Sunday, December 27, 2009

Wise Words about Relevance

Wise words from David Wayne, the "JollyBlogger," on relevance and the gospel:
All these years I have been in ministry and have been on a constant quest to make the gospel relevant to my hearers.  I now see that as misguided.  The question is not how we can make the gospel relevant to us, but how we can make ourselves relevant to God.  In other words, God defines reality and it is our task to conform our lives to reality as He defines it, not "make Him" relevant to us.  He is always relevant, but we are often irrelevant to Him.
So true.  Pray for David, who has been going through cancer treatments this past year, as well as for Michael Spencer, the iMonk, who has also been recently diagnosed with cancer.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Jobless Rate for People Like You

Check out this graphic: The Jobless Rate for People Like You - Interactive Graphic - It shows the various jobless rates for varying groups of people. Some of the results are a bit surprising: women, for example, are faring better than men right now. Others are disturbing: black college graduates, while doing better than the population as a whole, do only about the same as white people of all education levels combined. The recession is clearly toughest on the young. It's just interesting to see this all visually.

HT: Scot McKnight

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Has Modern Conservatism Become a Cult?

Has Modern Conservatism Become a Cult? » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog
The vast majority of the right subscribes to a form of libertarian populism inflected with social conservative attachments—an unholy hybrid of Ayn Rand, William Jennings Bryan, and Morton Downey, Jr.
This is a terrific article written by Joe Carter, formerly of the Evangelical Outpost. It encapsulates much of what has disaffected me from the conservative movement over the last several years, and what has made me rethink how exactly the Christian vision should be expressed in the social and political spheres. Check it out.

ht: JollyBlogger (David Wayne)

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Judgment Seat of Christ - Leonard Ravenhill

I'm not generally a fan of this type of video - basically spoken text - but the message of this one is pretty powerful. Very challenging and humbling.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Few Minor Repairs

I obviously haven't kept up with the site for a while, and came back to find that a few things had fallen into disrepair. Sorry if that was an inconvenience to the handful who were actually reading. I've been doing a few repairs to get things back up to speed.

Both the javascript that worked the magic for the "Read More" tags and the audio files that had the messages on the Audio page were hosted at third-party sites and eventually quit, so evidently both haven't been working for who knows how long. My apologies. I had found and imported the javascript into this site's source code a few days before Google came out with this announcement that it had created its own means of accomplishing the same thing. I'm trying out Google's version on this post.[Yeah, I tried it, it didn't work. I'll stick with what does.]

I've also uploaded my sermon files onto a more reliable platform, so they shouldn't disappear again. I also always intended to upload music files as well, but haven't gotten around to finishing any song recordings. Maybe I'll get inspired again someday.

So once again, sorry for the inconvenience if anyone experienced problems with the site over the last few months.

Additional note: it appears that the audio player doesn't work in Explorer. I'm not sure if it ever did, or if I just assumed that if it works in Firefox it will just work. (Stupid, stupid assumption, I know.) Anyway, I'll keep trying to get the bugs out, but if the player doesn't work, you should be able to right click the hyperlinked text and download the mp3 files to play in whatever way does work.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Reflections on Passion Week: The Resurrection

What did it mean for Jesus to rise again?

Of course the disciples would be overjoyed to see their friend and mentor again. But beyond that; what did it mean to them? What should it mean to us?

First of all, Jesus' resurrection was a spectacular vindication of the idea of resurrection in the first place. Resurrection wasn't explicitly taught in the Old Testament, and Jewish rabbis had differing ideas about it. The Pharisees believed in resurrection, and Jesus' resurrection vindicated that point of view (Acts 4:1-2; 23:6). So Jesus' resurrection gave evidence that resurrection could happen, and therefore it gave hope that death was not the end for us.

Second, Jesus' resurrection was a vindication of Jesus' claims about himself, especially, claims with regard to the resurrection: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25-26), he told Mary when she was grieving over her brother Lazarus. Peter connects Jesus' resurrection with God's exaltation of him (Acts 2:31-36), as does Paul (Rom. 1:3-4). Jesus' resurrection demonstrated who he was. To have authority over death itself was to have ultimate authority. Caesar could kill; only Jesus could give life from the dead.

