?

Leader:  ηγούμενος (2:6) who shepherds (ποιμαινω, 2:6)  Jesus will tell the people that the Shepherd is going to be struck down (26:31)

In some ways, you could probably match up the gifts of the magi with these various offices (gold for the king; incense for the Messiah; myrrh for the shepherd-leader.)  My point is not to pin down a one-to-one comparison, but rather to say that the text invites one to think about WHO is Jesus Christ.  Hence this is an epiphany text, a revelation of who Christ is.  Like all good texts about Christ's identity, it points toward his suffering and death as well.  A good sermon on this passage invites the reader to consider who Christ is as well.

Two little morsels:
θησαυρος ("thesaurus" meaning treasure, 2:11)  No great analysis, just a lovely word to know in Greek/English.
λιβανον ("Lebanon" meaning incense, 2:11)  The word for incense comes from cedar, because its bark provided the incense.  This is especially funny to me because I live in Lebanon County where people refer to Lebanon as a type of bologna made here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Luke 1:26-38 (Annunication)

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary during Advent.

Many commentaries reading this passage display a hermeneutic of suspicion.  For example, the anchor Bible commentary was lamenting that Luke put everything in an OT style.  Strangely enough, this was proof that he was making this stuff up.  (Imagine, God works in a consistent manner over time).  The virgin birth becomes highly problematic within this hermeneutic of suspicion! 

I do not think Luke wants us to read with such cynical eyes.  First, Luke goes to great lengths here to give us names and dates, indicating he intends to write history, not fiction.  He even has the angel offer Mary a sign (the pregnancy of Elizabeth), reminding us of Mary's human need for proof.  While his characters may follow patterns of other Biblical characters, they seem to me to be real people with hopes and fears.

I think Luke offers us another hermeneutic:  belief in God's word to do miracles.  I use the word hermeneutic because Luke plays on the word herma in this passage; the word for "thing" in verse in 37 is "rema", but because of the heavy breathing on the "r", this comes into English"herma"; the word for "word" in verse 38 is also "rema" (herma).  We should read the Bible, not ready to doubt, but ready to be amazed at what God has done.  This hermeneutic, I believe, is what Luke intends that we might echo the angel and Mary in declaring that “All things (hermas) are possible through God”  and “Let it be done according to your word (herma).”

Key Words:
οηομα ("name"; appears throughout the section)  It is curious that the word name appears four times in this section.  In addition, every character has a name; even people not part of the immediate story, David and Elizabeth, are named.

καλεω ("call"/"invite"; appears throughout the section)  It is also curious that the word "call" appear four times in this section.  Clearly calling things a name is a vital part of this pericope.

παρθενου ("virgin" or "young woman"; 1:27)  Let's settle this debate.  Linguistically it is possible to imagine that Mary is simply referred to hear as a young woman and not a "virgin."  However, the word for virgin is parthenos (like the Parthenon building, to the virgin Athena).  Furthermore, Mary's very objection to the pregnancy is the fact that she has never known a man.

χαρις ("grace"; 1:28; 1:30)  In 1:28 this appears as a verb in the perfect passive form:  "Having been graced." It is interesting that the grace is in the perfect, in that the graceful event occured previous to the angel's announcement.  What was the event that already gave her this grace? Perhaps her own immaculate conception?!  Another tough thing about this idea of Mary's grace is found in the NET's translation notes.  They lament the vulgate translation, "full of grace" because it presents the idea that Mary has grace to bestow on others.  While it is true that Mary's grace comes from God, it is hard to make the argument that Mary does not bestow grace on the rest of us through her role in the birth.  Catholics go to far, but we protestants have never quite done Mary justice!

