Monthly Archives: March 2014

Sunday Semantic Snobbery

The proofreaders at the New York Times apparently failed columnist Ross Douthat today. I began reading his column, The Christian Penumbra, this morning but could proceed no further than the second sentence.

He opened with a common redundancy. “Here is a seeming paradox of American life.”

Now, a paradox is a seeming contradiction. One already refers to the apparently contradictory character of a state of affairs by calling it a paradox. “Seeming paradox” is a redundancy (a seeming seeming contradiction?). For this, we should report Mr. Douthat to the Department of Redundancy Department.

Dismissing this mistake with a condescending roll of the eyes, I kept reading. “One the one hand, there is a broad social-science correlation between religious faith and various social goods . . .”

This was too much.

While I was partially intrigued by the social critique Douthat offered, I was too distracted by the misspelling that initiated his second sentence to continue.

Do they not employ proofreaders!? Was I reading the New York Times or the Bloom Picayune!?


When Watchdogs Become Sinners

The reversals in Mark’s Gospel are fascinating. Throughout Mark 2, the Pharisees and scribes are checking Jesus out, scrutinizing his conduct in light of their own conceptions of Law-observance.

They query Jesus as to his eating with sinners (2:16) and his disciples’ conduct on the Sabbath (2:24). By Mark 3:1-6, however, they find themselves plotting evil on the Sabbath.

The motives and behavior of these self-appointed watchdogs reveal the truth:

The Pharisees are described as “watching closely” (paretēroun) to see if Jesus will heal on the Sabbath. This same verb is used in Ps 36:12 (one of only two LXX usages), where it is sinners who lie in wait for the righteous person to slay him (cf. Ps 129:3) – a portrayal similar to the description of the Pharisees’ plot at the end of our passage (3:6). Through the intertextual echo with Psalm 36, then, the same Pharisees who have objected to Jesus’ eating with “sinners” (2:16) are now revealed to belong in the camp of sinners themselves.

Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8, 252.


Mark’s Mysterious Gospel

The Evangelist does not psychoanalyze his characters. His focus remains on Jesus and on the mysterious, threatening, and threatened figure that he cuts. Jesus submits no credentials for his deeds and words; he simply speaks and acts, then allows his witnesses to draw their own conclusions (2:4-5, 10-12, 13-14, 27-28; 3:1-6). His claims for himself are circumlocutory: a physician (2:17), a bridegroom (2:19-20), the Son of Man (2:10, 28). His power (exousia) is undeniable (2:10-12; 3:5), but its source and interpretation are obscure almost to the point of inscrutability (2:9, 17b, 19-22, 25-26, 28: 3:4). Clearly, he is no hooligan: at his command withered limbs become whole (2:11-12; 3:5); by his actions the Sabbath is renewed (2:27-28) and society’s outcasts enjoy a place at the table (2:15). Feasting, not fasting, is the order of his day (2:19); it is time to glorify God (2:12). Why, then, is Jesus so troubling? What is it about the new that rips it from the old (2:21)? Why must the bridegroom be taken away (2:20)?

Clifton Black, Mark, p. 102.


Changing Perspectives

In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright captures how a change in perspective can come about in reading Paul. His discussion resonated with my experience. When I was in seminary, I participated in a study of Romans that read the letter from the perspective of a Law-Gospel contrast. I could trace the moves they were making and how in some sense they tracked with what Paul was saying. But they needed to blow past a phrase here or a passage there that didn’t quite fit the paradigm.

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Over the next few years, I came to realize that what Paul was talking about was not a Western, individualized narrative of how a person can move from “sinner” to “saint.” He was concerned about something larger, a concern that actually resonated with (rather than ran against the grain of, or departed from) the narrative of Israel’s Scriptures.

My change in perspective came over time, however, after reading and re-reading Paul and his use of terms like “salvation” within the interpretive field of the Scriptures.

Here’s how Wright describes this:

As C. S. Lewis pointed out about words, when we read old books we go to the dictionaries to look up the hard words, the ones we don’t know at all. The apparently easy words, the ones we use every day, pass by us without our realizing the very different meaning they may have carried five centuries ago. So it is with texts in general. If we do not make the effort to check out the underlying worldview, we will all too easily assume that the writer shared, on this or that point, a worldview (including an implicit narrative) we ourselves know well. The writer must really have been talking ‘about’ what we assume he was talking about, and we ignore the hints within the text of a different worldview, a different underlying narrative. Paul ‘must really’ have been talking about ‘how I can find a gracious God’, and the turns and twists of his argument must then be explained as his use of this pre-Pauline tradition, that hellenistic topos, these themes his opponents introduced into the argument – anything rather than a narrative about the larger purposes of the God of Israel.

What alerts us, often enough, to the fact that there is ‘something else going on’, something we had not bargained for, is the casual remark, the throw-away line on the edge of something else, which stands as a signpost down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened. So it is, often enough, with Paul. When he says that God promised Abraham that he would inherit ‘the world’; when he says that those who receive God’s gift of dikaiosyn will ‘reign’; when he says that the result of the Messiah’s curse-bearing death is that ‘the blessing of Abraham might come upon the gentiles’ – in these and many other places he is, quite simply, not saying what any of the major western theological traditions might have expected him to say. At such points, we either conclude that he has expressed himself imprecisely, or inaccurately – presuming, in the so-called method of Sachkritik, to know better than Paul did what he ‘really’ intended to say – or we stop in our tracks and re-examine our hypotheses about what he was in fact thinking and talking about (466-7).

