Bible Study

Jesus before the Sanhedrin

Mark 14:53-65; 15:1

[This reflection is excerpted from a sermon. The full sermon text is posted here.]

 

In his massive two-volume work, The Death of the Messiah, Raymond Brown gives an overview of the scholarship on the Passion Narratives in the Gospels. It quickly becomes clear that there is a wide range of opinion regarding the historical details of this trial before the Sanhedrin–for example, scholars don’t even agree on exactly who was part of the Sanhedrin or what rules governed the body.

But beyond all the questions of historical accuracy, there is a deeper question of why. Why would the religious authorities have been so concerned about this 30-year-old rabbi from Nazareth?

As Brown notes, we cannot simply dismiss the religious leaders as evil hypocrites. There might have been a few among them who were simply power-hungry and cruel, but most of them were genuinely concerned for the greater welfare of the Jewish people; they deeply loved the Law and did not want to see it diluted by some fly-by-night miracle worker.

Jesus was a threat to the faith they loved. He hung out with sinners–and even forgave them. He healed and blessed people for no good reason–even women and children and non-Jews. He broke the Sabbath regulations. He implicitly and explicitly criticized the religious authorities. He threatened the Temple–the very heart of Jewish worship.

Jesus gave the Jewish leaders plenty of reason to be upset–even afraid. Brown, who, in addition to being a well-regarded biblical scholar was also a Catholic priest, points out that self-consciously religious people rarely appreciate it when someone comes along and tells them they need to change their minds. He writes, “[Jesus] would be offensive on any religious scene if he told people that God wants something different from what they know and have long striven to do.”

The early Anabaptists certainly found out how offensive it could be to suggest that religious leaders had it wrong. Infant baptism was a foundational practice for Catholics and protestants in the 15th and 16th centuries. Those religious leaders most certainly did not appreciate a bunch of people telling them that the Bible actually did not condone infant baptism and that their sacrament would have to be done again for adults. This suggestion of religious error was enough to get many Anabaptists banished, and even killed.

And I will admit that I have also been thinking about Brown’s assessment in relation to modern day Anabaptism. His comments seem pertinent to the current conversations–and threats–in our denomination [Mennonite Church USA] related to Mountain States Mennonite Conference licensing Theda Good–a woman married to another woman–for ministry: “[Jesus] would be offensive on any religious scene if he told people that God wants something different from what they know and have long striven to do.”

In essence, that is what Mountain States is doing, what the Western District Conference did when they upheld my credentials, what our congregation does by being open and affirming of sexual minorities–we communicate to the broader church that, in our understanding of scripture and the way of Jesus and the movement of the Holy Spirit, “God wants something different from what they know and have long striven to do.” We should not be surprised that people are offended. We should not be surprised that authorities call us up for hearings and trials.

Now, I do not want to foster a persecution complex; and I do not want to equate my arduous journey to Newton, Kansas, for the Leadership Commission review with Jesus’ trials and beatings and crucifixion. They are very different things.

We also must consider that it is dangerous for us–or anyone who is not Jesus–to assume that the beliefs we hold represent the heart of God merely because we hold them. When speaking and acting in opposition to others within our faith family, we may be in the role of Jesus, but it is also possible that we slip into the role of the Sanhedrin from time to time. As people of faith we are called to accountability in community, to prayerful study of scripture, to an openness to the Holy Spirit.

Still, as we walk toward the cross through these days of Lent, it is good for us to consider the whole story of Jesus’ death; to acknowledge that it is not just the secular world that opposes the way of Jesus. Resistance to Jesus can be strong within the religious community as well.

Categories: Bible Study, GLBT Concerns, Lent/Easter, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Nicodemus and Being “Born Again”

2379445383–John 13:1-17

Rev. Dr. Alyce McKenzie, professor of preaching and worship at Perkins School of Theology, was sitting in the waiting area of her local discount tire store. She was reading a magazine when a pamphlet appeared in front of her face: “How to be born again.”

“Have you been born again?” The earnest 40-something man wanted to know.