These two elements were combined: Jesus himself is the key to our hope of resurrection. We are to be in union with Jesus in both his death and resurrection (Rom. 6:5; Phil. 3:10-11). Our hope for resurrection is based on Jesus' resurrection (1 Cor. 15); if he has no life, then we have no hope for life either. Perhaps Peter puts it most evocatively when he writes of a "new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Pet. 1:3).

A living hope. That's what resurrection means. Jesus coming back to life in the here and now brings us a living hope. How do you express that living hope? What does it mean to you?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Reflections on Passion Week: Holy Saturday

What must it have been like?

You've been following him for the better part of three years. You've seen amazing things that no one else would believe in. You've watched him confound his opponents and open your mind to new ways of seeing that you couldn't have imagined on your own. At first it came as a thought, too far beyond the pale to do more than chuckle over. But then it was persistent, and at last you came to formulate it, at least as a question: could this be the Messiah? He was different, certainly, than what you had expected. But his teachings were so different, and yet so self-evidently true, and the works of power that you had seen with your own eyes! Whoever he was, he was no ordinary man. And so you began to dare to hope.

And you saw the danger coming. These people he was tangling with, you don't mess with them. They're nothing compared with the Romans, of course; big fish in small ponds. But don't let that fool you: they rule the small ponds. You would be frightened every time he suggested going back into Judea. They didn't mean to defeat him; they meant to eliminate him. But he would go anyway. It was like he had no fear. But only a fool would have no fear.

And this last week.... It would have been enough to slip into town unnoticed, although of course he could never go anywhere unnoticed. But the crazy parade they had, openly calling him a King! They're cheering and he's weeping over the city. And then he goes into the Temple and totally rips everything apart. He was daring them. And for a while he seemed to get away with it. Every question they throw at him, he has an answer no one could have expected. He was turning everything you thought you knew on its head.

And then that final night. He didn't act fearless anymore. He didn't act afraid either, but troubled. Said he was going somewhere you couldn't go. You panicked. You've been following him for so long; what happens if he up and abandons you? A lot of what he said you couldn't process; it didn't make any sense. Some of it makes sense now, but he couldn't have meant that--he couldn't have actually known! A sane man would run. You don't just let the lion pounce if you have time to get away.

Yesterday was awful. You didn't have the nerve to stand up for him; what could you have done? Gone down with him? He didn't want to fight, and once the Romans are involved, you don't fight, whatever you do. You wanted to get away but you couldn't bear to leave, so you stay on the outskirts, just within eyeshot. To see your teacher mocked and ridiculed and stripped and flogged and hoisted up! You'd seen crazy miracles, but there were no miracles yesterday. Unless you count how fast he died. Thank God, he went fast--probably the beating.

So now it's tomorrow. How could the sun just rise again like nothing ever happened? He's gone; the Romans and the Rabbis are watching out for you. Nothing to do but hide and grieve. You'll slip out of the city when the Feast is over, with all the other pilgrims. You'll drift away from the rest of them; what's left to hold you together? And then what?

He wasn't who you'd hoped for after all. That much, at least, is clear. You'd put your faith, your trust, years of your life. All for nothing. Where do you go from here? What do you do? You won't follow another crazy miracle worker, that's for sure. You won't trust. Never again will you trust like you did with this man.

Because you never, ever again, want to feel the total blackness and emptiness that you feel right now.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Reflections on Passion Week: Good Friday

    The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

          --T.S. Eliot, East Coker
There is nothing remotely new that I could possibly write concerning the events of Jesus' trial and crucifixion. But in the vein of re-reminding us of how revolutionary Jesus' message had been in its original context, and how unsurprising it is, after all, that his message and actions would lead to his rejection, not only by the religious leaders, but by the people as well, it might be well for us to remember how odd and unexpected and unfitting would have been crucifixion as the mode of God's redeeming humanity. It's so easy for us now to parrot, "Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again on the third day." We forget that neither the Jews nor anyone else could possibly have expected this. As Paul writes to the Romans, "we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles," (1 Cor. 1:23).

The Messiah was the hope of Israel's deliverance from foreign domination. To be crucified by that same foreign power would have been the last thing the Jews would have been looking for in their Messiah, and if they had truly thought he was the Messiah, they would not have delivered him over to Pilate or cried out for his crucifixion. Actually being crucified, if there were any doubt, would have disqualified him in the eyes of the Law: "anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse," (Deut. 21:23).

