Wednesday, October 31, 2018

John 11:1-45

This passage is found in the Revised Common Lectionary for Lent, Year A and All Saint's Day, Year B  (Most recently for March 29, 2020); The All Saints reading is shorter, verses John 11:32-44.

Summary:  This emotional passage does not need to deep exegesis to understand.  But as always, the Greek amplifies the emotions, especially of Mary.  Furthermore, the Greek offers some poignant connections to other parts of John's Gospel.

Key words:

ερχομαι & οραω (11:32 and 11:34, also 1:39; 1:46; 4:29; 19:33; 20:8 "Come and see").  These two verbs come together a number of times in John's Gospel. A quite impressive list actually:
A) When Jesus begins his ministry and calls his disciples.
B) When the woman at the well returns to her hometown to invite others (different cognate for "come");
C) When they bring Jesus to Lazarus' tomb.
D) When they find Jesus on the cross.
E) When they come to the empty tomb.

John's Gospel invites us to come and see, even Jesus on the cross and finally the empty tomb.  The result of coming and seeing is believing.

In this passage, however, the two words come together in two very emotional ways.  The more obvious one is when they invite Jesus to see the tomb of Lazarus.  The more subtle one is that Mary came (ηλθεν) and saw (ιδουσα; note feminine participle endings may be more difficult to spot, sadly).  In this case, she falls at Jesus feet (see next note).  She has done what a disciple should do, she has come and seen. What happens when we come and see, not in intellectual or hopeful curiosity, but in grief?

ποδος (from πους, meaning "foot" as in words that have "pod" in them; 11:32)  Mary will fall to Jesus feet twice in a short time.  Mary cries at Jesus feet in this story; after her brother is revived, she will fall to Jesus feet to anoint them.  Twice she worships at Jesus feet; the first in lament for her situation; the second in lament for Jesus' situation.

Other powerful scenes happen at Jesus feet. 
- When the women (including Mary) gather at the foot of the cross. 
- Mary (Magdalene) stoops down to where Jesus' feet were in the tomb. 
- In chapter 13 of John's Gospel, Jesus will wash the disciples' feet. 
In short, if there are feet involved, it is likely an emotionally charged passage, relating to the profound cruciform servant-hood of Christ and his followers!

κλαιουσαν (from κλαιω, meaning "weep" 11:33)  Simple point:  People in the Bible cry.  We give so little permission for people to cry today.  Jesus himself cries here (11:35; it is a different word, εδακρυσεν) but don't get caught up in that.  Death produces tears even from the Lord of Life.

ει...αν (if, if; 11:33)  Mary has a particularly harsh construction of Greek here for Jesus.  This combination of ει...αν indicates "a hypothetical that is actually false."  In short, it should best be translated, "If you had been here, WHICH YOU WERE NOT, my brother would not have died."

εμβριμωμενος (from εμβριμαομαι, meaning "snort in", 11:38)  This word means "admonish in anger" visually in the sense of a "horse snorting."  I think its this word that has given rise to all sorts of terrible interpretations that Jesus is really mad in this passage that they don't believe.  I think this is kind of nuts.  I think a better translation is simply this:  "Jesus was so worked up about this death that he looses control of his breathing..."  To put it another way, Jesus does the uncool thing of lose control of his emotions.  Unlike the rest of humanity, when Jesus' gets angry, no one is hurt, but the deepest emotion, love, and deepest power, resurrection, is unleashed.

μνημειον ("tomb", 11:38).  The word for tomb is literally "mnemonic" as in something we use to help us remember -- they have gone to a "memorial."  (Jesus is also buried in a tomb, a place of memory).

εδακρυσεν ο Ιησους  (aorist form of δακρυω, "Jesus wept", 11:35)  This verse is shorter in English (two words) than in Greek (three words.)  Why?  Because Greek adds in the word "ο" with Jesus, it literally reads "The Jesus wept." Jesus name in Hebrew - Joshua - means "God (YHWH) saves."  John tells us then "The God who saves wept." 

