Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Philippians 3:3b-14

This passage occurs as a New Testament Lesson in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently October 2020.

Summary:  In certain theological circles I often find that justification is the aim; yet for Paul in this passage justification has a purpose.  As the Greek indicates, it has a purpose, namely that we would know Christ, his resurrection and his suffering.  Rather than claim this is something other than good Lutheran doctrine, Luther and countless other Lutherans have seen justification has the key to the kingdom, but not the kingdom itself, which is Christ.

Key Words
σαρξ ("flesh" 3:4 and elsewhere)  Normally we think that Paul sees the flesh as an entirely evil entity.  In this case Paul talks about his righteousness in the law (and therefore the flesh).  He never says that his Jewish upbringing was evil.  In fact, Paul's whole take on flesh and law provides more a productive evangelical tact than the normal torpedo attack on human sinfulness.  Simply acknowledge that people have seen and accomplished great things, yet they still often sense a worthlessness about themselves and are haunted by a sense that something greater exists.  To reiterate, Paul is not claiming the flesh is evil, but he is clearly affirming its limits.

ζημια ("loss" or "damage"; found as noun and verb 3:7 and 3:8)  Interestingly, Paul calls his accomplishments a loss.  The Greek here is a bit stronger in that it can also mean "damage" or "penalty."  Paul here lays the groundwork for a later group of Lutheran orthodox thinkers who argued that good works are damaging to salvation.  While I don't like admitting this, I can see both Paul's and the orthodox thinker's point here that human achievement can cloud our vision from seeing Christ's blessings.
side note:  Paul here echoes back to 2:5 and 2:6 in the Christ hymn; Christ did not regard (ηγεομαι) equality with God as something to be exploited. Here Paul is saying he regards all of his benefits as loss through Christ.

συμμορφιζομενος ("together-shaped", 3:10; noun form in 3:21).  I believe this is a crucial word to understanding Paul's letter to the Philippians.  Paul writes that Jesus was in the shape (μορφη) as God, but chooses a different shape, one of a slave, for our sake.  However, for Paul this does not mean the Christian can avoid death  No, Paul believes that we to will be transformed by Christ, in that we will receive the same shape as him -- a crucified slave, so that ultimately, we might receive a resurrected body like his.  This is also found in Romans 3:17 - co-inheritors, co-sufferers, co-will be glorified-ers.  I would argue that chapter 3 of Paul's letter to the Philippians is applying the Christ him of suffering and glory to the Christian.  

διωκω ("pursue"; 3.6, 3.12 and 3.14):   Paul's bragging here has a double rhetorical effect -- he will return to the words "pursue" (διωκω) and "righteousness" (δικαιοσυνη) later in this section (3.9, 12 and 14).

σκυβαλα ("crap"; 3:8)  Rubbish is about as nice as you can translate this.  Paul wants a rhetorical effect here. 

καταλαμβανω ("receive, obtain, overcome"; 3:12,13)  This verb presents a problem in most cases for the translator because it has a broad array of meanings.  In this case, the challenge is in the tenses.  In verse 12 Paul claims that he has been obtained (aorist passive) by Christ; yet he also says in the aorist subjunctive that might obtain it; finally, in the perfect active he says he has not obtained it.  Here is Paul at his grammatical worst and perhaps theological best: The event of Christ's death and resurrection obtained Paul for Christ, but this process is not finished!

επιλανθανομαι ("forget"; in participle form in 3:13).  Most important is not the participle form, but the present tense.  Both verbs in the second half (forgetting and looking ahead) in the present tense, suggesting this is an on-going process of doing this. We cannot simply forget once, but must continually forget.

Grammar review & theological commentary on verses 3:9-10
Infinitive purpose clauses  In Greek, the infinitive can be used to express purpose, especially when it is an "articular infinitive."  (ie, article + infinitive)  In verse 9 Paul discusses justification by faith.  He begins verse 10 (which the Greek scribes connect with a comma to the previous verse, not a period) with the "articular infinitive":  του γνωναι (the knowing).  Paul's use of an infinitive here suggests that justification's purpose is to know God, the power of the resurrection and the fellowship of suffering. In other words, 9 and 10 are linguistically linked by Paul and a strong possible reading is purpose...vs 9 (justification) is for the purpose of vs 10 (resurrection).  To build on last's weeks passage about μορφη (shape), justification leads to transformation as our "morph" becomes like Christ.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Matthew 21:23-32

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, most recently September 2020

Summary: 12 years ago (2008) I wrote a blogpost on this passage in which I basically said, the Greek here is not that illuminating.  I actually stand by this, in that the basic message remains clear in English:  The 'leaders' and 'righteous' aren't saying they love God, but their actions suggest otherwise.  They may still have a place in the Kingdom, but they certainly aren't first in line.  

