Monday, October 25, 2021

John 8:31-36

This passage occurs on Reformation Sunday (last Sunday in October).
This passage lays out the fundamental convictions of the Reformation:  That the normal human condition is bondage to sin; that in Christ, through faith, we are freed and Christ abides in us.  Worth noting in the Greek is the word μενω, which appears throughout the Gospel of John; justification is not here seen as simply forensic (ie, Jesus declares you righteous as if in a courtroom) but as ushering in the new creation:  Jesus abiding in us.  Worth also considering is the household nature of δουλος, or slave; not simply the worker, but also the lower member of the family.

To put it more bluntly, a sermon that talks about how the Jews have laws but we have Jesus misses the point.  All humans are bound to sin.  The American congregation in 2021, in an age in which freedom means personal liberty, needs to here the hard truths of John's Gospel:  our natural freedom is to serve sin. This true freedom is not about doing our own will, but serving Christ.  A good sermon, I believe, will help people see the false narrative about a) what freedom is (individual autonomy) and b) the power of this freedom (ultimately to isolate ourselves from God and others); but a great sermon, I believe, will show people what real freedom looks like (Christ abiding in us, that gives us the strength, courage and faith to overcome all manner of obstacles).

Key Words
1. μενω : (8:31; 35, meaning “abide.”)  

This word is translated here as “belongs” or “stays” which are probably fine, but the important thing to remember is that this word appears throughout the Gospel of John repeatedly; “abide in me…”  One might argue this concept of "abiding" is the most important in the Gospel.  Furthermore, when Jesus says that the "son abides forever" (vs. 35) this son-ship ultimately will include us, who are invited to also abide in the Father's house forever (basically, all of John 14 and 15).

Some more theological commentary on verse 31 for Reformation:  The Reformation idea of "Justification" is often presented in "forensic" terms, i.e., a courtroom metaphor.  God is judge and in Jesus Christ we are declared innocent, regardless of the content of our deeds, which inevitably fall short of God's glory (Romans 3:23).  While this metaphor has Scriptural warrant (see John 8:50) and preaching power, it also has its limits.  Both Paul (in Romans) and Jesus in John's Gospel move beyond simply forensic justification to new creation.  We are not simply declared free of our sins, but we are made new in Christ.  While other passages in John's Gospel delve more into this, in this passage in John's Gospel, we are "disciples" (vs 31) who receive a new status in the family (vs 35; see rest of John's Gospel). 

I realize I am stepping into a 500+ long inter-Lutheran argument about justification.  My point is to invite preachers to give at least a second thought to preaching only about forensic justification on Reformation Sunday, as if this is only what Paul, John and Luther taught.  Luther himself talks quite a bit about the new creation and when talking about justification, also describes it in terms of marriage or love between the believer and Christ.  As he writes in the Small Catechism:
"all order that I may be His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true." 

Grammar note on verse 31.
Verse 31 is a conditional phrase.  Greek can set up conditional phrases in a variety of ways, often with ει or εαν.  They mean different things.
εαν is really the Greek word for “if."  "ει" may be listed as meaning "if" when we memorize our first Greek words, but actually ει simply sets up a conditional sentence.  In other words ει can mean "if" but also "since" or even "In fact, not in this case."  εαν leaves “the probability of activity expressed in the verb left open.” (BDAG).  In this case, abiding in Jesus' word may or may not happen.

2.   ελευθερος:  (8:32;36, meaning “free”) and δουλος: (8:34;35, meaning “slave”)

 My sense of the Greek word for free is that it aligns itself with the idea of being unencumbered, not so much the freedom “for” as the freedom “from.”  But before we get into what this might mean, let's consider "slave."

Slavery provided the gas of the Greco-Roman economic engine. People became slaves through various means: captivity from war, kidnapping by slave hunters or debt. Slaves existed in all parts of the empire.

Slavery could be quite brutal, especially for slaves that engaged in mining. However, slaves often were attached to households and gained a certain amount of responsibility. Such slaves often helped raise the children (even educated them in manners), administer property, earn money and even sign legal contracts. Some slaves even owned other slaves. Even after manumission, the freed person would often pledge themselves to the former master or to a patron.

The slave was not simply the bottom of the macro social and economic structure, but the bottom of the micro social and economic structure, the household. This afforded some degree of comfort, security and even opportunity for advancement. However, there was nothing glorious about slavery. Regardless of their particular status in the house, the slave did the work that allowed the masters of the house to participate in civic life.  See:

How one puts "freedom" and "slavery" together is crucial.  This passage likely has the potential to emphasize either a Jewish vs Christian (law vs Gospel) distinction or to emphasize our freedom over and against society's structures.  However, the New Testament suggests that while 1st century Judiasm may have been caught up in its own legalism, all sorts of legalism and other bondages existed then and now; furthermore, while we could say: "We had laws, Jesus comes to break laws, now we are free from these laws" the New Testament paints a more complex picture.

In fact, when the audience with Jesus says they have never been slaves, this is not true historically (see Exodus!); but it may be true theologically in that they never were slaves to God in they way they should have been.  This is perhaps a link to our "audience" today, that will protest that we've never been slaves before either.  Yet we find ourselves addicted all the time to so many things: our phones, our money, our status, our jobs, our kids' soccer teams, etc.  I think we can easily expose that our "liberty" is far less than we thought.