λυσατε ("unbind", 11:44)  The word for unbind means to "loosen" or "free."  In short, Lazarus must be freed!  This itself might provide all sorts of interesting directions for a sermon -- the work of Jesus to bring new life also entails freedom.  What I find worth noting though is that the verb is a plural command.  It is the work of the community to free Lazarus.  Even when Jesus' power is on full display, the community of Christ still has work to do.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Mark 10:46-52

This passage occurs in both the Revised Common Lectionary Year B and the Narrative Lectionary Year B.  See note below on its potential as a Reformation day passage.  (Most recently Oct 28, 2018).
 
I prefer the Mark 10:46-52 text for Reformation Day than the John 8 text (here is my commentary on this passage).  You have a man crying out for mercy (Luther's search); a religious crowd opposed to him (sinful self and world); a display of Jesus compassion; Jesus' Word giving life; Proclamation that faith saves; lastly, new life in following Christ.
To review:
Salvation, even new creation, by faith alone
The mercy of Christ
The sinfulness of the world, even in religious matters
The redeeming Word

Or John 8, with landmines of antisemitism.  You make the call...

οδος ("road" or "way", from οδος, vs. 46)  This word has layers of meanings.  It is one of those words that can simply mean "path for travel" but more abstractly "way"."  Early Christians were called followers of "The Way."  In Mark 8, 9, and 10, Jesus has been on the way.  This journey in Mark is about spiritual blindness and sight.  It begins with the disciples blind to Jesus power; it ends with blind Bartimeaus receiving sight.  It points toward the reality that any talk about spiritual journey without struggle, sin and setback is nonsense.

Βαρτιμαιος ("Son of honor", 46) We don't know many names of those cured by Jesus, but this one has a name -- Son of honor.  In this case, the son of honor is banished by the crowd, mocked and insulted.  Perhaps this is foreshadowing of Jesus, the true son of Honor, being mocked by the crowd.  Furthermore, it is ironic that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask for power and get the cross.  This man calls out for mercy and gets resurrection.

εκπορευομενου ("go out", 46)  Jesus is heading out of town, but a call for mercy changes his plans.  When is the last time a call for mercy changed your plans?  Jesus seems always to find time for compassion.

ελεησον ("mercy", from ελεεω, 48)  A key feature of Martin Luther's journey was the search for mercy.  Is this what people hunger for today?  It certainly is what Christ has come to bring.

κραζον ("cry", 48)  Also worth noting is that the man is crying (κραζον) out.  The verb is transliterated "crazied."  Also, the verb is in the imperfect tense, indicating this is an on-going action.  Mark is painting a vivid picture here of suffering and lament.

στας ("stand", 49)  For the first and only time in Mark's Gospel, Jesus stands still.  He takes a pause from the journey on the road to have compassion on this man.  The story pivots on Jesus' action here (you could even do a need chaistic structure within the story with this as the fulcrum).  It is worth remembering about this story and really the whole Reformation, that Jesus' love and compassion are at the center.

θαρσει ("take courage", 49)  This word can also mean "be audacious."  Christ is calling us to follow him, over and against the cries of the world.

εγειρε ("raise" or "resurrect", 49)  Jesus has been proclaiming his eventual resurrection.  Now the resurrection is happening -- the kingdom of God unfolding in our midst.  What makes it possible?  The voice of Jesus -- the word of God.

αναπηδησας ("jump up", 50)  The man jumps up.  Mark, again, is creating is a vivid scene full of motion.  What is fascinating to consider is that man who jumps up and is walking is still blind.  Faith may lead to sight, but sometimes we are called simply to move...Ie, part of the journey of faith may not have as much a sight as we would like.  I reflect on Luther's own journey...and the journey of myself and others...where sometimes we sense God calling us but we don't yet see the light!