Now, just in case you are planning a similar evangelism mission, I’ll give you a pointer. Do not ask a seminary professor if she has been born again. Unless you have time to listen to the answer.

McKenzie answered: “I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and I don’t think Jesus means ‘born again’ as if it were some emotional lightning strike that once it’s over, we speak of our salvation in the past tense, like, that’s done, now I have that checked off my to-do list. I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it’s a lifelong process.”

It is interesting, really, that this phrase “born again” has become Christian-speak for being saved, for accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. Interesting that so many people use this phrase to imply a dramatic conversion moment. Because the phrase comes from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, who most certainly did not have a dramatic conversion moment.

To begin with, we should clear up this whole “born again” issue anyway. The Greek term used can mean “born again” or “born from above.” From the context in John, it seems pretty clear that Nicodemus takes it to mean “born again”–”surely a man cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb.” Jesus appears to mean “born from above”–not re-entering your mother’s womb, but being born of water and the Spirit. So if someone approaches you in the waiting room and asks if you’ve been “born from above,” at least you’ll know they’ve studied the Greek.

But born again or born from above, either way this is not a one-time dramatic conversion for Nicodemus. To begin with, we know that he came to Jesus “at night.” Which indicates some hesitation, some sneaking around. Rev. Dr.Margaret Hess calls Nicodemus the “patron saint of the curious.” I like that.

In his first encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus is not buying anything. He is not there to be convinced, to sell all he has and follow, to pray the prayer of salvation. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to ask questions. To see this wonder-worker for himself and form his own opinions.

He comes at night because he does not want his buddies to know what he is doing. He might not even be sure he wants to do what he is doing. But he is curious. He wants to know more. And so he goes.

He says, “You know, Jesus, we’re all pretty impressed with these miracles you’ve been doing.”

At which point Jesus drags him into a bizarre conversation about being born from above, which is probably not the conversation Nicodemus was expecting to have. And suddenly the Pharisee Nicodemus, “Israel’s teacher,” becomes the student. Except he’s not even sure what it is he is supposed to be learning. The last words we hear from Nicodemus in this scene are: “How can this be?”

He is baffled and befuddled. Not what the earnest man in the tire shop had in mind when he asked Alyce McKenzie if she had been born again.

It is interesting to me that Nicodemus’ initial encounter with Jesus becomes the identifying feature of Nicodemus. In John 7, he is presented as “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier.” And in John 19 he is identified as “Nicodemus, the man who had earlier visited Jesus at night.”

Even though we don’t know what Nicodemus believes about Jesus; even though Nicodemus himself might not know what he believes about Jesus; he is, nonetheless, defined by his encounter with Jesus. That initial conversation with Jesus under the cover of night means something to Nicodemus. It changes him–somehow, slowly, it changes him.

I know that some people do have radical conversion stories. I also know that there are also a lot of us Nicodemuses. Those of us who are curious. Who want to ask questions and then need time to wonder about the answers. There are some of us who, after years of knowing Jesus, still aren’t sure exactly what we think about him. We don’t know exactly what we believe.

And yet, he has changed our lives. Slowly. Somehow. We are more and more defined by our encounters with him. More and more motivated by our love for him.

And this, too, is a path of discipleship worth walking. A story worth telling.

[This post is excerpted from a sermon. You can read the entire text here. Also, check the blog index for more worship material related to this week's Lectionary readings.]

Categories: Bible Study | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Thoughts on Isaiah 1:12-17

The following is an excerpt from this past Sunday’s sermon. You can read the whole sermon here.

- – - – -

Our history as a Church is a history God’s people as agents of holy change and maintainers of the status quo. During the Holocaust, many Christians supported the Nazi party and others joined the Confessing Church–risking their lives by opposing Hitler.

During the Civil Rights era in the United States, the Apartheid era in South Africa, there were Christians who wanted to uphold the racial divisions in society and others who argued for change. Martin Luther King, Jr., argues in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that the church should be the headlights, not the taillights–the church should be leading the way toward racial justice, not following behind popular opinion. And that letter, of course, was written to fellow clergymen who were telling him to calm down and be patient.