But I think the real preaching challenge is helping people understand the true nature of freedom.  This passage only lightly suggests what the Gospel of John and the New Testament more fully reveal:  freedom is serving -- being a slave to -- Christ.  How is service freedom?  How does the truth about Jesus -- sins are forgiven, the dead are raised, the new creation is dawning -- accomplish this freedom?


Sentence breakdown:  John 8:35

The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever.
Greek:  ο δε δουλος ου μενει εν τη οικια εις τον αιωνα, ο υιος μενει εις τον αιωνα
First step is to divide up the sentence into smaller parts:  divide at the comma!  
Second, look for the verb in the first part of the sentence.  In this case the verb is μενει.  You have to work a little hard because here you have the negative particle, “ου”.  So you have your verb: ου μενει which means “does not abide.” 
Then you look for your subject.  How to find a subject?  Look for nominative definite articles:  ο, το, η.  In this case, again, you have to take it one step further because you have the word δε in front of δουλος.  But now you have your subject (you can ignore “de” for now):  “ο δουλος” which means “the slave”
So now you have:  “The slave does not abide.”  The rest of the sentence until the comma are two prepositional phrases:  “εν τη οικια” and “εις τον αιωνα” which mean “in the house” and “into forever.”  Test yourself:  Why is the first example in the “dative” and the second example in the “accusative” case?

Do the same with the second half of the verse:  First, find the verb; then the subject (hint:  Look at the articles.)  Once you’ve done this, you can plow right through:  The son abides into forever.
When Greek doesn’t have participles or subjunctive phrases, it’s really a matter of finding the subject and verb; figuring out what the small words mean; conquering the prepositional phrases…and then presto, you’ve got English.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Mark 10:46-52

This passage occurs in both the Revised Common Lectionary Year B and the Narrative Lectionary Year B.  (Most recently Oct 24, 2021.)

Note on Reformation Day and this passage

This passage will sometimes occur on the same Sunday as Reformation Day, a day when Lutheran churches and others often use John 8 ((here is my commentary on this passage) .  Even when not on Reformation Day, it might make a very good text for a 2-3 series on the Reformation.  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...

Words I found interesting

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 a blind man needing healing; the stories display how the disciples are 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.  "Afflict the comforted and comfort the afflicted"

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.  It certainly is what Christ has come to bring.  Is this what people hunger for today?  

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. 

αποβαλων (participle of απο-βαλλω, 50)  The man has to throw something away -- to take something off -- in order to follow Jesus.  What must we give up to follow Jesus?  There is a risk in following our Lord; a willingness to get it wrong!  This is something I am thinking about a lot as a middle aged man.  We get so comfortable and set in our ways, that we lose sight of the fact that Jesus calls us again and again to follow him, even when this means getting it wrong and taking risks.

ιματον ("garment", 50)  The word ιματον will come up again the rest of Mark's Gospel.  The people will again take off their cloaks/coats for Jesus in his triumphal entry/Palm procession (next chapter); then they will put a pretend garment on Jesus to mock him; and they will cast lots for his garment.  You could say that Blind Bartimeaus is the first one to celebrate Palm Sunday :-)

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 11, 2021

Mark 10:35-45

This passage is found in the Revised Common Lectionary Year B (Most recently Oct 17, 2021)

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 here is following Christ.  This seems to be a good sermon, something like:  The first cup of discipleship is doing small things for others; the second cup is living/giving of our whole life; the third is receiving communion with Christ, as he comes to forgive us.  As Luther says in the small catechism: 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 and present event.  Jesus literally says, "which I am being baptized right now"; he is in the midst of his baptism as he begins his long road to the cross.  Our Baptism may be a one time event, but living out of our baptism is 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!

οι δοκουντες ("the ones who think", 10:42)  Jesus does not say the rulers actually rule.  He says the think or seem.  For those paying a bit more attention, this is the same word 'seem' (δοκεω) that was used to describe a group of chief early heretics:  the docetics, who said that Jesus only "seemed" to die.

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 articulate, model and 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 - in the ransom sense - 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.  

Monday, October 4, 2021

Mark 10:17-31

This passage is found in the Narrative Lectionary Year 2
This passage is found in the Revised Common Lectionary Year B after Pentecost (Most recently October 10, 2021)

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).

κληρονoησω ("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 accept 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!

Jesus can both εμβλεπω (in-look)  (vs. 21, 27) and περιβλεπω (around-look) (vs. 23).  In short, Jesus has insight (literally) and around sight (literally).  Jesus can both look into people but also take a step back and look at the situation.  A rare skill.

καμηλον (vs 25)  The word "camel" here has been subject to all sorts of translation attempts to soften the meaning.  Some scribes changed the word to "rope"! (similarly spelled in Greek); others have said this sequence refers to a gate in Jerusalem.  No!  Jesus is trying to say that a) our wealth blocks us from God and b) we ain't getting into heaven our own merit.  Jesus is driving us to ask "How is this possible!"

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.

It is also worth noting that Jesus says in that the present age the will receive things.  Again, all of the Gospels indicate that things will be made new/reversed/restored in their fullness in the age to come, but Jesus promises that the Kingdom breaks into this age as well.