Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Luke 2:1-20

This passage occurs as the Gospel for Christmas Eve in all three lectionary cycles.

Summary:  I have no desire to summarize the meaning of the incarnation in Luke's Gospel.  This passage has layers and layers of meaning for us to draw on this year and every year.  I offer this as a way to hopefully point toward something in the passage that can help launch your reflection and preaching.

Words I found interesting:
οικουμενη(ν) ("world", 2.1)  The word for "all the world" here really means civilized world, coming from the Greek work οικος.  It is a reminder that for those in the Roman empire, this meant the ENTIRE world.

δογμα (literally dogma, meaning "decree", 2.1)  No important theological consideration.  Just that Rome has always been interested in promulgating dogma ;-)

απογραφη ("registration" 2.2)  A few directions one can go with this word. 
First, power of Rome:  Liddell Scott refers to this as "a register of persons liable to taxation."  Rome wanted a census because they wanted to tax and conscript people.
Second, challenge of history:  Quirinius doesn't add up in terms of a chronology.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Census_of_Quirinius. (Other scholars are more generous.)
Third, sin of a census:  In 2 Samuel 24:10, David confesses to sinning as he has engaged in a census.  Why is this a sin?  Because the idea was not to count your troops but to trust the Lord in battle.  In fact, it may be that the zealots (mentioned in the New Testament) arose out of anger of this census being taken. 

Can we put this altogether:  Even if you cannot accept as historical fact the coincidence of Jesus birth with the census, Jesus would have been a young child during a census, a brutal reminder of the power of Rome, a foreign and pagan power.  Quirinius' biography is a great story of the "Roman dream" where someone rose through military victory and shifting political allegiances.  In short, Luke's setting the stage is correct:  The Jews existed under an imperial power, hostile to their faith.  Jesus was born in an empire that cared not for him.  This imperial power was and remains the envy of all other empires in its military and administrative might.

To drive this point home, the angle proclaims, "who is Christ, the Lord."  In Greek, this is spelled Χριστος κυριος, which is the basic confession of faith (Christ is Lord) that ran contrary to the Roman confession of faith (Caesar Kurios).  The angle here offers a subversive confession of faith!

καταλυματι  ("inn", 2:7)  There was no room for them in the inn.  Later Jesus will make room for himself in another inn -- the upper room (22:11)

μεγαλην (literally "great", 2:9 and 2:10).  Two things are great in this passage -- there is a great fear and then a great joy.  This sets up, in many ways, the background for the whole of Luke's Gospel:  Jesus will cause great fear, but also great joy.  It is a backdrop for any good Christmas sermon too -- there is great fear in our world, but because of Jesus, we have reason for great joy.

ευδοκιας ("pleasure", 2:14)  I often wondered about this word -- did God intend peace for all people or just those whom he liked?  First, the Greek has a textual problem.  The manuscripts seem divided (and even in manuscripts there are edits) whether this should be read as a nominative:
N) glory to God; peace on earth; good will among humans (i.e. three items distributed in three realms)
or as a genitive
G)  glory to God; peace on earth among humans of (his) pleasure.
If we go with option N) it seems that good will is toward all people, unambiguously.  Unfortunately, the evidence textually, even though divided, favors option G).
So, if we go with option G) we encounter a bit more ambiguity.  If this is the case (okay, bad pun there), Luke writes "upon the earth peace among people of pleasure/desire."  The Greek leaves out the phrase, "of him."  It simply states, "among people of desire."  I am not sure if we can, on the basis of grammar, solve this case (again, bad pun).  What is unambiguous is that God intends for peace on earth!  What is ambiguous grammatically and historically is how we humans live into this peace.

ρημα (literally "herema" meaning "word", 2:15)  This word is like logos, and it can mean thing or matter or word.  That I want to point out is that the shepherds literally say, "Let us behold the word."  John's Gospel is famous for such a construction (John 1:14), Luke has the same concept embedded here.

Ιωσηφ (literally "Joseph", 2:16) Just a reminder that Joseph isn't left out of the picture!

συμβαλλουσα (literally "symballoo", meaning "ponder", 2:19)  Mary "pondered these things in her heart."  The word for ponder is symbol -- to draw meaning, to pull together or literally to throw together.  This is fascinating that Mary is gathering together the images and thoughts of the angels in her mind.

Grammar Review:  Cognate Accusative
It is consider poor English to write a sentence in which the verb and object share the same word root.  For example:  I climbed a climb or I rode a ride.  We are trained to make the object and verb different words:  "I climbed a mountain" or "I rode a bike." 
Because of Hebrew's limited vocabulary as well as the importance of simplifying stories for oral transmission, cognate accusatives are very common.  Not so much in Greek, however.  Which is strange then that Luke uses two of them in this passage:
φυλασσοντεσ φυλακας (literally "guarded their guard," or "tended their flocks," 2.8)
εφοβηθησαν φοβου (literally "feared a great fear," 2.9)
Not sure why Luke does this other than to speculate he was reading a lot of the Old Testament as he wrote the Christmas narrative!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Matthew 1:18-25

This passage occurs in the RCL, Year 1, Advent IV, most recently December 18, 2016.