And of course there are issues of justice today that the churches are not speaking about in one voice: the violence in Israel/Palestine that we discussed last week; questions of environmental care and justice; the death penalty–which is a hot topic in our own state legislature right now; rights for sexual minorities; the deep racial inequalities in our penal system, immigration . . .

Sometimes the tension between being holy change and maintaining the status quo is held by opposing religious groups–different congregations and denominations. And sometimes the tension is also held within individual communities. Because rescuing the oppressed and defending the orphan and pleading for the widow are all well and good in theory. But in practice, justice requires structural change–and we are all standing on this structure together. Those of us who are pretty comfortable are understandably not too excited about the possibility of the ground moving under us–of losing our balance and sliding into a less comfortable position.

Being nice is a lot easier than doing justice. Attending worship is a lot easier than doing justice. Following rules is a lot easier than doing justice.

Don’t get me wrong, I am generally in favor of being nice and attending worship and following rules. Really. It’s just that . . . well . . . I need to use a phrase here that I have come to really hate. I just told Twila this week how much I hate it: “The Bible is clear that . . . “

I hate that phrase because the Bible is an ancient text written in various foreign cultures and languages, much of it based on oral transmission of stories over centuries, copied and translated over and over again through the ages. Not to mention the internal tensions and downright contradictions within the books of the Bible.

I hate that phrase because almost every time I hear “the Bible is clear that” it is followed by something to the effect of “homosexuality is a sin.” Honestly, I am somewhat befuddled by the number of people who think the Bible is clear on this issue. I do understand how people can have opinions that difer from mine regarding the ultimate witness of scripture related to human sexuality. But I do not understand how so many people can think the Bible is clear on this. Because it is not.

Even on things that we would think are pretty clear moral issues the Bible can send mixed signals. Like, for instance, that we should care for aging parents. Seems good and right. But then you’ve got Jacob tricking poor, blind, dying Isaac. And Jesus telling the would-be disciple who wants to stay with his ailing father to “let the dead bury their own dead.”

“Clear” is not often a term we can use when speaking of the Biblical witness.

Still, I think in this particular case I need to use the phrase. Taking into consideration the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, the proclamations of the prophets, the life and teachings of Jesus, the testimony of the early church–considering the full breadth and depth and complexity of the Biblical witness–yes, I will say it: The Bible is clear that God desires justice.

It’s not that God does not desire our offerings and songs and prayers and sermons. It’s just that all of those things are not ends unto themselves. God does not desire worship for worship’s sake.

God desires worship because it is a time set aside for us to come near to the heart of God, and we cannot truly be near to God’s heart without beginning to share the Divine desire for justice.

God desires worship because it can open our eyes and our hearts to the plight of the oppressed and vulnerable in our society.

God desires worship because it is a way for us to open ourselves to the power we need if we are to work with God for holy change in the world.

Jesus speaks of worshiping in spirit and truth. So may our worship ever be in the power of the Holy Spirit, in the truth of the Divine desire for justice.

Amen.

 

Categories: Bible Study, Preaching | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

I Love Zacchaeus

I have a family devotional reflection today over at Practicing Families. Thinking about the story of Zacchaeus took me right back to my Sunday school room, singing that great song about the “wee little man.” As a wee little woman, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the guy.

I do wonder, though, how he could afford to pay back four times the amount of money he had taken from people. He must have put his money into some crazy-high-performing stocks.

 

Categories: Bible Study | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Reading Hard Texts, Praying Hard Prayers

Have you read the Lectionary texts for this week? I will admit that I’m happy to be in the midst of a sermon series on Acts. After the Lamentations and dashing babies against rocks, you hold out some hope for the Gospel reading only to be told that you are a worthless slave. . . . Yes, I’d rather talk about Peter’s crazy buffet on a sheet. (Acts 10-11).

But wouldn’t you know it was my week to write the liturgy over at Practicing Families. You can find it here.