Here are some wrinkles that perhaps can spark a thought or two in you preaching meditations:

εξουσια (meaning "authority" 21:23, 24, 27)  The word authority - εξουσια - is rare in the LXX but incredibly common in the New Testament, including the Gospels.  Jesus speaks with authority (Matthew 7:29), has authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6) and even can confer authority to the disciples against evil spirits (Matthew 10:1).   At the end of the Gospel, Jesus declares that ALL authority has been given to him (28:1).  A few questions on authority:

1)  What makes someone have legitimate authority?  Is there a difference in official and unofficial power?  

2)  Do we give Jesus authority in our lives?  Can we give Jesus authority in our lives?  What would this look like?

3) Do we believe that Jesus has given authority in this world?  In what ways do we see or not see this authority working itself out?

4)  How has the church lost authority in the last two generations in our country?  Is this good or bad?

διδασκοντι (participle form of διδασκω, meaning "teach" 21:23)  Just a friendly reminder that Jesus' role as teacher was not in opposition to his role as savior. 

αμπελων(ι) (meaning "vineyard", 21:28)  This whole section of Matthew's Gospel should be called the vineyard discourses.

επιστευσατε (form of πιστευω, meaning "believe", 21:25, 32)  Just a reminder that believe isn't simply about stating something is true or not, it is about trusting, if not following.  

μετεμεληθητε (form of μεταμελομαι, meaning "repent" or "regret", 21:29, 32)  The typical word for repent isn't used here.  This word means to over-care.  Like to care-over, for a second or third time.  Again, this word is less common in the New Testament. 

βασιεαιν του θεου (kingdom of God, 21:31)  There are only two times Jesus uses the phrase Kingdom of God instead of Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew's Gospel; the others are  6:33 and 19:24.  I don't know why!

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Matthew 20:1-16

This passage occurs in both the Revised Common Lectionary and the Narrative Lectionary (most recently September 2020).

Summary:   Tough parable for us.  Most churches preach grace, but when exposed like this, grace just seems, well, unfair!  But grace it is.  And grace abounds.  I find grace in that God goes after the lazy (αργος); furthermore, even the envious (πονηρος, evil in fact) get into heaven.  We do not enter God's Kingdom based on our heart being perfect, but simply by God's grace.  I also find grace to be the hiring, not the pay-day; It is all by God's grace that we are hired in the first place and get to belong to God, to work in his vineyard.  I also find grace irresistible in that even the grumpy don't get kicked out of God's vineyard!

Key words
απεστειλεν (aorist form of αποστελλω, apostello, meaning "send"; 20.2).  John's Gospel get a lot of publicity for the idea of sending (even within the Trinity), but Matthew uses the word αποστελλω 22 times! (Mark 20; Luke 25; John 27).  Here they are even sent into the...

αμπελων(α) (ampelon, meaning "vineyard"; 20:1,2,4 and 7).  First, it is interesting that Matthew and John have such a strong connection here, with vineyard and sending.  Another comparison worth exploring is between the parables in chapter 20 and 21, both about vineyards.

αργος (argos, meaning idle; 20.6)  I have no unique insights to add to this word.  I just want to point out:  God goes after the lazy, those not fit for work elsewhere, those who simply stand around.

αποδος (from αποδιδημι. meaning "pay/give back"; 20:8)  Matthew uses this word quite frequently in his Gospel:
Matthew 6:4  Give in secret, your father will reward/pay/give back in secret (see also 6:6, 6:18)
Matthew 12:36  On judgement day, we will have to "give back" an account of our life (see also 16.27)
Matthew 18 and the parable of the unforgiving servant -- lots of pay back in this story!
Matthew 22:21  Give/render to Caesar what is Caesar.
Matthew 27:58  Pilate gives the dead body back.
In the case of Matthew 20, the workers are paid/rendered/given back their wages.  The question is:  What is salvation?  Working in the vineyard or getting paid?  I would argue that the moment of salvation is becoming one of God's workers in the vineyard.  Ultimately, as long as we view salvation as pay, there is likely little joy along the way and much frustration about the salvation state of our piers.