For the Greeks and Romans, the idea of a crucified god was the height of idiocy: paganism worshiped beauty, honor, and power, not weakness, helplessness, and shame. The pagan philosopher Celsus mocks the very idea:
You acknowledge that he openly suffered. How is it credible that Jesus could have predicted these things? How could the dead man be immortal? What god, or spirit, or prudent man would not, on foreseeing that such events were to befall him, avoid them if he could; whereas he threw himself headlong into those things which he knew beforehand were to happen?...
So the crucifixion makes no sense either to Jews or to pagans. And yet, this is the means by which God chose to save the world. It made no sense. The nonsensical nature of it should not be lost on us today. Because we've come into a time in which the crucifixion is once again nonsensical. But it nonetheless woke the hearts of many, even as it brought the scorn of some, and so may it do today. Let's not be afraid of the foolishness of the Gospel. It's wiser than the wisdom of humanity.

Reflections on Passion Week: The Passover Lamb

The last thing that Jesus does, before the events that directly lead to the Crucifixion, is eat the Passover meal with his disciples (Mk. 14:12-26). While a lot has been written regarding the symbolism of the original Passover in Egypt and the Passover lamb specifically as both relate to Jesus and the crucifixion, I'm not sure we reflect very much on what the Passover meant to the Jews at that time.

Passover was both a remembrance and a promise of freedom. The Jews were recalling God's deliverance of them from bondage in Egypt. If we were to take what Independence Day means to Americans (or meant, in a more patriotic time), and multiply it about a hundredfold, we might get a sense of what Passover meant. God's miraculous deliverance from slavery! The birth of a new national identity, the beginnings of the journey to the Promised Land, the new realization of God's special concern for them as his chosen people. That is what Passover meant, except that now it was bittersweet, because Israel was no longer free. They had failed to fulfill God's commandments to them, had been judged, and had lost their independence. And so now the remembrance of being set free had become a promise of future freedom. Once again, God may deliver us! Once again, we may be a free people under the rulership of God alone! This is what the prophets had foretold, and it was what every Jew devoutly longed for.

What must it have meant for Jesus, as his last act before being delivered over to the Gentiles to be crucified, to celebrate the Passover? We know that he agonized over going through with the crucifixion in Gethsemane, begged the Father to prevent it from happening. John writes that he was "troubled in spirit" at the meal itself (John 13:21). Here they were, celebrating deliverance, looking forward to promised freedom, and Jesus knows that his freedom and his life will be taken from him in a matter of hours. And he knows that these men, who are closer to him than anyone else on earth, do not and cannot understand. They will not understand until it's all over with. One of them, in fact, has misunderstood so badly that he will betray Jesus into the hands of his enemies. The rest will run away from him; the one who protests the loudest that he will defend Jesus to the death will in fact deny any knowledge of him. All this, he knows, as together they eat the sacrificed lamb and the unleavened bread, as they dip their bread into the same dish and drink from the same cup.

Jesus knows that he comes to bring freedom; he also knows that the freedom he brings is not what his disciples expect or long for. He knows he is a king; he also knows that his kingdom is not of this world. He knows that all must be disappointed in him before they can have their faith renewed. He knows that he has come to bring them, not what they want, but what they need, and at a cost far greater than any of them can imagine. He knows that the deliverance from Egypt, grand and spectacular as it was, is merely a foreshadowing of the deliverance he has come to offer.

In what ways is our own vision limited? How far do our own desires fall short of what he longs to give us? Don't imagine merely a greater degree of what we already want. Imagine something else, something other, something different. Abraham, Moses, David, Paul; each of them and countless others saw the death of what they longed for before they saw the birth of what God had for them. In what ways do we misunderstand God's purposes? And are we open to having our vision changed?

