Saturday, June 30, 2012

Day 30: The Blind Man, The Good Shepherd, Lazarus

These three chapters are so full that it seems a shame to have to read them all in one day.  In fact, I'm feeling that a lot while I'm reading John:  there are some single verses that I'd like to mull over for a long time, instead of having to hurry on through to the next portion.

I have to say, I like the extended stories in John:  the woman at the well, the man born blind, the story of Mary and Martha and Lazarus.  There's a lot of character development in these stories, and a lot of little details to pay attention to.  For example, notice that by the time the blind man goes and obeys Jesus and comes back, Jesus is already gone.  He doesn't actually see Jesus until about the end of Chapter 9. 

The basic testimony of the man born blind remains the same throughout, and it's very simple, "I was blind, and now I see." 

The story of the raising of Lazarus as well has many small details, from Thomas' brave statement, "let us go, that we may die with him," to Martha's objection to Jesus opening the tomb, "Lord, there will be a stench!"  And in the middle, there's the simple sentence, "Jesus wept."  Jesus is often portrayed in John's gospel as so God-like; he seems to know everything and be unmoved by the prospect of his own suffering.  And yet, here in John chapter 11, He simply weeps. 

In the middle Jesus calls himself both the gate and the Good Shepherd, the Good Shepherd who leads people out to good pasture and leads people in to the safe refuge.   Jesus as shepherd calls his own by name -- but not just to gather them in.  He also leads them out.

The question is: when he calls the sheep by name, where is he leading them?

There are many places in John's gospel where he calls people by name.  In John 11, he calls "Lazarus, Come out!"  Later on, He will say, simply, "Mary." 

Now, as chapter 11 closes, Jesus is under fire, not because he over-turned tables in the temple, but because he raised Lazarus from the dead.  Caiaphas prophecies (without knowing it) that Jesus death is necessary.  But what does this mean?

To be continued....

Friday, June 29, 2012

Day 29: Before Abraham Was, I Am

I have a confession to make:  The Gospel of John used to be my favorite gospel.  In fact, in my early college fervor, I did nightly devotions, reading and journaling my impressions of the Gospel of John.  (I sure wish I had those writings now!)

I still like John, but reading and studying have made me appreciate other gospels (perhaps the ones I did not appreciate before).  I think that I used to like the ethereal Jesus in John, the many, many memorable Bible verses found there, the deep spirituality (in John, a healing is never "just" a healing).  Now, I'm looking at tiny details, and you know what I like? 

I like that the gospel of John pays attention to a few other disciples.  It's not all Peter, all the time.  Philip and Andrew and Thomas and even Nathanael get to play a part.  I like that.

So there is more than enough spiritual depth in these three chapters of John, but I noticed that it is Philip that Jesus asks to figure out how to feed 5,000 people, and it is Andrew who finds the little boy who has the fish (a detail mentioned only in John.

Later (after Jesus walks on water, by the way), Jesus will spend many verses helping us to know that the feeding of five thousand people isn't just about feeding people, but has a deep spiritual meaning.  But at the beginning, I really enjoyed how different disciples are involved in the story.  And at the end of John 6, disciples are already beginning to desert Jesus, because they already can't get into what he is saying about being the bread of life.

And Jesus says, "well? Are you going to leave me too?"  And Peter (yes, it's Peter this time) says, "Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life."

Jesus goes to Jerusalem (again), although notice he tries to go secretly.  Even now, he realizes that he is not safe in Jerusalem.  As in the other gospels, when he teaches, he's accused of having a demon.  His answer is slightly different:  he simply says that he only teaches what he hears from the Father, and he only does what he is told by the Father.

Chapter 7 has the wonderful verse, "Rivers of living waters will flow out from within him (Jesus)". 

You notice that the very familiar  story of the woman caught in adultery is not considered by some to be authentic.   But there are so many wonderful details in the story:  Jesus writing in the sand, the men ready to throw stones.  What do you think Jesus could have been writing? 

There's extended conversation with Jesus and the religious leaders regarding Abraham.  Who has more authority, Jesus or Abraham?  Jesus contests their authority and questions whether they are really followers of Abraham.  Do they really know the Word that they say that they follow? 

"If you continue in my word, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

At the end of this chapter, Jesus gives his most explosive "I AM" statement yet; he says, "Before Abraham was, I AM."

There seems to be no doubt about what he is claiming.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Day 28: For God so Loved the World...that he came and taught and healed

Okay, one of the things I am noticing about John is that there are so many familiar verses and stories here, but in between the familiar stories and familiar verses, there are some little sections of scripture with which I am not quite as familiar.

Take, for example, the very familiar story of Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3, and the extra-ordinarily verse within it, "For God so loved the world...." I know this story inside and out, and I suspect many of you do as well.  I have studied the nuances of the meeting in the darkness, the questions Nicodemus asks, and the mysterious portion part of the story where Jesus begins to speak in the first person plural, "we speak about what we know...."  But I have never paid much attention to what comes after this story in chapter three, which brings us back again to John the Baptist.  John the Baptist is baptizing and still preaching at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, and people have questions about that, but he is gracious, and explains that his time is coming to an end:  "he must increase, but I must decrease." 

The story of the Samaritan woman takes up most of John chapter 4, except a brief digression after Jesus leaves the village, but before we hear the results of the woman's evangelism (she is very successful; we could take lessons from her).  The digression has to do with the disciples trying to get Jesus to eat something, and Jesus telling them that he has food they don't know about.  (This is John's Gospel, and we KNOW that he doesn't literally mean bread; it's spiritual food; it's a METAPHOR).  As well (and it almost seems tacked on) there's the story about the healing of the royal official's son at the very end of chapter 4.  It is Jesus' second sign (count the signs in John; he calls them signs in stead of miracles), and the idea is that the moment Jesus said the son was healed, he was healed, even though Jesus was far away at the time.  But Jesus is the Word, and when the word is spoken, healing happens.

Chapter 5 includes the healing at the pool at Siloam (he's in Jerusalem again, by the way), and then the controversy because it was the Sabbath (notice that the initial controversy is because the man picked up his mat on the Sabbath, and only afterwards, did the fact that Jesus heal someone become a part of the equation).  Jesus says that his father is still working, and that means that God is working too.  (this implies a pretty close connectino with God, and this is another problem for the religious leaders).

Jesus makes some pretty pointed and provocative statements about himself her and later in John.  After he does a sign (and often connected to a sign), he will speak about who he is and his relationship with the father.  Often he will use the words,  "I am...."  I am the light.  I am the bread of life.  I am the resurrection and the life...." The Words "I Am" remind me of the Hebrew name for God, "Yahwah," which is often translated, 'I am.'

Jesus seems to dare people to hear his words, witness his signs, and believe in him -- or not.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Day 27: The Word Becoming Flesh, In the Beginning

I have to like the version of the New Testament I'm reading right now (Common English Bible), if only because this first section of John is written as if it were a poem -- which, of course it is.  It's not a miracle story, it's not a parable, it's not a genealogy, it's a poem, and it's meant to evoke the first chapter of Genesis (In the beginning, God created the heavens...) which, truth be told, has some poetic qualities itself.  If not poetic, at least some liturgical qualities.  "In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God."  How this can be it appears that words cannot fully express, but John tries to share the beauty of the eternal One who walked with us, lived with us, suffered and died.... in these few opening words.