καυσων(α) (causon, like caustic in English; 20:12)  It is worth reminding ourselves that doing Christ's work is not always easy.  I wonder if the Gospel for this passage is found way back in Matthew 11:  Come to me, all your who are heavy laden..."

τοις εμοις (dative with "the of me"; 20:15)  The Greek here is not good English, but the English reader can make sense of it.  When you have the word "the" without a noun it means more like "things", in this case, "the 'the' of me" or "the 'things' of me."  The question is here, is the master talking about money or people?  It seems that in the case of God, the things of God are the people. 

πονηρος ("wicked" or "envious"; 20:15)  Even the wicked still get into the vineyard!!  God is really gracious.

ισους (isous, from isos, meaning the same, as in "iso-metric"; 20:15)  The problem is that the master is making people equal to each other.  This should call to mind Philippians, in that Jesus did not regard equality (same word) as something to be exploited, but humbled himself.  In this case, becoming like Christ is being willing to work in the vineyard and to rejoice over a repentant sinner instead of being frustrated they get the same "reward" as us!

Last bonus:  The evil eye in 20:15
The literal translation of 20:15 is "Or is your eye evil because I am good."  God does not describe himself as generous but as good. Ultimately goodness is tied into generosity.  Furthermore, those disgruntled are described as having an evil eye.  A reminder that a reward is given to those with jealousy and evil in their hearts, not just those pure in heart.  God is good.  He gives to humans. Regardless of how long they worked; regardless of how lazy they are; regardless of how good they are.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Matthew 18:21-35

This passage occurs in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently September 2020. 
Summary:  A classic tale of forgiveness.  A man owes an absurd amount (Roughly 6 billion by my calculations).  After being forgiven he arrests his friend who owes him a couple of hundred dollars.  I would like to put it in terms of relationship.  The man has misunderstood his relationship to God (as being a recipient of mercy) and his relationship to other humans (co-recipients and fellow-sharers of mercy).  This causes his to further sin.  Jesus warns us of dire consequences when we fail to understand the true nature of our relationship with God and with others.

I suggest this is Matthew's version of the prodigal God and prodigal son, except the younger son became the older son.

Key words:
μυριων ταλεντων ("ten thousand talents", 18.24)  A talent is roughly 5,000 to 6,000 denarii.  This means that 10,000 talents is like 500,000 denarii.  A denarii is a roughly a day's wages.  @120/day this is about 6 billion!  (Or almost 2,000 years of labor).  In comparison the few hundred denarii would be about $30,000.  That is quite a difference.

σπλαγχνισθεις (form of σπλαγχνιζομαι, meaning "compassion", 18.27)  The master has compassion on the slave.  This is also the word that describes the father's heart toward the son in the prodigal son.  In many ways, this is a prodigal master/king/lord:  He lends his son an absurd amount and then forgives it.  Who does this action, but for a child!!  I think the master/Lord, through this repayment is grafting this slave into the family, although the slave doesn't realize it.

δανειον  ("debt"; 18.27) The use of this word for "debt" here is unique in the NT.  The word normally carries with it a suggestion of interest, even usury with this debt.  Most simply it means a loan.  God is calling the loan and then forgives it.  What has God loaned you!?  It is interesting that in the other classic parable of talents, the man talents are loaned.  Perhaps they are loaned here as well!

αφηκεν (from αφιημι) and απελυσεν (from απολυω)  These are both verbs that are related.  The first means "forgive" or "let go"; the second means "set free."  It is interesting that even though the slave's debt was freed, the relationship status did not change.  To what extent was he freed?   It is an interesting parable in that the masters work of forgiving and setting free does not change the heart of the person.  Tough to ponder.

ει τι ("whatever" 18.28)  The exact construction of the phrase "Pay what you owe me" is rather interesting. It actually includes an "ει τι" phrase. This phrase is normally translated "if anything," as if to say, the man was not even really sure what the debt was, if in fact, it was anything.

παρακαλεω ("encourage"/"plead"; 18.29, 32)  This is a powerful theological word used twice in this section.  In verse 29, the verb is used in the imperfect tense.  Jesus (Matthew) presents us with an image of one constantly begging.  (The word for Holy Spirit is derived from this word:  "paraclete")

συνδουλος ("fellow-slave" 18:28, 29, 31, and 33)  The Greek can put "fellow" and "slave" together in one word.  Powerful word.  Fellow slave.  Do we view each other as fellow slaves to sin!

ελεησαι (from ελεεω, meaning show mercy, 18.33)  To the extent this is revealing about God, the point is  that God does not simply possess mercy, but actively shows mercy.