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Reflections on Passion Week: Everything You Believe Is Wrong

During Passion Week, a number of pronouncement narratives are related (Mk 12:13-44 and parallels). You may have noticed that in many types of stories that the Gospels tell about Jesus (technically called "pericopes,") the story ends with Jesus making a final pronouncement. We never find out what the reaction to it was; the climax, and the point, of the story lies in Jesus' pronouncement. So one way of looking at an extended series of these stories and tying them together is by pulling out the significant pronouncements and setting them together. This is particularly useful in this case, since for most of us the stories are sufficiently familiar that merely citing the pronouncement brings to mind the entire context. So here goes:
  • "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."
  • "When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.... He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!"
  • "The most important one is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
  • "Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely."
  • "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything­­--all she had to live on."
What do we get when we put all these pronouncements together? It seems to me that Jesus is correcting a number of different misperceptions that either his opponents or the people themselves have. He's essentially saying, "Everything you believe is wrong."

For example, the Pharisees and the Herodians--otherwise bitter enemies--join forces in order to try to trap Jesus over the issue of taxation. Taxation here is representative of the whole relationship between the Jewish people and the Roman government, opposed by the Pharisees and supported by the Herodians. The real question is, should the people of God be in support of a hostile pagan government? Jesus here deals with the conundrum by essentially saying, "You're both wrong; you're conflating religious with political allegience. Don't get tied up in knots over the government; give them their due, but focus your true allegience upon God."

Similarly, when the Sadducees question Jesus about marriage and the resurrection, Jesus tells them that they're wrong in their presuppositions about both. While Jesus confounds the Sadducees' skepticism regarding a resurrection, he does so by also confounding what were probably the Pharisees' assumptions concerning the nature of the resurrection. Rather than thinking of the resurrection as a simple extension of earthly life, with aspects such as marriage being continued, Jesus affirms resurrection but asserts that it is a completely different mode of being, in which the categories of marriage do not apply.

In response to the question of the greatest commandment, Jesus responds with what would have been a perfectly acceptable answer from the Shema ("love the Lord your God"), but then extends it by adding Leviticus 19:18 as a second commandment that is "like" the first. Essentially, Jesus is saying, "You are wrong in your understanding of what it means to love God: it necessarily entails loving people as well."

Jesus moves on to challenge the nature of authority as popularly understood at the time: spiritual authority is not a means to receiving honor, preference, and prestige, and those who wield it for that purpose, instead of being blessed by God, will in fact be "punished most severely." Matthew 23 extends Mark's short denunciation and demonstrates how scathing Jesus' condemnation is. We miss the point, since we have come to view Jesus' opponents as the "bad guys" and his criticisms as rather obvious (Jesus' examples of the Pharisees' pomposity appear ridiculous largely because of the cultural distance between them and us). In reality, the Pharisees were relatively popular among the people at the time, and honor accorded to them was considered normal.

Finally, Jesus challenges the contemporary view of giving to God. Instead of focusing on the absolute value of gifts, Jesus focuses on what the gift means to the giver: the proportion of one's goods being given, and therefore the degree of faith required to give.

So, in essence, Jesus says: You're wrong about one's relationship to the government; you're wrong about the nature of marriage and the resurrection; you're wrong about what love of God entails; you're wrong about the nature of spiritual authority; and you're wrong about the value of gifts given to God. If you want to follow God as he wants to be followed, you're going to have to unlearn almost everything you think you know about God.

And we wonder why the crowds turned against him. How many of us would turn on anyone who challenged our preconceptions in that way? How many of us, in fact, do?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Reflections on Passion Week: Authority and the Parable of the Tenants

After Jesus cleansed the Temple, all the Synoptics record Jesus' authority being challenged (Mk. 11:27-33; Mt. 21:23-27; Lk. 20:1-8). We often focus on Jesus' actual response and neglect the nature of the question and the irony of the situation. The "chief priests, the teachers of the Law, and the elders" are all arrayed against Jesus, even though the different designations indicate different factions that would ordinarily be competing with one another. They challenge Jesus, not on the substance of what he has done (which would commit them to trying to justify the money changers and sacrifice sellers) but by what authority he presumes to challenge the system. The irony of the situation is clear: these groups claim institutional authority from God, but have been tolerating sinful and exploitative practices in the Temple complex; meanwhile Jesus, who actually posesses authority from God and has been using it to oppose their corrupt system, is being questioned on the basis of his authority to do so.