σεσωκεν ("save", from σωζω 52)  This word refers to both "earthly" salvation as well as heavenly.  Explosive term.  It can meal heal, but also save.  But basic point here:  Salvation is not simply about the afterlife, but life in Christ, which is everlasting.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Mark 10:35-45

This passage is found in the Revised Common Lectionary Year B (Most recently Oct 21, 2018)

Summary:  Don't get too lost in the Greek in this week's passage. The point is that two key disciples are asking really silly questions.  It proves Jesus an opportunity to say to them directly what he has been suggesting to them all along:  While they do not need to be crucified, to be a follower of Jesus means following him to the cross, to the suffering of the world, to the surrender of our will and to the death of sinner.  I focus a fair amount on the word "ransom," hopefully opening a different way of thinking about this.

ποτηριον ("poterion" (pottery!), meaning "cup", 10:38)  There are three cups in Mark's Gospel!  Can you name them?  The first is when Jesus says the one giving a glass of cold water will not lose their reward (9:41).  The second is here.  The third is the communion cup.  The cup which Jesus refers to is following Christ.  While this following Jesus as a disciple may be lived out in small ways, is no small thing, but the giving of our life to Christ.  Or better stated in Gospel form (from Luther):  All this he did that I may be his own.

βαπτίζομαι vs  βαπτισθηαι ("baptize", 10:38)  I want to point out a distinction in verb tenses here.  When Jesus refers to the baptism of the disciples, he  uses the aorist tense, suggesting a one-time event.  When Jesus refers to his own baptism, he uses the present tense, suggesting an on-going event.  Jesus says, "which I am being baptized right now"is in the midst of his baptism as he begins his long road to the cross.  Which makes us wonder that if we are to experience the baptism of Jesus as our own, must not our Baptism also be an on-going process?

κατακυριευουσιν ("literally over-lord", 10:42)  Just a little note for preachers personally rather than for a sermon.  This verb shows up rarely in the New Testament, but it does show up in 1 Peter 5:3, as an admonishment to pastors not to Lord over their power!

δουλος ("servant" or "slave", 10:44) This word appears repeatedly in the New Testament as a model for Christian life and service.  As the Thayer Greek Lexicon reminds us, δουλος του χριστου (servants of Christ) are those whose service is used by Christ in extending and advancing his cause among [others]:  used of apostles, Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:10; Phil. 1:1; 2 Tim. 2:24; Titus 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:1; of other preachers and teachers of the gospel, Col. 4:12; 2 Tim. 2:24; Jude 1:1; of the true worshipers of Christ  
Do we challenge our people enough to adopt a posture of servant-hood?

λυτρον ("redemption", 10:45).  This word is a loaded term.  It is often suggested that Jesus was the ransom whose death serves as the payment rendered for our sins, thus freeing us from this deserved punishment.  Both Exodus 21:30, 30:12 convey this sense of λυτρον.  I am not going to argue here against substitutionary atonement.  
However, the Old Testament also puts forward another sense of λυτρον that I think works just as well, if not better, in this case.  In Numbers 3, there is the (for most of us) relatively unknown story of the consecration of the Levites to the priesthood and how they are offered as a redemption (λυτρον).  A surprisingly helpful commentary summarized the logic:

"...when God slew the first born of man and beast among the Egyptians, he consecrated the first-born of Israel to himself as a memorial of the deliverance.  First-born animals were to be sacrificed to the Lord, but first-born sons were to be redeemed by the substitution of a payment of money.  Now the Levites are taken by the Lord as the redemption of all the first-born males in Israel, and their very office becomes a perpetual sign of Israel's deliverance.  The ministry of the Levites proclaimed to Israel the fact that all belong to the Lord, because he has delivered them.  (75, Mays; 1963 Layman's Bible Commentary.")

In short, in the consecration of the Levites, God turns the sacrificial system on its head.  God does not want sacrifices of first-born humans (and never did), rather, God wants the Levites to take the place of the first-born, not for death, but for service to God. 
I am still fleshing this out, but I think you can make the argument that "ransom" can be utilized in a way where Jesus frees us to serve God without needing God to be angry with Jesus.

Perhaps it is something like this:  Jesus is put forward as a ransom, but not simply for death, but for service to God.  What God wants is not the death of Jesus, but the life, the service (which in his case, will include death).  As we are baptized into Jesus' death and drink his cup, we too are put forward, not as a substitute punishment, but as something precious to God, namely, servants of God, becoming the new priesthood, in fact, a very proclamation that the Lord has delivered us.  