He then opens up his stories about Jesus' ministry, beginning (of course) with John the Baptist, but telling it at a slightly different angle.  Jesus being baptized is mostly a parenthesis (yes, it did happen), but what John really wants us to know is that when he sees Jesus, he says, "This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."  John's first and haunting testimony is to the crowds, "standing in the midst of you is one you do not know."  Still true, even today.

Jesus calls disciples, with the simple words, "Come and see."  The same idea, but again, from a different angle.  We don't hear anything about Jesus being tempted in John.  And the words Jesus says to Nathanael at the end of chapter one, "You will see the angels ascending and descending on the son of man", is a reference to the story of Jacob and his dream of angels in Genesis 28.  Jacob dreams of a ladder of angels, and wakes up to declare, "surely God was in this place, and I did not know it.  This is the gate of heaven and the house of God."  You will see, now and again, this verse on the doorway to a church.  I would hope that the verse refers not to the church, but to Jesus.

Chapter 2 begins with the wonderful story of the wedding at Cana.  This is Jesus' first sign, and it appears he is reluctant to do it, but he does, anyway.  Everything in John is supposed to have a deep theological significance, and this story is no exception.  The jars of water for purification are changed to wine, and I'm sure John means us to raise our eyebrows at this new wine that Jesus is creating out of something meant for another (religious) use.  Still, I just love that Jesus makes wine for a wedding, so that people can continue having a good time.  Is that so wrong?

You may be wondering (if you are paying attention) why Jesus is cleansing the temple now, early in his ministry, rather than when he is supposed to, during Holy Week.  Again, the signal is that Jesus is the end of something old and the beginning of something new.  From now on, (remember chapter 1) the gate of heaven and the house of God will be him, his body, and not one particular place.  And I can't help noticing that instead of calling the temple "a den of thieves" Jesus calls it "a place of business."  Again, it's a slightly different critique of what is going on there.  What does it mean to you?

Finally, the last first of chapter 2 (in this translation) struck me  "Jesus didn't need anyone to tell him about human nature, for he knew what human nature was."

Yes, he did.

(Icon is by Igor Stoyonov and is in the Public Domain)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Day 26: Necessary to Suffer and to Enter into His Glory

Jesus is sent to Pilate, and then to Herod, and then to the crowds, and then crucified.  We've been through this now twice before.  And yet....
Did you notice that when Herod and Pilate meet, they become friends?  Formerly, Luke says, they were enemies, but as of today, they became friends.  Hmmmm.  What do you suppose that means?

When Simon helps Jesus carry his cross, Jesus has words for the women of Jerusalem, who follow him, weeping.  "Weep for yourselves," he warns them.  On Jesus' Last Day, he flashes forward to another Last Day that is coming:  the destruction of Jerusalem.

In Matthew and Mark, the only words that Jesus says from the cross are these:  "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"  (Mark takes the trouble to translate it into Aramaic.)  These words are a verse from Psalm 22, it's true, and if you read the whole lamenting Psalm, you will find comfort and hope there.  But still, this is called The Cry of Dereliction for a reason.

Luke reports three different words from the cross:  "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (to those who are crucifying him), "Today you shall be with me in Paradise" (to the repentant thief), and "Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit."  These words form a much different picture than the one in Matthew and Mark.

As in every single resurrection story, the women come to the tomb.  They are so frightened when they see the angels that they fall on their faces.  And, here's a twist:  when they try to tell the disciples what they saw and heard, the disciples consider their words to be "nonsense."  (in other translations:  an idle tale.)  By the way, did you know that in ancient times, a woman's testimony was not accepted in a court of law? 

Everyone has favorite Bible stories:  I happen to really like Matthew's account of Jesus and Peter walking on the water.  The next story, about the two disciples walking to Emmaus, is close second.  The story is full of surprise, humor and irony.  The disciples are walking with Jesus and learning from him, but they don't know it.  I imagine Jesus trying to keep a straight face when he asks them to tell him the story of the things that have happened during the past week.  "Really?"  he says.  "Is that so?"  And the two disciples begging the stranger to stay with them, and finally recognizing him once he breaks the bread.  Then they run back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples, who have the same news to share, "We have seen the Lord!"

Really, the brief recounting of Jesus' ascension is pretty anti-climactic after this.  But, when we get to Luke's 2nd volume, (his second "orderly account"), we'll get a fuller version.

That would be Acts.  Keep your finger in the page.  We have one more gospel before we return to Luke's story.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Day 25: He is Always Near

There's a little story at the beginning of Luke 21 -- the widow and her two coins.  We often use her as an example of good stewardship, because she gave all she had.  But she's not an example of good stewardship.  She's a victim of the corrupt temple system; she's taken advantage of by unscrupulous religious leaders who use her offerings to build up the temple (which is just going to be destroyed anyway)

And, she's also a picture of Jesus, who gave up everything to set us free from the power of sin and death.

Because He is always Near.  Keep alert.  Keep Awake. 

This chapter immediately precedes the beginning of the passion story, starting with Jesus celebrating the passover with his disciples.  Before that, Jesus warns the disciples that they need to always keep alert, because the end will come like a thief in the night, and they need to be ready always.  There are signs everywhere of his presence -- in the stars and the changing of the seasons, in the fig tree, in the widow and her two coins.

The end is always near.

Then the story becomes familiar:  Jesus eats with his disciples, and one of them goes to betray him.  He predicts Peter's denial; he prays, and they cannot keep their eyes open.  He is arrested, and he is mocked, and Peter does deny Jesus, and finally, he is brought before the religious leaders.

The end is always near.
We fall asleep, but he prays for us, and keeps telling us:  keep your eyes peeled.

Where do you see him? 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Day 24: From Jericho to Jerusalem

Before Jesus rides into Jerusalem to begin Holy Week, he goes through Jericho, where he meets a short tax collector named Zacchaeus, who is not only short, but universally disliked by everyone else in town (probably becomes of what he does for a living). Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus so badly that he climbs a tree, and Jesus surprises evveryone by inviting himself over to Zacchaeus' house for dinner. I mean, really! Why couldn't Jesus have gone to the house of one of the deserving people!!!

Zacchaeus responds by offering to give half of his possesssions to the poor, and offering to repay what he has cheated four times. He must not consider money quite as important as he once did. Or perhaps he thinks that now he is rich, but in a different way....

The following parable (which is similar to Matthew's Parable of the Talents) also deals with money. Where Zacchaeus distributes his money to the poor (redistribution of wealth), the parable ends by stating that 'everyone who has will be given more, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.' This is a scripture verse I've had a problem with since hearing Billie Holiday sing, "God Bless the Child." It seems to fly in the face of the extravagant grace-giving God that I encounter in other portions of scripture. I'm doing a little background study, and I'll get back to you. In the meantime, anyone who has an idea about this verse, let me know.

Jesus enters Jerusalem then, to cheering crowds and grumbling Pharisees. He weeps over Jerusalem, and then clears the temple. The house of prayer has become (in my version of the Bible) a house for crooks.