This irony is what allows Jesus to dismiss their question without answering it: his authority derives from the same source as that of John the Baptist, also an outsider rejected by the Jewish authorities. What he and John were doing--calling people to repentence, challenging a corrupt religious system--itself attests to the authority by which they were doing it. The situation is analogous to the one in which the disciples stopped a man who had been driving out demons in Jesus' name (Mk. 9:38-40), "because he was not one of us." It should give us pause, when we're tempted to challenge the authority of someone to act, when we can't actually oppose the action itself.

Jesus responds with the Parable of the Tenants (Mk. 12:1-12; Lk. 20:9-19; Mt. 21:33-46--actually in Matthew, Jesus responds with three parables that increasingly develop the same theme). A landowner rents his vinyard out to tenants and goes away on a journey. Later, he sends servants back to collect the fruit due him. The tenants abuse or kill the servants; lastly, the landowner sends his son, who should have been respected more than any of the servants; instead, the tenants kill him, specifically because he is the heir and they hope to gain the vinyard for themselves.

Aside from the clear allegorical features, this is specifically a parable about authority. Who, specifically, has authority from the landowner--the tenants or the servants? They both have a kind of delegated authority. The tenants have the authority to work the land and produce as much fruit as they can, as well as not to give it to just anyone who comes along. But the servants, and preeminently, the son, have the authority to take from them what is due to the landowner, and it is that authority that the servants challenge. They have forgotten that it is the landowner's field, and greedily covet it for themselves. In doing so, they bring down judgment on themselves, and those who have challenged Jesus' authority clearly understand that Jesus has turned the tables, challenging their authority and placing them under judgment. While the crowds may still be with Jesus, all of their leaders are now firmly opposed to him. It's the priests against the prophets: do you side with those who have all the institutional authority, or with the guy who comes out of nowhere, claims to be speaking for God, and challenging the status quo? It's a tougher decision than many of us would like to admit.

When we have been given a place of service, one of the hardest things to do is to remember that the service still belongs to the Lord. We speak of "our" church and "our" ministry as a descriptor of association: it is the one that we give our service to. But it is too easy for "our" or "my" to become a possessive: the one that in some sense we think we own. We need to recall that any place of ministry that we have is actually God's, and whatever success we attain is also God's. If we don't, we challenge His authority over "our" church and "our" ministry (or "our" home, "our" family, or "our" job, for that matter). And as the ending of Jesus' parable makes clear, that's not a position we want to put ourseves in.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Reflections on Passion Week: The Cleansing of the Temple

Just a change of title; no new material.

The synoptic tradition places Jesus' cleansing of the Temple on Monday of Holy Week (Mk. 11:12-19). Here we see that, instead of attacking the hated Romans, Jesus attacks the Temple system--more specifically, the system of money changing and sacrifice selling that had grown up around the Temple. It's difficult to say what effect this would have had on the Jewish populace, and specifically, the crowds who had hailed him as King the day before. The money changers (who exchanged Roman coinage, necessary for commerce in the world at large, for Hebrew shekels, to pay the Temple tax) and sacrifice sellers (who sold animals suitable for sacrifice) provided services that were both useful and extortionary. And the scripture records that the crowds were "amazed at his teaching" (Mk. 11:18), so some of the reaction was evidently positive.

And yet there was a subtext to Jesus' message that would have been disturbing. He specifically recalls Isaiah's prophecy that the Temple would be "A house of prayer for all nations." The word "nations" (ethnoi) was used specifically for Gentiles, and the area of the Temple complex that the money changers and sacrifice sellers would have been set up in was the Court of the Gentiles. So the area that had been specifically set up for people from other nations to have access to God had been co-opted by those who had something to gain from exploiting the sacrificial system. (We'll leave aside the point that the court of the Gentiles itself was the outermost court--a type of inclusion that really meant exclusion and made a mockery of Isaiah's words, "my house," not an outer courtyard surrounding the house, "will be called a house of prayer for all nations.") It was probably easy to justify elbowing out the Gentiles: there were presumably few Gentiles using it, so it could be rationalized as utilizing wasted space.