βασανισταις (-στης, meaning "jailer" or "torturer", 18.34)  This is a hard word.  I don't like the idea of one being tortured.  On the one hand, the word means "jailer" so perhaps Jesus is simply referring to the act of the imprisonment.  The other way to think about this is that the word torture in Greek comes from the word test.  Perhaps this slave is put up to another time of testing, this time hopefully to succeed.  The word comes from a rag that was used to test whether gold was real.  The person needs to go and discover what he really is - a sinner yet a child of God!

Grammar review:  Future vs. Subjunctive:  Sins aren't subjunctive in this case!
The Greek language is obsessed with the future.  There are multiple ways to show the future implications of a given action.  Worth noting is that there is no future subjunctive.  Either something will happen in the future or it might happen starting from this moment forward in an unknown time.  But you cannot do "might happen in the future"; that simply means might happen.  Today, when Peter is asking Jesus about forgiving others, he does not put the verb αφησω (forgive) in the subjunctive.  The whole sentence is in the future.  In short, Peter expects sin and forgiveness. The sentence literally reads: "How often will my brother against me and will I forgive him? Until seven times?"

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Matthew 18:15-20

This passage occurs as a New Testament Lesson in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently September 2020 . 
Summary:  Jesus seems to let us off the hook today, telling us we can treat sinning Christians like gentiles and tax collectors, as long as we've gone through the appeal court system.  However, this is the worst news of all, because Jesus spends most of his time eating with tax collectors and even getting harassed for his association with them.  In other words, Jesus doesn't give us permission to drop them, but rather instructs us to bear them, teach them and even get persecuted because we continue to care for them over and against their difficulties toward us.  Yes, he does let us remove our heart strings a bit from them, but not our moral obligation.  Hence why Jesus has to promise us his presence in the midst of conflict!

Key Words:
αδελφος (brother/sister; found throughout section)  Earlier in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus refers to his followers as his brothers and sisters (12:49).  He is telling his disciples that in the church they are also brothers and sisters to one another.  

εκερδησας (from κερδαινω, "to gain", 18:15)  Jesus puts it beautifully:  If he listens to you, you have gained back your brother.  It is not about winning people to your side, but restoring the relationship!  Also, Jesus does not say "if he apologizes" or "if he agrees"; he simply says, "if he listens."  If we can listen to each other, we make room for reconciliation.

εθνικος (pagan, gentile, literally "ethnic"; 18:17)  Jesus suggests we treat Christians who have greatly sinned against us as gentiles.  Interestingly, Jesus final words in the Gospel of Matthew instruct us to preach to the gentiles (all the nations of the world; same root word) and earlier Jesus reminds us to love our enemies.  Jesus is not giving us permission to be rude and dismissive to our brothers and sisters in Jesus, even those whom we are angry with.

τελωνης ("tax collector"; 18:17)  Jesus eats with tax collectors.  He repeatedly takes heat for being seen with them.  So considering someone a tax collector means something more like this:  "Treat them in such a way that no one knows how much they anger and embarrass you, bearing your cross and thanking God for this opportunity to become a more patient and compassionate person."

συμφωνησωσιν ("agree" or "match", from συμφωνεω; 18:19)  The actually meaning of this word is not that interesting.  What is interesting is the derivation, "symphony" which means "together-sounds."  Jesus says that if we make a symphony, God listens.  Haha!

επι της γης ("upon the earth", 18:19)  I want to point out something in the Greek overlooked in most translations -- Jesus says that if two or three on the earth agree, God in heaven will act.  This would suggest that people coming together is bridge between heaven and earth.  The God in heaven responds to people on earth, when we find unity. This passage underscores a fundamental theme in the Bible:  Humans are estranged from each other.

συνηγμενοι ("gathered"; passive perfect participle from "συναγω"; 18:20)  This participle covers up a familiar word:  synago, from which we get synagogue.  The voice is significant here.  We do not gather ourselves in the church, but rather are gathered God.  Thus, we are moving  from human action to God's promise. Also worth noting that Jesus promises his presence in the midst of the office of the keys and congregational conflict.  The church is a gift, however human and sinful it can be!