In Jerusalem, Jesus gets right into controversies, with Pharisees, Saducees and other legal experts. We have heard this before, and how he figures out how to answer every question, and confounds them all. He also tells the story of the tenant farmers who reject the son of the owner of the vineyard as well as all of the messengers he had sent before.

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone, Jesus quotes Psalm 118. A fitting entry to the next few days.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Day 23: As Jesus Gets Nearer to Jerusalem....(Luke 17 -18)

The mustard seed re-appears again in this section of scripture -- if only we had that teeny amount of faith, we could uproot trees and plant them in the sea (why we would want to do that is another question).   Chapter 17 opens with a number of small vignettes:  about not causing a little one to stumble, about faith, about the servant not expecting a reward.  How do they connect with one another?

An amazing healing follows:  ten lepers are cleansed -- sort of matter-of-factly, actually.  Jesus doesn't say anything but "go and show yourself to the priest," and they go, they obey.  Just by going, they are cleansed.  But one notices what has happened and turns back to give thanks.  Only one -- a Samaritan.  Huh. 

After the amazing act of thanksgiving, Jesus warns his disciples about coming persecution.  Jesus says, as in the days of Noah, there will be no warning given before the time of persecution.  Don't try to go back and get your suitcases, don't hesitate.  And the famous phrase, "Left behind" is in this section of scripture, as in "two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and one will be left behind."  I remember that in college one of my friends told me that he thought "left behind" should be interpreted as just the opposite of the way we have heard it.  The one who is left behind is the fortunate one, and the one taken is "taken away", as in the days of Noah.  I find this idea intriguing.

The next two parables are both about prayer, although in different ways.  The first, about the widow and the unjust judge, is one of the most haunting to me.  Prayer and justice -- to Luke, these two go together.  In modern life it often seems to me that those who are most concerned about prayer are not so concerned about justice (at least, justice for the poor); those who are concerned about justice often don't make much mention of prayer.  But for Luke, they go together and are, in fact, the basis for faith. "Persist in seeking justice; persist in prayer."  Both are difficult, maybe impossible, like the camel going through the eye of the needle, or the rich man getting into the kingdom.

But with God, all things are possible --- justice for the widow, justification for a tax collector.

Jesus is almost to Jerusalem.  He heals a blind man -- his last reported miracle.

What will he do next?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Day 22: Good News if You're Lost

May I say that the middle chapter of these three makes everything else in the other chapters in Luke worth it?  There are many difficult things in Luke, as there are in Matthew and Mark.  But the sheer grace of chapter 15 -- the images of the father with his arms wide open, the woman searching everywhere for her coin, the shepherd looking high and low for just one out of 100 sheep -- make every difficult saying worth it.

There's one catch though, you have to be lost.  If you are a wandering son, a coin gathering dust in a dark corner, a sheep out in the wilderness, Luke chapter 15 is good news.  If you are not lost, or you don't think you're lost, well, you might not understand what all of the fuss is about.

I notice reading these familiar stories again that the wandering son doesn't get to say his whole speech before his father interrupts him.  (The part about "treat me like one of your slaves..." the father does not let him say.)  I noticed that the woman who finds her lost coin goes out and has a party once she finds it.  Presumably, she spends all the money she worked so hard to track down.  huh.  What did you notice?

A few words about chapters 14 and 16.  Chapter 14 has some to do with table etiquette.  The first "parable" Jesus tells doesn't seem too much like a parable to me, actually.  It's just instructions about where to sit and who to invite.  The second parable is another version of the one we heard in Mark, about the landowner who has a party and discovers that his invited guests are no longer interested.  Then, Jesus changes the subject to "the cost of discipleship" -- Jesus warning potential disciples to count the cost before following him.  Considering where Jesus' path will lead, it's understandable that Jesus would warn people.  On the other hand, it's just the opposite of clever marketing. 

Chapter 16 has two parables with some disconnected warnings between them (it seems to me, anyway).  The parable of the dishonest manager has made commentators scratch their heads and do theological contortions for about 2,000 years.  The idea is that the manager is dishonest, but clever.   Jesus seems to think that disciples need to be creative and clever and that this is a part of faithfulness.  But, it makes us scratch our heads.  (and, I'm open to more suggestions on this parable).

The last parable is famous to some -- the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the poor man, and how Lazarus goes to heaven (the bosom of Abraham), but the rich man -- doesn't.  If you're Lazarus -- this is good news.  But if you are the rich man -- it's pretty sobering.  It's worth noting that the crowds that originally heard this parable would have been shocked when Jesus told them that the rich man was tormented in Hades.  They would have assumed the opposite.  Also, it's pretty unusual for the poor man to be the one who gets a name, and for the rich man to be anonymous.  Usually, it's the poor who are the bit players in history, and the rich who get the starring roles.

But, not in Luke's "orderly account." 

I'll admit, I gravitate to Luke's concern for and attention to the poor.  But then I also have to admit, that I am not one of the poor.  I may not be rich, but I'm not poor.  Does it make a different how I hear Luke's words?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Day 21: Teach us to Pray, and Die, and Live

So chapter 11 begins with Jesus teaching his disciples the Lord's prayer.  (You may want to turn back to Matthew, chapter 6, for another version of this prayer.)  Only in Luke's Orderly Account, the disciples observe Jesus in prayer, and ask him, "Teach us to pray."

I love this.  (I think that I love the simple, but not easy, sentences in scripture, sentences like "Love your enemies."  "Pray without ceasing."  "Jesus wept.") 

Luke just keeps reminding us not only that Jesus saves, but that Jesus prays.  Afterwards, Jesus tells a story about a man who goes to his friend in the middle of the night begging for bread.  Even if the friend doesn't want to get up, the noise of his friend pleading from out in the courtyard where everyone can hear will finally convince him to get up and give him what he wants.   (This is another one of those stories unque to Luke.) 

If you remember Jesus saying really recently, "Whoever is not against us is for us" really recently, you might be surprised that now Jesus says that 'whoever is not for me is against me.'  However, this is a different situation, when Jesus himself is being accused of using the power of the devil to cast out demons.

Jesus speaks out against the Pharisees here in Luke, but it doesn't seem quite as over-the-top as in Matthew somehow.  And please note, that at the end of chapter 13, it is some of the Pharisees who warn Jesus about Herod. 

It's interesting to me that Jesus places the warning about the unforgivable sin in this section of Luke, in the middle of his warnings about persecution, and at the same time as he assures his disciples that, when persecution comes, the Holy Spirit will give them the words to speak.

Another parable that only Luke tells is the one about the man with many barns, who accumulates a lot of "stuff" and then finds out it won't help him in the world to come.  Afterwards, is the familiar teaching about the birds of the air and the flowers of the field.

And in chapter 13, the story of the  bent-over woman (another healing on the Sabbath) only Luke tells.

The fig tree parable might sound familiar from Mark, but notice that in Luke, Jesus is willing to give it another year to bear fruit.

I also like the story about the faithful servants who the master finds hard at work.  Did you notice that in the end, the master will serve them?

What are some of the details and the larger themes that you are noticing in Luke?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Day 20: The Twelve and the Seventy-Two, Sent Out, Two Familiar Stories

At the beginning of chapter 9, the twelve disciples are commissioned and sent out with the power to heal and preach.  At the beginning of the next chapter, 72 disciples (missionaries) are sent out with the power to heal and preach, and with instructions.  I never noticed this before:  the multiplication of ministry in one short chapter. 