And just because I’m excited about it, here is a picture of the bush in front of my house. It’s just beginning to burn!

IMG_2663

Categories: Bible Study | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Sermon Snippit: Acts 6:1-7

*This is an excerpt from last Sunday’s sermon. You can read the entire sermon text here.

Acts 6:1-7

So, did you get what happened here? Some people in the church went to the pastors and said, “Hey. The care, the charity of the church, is not being distributed fairly. You Hebrews aren’t giving our Hellenist widows their fair share.”

And the pastors’ response does not seem very Christian. Certainly not very Mennonite: “Well, we’re busy doing the important work of preaching. It’s not our job to wait tables.”

These twelve men, at least eleven of whom had watched Jesus wrap a towel around his waist and wash their filthy feet in the upper room, said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” They appoint seven other men to “wait on tables” so that they can remain devoted to prayer and preaching.

Just who do these guys think they are, anyway? Too busy praying to feed hungry widows? I spent a good part of the week frustrated with these apostles and their poor leadership model.

And, to be honest, I also spent some time this week fantasizing about what my job might be like if I could just devote myself to prayer and preaching. No meetings. No pastoral visits. No worship coordinating. I wouldn’t even have to check email. Maybe these guys were onto something. . . .

Yes, we can read the apostles’ response here in Acts as a snotty, “We’re too good for that lowly work.” But we can also read it as a wise implementation of a broader leadership structure. . . .

Perhaps this is not about arrogance, but simply about good leadership. “We will preach and pray. You will coordinate the dispensing of food to the needy.”

Over the course of the week I convinced myself that these twelve guys maybe weren’t so bad after all. They’re just being smart. Trying to save themselves from burnout. Setting a good example about division of labor within the church.

It is a good thing for each of us to have our niche. We are all better at different things.

And I think–all of you listen, please–especially those who feel guilt-ridden for not doing enough–I think the apostles here give us permission to say “no.” Not “no, I don’t care.” But “no, I can’t be the one to do that.”

. . . For every thing we choose to do, we are also choosing to not do anything else at that moment. We have to make decisions as faithfully as we can, trusting in the work of the whole body and the grace of God.

The apostles realized that saying “yes” to personally resolving the situation with the distribution of food would have meant saying “no” to some of the praying and preaching they were doing. And it might not be that any of it was more important than the rest of it–Paul’s writings certainly indicate that there is not a hierarchy of service–but simply that one person, even one group of people, cannot do everything that we, as Christ followers, want to see done in the world. . . .

But some of you are doing the reading plan. So you didn’t just read Acts 6:1-7. You read through the first verse of chapter 8. So you know that at the end of chapter 7, Stephen is stoned.

And for those who don’t remember the story, let me assure you that he was not stoned for distributing food to widows.

That was supposed to be his job, right? The apostles prayed for him and the other six; laid their hands on them and sent them forth to distribute food. Three verses later Stephen is in trouble with people at the synagogue for preaching and doing signs and wonders.

Stephen had a role in the church and the Spirit calls him out beyond that role. Later in Acts we also see Philip preaching–even though he was supposed to be distributing food as well.

And I’d like to think that, perhaps, Peter and Andrew and James and John and all the rest of the twelve found themselves giving food to widows every once in awhile.

Because that’s how church works. We discern each others gifts and assign roles. And that is good. And it helps us function; it helps us do ministry–do the work of God in this place.

Then the Spirit comes in and shakes things up now and then.

We are called to be organized and open. Focused and free to expand. It’s a tricky, tension-filled place to be.

But nobody said that being church was easy. And nobody says that we have to be perfect. The key for the early church–and probably for us–is to listen to each other and the Holy Spirit. The better we listen, the more faithfully we can follow the way of Jesus. Amen.

 

Categories: Bible Study, Preaching | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thoughts on Revelation 21:1-6

'The Vision of the New Heaven and the New Earth...' photo (c) 2013, Sharon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/[Below is an excerpt from a sermon I preached on All Saints' Day a few years ago.]