These last few lines capture for me what it means to be a faithful Bible reader. Getting to grips with what the text is actually saying (at its several levels) and then letting that revise our assumptions and refine our thinking.


The Paradox of Jesus’ Presence & Absence

The Christian church is the people of God that live into the full range of reality as it is. It is broken and at the same time beautiful. And while we’ve been caught up into God’s saving reality, its fullness isn’t here yet.

In Mark 2:19-20, Jesus alludes to this paradox for his disciples.

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

Jesus’ followers don’t long for God’s salvation like others do, because it has already come. Jesus is with them (and us), so we celebrate!

But he’s not here like he should be and as he will be. Our current experience, then, includes lament and longing for God’s salvation to come.

Joel Marcus captures this paradox:

Thus both elements, absence/death and presence/life, are given their due weight within Markan Christology: Jesus has been physically absent since his death, but that absence is, paradoxically, the means by which his presence is achieved. For it is through the eschatological events of his death and exaltation to God’s right hand that he has gained the power to be dynamically present with his church everywhere (Mark 1-8, p. 238).


Paul the Pastor

I’ve been giving some thought to Paul as a pastoral theologian (or maybe a theologically-oriented pastor, or, more likely, a pastor who theologically interprets community conflict and offers counsel in accordance with resurrection realities). At any rate, this passage in N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God struck a chord:

Wright, Paul

Paul was a pastor. He tells the Thessalonians that he had been like a nurse with them; the Galatians, that he is like a mother going into labour once more. We can safely deduce from these, as we can from 1 Corinthians 13, that Paul really was that sort of person; and, as back-up evidence, we can see his personal concern writ large in the paragraphs about Timothy and Epaphroditus in Philippians, and above all in the letter to Philemon. He was a pastor, and a pastor’s pastor. It shines through: an armchair theologian would have told the Corinthians that it was better to be strong than to be weak, and that the weak should get over it, or get used to it. They should come into line. Paul, the ‘strong’, held all the cards, all the theological high ground. But the pastor’s insight, shaped and informed by the message of the cross, insists that human beings do not change their deep worldview-praxis (such as not eating certain foods) overnight. Conscience matters, and Paul will not squelch it. He might of course have learned that ‘principle’ from a book (which one?). Far more likely that he knew it in his bones, from years on the road, in the market-place, in the little room behind the tentmaker’s shop, agonizing with this person and that about what it meant, in real, practical terms, to follow Jesus the Messiah, to be part of the new monotheistic community, to live within a newly redefined worldview after the disappearance of most of the previous symbols, which would have helped one get one’s bearings (452-53).


St. Patrick’s Prayer

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a mulitude.

Christ shield me today
Against wounding
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through the mighty strength
Of the Lord of creation.


Prayer for the First Weekend of Lent

Cross-bearing Lord,

Come to all those places where the power of death would hold and force its way and say a redemptive word:

Where there is human wreckage, like those precious children of yours bombed out and foreclosed;

Where refugees and immigrants wonder where next they will sleep and if anyone wants them anymore:

Where folks just like us on the world’s other side are named enemies and who, like us, covet our mutual prayers;

Give us, in this holy and repentant time, a new vision of your weeping over our groaning creation, and stooping to our weakness of courage, offer surely as always your unconditional love and renewing Spirit.

And we will sing again the glory of the cross.

* From Arthur A. R. Nelson, A Book of Prayers (IVP, 2012).


The Lord’s Supper & the Unity of God’s People

I’m doing some work on the unity of God’s people in Paul’s letters while also preparing a discussion on the significance of the Lord’s Supper for this Sunday.

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While reading this morning in N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, this section jumped out at me.

The Lord’s Supper should be a moment of symbolic unity; and this requires, as does the delicate situation of chapters 8-10, that the Messiah’s people ‘wait for one another’ (11.33). Though the normal meaning of ekdechomai is simply temporal (‘waiting’ for something to happen or for someone to arrive) the sense here seems to be slightly more than that: waiting, perhaps, in the sense of having regard for one another, not just that ‘everyone has now arrived, so we can start the meal’, but that everyone should be aware of everyone else, with their social and cultural particularity, their needs, their vulnerabilities. We should not miss the significance of this within the tightly hierarchical world of a first-century Roman city, where everybody knew that the rich and powerful would always eat first and everybody else would wait, deferentially, for them (p. 395).

I’ve heard 1 Corinthians 11 read in churches for decades. Most commonly, we read only vv. 23-26, though sometimes the reading extends to v. 29 and once in a while to v. 32.

I must say that I hardly ever hear vv. 17-22 read, and almost all readings miss out the main command of the passage, found in v. 33 – “wait for one another.” I think we neglect to read the entire passage because it doesn’t make sense to our individualized conceptions of being Christian. It’s so mundane, so unremarkable.

Paul conceives of a corporate reality, however, involving individuals-in-community. His fundamental concern is for the unity of God’s people. After all, if God’s people are unified, then God is truly seen to be the one true Creator God who rules over all and has the power to unite all in Christ.


Prayer for the Last Sunday after Epiphany

O God, who before the passion of your only-­begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Transfiguration