Confession:  I want to flesh this out, but I think the Levite consecration is a very different way of thinking about this.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Mark 10:17-31

This passage is found in the Narrative Lectionary Year 2 (Most recently: Feb 14, 2016)
This passage is found in the Revised Common Lectionary Year B after Pentecost (Most recently October 14, 2018)

Summary:  "Clouded up" -- That is literally the words used to describe the rich young man's reaction to Jesus.  Jesus loves the man, but the man's love of his possessions obscure his vision so greatly, he cannot even embrace the love of God!  We may not be able to buy our way into heaven but today's passage suggests we can buy our way out of heaven!

Some words worth considering:

ζωην αιωνουν ("life eternal"; zoo of the eons, literally; 10.17 and 30):  It is interesting that eternal life enters into Mark's Gospel by way of a non-disciple (and practicing Jew).  Obviously this appears in John's Gospel numerous times, but makes a cameo or two in the other Gospels as well.  Perhaps one of the great misnomers of Christian thinking is that eternal life only begins after our physical death.  The love and fellowship of Jesus was available here, on earth, for the man (see not below).

κληρoνoησω ("inherit"; 10:17):  The man may not understand that eternal life is a gift, but he does understand one thing: it is going to take a death to bring about life -- you only get the inheritance when someone dies!

αποστερεω ("defraud"; 10:19)  The NET Bible suggests Jesus inserts this because of the OT's injunctions about this, for example, Deut 24:14.  I would maintain that the word defraud is not accidental, but a great insight into the text. Jesus adds this commandment because he knows the rich young man is guilty of it -- the 11th commandment!  As my internship pastor spoke about this passage -- what is the commandment that finally trips you or me up??  I don't murder...but what finally brings me to my knees in confession?

αγαπαω ("love"; 10.21)  This word means real, genuine, nearly, if not truly, divine love.  This man is the first one whom Jesus loves in the whole Gospel of Mark!  How sad then that the man cannot love Jesus back nor follow him!

κτημα ("possessions"; 10:22)  Our American context is very different than ancient Greece, where a very small number owned most things.  Yes, yes, the rich grow richer, but the average American still has enough possessions and toys at their disposal to last them for years.  We can make this passage about demonizing the truly wealthy, or realize the nature of our own possessions that cloud our own vision.  Side note:  The NET Bible

στυγναζω ("sad" or "cloud up"; 10.23):  The word for "sad" here is a less common Greek word, but it means gloomy, or clouded over, like the sky.  The man's love of possessions cloud up his vision.

τεκνα ("children", 10.24). Right after Jesus has told them they must acccept the kingdom as a child, he calls them children.  Perhaps a sign of love?  Perhaps a call to humility?  I think it is fair to say that, at least within Mark's Gospel, the driving point is that the only way into the Kingdom is to realize we cannot get there out of our own power, as a child!

I need to come back to this when I have a keyboard I can type in Greek.  Jesus both "embelpo"s into people (vs. 21, 27) and "periblepos" around (vs. 23).  In short, Jesus has insight (literally) and around sight (literall).  Jesus can both look into people but also take a step back and look at the situation.  A rare skill.

Some grammar tid-bits worth considering:

Subjunctive mood:
The subjunctive mood, which Greek uses to indicate various hypothetical situations, is difficult to translate. In 10.17 we find the filled-with-subjunctive phrase "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"  The Greek does not use the word "must" but simply uses the subjunctive mood. Luther's German translation, "What should I do" is probably a better understanding of what is meant here.

Imperfect tense:
The imperfect tense suggests repeated action.  In 10.17 The rich young man does not "ask" but in fact "asks," repeatedly -- the imperfect tense is used.  He really wants to know!

Future as perfect tense?
In 10.30, Jesus talks about the age "that is coming."  It is not "the age that came" or the "age that will come" or even "the age to come" but "the age that is coming."  Greek, like English, can use the present to suggest an indeterminate future.  "Coming" can mean "on the way" or "coming soon."  There is an ambiguity.  So the question is, does the eternal life age arrive after we die or while we live?  It seems that Jesus is referring to a pre-natural death event...but perhaps one that requires our spiritual death and resurrection.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Mark 10:2-16

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B (Most recently Oct 2, 2015).