Summary:  This passage teems with Old Testament allusions.  These allusions make it clear that Christ is to be exalted.  Furthermore, they make it clear that Joseph is a special person.  I appreciate why the church has so adored Mary; I think Joseph is often overlooked.  As Rev. Daniel Clark said to me while he was serving at my parish as a Vicar: Joseph is the blue collar bible character; a quiet, humble and hard-working person that Scripture overlooks!

γενεσις (lit. 'genesis', meaning "beginning" or "birth", 1:18)  Matthew uses this word twice in his first chapter (also 1:1).  He could have picked simpler words for giving birth, as he does in vs. 25.  I believe he used this word intentionally to connect back the Old Testament opening creation passages.  The first book but also the first word of the Hebrew Bible is "beginnings" (in Greek -- Genesis). Furthermore, like in the Old Testament, Matthew seems to offer two creation accounts, first the grand and then second, the detailed version.

To have more fun with this connection:  I believe Matthew in vs 1:1 here riffs on Genesis 2:4, much like John's Gospel opens with a riff on Genesis 1:1.  Matthew employs the the phrase "βιβλος γενεσωες" found only in Genesis 1:1.  Both creation accounts are picked up by the New Testament!

υιος Δαυιδ (meaning "son of David", 1:20)  When this phrase is used elsewhere in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 13:13 ; 2 Chronicles 32:33), it does not refer to the Jews or all of the Hebrews.  It refers to the ancient kings of Israel.  Matthew here is calling Joseph a king.

οναρ (meaning "dream", 1:20)  I am embarrassed to admit that I never saw this connection until some pastors showed this to me last week -- both the Old Testament Joseph and the New Testament Joseph have dreams...and go to Egypt!  I wonder if I didn't discover this earlier because the Greek version of the Old Testament uses a different word for dream.   Regardless, a cool connection.

Iησους (lit. 'Jesus', 1:21)  This is the name to be given to the baby born to Mary.  It is the Old Testament name Joshua.  Names often change when they move across cultures (Robert=Roberto in Spanish), so believe it or not, Joshua and Jesus are the same name in Hebrew.  Joshua's name means "The LORD saves" and his job is to lead the people across the river Jordan into the promised land.  Jesus will save the people, get baptized in the river Jordan and lead the people into the promised land.  We miss that connection in English that would have been clear to Joseph and Mary:  They are to name their child "the Lord saves" for he will save the people from their sins.

Εμμανουηλ  (lit. 'Emmanuel', meaning "God is with us", 1:23)  Although he is declared here to be "God is with us" Jesus will not assume this title during his ministry of teaching and healing.  Why is this?  I would argue because he must first die and rise in order to be Emmanuel.  At the end of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus declares "I am with you."  However, the literal Greek here is "I with you am"; "I am" is the ancient name of God.  So here Jesus expands the title of God to include -- at its heart -- with you.  He then takes on the name Immanuel, but only after the cross and empty tomb.

μη φοβηθης (meaning "do not be afraid", 1:20)  Little side note on the Greek.  Although the English translators translate this the same way they translate the words of Gabriel to Mary (do not be afraid), it is slightly different in the Greek.  It is the same verb (φοβοω), but it is in the passive voice for Joseph and the active voice for Mary.  Technically then the translation for Mary should be "Do not fear" and for Joseph "Do not be afraid."  This is not very different, really.  But what is interesting is that when the passive construction is used in the LXX translation of the Old Testament, it often has an element (further suggested by the words' meaning in Homeric Greek, I would argue) of "Do not flee."  Perhaps the angel is telling Joseph, "Don't go anywhere!"

Monday, December 5, 2016

Matthew 11:2-11

This passage occurs in the Advent season of the Revised Common Lectionary (Year A).
 
Summary:
For some comments on blessing, scandal and Luther, see below!  I would like to focus though on the words Jesus attributes today to John the Baptist, claiming that "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you."  This passage is often said to refer to Malachi 3:1.  However, a careful reading, in English or in Greek, reveals that it is quite different from Malachi 3:1.  In Malachi, the Lord sends a messenger to prepare a way for himself (the Lord) to return to the temple and bring about the day of the Lord.  In the case of John, Jesus says that he prepares a way for YOU.  I think Jesus may be referring to another passage in Scripture, namely Exodus 23:30 (see also 33:2).  Here the messenger is supposed to show the people the way into the promised land and out of the wilderness. This sounds a lot more like the job of John than the messenger Malachi describes!  Regardless, Jesus is claiming to be the Lord!