The issue of separation from the Gentiles is a thorny one. Throughout the Old Testament, God had told Israel that they must be separate from the rest of the nations, and for much of that time, Israel didn't want to be. They wanted a king, just like all the other nations. They were constantly being drawn into idolatry and the religious practices of surrounding nations. This continued until the Babylonian captivity, when Israel was finally made to understand that they had to be separate. With the conquests of Alexander the Great and the advent of Hellenism, the party of the Pharisees ("separated ones") developed as an anti-Hellenistic movement devoted to preserving Judaism and keeping it separate from encroaching foreign cultural forces. E.P. Sanders argues that the aspects of the Law that were focused on most strongly during the Second Temple period were those aspects--sabbaths, dietary laws, circumcision--that separated Israelites from the Gentiles. It is in this milieu that Jesus brought back the issue of the inclusion of the Gentiles prophesied by Isaiah.

As later history would show, the developing Christian church would continue to have problems with the assimilation of the Gentiles. It turns up in Acts 11, when Peter is questioned about evangelizing the household of Cornelius. It returns in Acts 15, when a council is convened to determine whether Gentile converts must be required to follow the entire Law of Moses. It recurs in Acts 21, when Paul returns to Jerusalem and is accused of subverting Judaism and defiling the Temple by bringing in Gentiles. Once again, we are in a position where it is difficult to appreciate the import of the Bible's words: the Jew/Gentile issue is no longer a live one in the Church (largely because the Church has long since become predominantly Gentile). It's easy to say, "Yes, Paul was right to argue that Jewish laws shouldn't be mandated for Gentile believers." The question is, what roadblocks have we erected that present artificial stumbling blocks for other groups to receive the gospel?

Exclusion seems to be a perennial feature of human nature. Everyone wants to belong to an "in" crowd, and the existence of an "in" crowd necessitates that some must be defined out. It's both amusing and saddening to see someone protest bitterly against "cliques," only to cease protesting upon inclusion in one of them. Jews divided humanity up into Jews and Gentiles; Greeks divided humanity up into Greeks and barbarians. It's easy to cheer Jesus on for opposing religious profiteering; a little harder to examine the "in" crowds that we may have created for ourselves and the cultural roadblocks we may have erected against others. "Neither do I condemn you" and "Go and sin no more" are both parts of the gospel. But the first one comes first.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Reflections on Passion Week: Palm Sunday

Just a change of title; no new material.

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Passion Week, the final week leading up to Jesus' crucifixion and Resurrection. A number of different approaches to this event reveal layers of meaning....

The first approach is that of responding with the crowds. When churches celebrate Palm Sunday by giving out palm fronds and encouraging the congregation to wave them in recognition of Jesus as messiah, they are encouraging this response.  On the surface, the crowds appear to recognize Jesus as messiah, although the liturgical and celebratory usage of Psalm 118, which the crowds were quoting, was already well established, for example as the benediction to the feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles). Mark seems to leave open the possibility that Jesus was in the middle of a celebration that was not necessarily self-consciously directed toward him (11:8-11), but Matthew and Luke tie the celebration directly to Jesus' presence (Mt 21:8-11; Lk 19:36-40). John also ties the celebration to Jesus but adds, "At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him" (12:16 NIV), indicating that whatever they had understood themselves to be doing at the time was given new meaning after the Resurrection. So this first response is one of recognition: we are to recognize that Jesus is King.

The problem with this response, as the second approach argues, is that it ignores subsequent events, especially the crowds' later rejection of Jesus before Pilate (Mk 15:11-14; Mt 27:20-23; Lk 23:13-23). While it is dangerous to regard "the crowds" as a static group of people comprising the same individuals, it is at least possible that members of the "crowds" of Palm Sunday were also members of the "crowds" standing before Pilate at Jesus' trial--at any rate, the crowds crying "Hosanna" were not a force of opposition to the crowds crying "Crucify him"; they had either changed allegiances or disappeared into anonymity. The second approach recognizes the crowd's recognition of Jesus as messiah as superficial, and calls for not mere recognition, but for commitment to him. The crowds were fickle: as long as the wind appeared to be backing Jesus, they were with him; but when the going got tough, they ran, or worse, turned on him. This approach recognizes the possibility of apostasy, especially in the face of persecution, and encourages steadfastness. The second response is one of commitment: we are to commit ourselves to his service, regardless of trials or difficulties.