This vision John gives us is a beautiful vision. A necessary vision. It is a vision that Christians have clung to through persecution and war and slavery and untold numbers of personal sorrows and tragedies.

“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”

We tend to think of eternal life with God as completely other than what we experience now. That when we die our souls somehow fly away . . . up there . . . to another place, another mode of time, another reality. That our flawed earthly existence will be erased, replaced with heavenly life.

But that is not John’s vision in the book of Revelation. John’s vision is of the new earth and new heaven. If we believe John’s revelation, we believe that this earth—God’s magnificent creation, our bittersweet home—does not need to be removed. It needs to be redeemed and transformed.

People are not whisked up into some other place in the sky. The new Jerusalem comes down. This Jerusalem is not the same violent, greed-filled place that it had been. But it is still Jerusalem.

As I’ve been reading this passage, I’ve been thinking about this idea of a transformed reality as opposed to a removed and replaced reality. And I’ve been thinking that what we believe about the end times, about the afterlife, may have more bearing on our call to follow Jesus than I had previously thought.

Transformation versus removal.

We see the tendency toward removal in our penal system: the continued use of the death penalty; the scarcity of programs that work toward transforming the lives of the prisoners. But there are people of faith stepping in and offering the alternative of redemption and transformation.

Transformation versus removal.

Watch these ideas battle in our foreign policy and our national security efforts. Our efforts to remove terrorism seem basically to have increased animosity toward the United States. What would happen if, instead of trying to defeat terrorists, we worked to redeem and transform them? I don’t know. Most people would probably dismiss the suggestion as naïve.

Transformation versus removal.

A friend passed on a great article to me about a woman whose husband tried to leave her. He told her that he didn’t love her anymore and he wanted a divorce. She told him that she didn’t believe him and wouldn’t give him a divorce. He wanted to remove himself from the life he had. She insisted on transforming it. The transformation wasn’t easy. But eventually the husband came back to the family. And the marriage was transformed.

Of course, it might not have been. The husband could have decided to move to Cancun and never see his wife or children again.

And I think that is the crux of why we—as a society—seem to favor removal over transformation. We can control the removal. It might not give us the best result, but we can control it. We can abandon the relationship. We can administer the lethal injection. We can drop the bombs.

Transformation, on the other hand, is ultimately the work of God. We can work towards it. We can facilitate it. But we cannot make it happen.

Sometimes our efforts will succeed. Sometimes our efforts will fail.

Always we have God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth. We can rest in the knowledge that God is the Alpha and the Omega. God was at the beginning. God will be at the end. And God is with us now. God’s home is among mortals. God dwells with us as our God, and we can live joyfully as God’s people.

God’s promises are for this life. And God’s promises of transformation are also for the life to come. Thanks be to God.

*Also, for folks working on services for Easter 5C, I posted some family worship ideas based around Psalm 148 over at Practicing Families earlier this week.

Categories: Bible Study, Preaching | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On Living Close to Death

“Six days before Passover.”
Probably a couple of months–though only one chapter–after Lazarus was dead, and then not dead.
Only seven days–and seven chapters–before the crucifixion.
“Six days before Passover.” Wedged between resurrection and death.

“Jesus came to Bethany.”
Just north of Bethlehem and that legendary manger.
Just east of Jerusalem and that infamous cross.
“Jesus came to Bethany.” Wedged between his birth and his death.

It must have been a tense time and a holy time around that table in Bethany, six days before Passover.
Because the Holy Presence hovers in these liminal spaces, these in-betweens, these thresholds separating life and death.

The morning my dad went into Hospice–the day before he died–he told me:
“I am with God. As long as you are with God, we are together.”
“I am with God.”
But he didn’t mean it that way. That easy way that we mean when we say, “God be with you.”
He meant that he was really, deeply, already–though not quite yet–fully with God.
I’ve had many holy experiences in my life, and I have never known God to be so thick and terrifying and real around me as in that moment.