And it continues even today.

What else do I notice in these two chapters, which have more than enough material that seems familiar?  There are certain details that are unique to Luke, even in the middle of familiar stories.  There are also stories that only Luke will tell.

For example, Luke reports that Jesus had gone away to pray when the disciples find him, and he asks the well-known question, "Who do the crowds say that I am?  Who do you say that I am?" 

Shortly afterwards, Jesus begins to predict his death and resurrection, and also to urge the people that want to follow him to "take up their cross daily and follow me."  Only Luke adds the little word "daily" to this sentence.  Do you think this little word is important?

In the transfiguration story, while Jesus is talking to Moses and Elijah, they are talking with him about the things that would happen when Jesus goes to Jerusalem.  Clearly, the trip to Jerusalem, and what will happen there, are important to Luke.

Jesus "sets his face toward Jerusalem", and we begin to see that there are people who say they will follow him, but aren't ready to give up the life that they already have.  It is a sobering thought.

After Jesus "multiplies the ministry" with the 72 missionaries (who are stunningly successful, by the way), there are two stories unique to Luke:  the story of the lawyer who wants to test Jesus' knowledge becomes the parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the most familiar stories in scripture.  Immediately following, is the story of Mary and Martha.  (Notice how Luke again tells a story that features men, followed by a story that features women.)

I'm remembering that Jesus told the lawyer that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength -- and your neighbor as yourself.  Some people wonder if the two stories taken together illustrate both those commandments.  What do you think?

As we go along, pay attention to details, if you can:  even if is only the word "daily," or the presence of two women, or Jesus going away to pray.  It's not just the devil that may be in the details; sometimes the gospel is there, too.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Day 19: Jesus Preaches, Heals, Casts Out Demons....and Prays

You may find much of this section of Luke somewhat familiar, as many of the stories you have heard before, either in Matthew or in Mark, or in both.  But, as you read along, you might notice some additions, some differences, and different things might leap out at you.

As for me, the controversy involved in Jesus healing on the Sabbath becomes more prominent.  Jesus makes the point that it should be valid to save a life, even on the Sabbath (and in fact, the Jewish rabbis speak in favor of this), but the man with the withered hand did not have a life-endangering injury.  So, something else may be going on.  What is it? 

You know what else I noticed?  Jesus goes up the mountain to pray, and he prays all night long.  You may notice references to Jesus praying often in Luke.

Then he chooses his apostles and goes back down the mountain to teach.  That's right:  it's not the Sermon on the Mount.  It's called "The Sermon on the Plain."  There are very many similarities between the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain.  Luke's version is shorter (for example), and instead of simply saying "Blessed are the poor in spirit" for example, Jesus has three "Blesseds" and three "Woes."  And forget about the "Poor in Spirit" -- Jesus says, "Blessed are you who are POOR." Not spiritual.  Literally.

Jesus heals the centurion's servant, a story we might be familiar with.  Then he balances that story with one about Jesus raising a widow's son from the dead.  Luke is careful to include many stories about women in his gospel.

There's also the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus' feet with her tears while he's dining at Simon's house.  She is identified as a "sinner", which leads many people to consider he to be a prostitute.  Really, is prostitution the only sin open to women?  Also, I still wonder about identifying people as "sinners."  To me, it's like saying, that person is a "human being."

Mary Magdalene is named as one of the followers of Jesus at the beginning of Luke 8.  Luke also mentions (without saying much more) that several women travelled with him and supported his ministry.

The next two stories are familiar ones:  the man healed of a legion of demons (notice how the people want Jesus to leave after he does this great miracle?) and the little girl and the woman who are both healed.  Unlike Mark, Luke doesn't portray Jesus' words to her in his native language of Aramaic, "Talitha cum."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Day 18: More Background, and Jesus begins his Ministry

.... in an orderly way, of course.

Chapter three starts off, as you'd expect (by this time, anyway), with the arrival of the adult John the Baptist on the scene.  His presence is announced, almost as if the Court is announcing, "Hear ye!  hear ye!  In the 15th year of the reign of emperor Tiberias....."  Do we expect some royal personage, in purple robes and aristocratic bearing, to enter the scene?  Instead, it is the lowly and humble John, appearing not in the seats of power but in the wilderness, preaching not prosperity but repentance.

But, that's Luke, for you.

Luke also has a geneaology, but notice that Luke works backwards from Joseph and arrives at Adam (instead of at Abraham), and, if you are brave, notice that some of the names are different, too.  What do you suppose the purpose of working backwards and ending at Adam would be for Luke?  what's the point?

In Luke 4, Jesus is tempted.  The content of the temptations is very similar to Matthew, but they are in a different order (an orderly account, remember?)  Afterwards, Jesus begins his ministry by going to his hometown, wowing them all with his preaching, and, within the space of a few minutes, making everyone angry enough to want to kill him.  The theme of Jesus' ministry is set then from the beginning.  The sentence we hear him read in the synagogue, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me.  He has sent me to preach Good news to the poor....." is the theme of his ministry.  Large, appreciative crowds, and anger and rejection also appear right here in Luke 4.

In Luke 5, Jesus calls disciples.  John has already been put in prison (see Luke 3), so their ministries do not overlap.  When Jesus calls Simon, the fisherman immediately recognizes that he is in the presence of holiness, "I am a man of unclean lips", he says.  Then, Jesus begins healing and casting out demons. 

Luke 5 ends with the saying (we may recognize) about the new and old wineskins.  May I say that on one level I understand this metaphor (Jesus is the new wine, and the old wineskins will not be able to hold him), but on the other hand, there's more than meets the eye.  So what does the last verse mean:  "No one who drinks a well-aged wine wants new wine, but says, "The well-aged wine is better."  (It's literally true, of course, but otherwise, what does it mean?)  What do you think?

By the way, when I was looking for images, I found this great blog post about the miraculous catch of fish. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Day 17: The "Orderly Account" of Luke, beginning with Birth Announcements

Unlike Mark, but like Matthew, Luke begins well before the beginning of Jesus' ministry.  He begins by telling us that he too is going to write about Jesus, and that his account is going to be an orderly one.  He writes to tell someone called "Theophilos" about Jesus (by the way, Theophilos means "Lover of God".)

There's a combination of well-known and less-well-known stories in these first two chapters of Luke.  I know I had the first few verses of Luke 2, the Christmas story, almost known by heart.  But what about the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist?  Unlike Mary, Elizabeth and her husband were not young, but an older couple who had long ago given up hope that they would have a child.  Like Mary, Zechariah meets an angel who tells him the good news, but he responds, "How will I know?  After all, my wife and I are getting on in years...."  To me, this is a nice way of saying, "Give me a break.  How am I supposed to believe that?" 

So the angel strikes him dumb until his son, John is born, (by the way, at the end of Luke 1.)  Then, Zechariah goes on to praise God in words of prophecy and poetry.  The church has made Zechariah's words into a song, called the "Benedictus." 