Key words

ἀγγελος (11:8; "messenger")  The word is literally "angel," but it also means messenger (double -gg in Greek is pronounced -ng).  In the Bible, especially in the OT, the line between the messenger and God is often blurred.  Often a story begins with an angel speaking and then suddenly God is speaking.  Why is this?  One answer may be historical.  As the NET commentary writes, "Cassuto says that the words of the first clause do not imply a being distinct from God, for in the ancient world the line of demarcation between the sender and the sent is liable easily to be blurred."  I provide a Lutheran, and therefore cooler, answer:  Where the Word is, so is God.  

σκανδαλίζω (11:6; "take offense")  This word appears often in the New Testament.  It is most often translated as offensive.  If you want to shake people up though, translate it more literally, "become scandlized."  I recall here Luther's 95 theses:
62. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.
63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last (Mt. 20:16).

μαλακοις (11:8; "fancy")  Hardly a key word for this passage, but alas, it is word of intense scrutiny these days.  Paul uses this word in 1 Cor 6:9 to refer to, well, we really don't know.  Ask the NRSV and they will tell you male prostitutes.  Ask the NET and they will tell you "passive homosexual partners."  It seems that at least, in this case, it refers to soft as in luxury soft.  I think.

Sentence Translation:  NRSV Matthew 11:11.  I picked this sentence because it has no participles.  Instead, it has a lot of nouns in different cases!
αμην λεγω υμιν -ουκ εγηγερται γεννητοις γυναικων μειζων Ιωαννου του Βαπτιστου, ο δὲ μικροτερος ἐν τη βασιλεια των ουρανων μειζων αυτου εστιν

As usual, divide into little pieces, using the Greek punctuation provided by most Greek bibles to help
αμην λεγω υμιν
ουκ εγηγερται εν γεννητοις γυναικων μειζων Ιωαννου του Βαπτιστου
ο δὲ μικροτερος ἐν τη βασιλεια των ουρανων μειζων αυτου εστιν

1)  αμην λεγω υμιν:  This should be straight forward:  Amen, I am saying to you.  Or Truly I say to you all.  Just fill in the words!  The only mildly hard thing is the pronoun, "2nd person plural dative."  Or "To you all"

Proposed translation:  "Truly I am telling all of you:"

2)  ουκ εγηγερται εν γεννητοις γυναικων μειζων Ιωαννου του Βαπτιστου

Find the verb...εγηγερται   "perfect passive singular"  He/she/it has been born.  In Greek, the perfect makes sense here, because the perfect indicates a previous action that still has a linger impact, in this case, birth.  To translate the verb, you need to also translate the "not" or  ουκ.  So, before we get to the rest of the sentence, we know what has happened.  "He/she/it has not been born."  It turns out there is no obvious subject so far, so we will just leave it as "he/she/it."

Now divide up the rest of the sentence into "cars on the train."  Group them by case (hint:  cluster them by what looks the same in terms of endings):
A)  εν γεννητοις B)  γυναικων μειζων C)  Ιωαννου του Βαπτιστου

C) is the easiest:  John the Baptist.  But why is John in the genitive?
A) Bible works helps us here:  Among humankind.  To translate the word humankind, you don't have to worry it being in the dative because the preposition εν governs its translation:  in, with, among, etc.
B) "women" in also the genitive; μειζων means greater (at least here).

So what we know so far is:  "among mankind [genitive link] women greater [genitive link] John the Baptist."

To translate the genitive, just try "of"

"among mankind of women greater [of] John the Baptist."  This works in the first case, but not the second.  It turns out that μειζων grammatically requires a genitive.  This isn't how this works in English, so we will use "than" to establish the comparison.
... and at the same time, clean up the first part of the sentence:

"among people born to a woman greater than John the Baptist."

We combine this with earlier

"Truly I am telling all of you:"+"He/she/it has not been born."+ "among people born to a woman greater than John the Baptist."

Truly, I am telling you:  "No one has been born unto a woman who is greater than John the Baptist."

ο δὲ μικροτερος ἐν τη βασιλεια των ουρανων μειζων αυτου εστιν

Find the verb -- its at the end:  εστιν.  This means "is"  So now lets find the subject, which is something after the ο δὲ.  Hint -- when you have ο δὲ, the δὲ tells you that you are switching subjects.  But where to go from here?  Again, make you train cars:
A)  ο δὲ
B)  μικροτερος
C)  ἐν τη βασιλεια
D)  των ουρανων
E) μειζων αυτου
F)  εστιν

F and A you know.  Now E I put two words that seem different, but we've already learned that μειζων means greater and requires a genitive. So this means:  "greater than him."

C+D simply means:  "in the kingdom of heaven."  (Now what that means would take me the whole New Testament to explain."

B)  Means least.  And it is in the nominative.  So we combine with A) for our subject.  You get:  "the one who is least."  Or simply, "the least."

So we get:  "Even the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater then he."