I can only imagine that God was present around the table in the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus that night. Present in this same intense and disorienting way.
Because like my dad’s bedside, that table was a place wedged between life and death.
A threshold where you want to linger. Unsatisfied with what has been. Afraid of what will be.
Yes, Lazarus is alive. But he has been dead. Wrapped, buried, stinking dead. And because he has been dead, Mary and Martha are acutely aware that he can and will be dead again. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. . . . Yes indeed.

And then Jesus shows up with his followers–only one and a half miles from Jerusalem,
where there is a warrant out for his arrest.
Where there are armed soldiers looking for him.
Where guards carry whips.
Where the vertical beams of crosses already rise from the ground of Golgotha–the “Place of the Skull”–waiting for the condemned who haul their own crossbeams.

Jesus certainly seems to know that his journey into Jerusalem will end (initially) with his death.
Mary and Martha and Lazarus must have a pretty good idea where this is headed–if they will let themselves know it.Their friend, their teacher, their Lord, Jesus, is, as they say, not long for this world. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yes.

And so this meal becomes a sort of death bed scene. Infused with the energy of life, the energy of death.
Revealing the hearts of those who surround Jesus.
And it is beautiful.

We usually focus on Mary-the sharp scent of her nard, the caress of her long silky hair.
It’s easy to miss the second part of the second verse: “Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with Jesus.”
All three siblings are doing what should be done on that threshold between life and death.
Six days before Passover. A mile and a half from Jerusalem.
In serving, relaxing, anointing, each one is doing what needs done; they are being present in the moment. They are willing to stay right there with Jesus in that intense, God-thick, death-echoing, life-pulsing place.

It is only Judas who tries to get away. Judas who says, “Why didn’t Mary sell that expensive perfume so we could give the money to the poor?”
“Oh,” says Jesus, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Even those who hadn’t yet accepted the fact of Jesus’ impending death could not escape the sharp, minty scent of the oil as Mary anointed Jesus for his burial.

Even my 8-year-old daughter knew the closeness of death as she clung to her grandfather’s hand in the hospice room.

Sometimes we know how close death is.
Because the warrant is out and the cross posts are set.
Because the tests have come back and diagnosis is in.

Sometimes we know, and in those moments–those frightening and holy moments, it can be easy to focus on the person in front of us.Easy to let other things go as we massage the feet, wipe the brow, of the person we love.

Sometimes, though, we don’t know.
God is more hidden. The smell of death is not in the air.

Yet still, we live always wedged between the temporal and the eternal.
Any moment could be a threshold between life and death.
Any moment could be that holy ground.
And because it could be, it is. Holy. Every moment. Amen.

- – - – - -

*This reflection is excerpted from the sermon I preached on John 12:1-11 last Sunday–the Sunday following my father’s funeral. Afterwards, the worship leader said that the whole sermon felt like a poem (which may be the best sermon compliment I’ve ever received). So I decided to pare it down and form it into a pseudo-poem for this space.

Categories: Bible Study, Poetry | Tags: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Pre-Sermon Ponderings: The Parable of the Fig Tree

In Luke 13, Jesus tells a parable about a barren fig tree. The tree is planted in a vineyard, and the owner is unhappy because the tree is not bearing fruit. “Cut it down,” he says. But the vintner says, “I’ll dig around it, fertilize it. Let’s give it one more year.”

And the vast majority of the commentaries and reflections I’ve read about this story say something to the effect of, “See, God is willing to give us sinners one more chance. God is merciful . . . and yet God’s mercy is not unlimited.”

But I just can’t get on board with this reading, because it involves two major assumptions that I’m not willing to make.

First, this interpretation assumes that the vineyard owner represents God. Why would we assume this? Jesus doesn’t say it. Jesus doesn’t even imply it. Within the context of Jesus’ teaching, God is abba, the loving father. The rich are, at best, blinded by their wealth; at worst, they are heartless oppressors.

So why in the world would we just assume that Jesus wants us to equate God with the owner of a vineyard?

Second, this “God is merciful, but . . .” interpretation assumes that the vineyard owner says “yes” to the vintner’s request. I even read a retelling that concluded with the owner saying, “O.K., but just one more year.”