Yet another approach questions the reasons for the crowds' apparent change of loyalties. It's easy to lose track of the events of Passion Week, since the Gospels give so much detail to them: about 3/8 of Mark (by chapter count) is devoted to the events of Passion Week; 1/4 of Matthew and Luke; and nearly half of John. These chapters do not reveal a rising opposition to Jesus that had not existed before. Certainly we see the Pharisees and Sadducees trying to trap Jesus, but this had long since been going on, as especially John's Gospel reveals. So if the crowds had already recognized Jesus as messiah and were following him as late as the beginning of Passion Week, what happened to change their allegiance so quickly? The answer would seem to be, not the actions of Jesus' opponents, but Jesus' actions themselves.

The crowds recognized Jesus as messiah, but the concept of messiah was thought of in political terms: the messiah was to deliver the people from their oppression by the Romans. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem with the crowds that were there to celebrate the Passover--a feast dedicated to remembering God's deliverance of Israel from the oppression of slavery in Egypt--it could have been expected that He would rally the people against Rome. Not necessarily to lead an actual revolt, but some anti-empire rhetoric may have been well received. But that's not what he did. On the next day, Jesus enters the Temple and challenges, not the Romans, but the Temple system itself.

We all like to think that Jesus is on our side, challenging issues and authorities that we oppose. We think, in short, that we're on his side, when we're really wanting him to be on our side. What shakes us up is when Jesus starts challenging our sacred cows, shaking up our systems, opposing our assumptions and cherished ideas. Jesus did this, during his final week, to a greater degree than he had done before. It's hard for us to see this in a modern reading of the Gospels, since Jesus is opposing a system that we no longer strongly identify with. We don't recognize how revolutionary his teachings were, how astonishing his words and actions would have been to those who heard him first. And this may explain how those who initially paved Jesus' way into Jerusalem with their own clothing and acclaimed him as their king could, in a few days, turn against him so violently. And it might be worth considering: how many of our cherished balloons would Jesus burst if he were to come physically into our own sanctuaries? And how many of us would be crying out, "Crucify him," if we didn't know for sure who he was, and he was threatening our own beliefs?

What do you think? Anyone want to peel the onion further?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Getting the Cultural Context of Jesus Right

In his essay, The View from the Mastaba (ostensibly a book review of Kenneth E. Bailey's new book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels), Dr. Gary Burge provocatively begins:
About a year ago, Wheaton College hosted a Christian teacher known for his emergent faith, black T-shirts, and popular cultural explanations of the gospels. We heard all about how Jesus' disciples had to walk "in the dust of his sandals," and we even had prayer shawls explained. As this continued, a few of my senior students knew I was slumping deeper and deeper into my seat in Wheaton's Edman Chapel. In a moment I'll explain why.
The essay is well worth reading as a whole. Dr. Burge argues passionately that the first century Middle Eastern cultural context is extremely necessary, not only to understand the cultural distance between our own culture and that in which the Gospels were written, but also to understand the cultural distance between the Aramaic-speaking Palestinian backdrop of the stories contained in the Gospels and the Greek-speaking European cultural backdrop into which the Gospels were written and first read. Burge follows Bailey in making the point that the Gospels, even in "the original language," were already a translation of what Jesus had said and done. What this means is that exegesis that is focused on Greek words, meanings, manners, and customs, can miss important points and lead to wrongheaded conclusions. It is deeply important to learn as much as we can about the ancient Middle East in order to unlock some of the difficult parables, teachings, and actions of Jesus.

This in itself is eye-opening and challenging, but Burge goes further. He writes, "When teachers try to reconstruct the cultural context of the gospels, they often use sources that are unreliable and fail to discern the differences between the modern Middle East and the world of antiquity." Simply put, it's not enough to focus on the cultural context of the Gospels' stories about Jesus: it's important to get that cultural context right.
Which brings me back to Edman Chapel and my slumping posture. I knew the things we were hearing about Jesus were simply off target, that they were the stuff of tourism, in some cases taken from Jewish traditions located in the Talmud (put in writing some 500 years after the gospels). Without discernment, reconstructing the cultural context of Jesus can put the interpreter in trouble quickly.
I think Burge's caution is well worth noting. And it's made me think. I have no idea who the Edman Chapel speaker was, but refocusing on Jesus and the Jewish context of the Gospels (a pendulum swing away from Pauline-centric New Testament interpretation) is one of the characteristics commonly associated with the emerging conversation, as well as other contemporary streams of Biblical interpretation. This focus in interpretation can seem exciting and open us up to new understandings of our faith, but care must be taken that the novel interpretations are correct, or at least, worthy of the emphasis placed on them.