Grammar Review:  Missing words
The phrase the "The Lord be with you" is not really what the Greek says. It simply reads "The Lord with you." (ο κυριος μετα σου)  This can be read as an imperative, as in it expresses a wish, "The Lord be or will be with you." Or as an indicative: "The Lord is with you." Interestingly, most translators translate a similar construction at the end of the Gospel of John (Peace to you) with an imperative/wish "Peace be with you." Using the same translation method they use here, that phrase should read there "Peace is with you."  In this case, I would probably argue for the translation, "The Lord is with you" because a) the angel is standing right there and b) the angel says she is graced.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Mark 1:1-8

This passage occurs in the RCL during Advent (year 2, week 2; most recently Dec. 7, 2014)
The Greek in this passage is not complex, but it is riddled with problems.  I guess you could say the same thing about John:  He is not complex, but presents us a great riddle:  What do we do with him?  Perhaps the hermenuetic offered by Mark about Isaiah is the proper one for us today.  Mark rips Isaiah out of his historical context and reestablishes the passage's meaning christologically.  In the same way, let's rip John out of his context and interpret him christologically:  You need more than confessing your sins.  You need the son of God to send out the Spirit to forgive your sins in your Baptism!  Sure, that adds a bit of theology to the whole thing, but as Mark shows, that is the job of a proclaimer :-)

->  My added insight for 2014:  Mark's Gospel begins with the theology of the cross.  Where do we find God?  In the wilderness, on the edge, in a stinky socially unacceptable man.  Jesus will keep showing up in the wrong places in the Gospel of Mark (and all the Gospels).  Jesus will keep showing up in our lives in the wrong places too.

Here are some problems:
Citation problem:  Isaiah in verse 1:2 andv 3
Mark says "Just as it is written in the prophet Isaiah" and then goes to quote Malachi.  He doesn't get to Isaiah until verse 3.  (My guess is that Malachi wouldn't be known to his audience but Isaiah perhaps would have been).  Even if you ignore this problem, Mark is clearly a bad student of the OT because he takes the verse out of context.  Clearly Isaiah was not talking about John the Baptist!  But wait a minute.  If Mark takes Isaiah out of its historical context and reinterprets the passage in light of Christ...then cannot we do the same??

Word problem:  John the Baptist/baptizing in verse 1:4
Literally the text reads "John the one who baptizes" or even "John, while baptizing."  However, I do not think calling him "John the Baptist" is an unfair translation.  In fact, Mark will call John the Baptist elsewhere, 6:25; 8:28.  Here Mark is emphasizing his activity of baptizing.  The most complex thing however is simply the word "baptism."  We have 2,000 years+ of interpretation of this word.  In this pre-theological usage it simply means, "to dip in water to wash."  It came to mean, according to the Freiberg dictionary, "of Jewish ritual washings wash, cleanse, purify by washing."  The point of all this is that John's Baptism is not necessarily what we think of as our baptisms.  This is not a baptism of grace; it is not a baptism of binding oneself to Jesus ministry, much less his death and resurrection.  John was telling people to commit themselves and signify their repentance with Baptism.

Textual problems:  "Of God" in verse 1:1
The phrase "of God" (tou theou) is not found in all the manuscripts. It is pretty debatable from a textual point, although I think Nestle Aland 27's double brackets are a bit strong.  Some significant manuscripts have it.  The NET Bible notes offer a really fascinating hypothesis as to why the "son of God" is dropped from varius manuscripts (based on the particular letters that are used).  However, this is kind of a moot point for the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus clearly is the son of God in the book; the question is when and how do we learn this. From the first line of the book?  No.  From the cross.  From a centurion nonetheless.  Perhaps it simply adds to the great mystery novel that Mark wrote...

Punctuation problem:  "In the wilderness" in 1:3
The position of the phrase "in the wilderness" is arbitrary.  We do not have the original punctuation is either Hebrew or Greek.  Later Jewish monks added the punction (suggested by the original likely meaning of the verse), "A voice cries out, 'In the wilderness prepare the way'" but the writer of Mark moves the break and makes it "A voice cries out in the wilderness, prepare the way."  Admittedly, we really don't know Mark's original punctuation (this was not passed on for the first four centuries at least) but Mark definitely seems to suggest a change from the Hebrew.

Participle problem:  "confessing" in 1:5
The tenses of the Greek participles fight against an "Ordo Salutis" in this passage. Baptizing and confessing occur at the SAME time CONTINUALLY. Not one after the other (imperfect active verb with a present participle == concurrent, on-going action).  The people do not confess and then get baptized or the otherway around.  They are doing both of them.