Zechariah and Elizabeth's story forms the beginning and end of Luke 1.  In the middle is Mary's story (I can't help saying -- there's the meat in the middle of the sandwich again.)  Mary's response, "My soul magnifies the Lord..." I find striking in many ways, not the least because she speaks as if everything God has promised has already happened.  "God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."  She is bringing the future into the present. 

Then there is Luke 2, the story so familiar that maybe we don't pay attention to the details, the ones that are there, and the ones that are not there (for example, did you notice that there is no mention of Mary riding a donkey, and that Luke never mentions a star?)

In Luke 2, the angels proclaim, and then Anna and Simeon proclaim.  Then, in the end, twelve-year-old Jesus loses his parents and ends up in the temple.

One thing to notice -- Luke is often careful to balance out men and women in stories about encounters with Jesus.  So we see both the wisdom of Simeon and Anna.  Pay attention to that as you read along.

Did you notice any different details in these familiar stories as you read them today?  If so, what were they?

Why do you suppose Luke tells stories from before John the Baptist and Jesus were even born?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Day 16: Death and Resurrection, short and long endings

Didn't we just start reading Mark?  And today we are coming to the end of this shortest of Gospels.  Jesus didn't "hang around" much, if you read Mark's gospel; he was always on the go, healing people, helping people, celebrating.  His teachings were short and pithy (not like in the Gospel of John, but, I'm getting ahead of myself).

The story of Jesus' crucifixion is told simply as well.  Though to me, it seems as if time does finally slow down.   The Jesus who has been on the go, going from place to place "immediately", now walks slowly, dragging a cross.

So Jesus is handed over to Pilate, who tries to hand him back.  The shouts of "crucify him!"  Ring in the air.

It's the small things that I notice:  There's Simon of Cyrene, forced to carry Jesus' cross.  It is only in Mark's gospel that Simon is named as the "father of Rufus and Alexander":  a small detail not carried over to the later gospels of Luke and Matthew.  Even though we don't know anything about Rufus and Alexander, it's interesting that Mark includes their names, as if he is saying to his readers, "You know, Simon:  Rufus and Alexander's dad!"  Possibly these two men were well-known to Mark's community.

As in Matthew, Jesus' only words from the cross are of abandonment:  "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"   

And a roman centurion sees Jesus hanging dead from a cross and says, "Surely this was God's Son."  He tells the truth.  But is he speaking sincerely?  Or derisively? 

In Mark, chapter 16, we have the shorter ending (most certainly the genuine one) and the longer ending.  Both present problems.  If we end with verse 8, we have no appearnce of Jesus after the resurrection, and the women run away, afraid, saying nothing to anyone.  (Although this does beg the question, if they really didn't say anything, how do we know?) 

In the longer ending, Jesus does appear, but one of the things he does is scold the disciples for their lack of belief.  (In the longer ending, Mary Magdalene does spread the news, but  the other disciples don't believe her.)  In the longer ending you have all these weird signs associated with the disciples:  drinking poision, snake handling, as well as speaking in new languages and healing people.

And oh, in the last two verses of the longer ending, there are these lovely words, "But they went out and proclaimed the message everywhere.  The Lord worked with them.."

I don't know how your translation puts it, but I love these words, "the Lord worked with them..."

I hope it still is true today.  "The Lord works with us."

What strikes you most in these last two chapters of Mark?  And what is your overall impression of this gospel?  What do you think of Jesus after reading the Gospel of Mark?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Day 15: Jesus' Holy Week Activities

Jesus spends the early part of "Holy Week" arguing with various religious leaders:  The Saducees ask about the resurrection, the Pharisees about taxes, with a legal expert about the greatest commandment (well, that isn't exactly an argument: the legal expert thinks Jesus does very well, by saying that the first commandment is to Love God, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself.) 

However, I'm getting ahead of myself.  First, we have another parable, the last parable in Mark, and it's about some tenant farmers who work in a vineyard and don't want to give up the harvest to the master when he comes.  The religious leaders (the people Jesus has been arguing with, mostly) know that this parable means something to do with them.  What do you think?

I'm having an interesting thought about the little story of the widow and her one coin.  It comes right after Jesus warning about the Pharisees taking advantage of widows, "devouring their houses."  I'm getting pictures in my mind of widows writing checks to televangelists from their fixed incomes.  What do you think this story is about?

After the arguing, Jesus warns about the coming times of  destruction, persecution.  Families will be torn apart, everyone ratting out everyone else. Believers will be put on trial, but they should rely on the Holy Spirit to put the words in their mouths.

It won't be long before Jesus is put on trial, both before Herod and before the religious court.  Everything is set in motion, beginning with the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus for burial.  She is the beginning of the story of Jesus'death.  

I do find it ironic that Jesus tells the disciples that everyone will remember this woman and her actions, because actually, when we usually tell the passion story, we don't start here:  we start with the last supper.  Then there is the prayer in the garden, where the disciples can't stay awake, there is the betrayal and arrest, the trials and Peter's denial.

But the real beginning, which we never remember, is the anointing by the unnamed woman.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Day 14: A Moment of Tranfigurement -- and then On to Jerusalem

So, just as soon as Jesus gets done predicting his own death and resurrection, and telling people that they will need to take up their own cross and follow him, there comes a scene of great glory.  Jesus takes three of his disciples and goes up a mountain (who knows where) where suddenly, it becomes (briefly) clear who is he.  Moses and Elijah are there as well, but just for a moment, before they come back down the mountain. 

At the bottom of the mountain, the real world slaps them in the face, in the form of a demon-possessed boy.

So, may I just say a couple of things? 

1.  The talk about taking up a cross would have sounded a lot different to Jesus' disciples and the people who first read Mark's gospel than it does to us.  They knew the reality of crosses, the humiliating and excruciating means of execution in a way that we don't.  Take up your cross.  We've sort of domesticated this image, but it couldn't have been a big selling point of the church.  I suspect that it started out as a description of what disciples of Jesus were actually experiencing, rather than a call.  Jesus' disciples were taking up crosses.  And somehow, something else that was happening in them and to them made that worth it (it seems.)

2.  I love the little detail, that Jesus' garments were whiter "than any fuller could bleach them."  The description of the brightness of the transfiguration is a little different in every gospel, but there's something homely and ordinary about this one.

At the end of chapter 11, after Jesus rides into Jerusalem (that's right, we're into Holy Week already), Jesus curses a fig tree for not bearing fruit, goes into the temple and throws out the ones who are selling things, and then goes back out, where the disciples see that the fig tree has withered.  (That's another of Mark's sandwiches, by the way.)   When the disciples voice their awe over what has happened, Jesus tells them they could do anything if they had faith.  This leads me to the speculation that if I could wither a fig tree, why wouldn't I rather do something like cure cancer or stop crucifixions?  Just wondering....

In the middle, a couple of things

-- the father of the demon-possessed boy is the man who says, "Lord, I believe!  Help my unbelief."  One of the more often-quoted passages of scripture.  And one of the most truthful.
--I have no idea what Jesus means when he tells his disciples privately (about the difficult-to-exorcise-spirit), "This kind requires prayer." 
-- In Mark's verse of the story of the rich young ruler, there's this little detail, where Jesus looks at the young man and loves him, when he tells him he needs to sell everything.  I love this detail.  What do you think it means?
-- James and John are vying for position in Jesus' kingdom.  they want to sit on his right and left hand.  Jesus tells them they don't know what they are asking.  Think of the image of being on the right and left side of Jesus.  Keep it in your mind.  It may come up later....