Burge's essay made me think of N.T. Wright's emphasis on "Jesus is Lord" as revolutionary anti-empire language. Although I think that this understanding of "lordship" language is valid and adds a previously-neglected dimension to our understanding of the New Testament texts, it seems to me that in the Jewish context of Jesus and the earliest disciples, the fact that "lord" (Hebrew Adonai) was used as a replacement for the name of God (Hebrew Yahweh) in oral recitation of the Hebrew scriptures, and that Greek kyrios (lord) was used as the translation for Yahweh in the Septuagint, would be far more important. To say, "Jesus is Lord" in the Roman context may well have evoked Jesus as a challenge to the "lordship" of Caesar; but in the Jewish context, it evokes a challenge to the unique deity of the Old Testament conception of God. To the Jew, who already rejected the divine claims of Caesar, the challenge of "Jesus is Lord" wasn't to the Empire, but to God Himself.

New interpretations can open up Scripture and our understanding of our faith in an exciting way, and that can be a very good thing, especially when those new interpretations are grounded in solid scholarship and a deeper understanding of the cultural, linguistic, and historical background of the Bible. But we need to be careful not to value the novel simply because of its novelty. Not everything that gives us a rush is of lasting value, and things aren't necessarily wrong just because we've been aware of them for a while.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Biblical Application in James - And In General

Scot McKnight writes regarding James 1:2-4 in Jesus Creed - A Brother's Wisdom 2
For some, when James says "whenever you face trials of many kinds," they think James is referring to most anything we can imagine or most anything we face. The next thing we are talking about losing jobs or broken relationships or flat tires. This view of James 1:2 is shaped more by what we can get out of the text than what James meant.

The first thing we are to do is read James to see what he might mean, and we can come up with a nice little list of his pressing concerns:

1. 1:2-4 suggests he's talking about the sorts of things that try one's very faith and that lead to the virtue of perseverance.
2. 1:5-8 suggests he's talking about the sorts of things that lead us to cry out to God for wisdom.
3. 1:9-11 suggests he's talking about stuff the poor are experiencing and it right here that we can explore all kinds of texts in James, including the judicially-sponsored exploitation of the poor (2:1-7) and the oppression of the poor by the rich (5:1-6).

It is wiser to let James give us concrete ideas before we impose our own concrete applications. James is more likely talking about the stress of the poor at the hands of oppressors than he is giving simple timeless wisdom about wearing a happy face.
This is good advice, not merely for reading James or interpreting this particular passage, but for biblical interpretation in general. I've written something similar in my discussion of the "salt and light" passage from the Sermon on the Mount. We have a tendency to make simple analogies to biblical metaphors, or springboard off of a single suggestive word or phrase, into any number of modern applications. It's a bad way of reading the Bible; it frequently misses the point of the original writer.

Hermeneutics 101: one must first discover what a passage meant, in its original context, before one can proceed on to what it means in our contemporary context.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

As long as a book would write itself I was a faithful and interested amanuensis and my industry did not flag; but the minute the book tried to shift to my head the labour of contriving its situations, inventing its adventures, and conducting its conversations I put it away and dropped it out of my mind.... It was by accident that I found out that a book is pretty sure to get tired along about the middle and refuse to go on with its work until its powers and its interest should have been refreshed by a rest and its depleted stock of raw material reinforced by lapse of time.

It was when I had reached the middle of Tom Sawyer that I made this invaluable find. At page 400 of my manuscript the story made a sudden and determined halt and refused to proceed another step. Day after day it still refused. I was disappointed, distressed and immeasurably astonished, for I knew quite well that the tale was not finished and I could not understand why I was not able to go on with it. The reason was very simple -- my tank had run dry; it was empty; the stock of materials in it was exhausted; the story could not go on without material; it could not be wrought out of nothing. When the manuscript had lain in the pigeon hole two years I took it out one day and read the last chapter that I had written. It was then that I made the great discovery that when the tank runs dry you've only to leave it alone and it will fill up again in time, while you are asleep--also while you are at work on other things and are quite unaware that this unconscious and profitable cerebration is going on. There was plenty of material now, and the book went on and finished itself without any trouble.

--Mark Twain