Summary:  This is a very difficult passage, causing shame for many and perhaps even smugness for some.  Many commentaries have been written about it.  I'd like to focus on a few Greek words, especially some "απο" words, that might provide a framework for considering divorce and preaching about it.  Again, very tough because everyone brings so much personal experience and heartache on this topic.
 
Side comment:  Another helping tool for looking at these passages is to compare the words of Jesus in Matthew 19 and Luke 16 (if not 1 Cor 7).

πειραζοντες ("test or tempt", from πειραζω, 10:2)  We see this come up often in the Gospels, where the Pharisees (or some other group) are trying to test Jesus.  This case is a bit different.  John the Baptist was imprisoned because he spoke out against the marriage practices of Herod.  The Pharisees questions are intended to have Jesus imprisoned, if not killed.  Our society has great culture wars going on now about marriage; perhaps each one of us will face persecution for our views.  Lastly, if we wonder why Jesus is so harsh in his words, it is because the Pharisees are inviting him to his death.

αποστατιον ("divorce", 10:4)  This word "explodes" off the page if you look at it in the Bible or in the Greek language.  First, in Greek, this word meant leave one's station ("απο" means away; just read the letters in the word: a-p-o-s-t-a-t-i-o-n!).  It meant a military defection from your captain, the one ahead of you in rank.  Moses gave permission to write a certificate of defection!!  What if we started calling divorce defection??  Ouch.

Jesus actually changes the law here.  If you look up the word, you are taken to Deuteronomy 24:1, where a man is given permission to kick out his wife if she doesn't please him.  Jesus today is calling men to a greater level of faithfulness than previous generations ever did; men cannot simply leave their wives because they don't please them!  Jesus also even admits the reality that women might leave their husbands on their own accord, something unthinkable.  In this way, Jesus alters the law (a radical concept), even enfranchising women, but finally asks for greater commitment.  (Note however, that even though the Bible's teaching divorce shifts over time, the teaching on marriage remains the same).

απολυω ("free"; 10:4)  This word can mean "release" or even finally "divorce" but it is worth looking simply at what the word means:  to set free.  As a pastor, I have seen this, where divorce is a freeing of someone from an abusive and unfaithful relationship plagued by addiction and anger. 

So here is the million dollar question:  When is the divorce "αποστατιον", namely, a defection?  And when is it a απολυω, a freeing?

σκηλροκαρδια ("hardness of hearts"; 10:5)  The word here contains the root "σκηλρος" which means hardness -- an awful disease is "multiple sclerosis", the hardening of certain body parts until finally the person cannot move.  In a downward spiraling relationship, there is a hardening of the heart, until finally the person cannot love.  As Christians, we believe that God creates new hearts (Psalm 51); however, Jesus admits (see also Matt 19) that certain conditions, like adultery, create such a hard heart, that the two are permitted not to be yolked any more.  I would add abuse and addiction, both forms of adultery, you could argue, to this list of permissible divorces.

αρχη ("beginning"; 10:6)  Jesus affirms that marriage is a long-long, committed relationship between a man and a woman, grounded in creation and the particular creation accounts we have in the Bible.  This means that marriage has a few purposes:  to offer companionship, to create new families and bring a couple into full intimacy, even union.  I think one could further argue that marriage is a tool of God's sanctification in us, in that we discover our sinfulness very clearly, need forgiveness and become of great use to God through the love given to us by our spouse.  Jesus returns the focus to God's goodness and intentions for marriage.

My haunch:  The Christian church needs to spend a great deal of time and teaching on what marriage truly is and what it is for.

PS  κατευλογεω means to bless -- literally a form of "good speaking."  What is interesting is that Jesus' blessing, like just about every biblical blessing, includes a laying on of hands.  To bless someone is not an abstraction, but a tangible entity.  When we bless a union, we do not simply offer words, but we should also lay on hands!