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Day 13: Jesus Feeds People (including crumbs), Has Hometown Trouble, Heals (twice)

One of my favorite lesser-known stories is in this section of Mark -- but, we'll get to that in a little while.

As you are reading, are you thinking:  Much of this sounds vaguely familiar, but somehow different too?  --I thought so.  Yes, many of these stories you have heard before, in the gospel of Matthew.  But sometimes Mark lifts up his own details and that makes the stories his own.

So, what did you notice in reading Mark, chapters 6 - 8?  I couldn't help noticing the two stories about Jesus feeding large crowds (5,000 people and 4,000 people, respectively), and how, at the end of the second story, his disciples are really confused about bread.  They have forgotten to bring bread with them on the boat, and they take Jesus too literally when he tells them, "Beware the yeast of the Pharisees."  Actually, I am noticing that the disciples misunderstand Jesus a lot of the time.

No parables in this section of scripture, but a teaching about what makes people "unclean" and what does not.  It's not so much what we take into us that makes us unclean, but what comes out (and though Jesus is talking about the evil thoughts and actions that come out of our heart, the comparison he makes to what comes out of us is pretty -ahem- earthy). 

Jesus again has problems in his hometown.  Everywhere else, people are saying, "He does everything well," but in his hometown, where everybody knows his family and can name his brothers, they are skeptical.  "Isn't that the way?" Jesus says (on the one hand).  But on the other hand, he says he's shocked, shocked by their unbelief.  He's powerful, but not so powerful that he can do great things if people don't trust him.

Regarding a couple of healings:
I notice that when Jesus heals a man who is deaf, that hearing and speaking go together.  Both his ears and his tongue are opened.  This may seem obvious to you, or it may make you think:  hearing the gospel, and speaking grace are linked as well.  If we can't hear good news, we can't possibly share it.  And when we do hear good news, we can't NOT share it.

Here's my favorite little-known story:  In chapter 8, Jesus heals a blind man.  What is interesting is that the first time Jesus prays and puts his hands over the man's eyes, he says, "Well, I can see people, but they look like trees walking."  So Jesus' prayer only half healed the man.  (That's such an interesting description of fuzzy sight....)  Then Jesus prays again, and he can see everything clearly.

You will find this story only in Mark. 

The fuzziness is, of course, all over in Mark.  Just after this healing, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah.  He gets it!  but, not quite.  He certainly doesn't get that Jesus should have to suffer in any way.  Right before this story, the disciples are in a boat and Jesus is talking about all the bread he multiplied and all that was left over, while the disciples are worried that they have no bread with them.  His words to them, "And you still don't understand?"  Fuzziness all over.

But here's what I like about this story:  it fits my experience about how I come to "understand" Jesus and who he is.  I don't get it all at once.  Jesus does "something" in my life, but I'm sort of fuzzy about what it is, and it takes awhile for it to become clear.  It reminds me of something I heard about deaf people who have surgery (cochlear implants) to improve their hearing.  After the surgery, they aren't suddenly better.  Their ears have to be trained to interpret the sounds they are hearing.

I realize that there is much more in these three chapters:  the death of John the Baptist, the sending of the disciples, the cost of discipleship, the Syro-phoenician woman.  What did you see and hear as you read today?  What is fuzzy and what is clear?  (And isn't it nice to know that it's all right for some things to be fuzzy?)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Day 12: Preaching parables, stilling storms, and healing

The first thing I noticed when I started reading today is that Jesus is preaching these parables from a boat.  Why have I never noticed this before?  And why do I think it's sort of cool?  So here Jesus is, telling the story of the sower and the seeds, and he's speaking from a boat, to all the people gathered on shore.

I know that there's a parable and then there's Jesus secret allegorical explanation of it, but may I say that I think the original parable is way more interesting?  The focus in the original is on the sower and the fantastic yield at the end, despite all of the obstacles in the way.  In the later explanation, all of a sudden the focus becomes on the different types of soil.  That's okay, but for good endings, an 100-fold yield can't be beat.  (and is impossible to believe, by the way....)

Though I am liking Jesus in Mark, mostly, there's a little verse I'm going to have to wrestle with a bit more, in Mark 4:24  "Those who have will receive more, but as for those who don't have, even what they don't have will be taken away from them."  This seems to be extremely harsh, and I'm not quite sure what the point of it is.  I'll let you know after I've wrestled a bit more.

There are two storms stilled next:  the first, the storm on the sea, the chaos that threatens the disciples, and the second, the storm inside the Geresene demoniac.  The storms are Legion, inside and outside, then and now, and Jesus kicks them out.  So, Jesus is Lord over the storms, the chaos, the demons, whatever you care to call it.  But, how does it matter to us now? 

Finally, the stories of the bleeding woman and the twelve year old girl intertwine in Mark.  The woman has been suffering for twelve years, the whole time this girl has been alive.  In Mark (who is known for spare language, but also for the telling detail) the woman has spent everything trying to get relief from many doctors, and instead of getting better, she has gotten worse.  I can imagine the second, the third, the fourth opinions, and the money taken from her by people who didn't help her.

By the way, Mark employs a "sandwich" approach to storytelling often.  Here the story begins with Jairus' asking Jesus to heal his daughter.  The bleeding woman is the middle of the sandwich.  After that story is resolved, Jesus goes on to raise the 12 year old girl from the dead.  But, always pay attention to the middle of the sandwich.  That's where the meat is.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Day 11: Off and Running with Mark, the Evangelist

There is no introduction to the gospel of Mark.  There is no geneaology, no birth story, nothing to pad the entrance of Jesus onto the scene.  Well, that's not exactly true.  There is that one sentence, "the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God's Son", and the prophecy (a mix of Isaiah and Malachi) about the messenger who will prepare the way.  But that's it. 

John the Baptist blows in, baptizes, and blows out.  Everything is happening very quickly.  When Jesus is baptized, the heavens don't just open, they are split open.  And the Spirit doesn't just lead Jesus into the wilderness, s/he drives Jesus into the wilderness.  In Mark, Jesus is tempted by Satan, but we don't get to know the content of the temptations (which I kind of like, by the way, more room for the imagination.)   With such a spare description, I notice that out in the wilderness, Jesus is among the wild animals.  This sort of reminds me of "The Peaceable Kingdom." hmmmm.

Also, it is apparent in these first three chapter that Jesus' first claim to fame is as an exorcist.  Now, my "Common English Bible" doesn't say exorcist, but what else is "throwing demons out"?  I ask you.  How do we modern people want to think about that?  Do we still need someone to "throw the demons out?" (I say yes, but of course, there needs to be some conversation about this.)

What I like about the little story about Jesus' healing Simon's mother-in-law is this appears to be one of the few times he actually heals someone he knows.  Almost all of Jesus' healings are strangers.

Jesus is popular (except with the religious leaders).  Right away, even before chapter 2, there are large crowds following him.  And he teaches some, but his teachings are shorter, interspersed with exorcisms (there, I said it again), and healings.  LOTS of healings, too. 