εν μεσω ("in the midst", 18:20)  Matthew begins his Gospel by declaring Jesus to be Immanuel -- God with us.  Matthew ends his Gospel with Jesus declaring he is God with us.  In the middle of the Gospel Jesus affirms this as his mission (and identity) when he declares that, at the crossroads of worship and conflict, he is with us.
Translation Issue:  Hypothetical situations with εαν

Technically, this word is a combination of:  ει αν, both of which are "subjunctive" markers.  Put them together and you have a very hypothetical situation.  If you have the word εαν, the writer/speaker is not specifying if this will actually happen.  It means something like, "if" or perhaps "whenever."  If is used in Greek to set up a simple phrase (so necessary for science), if-then.  So in our text for this week, Jesus is not promising conflict; nor is he promising that people will not listen.  He is simply saying, "If you experience this, well, then do this..."

Also worth noting:  Every other verse in this section has an "if" clause, yet in 18:20 Jesus simply declares -- Where two or three are gathered, I am in the midst of you.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Romans 13:8-14

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, most recently September 6, 2020.

Summary:  These words brought about the conversion of St. Augustine.  May they also bring about the constant renewal of us and our flocks as well!  I think Romans 12 is more exquisite poetry than Romans 13, but this passage still packs some punch, especially the later verses!  Ultimately, I think this needs to be read in context of Romans 12-14 and Paul's real world ethics, lest it become interpreted as anti-life-on-earth.

Some words and phrases I've pondered:
νόμον πεπλήρωκεν (fulfilled the law, 13:8)   Here Paul uses the word fulfilled (πληρόω) and the law (νόμος)...Paul also uses the words together in 8:4 in conjunction with the Spirit's work in us. In fact, Paul uses these words together in Galatians 5:14; the translations there say the law is "summed up" in this one command. 

One more note -- the word fulfilled here is in the perfect tense, which means that there is nothing more that has to be done, that is completely finished and remains finished. 

ἀνακεφαλαιοῦται ("summed up", 13:9)  Big word!! Literally again-headed or recapitulate. It means bring or sum together. It is the word that Paul uses in Ephesians to talk about how things were summed up and brought together in Christ. Here is Romans Paul does not say all things are summed together in Christ. Instead he uses indicates that all the commandments are summed up in this Word (λόγος; it is not commandment).  Paul is elevating this commandment to a transcendent level -- it is not a Jewish custom we can avoid, but it is our life's aim to fulfill.

εὐσχημόνως (euschem-onoos, meaning "proper", 13:13)  Interestingly, the word here for "live honorably," contains the root word "scheme."  That root word -- scheme -- is the word we heard in Romans 12:2, not to be conformed to the scheme of this world.  Now we hear about how to be properly conformed, namely, to put on Christ!

ὅπλα τοῦ φωτός (armor of light, 13:12)  While Paul will refer to the idea of armor elsewhere, what is really powerful here is that Paul connected the armor of light with Jesus Christ.  In verse 12 we are told to put on the armor...we discover what this armor is as we are told to put on Jesus Christ!

κώμοις (κῶμος, "revelry", 13:13) This word originally meant the festal procession in honor of Dionysus and then become a meal or banquet (BDAG) but with connotation of excessive drinking, feasting and perhaps sex. (Louw and Nida).  The other word for drunkenness is more straight forward :-)  (μέθαις)

κοίταις (κοίτη, "bed" or sex", 13:13)  This is a strange word in that it literally means "bedding"; is Paul simply referring to all sexual activity?  Paul puts these words in three sets of pairs:  Not A nor B; Not C nor D; Not E nor F.  In this way, this word needs to be translated by looking at "ἀσελγείαις" which BDAG translates as "lack of self-constraint which involves one in conduct that violates all bounds of what is socially acceptable." This is not simply marital sex, but sex that is licentious, etc.  To what extent is Paul suggesting limits on sex within marriage?   Tough question!

ἔριδι (ἔρις, "quarreling", 13:13)  Paul here employs a word that means excessive quarreling; he pairs this with jealousy "ζήλῳ"   Makes one wonder about the connection between these two words; it is also fitting to hear this in the year of a Presidential election...  But how does one take up Christ, disagree wit someone and yet avoid excessive quarreling?

σάρξ ("flesh", 13:14)  It is worth reflecting.  Is Paul saying that pleasure is itself a bad thing?  Paul seems to lean heavily into a piety that is anti-flesh in 13:13.  Yet Paul calls us to love our neighbor in earthly ways, both in terms of how we relate to our fellow citizens (Romans 13) and our fellow Christians (Romans 12 and 14).  While Paul may push uncomfortably against the body for our modern ears, this does not grow out of an anti-earth or anti-human construct, but an anti-self-satisfaction mentality.