Funny, I thought. That last part isn’t in my Bible. The vintner makes the request and next thing we know the parable is done and Jesus is upsetting some religious leaders (again) by healing on the Sabbath.

So I can’t go with the “God is merciful, but . . .” theory.

I don’t think the owner is God. I don’t think the vintner is Jesus. I’m not convinced that Israel is (or we are) the fig tree.

Whoever the owner is, he seems to think that a fig tree is worthless if it’s not producing figs. But that simply isn’t true. The root system of the fig tree is vital for slowing down soil erosion. The branches of fig trees were often used as trellises for grape vines. There are lots of ways a fig tree can be useful.

(I commend to you this beautiful piece about the importance of trees–fig and otherwise.)

I really don’t like to allegorize the parables at all. But maybe we could think about some of us as the fig tree. Those of us who are unproductive, those of us who are not worth much in the eyes of the world, those of us who do not act like others think we are supposed to act. Maybe the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, the children, the misfits . . . maybe some of us are the fig tree.

Unappreciated. Vulnerable. Necessary.

And maybe those of us more appreciated, more accepted . . . maybe we are what we are. What we have been, what we should always be: people who are listening to Jesus’ story in wonder and awe. People willing to tend the world and the people around us.

 

 

Categories: Bible Study | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Thoughts on Matthew 5:8

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

When I hear this Beatitude, my focus immediately goes to the word “pure.” I think about things like sexual purity, using “clean” language, being honest in business dealings. “Blessed are the pure.” Purity is something of a novelty in our culture.

I have a feeling, though, that when Jesus’ disciples, that raggedy group of Jewish peasants, heard these words–”Blessed are the pure in heart”–I have a feeling it was the word “heart” that resonated most loudly in their ears.

Because they had heard about purity all their lives. They had read about purity in their sacred texts. (Imagine Leviticus as bedtime reading!) They knew the rules for sexual purity, yes. And also what foods were pure and impure. And also what types of fabrics they could wear. And also that they could not get a tattoo. And also how long it would take to purify themselves after touching a dead body. And after giving birth to a child. And when menstruating or after touching something that a menstruating woman had touched.

Yes. Those disciples knew all about purity.

Granted, we modern Christians tend to misunderstand the significance of purity for First century Jews. It’s not that an impure person–a woman who just gave birth or a man who had touched a dead body–it’s not that they were considered bad people. Certain types of impurity were accepted as a normal part of life. Being impure was not the scarlet A emblazoned on the chest.

Being impure was a temporary state of being. And it didn’t mean you were going to hell. What it mostly meant was that your participation in the temple rituals was limited–which wasn’t even an issue for a lot of folks–especially the ones in the Galilean countryside.

If you were impure, you couldn’t go into the temple courts. (That’s why the priest walks by the Samaritan on the side of the road, right? For all the priest knows, the man is dead. And if he touches a dead body, he can’t enter the temple for a few days, which would kind of make it hard for him to do his job as a priest.)

Really, everyone was impure at one time or another. And it wasn’t that big a deal unless you wanted to go into the temple. Unless you were a priest who was designated to enter the inner courts, to approach the Holy of Holies where God was said to reside. You had to be pure to enter the physical space that was understood to be the residence of the Divine.

You see, in the temple cultic system, it was the pure of body who got to see God.

But that’s not what Jesus says. Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”

God, it seems, is not concerned with outward manifestations of holiness and religiosity the way the worldly authorities are.

In the end, it becomes clear that the religious and political authorities do not appreciate Jesus’ focus on purity of heart. It was easier to maintain their positions of power and control if religion was about purity of body.

But for those Jewish peasants on the hillside, listening to the Sermon on the Mount; for the people who are impure, the ones who will never be allowed into the Holy of Holies to see Yahweh–for these people, the words of Jesus are words of life: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

[This reflection is excerpted from a sermon preached on January 27, 2013.]

Categories: Bible Study | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com. The Adventure Journal Theme.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 974 other followers