Jesus is popular with the tax collectors and sinners.  I have to wonder just who the "sinners" are, since, in my way of thinking, we're all sinners.  So, who does Mark mean by "sinnners"?  Enquiring minds want to know. 

One of the problems with Jesus (according to Mark) is that he's not fasting like John and his disciples.  He appears to be having too much fun (or something).

The end of chapter three was our gospel reading today.  In only three chapters, people have already become convinced that Jesus is crazy, casting out demons and healing by the power of  Satan.  Jesus confronts them with the absurdity of this argument.  If Satan is casting out demons, isn't he working against his own interests? 

And why would you consider healing fevers, withered hands, and making people whole to be an act of evil? 

And yet -- there's something dangerous about Jesus.  Admit it. 

What is the most intriguing aspect or detail of Mark's gospel so far?
And -- for extra credit -- why do you think the symbol for Mark's gospel is a lion?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Day 10; Crucifixion, Resurrection, Always

We think we know the story of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, at least, the stories are very similar (and John does contains a fair amount of similarities as well, but we'll deal with that later).  In all four gospels, Peter denies Jesus.  In all three gospels, Jesus is tried by both the religious and Roman authorities.  In all three gospels, Jesus dies at 3:00 in the afternoon, and darkness covers the earth from noon until 3:00. 

In all three gospels, Jesus is buried in a tomb which is then sealed with a huge stone. 

But there are a few details in Matthew worth noting:

Pilate's wife has a minor role in the story:  she has a dream (there are those dreams again) and warns Pilate that he should have nothing to do with the Galilean.

As well, the shouts of "Crucify him!" that the crowds shout so lustily are matched by another cry from the crowd, "His blood be on us and on our children."  Unfortunately, this cry, unique to Matthew, has been used to persecute Jews as "Christ-killers" for centuries.   But what is the lesson in the the cries of the fickle crowd?  Not to try to figure out who is to blame, but to realize that we all are to blame.

After Jesus dies (only in Matthew), the graves of many holy people are opened up and the dead are raised up.  They walk around the city for the weekend, it appears.  What do you think that is about?

And after the stone is rolled in front of the tomb, Pilate puts two guards in front of it so that no one may come and steal Jesus'body.  This detail as well:  only in Matthew.  Early in chapter 28, those guards are immobilized when Jesus really does rise from the dead.

At the end of chapter 28, Jesus meets his disciples on a mountain.  If you haven't noticed, mountains figure in the book of Matthew.  From the Sermon on the Mount until now, important things happen on mountains.  On the mountain Jesus reveals himself.  On the mountain, the disciples believe (but some doubt).

On the mountain now, after his resurrection, Jesus does not have a long sermon with many instructions and laws to keep.  Instead, he tells them to go and make disciples -- that's all.  And he gives them a promise -- that he will be with them always.   It turns out he really is Emmanuel.

But what does it all mean?  Why is it so important that Jesus is with us?  To what end?  Just what do you think he's trying to teach us, who is he trying to make us into?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Day 9: The End of the Parables, the Beginning of the Passion

The Parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the parable of the talents, the parable of the sheep and the goats:  all of Matthew chapter 25 is taken up with these stories.  The last of the three is the most well known: sheep and goats standing before the King at the end of time, judged and separated by how they treated the hungry and homeless, the imprisoned and the stranger.  As you have done (or not done) it to the least of these, so you have done it to me. 

It's almost a little too easy to draw moral lessons from the parable of the talents.  "Use your talents -- or else!" the story seems to shout. And it is hard not to feel sorry for that poor third servant, who loses is one measly talent, and wonder what kind of a master he has.  But remember it's a parable, which means it defies easy explanations, and works on us in strange ways.  Remember that a talent really is money, and that one talent is actually quite a lot of money.  Remember that the harsh words the servant has for his master -- they aren't necessarily a true description of the Master.  But it's what the servant believes.    Every time I read this particular parable, I am offended, frightened, and I also see something new:  perhaps today I heard something about what I trust, and am willing to risk.  Maybe yesterday I considered the question, "What if it the gospel itself that is being buried, not shared, hidden in the ground, or within the walls of our churches?"

The story of the suffering and death of Jesus begins immediately after these three parables, with events well known, and a few details we may not have noticed.  There is the woman who anoints Jesus' head, and his words that everyone would remember her action.  There is the plot by Judas, immediately followed by Jesus sharing the Passover with his disciples.

There is the prediction of betrayal, the prayer in the garden, disciples falling asleep, the soldiers coming, and Jesus' words that if he asked, his Father would send legions of angels.  But he will not ask.

There's the trial, where the Pharisees have trouble finding someone who will testify against Jesus.  But, finally they do.

And, at the end of chapter 26, the prediction is fulfilled:  Peter denies his friend and his Teacher.

Until tomorrow, friends. 

Just how well do you know this story, the story of Jesus' suffering and death?  Were there any details that seemed new to you as you read today?

Which of the three parables in chapter 25 is most challenging for you?  Why do you suppose they are all together in chapter 25?  (It is almost as if Jesus disappears inside the parables in chapter 25, only to re-emerge at the beginning of chapter 26.)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Day 8: The Plot, and the Parables, Thicken (Chapters 22-24)

You know how it's getting worse with the religious leaders?  The middle of these three chapters is devoted to a long and passionate harangue against the hypocrisy of those who lead others, who put heavy religious obligations on others, but (in Jesus' view) do not follow their own teachings.    In some versions, this chapter contains this phrase, over and over, "Woe to you!" 

The most vivid of Jesus' sayings in this chapter is the one that describes the Pharisees as a cup whose outside has been cleaned and shiny, but who, on the inside, keep getting dirtier and dirtier.   I have to wonder:  were the Pharisees all really this evil?  What is going on?  (I am considering Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, both religious leaders themselves who appeared to be friends of Jesus, though they are featured in another Gospel.)

I can't help but think of these as angry words of Jesus, which does (I can't help it) make me think back on Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount:  "Everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment."  Hmmmm.

In chapter 22, is the first of three parables of judgment:  the wedding banquet.  On the one hand, there is the king who sends a gracious invitation to a huge and wonderful party.  Why would anyone not come?  Then, on the hand, there is the inexplicable indifference and hostility of the intended guests (killing the messengers?  Isn't this a little over the top?)  And then there is the terrible reaction of the king.  Then again, there is the great scene of the servants going out and calling EVERYONE -- good and evil, to come to the wedding banquet.  No checking to see who is acceptable and who is not.  But then there is the one poor soul without wedding clothes.  Good news?  Bad news?  pick your verse.

And chapter 24 is a small sample of what we call apocalyptic writing:  Jesus warning people about what will happen at the end of times.  There are wars and rumors of wars, visions and images of fear and destruction.  And though many people have tried to name the day and the hour, "nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son.  Only the father knows."   Still, it seems that we are fascinated with trying to figure it out.  Why?

Two things to think about when we read chapter 24: 1) the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. probably seemed like the beginning of the end of times to many of the early Christians, and 2) soon will be the day and hour of the destruction of Jesus' body on the cross.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Day 7: Coming into Jerusalem (Matthew 19-21)

By the end of Matthew, chapter 21, Jesus has entered Jerusalem.  He's still speaking in parables, but (it seems to me) they are becoming more urgent.  In the next couple of days, as you read Jesus' parables, imagine the cross in the background.  We are only a few days away. 

Theologian Robert Farar Capon calls the upcoming parables "The Parables of Judgment."  The parables we heard earlier, in Matthew chapter 13, are parables of the Kingdom. (Because they all start with the words, "the Kingdom of heaven is like...").  I'm not sure we can divide them all so neatly, but as you read ahead, and perhaps consider what you are reading to be harsh and difficult, remember that others have wrestled with the same thoughts.

I couldn't help thinking about the juxtaposition between the familiar and the odd in these passages of Scripture.  Despite the fact that I have preached on the Gospel of Matthew for several years now (but who's counting), the verses about being eunuch for the Kingdom of God still sounds foreign to me.  Does Jesus mean more than those who are either voluntarily or involuntarily celibate?  What do you think?

There's the familiar story about the rich young man who asks Jesus what he must do to be saved?  Give all you have to the poor, Jesus says.  The young man goes away sad.  But somehow I am not as familiar with Peter's exchange with Jesus, "Lord, we've given up everything for you?  What are we going to get?" and Jesus' answer, "In my kingdom you will sit on twelve thrones and receive back one hundred-fold everything you gave up."  Well, then.  (I thought I remembered that Jesus also promises persecutions, but that must be in another Gospel.  Let's watch for that one, later.)

It sort of makes more sense when the mother of James and John tries to secure the best seats for her sons, a little later.

The parable of the tenants who worked all day and the ones who worked for one hour:  is it a parable of generosity?  or a parable of unfairness?

YES.

There is more teaching and less healing going on, now, although Jesus does stop to heal two blind men who ask him.  But it's worth noting that the action is far more skewed toward teaching than to healing.

Then Jesus rides into Jerusalem, heals people, cleanses the temple, hears the praises of children, angers the religious leaders.  (This is getting worse and worse.)

He curses the fig tree, which seems to me the opposite of healing. 

We close with two parables.  The less familiar of the two is the story of two sons, one who says he will obey his father, and then goes out and does whatever he wants.  The second who publicly disrespects his father, and then later goes and does what his father wants.  Which would you want as your son? 

Jesus makes it sound like a no-brainer, but actually in a culture that values honor, being publicly disrespected by your children (even though secretly obeyed) is not a very attractive option. 

As you read through Matthew now, what sort of picture of Jesus do you have?  What adjectives would you use to describe him?  What attracts you to Jesus?  What might give you pause about him?

Do you think you would follow him?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Day 6: Jesus begins predicting his death, and all that....(Chapters 16-18)

It keeps getting worse between Jesus and the religious leaders.  (And, not to reveal any great secrets, but it will not get any better.) 

In the meantime, Peter gets it right (momentarily, at least) by confessing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.  He gets a rare bit of praise from Jesus, but it doesn't last.  Jesus tells his disciples how he will die, Peter is offended.  Death on a cross is not something the Messiah of God should have to endure!  And as fast as he was praised, Peter is rebuked.  Called "Satan", of all things.  "Get behind me!", Jesus says.

Now everything that Jesus says, everything that Jesus does, everything that happens is in the shadow of his words, that he will he will suffer and be killed and rise on the third day.  What does it mean?  Do these words change what Jesus will say and do next?  Do they change what came before? (

There's a strange story in chapter 17 (okay, there are TWO strange stories, but one of them is well-known.)  The transfiguration, if you really think about it, is a really strange story, about how Jesus goes up on some mountains and begins to shine, and looks like Jesus, but different, somehow.  Somehow they know that the shining look means that this is Jesus in his glory.  And just as this is dawning on them, the shining disappears.

No, the strange story I mean is about paying the temple tax, and finding this shekel in a fish's mouth. 

Chapter 18 again contains the admonition that if our hand causes us to sin, we should cut it off.  I never noticed until today that in Matthew, Jesus says this twice.  It was tough enough to hear the first time.

On the other hand, Jesus tells us that children are greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.  Those with the least power, who are the most vulnerable, are greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.

And finally, there is the math problem of forgiveness.  70 times 7.  If you are in need of forgiveness, this might be good news.  If you have been sinned against, these might be tough words to live by. 

Where are you finding good news in Matthew so far?
Where are you finding tough words in Matthew?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Day 5: Parables, miracles, feeding 9,000 with crumbs left over

All right:  does anyone besides me have trouble with this:  At the opening of Matthew 13, Jesus tells his followers that he speaks in parables so that people will not understand him (vss. 10-15).  And at the end of Matthew 13, Jesus tell his disciples that he speaks in parables so that he will "declare what has been hidden since the beginning of the world." (vs. 35.)

So, which is it?  Does a parable reveal what has long been hidden?  Or does it create a greater mystery?  Or, could it be a little of both?

There are the long extended parables of the sower and of the weeds, and loads of short, short parables:  of the mustard seed, the yeast, the treasure hidden in a field, the net full of fish.  I can tell you that each and every one of those parables says way more than you would think, at first.  Take that mustard seed, for example.  It seems clear enough, right?  The tiniest seed will become a mighty tree; that is what the kingdom of heaven is about.  But consider this:  if you were someone who knew what a mustard plant (not tree, exactly) looked like, and you told them that birds of the air would be able to take shelter in the branches of this bush, they would find that to be an extremely funny joke.  Besides this:  the mustard plant was considered a sort of a weed, a plant you did not want taking over your yard.

There is something subversive about a parable.

Then there is the story about Jesus and Peter, walking on water.  Perhaps inexplicably, this is one of my favorite gospel stories.  The set up is that after Jesus learns of John the Baptist's death, he goes away to pray and to grieve, and sends the disciples ahead of him out on the Sea of Galilee.  Then are alone in the boat when a storm comes up, and the wind is against them.  In that eerie dark time of night just before dawn he comes walking toward them on the water.  Peter (who emerges here as one of Jesus' "star" disciples) decides that it would be a good idea for him to walk on water, too.  And he does, too, for who knows how long, perhaps just a moment, before he begins to sink, and cries out, "Lord save me!"

To me, this story is a sort of parable:  it is the shape of the Christian life.   Dying and rising, taking a risk and failing, taking a risk and succeeding, every day saying, "Lord, save me".  That's it for me.  Being a Christian is about getting in over my head. 

What about you?

Then there are the stories about the two feedings.  Did you know that Jesus feeds 5,000, and then later feeds 4,000?  Do you consider that odd?  The first feeding is on one side of the sea of Galilee, among the Jews, and the second feeding is on the other side of the sea, in Gentile territory.  (One of the verses that sticks out for me in the first story:  Jesus telling the disciples, "You give them something to eat."  Like the disciples are supposed to figure out how to get enough food to feed 5,000 people.)

And in between these two feeding stories is Jesus' harsh encounter with a Gentile woman who has to beg for Jesus to heal her daughter.

Jesus calls her a dog.

All she wants is a few crumbs.

The kingdom of heaven is like.... a woman who loves her daughter so much that she is willing to be called a dog to get what she needs, a few crumbs.

The kingdom of heaven is like.....

Monday, June 4, 2012

Day 4: Commissioning, Comforting, Challenging (Matthew 10-12)

At the beginning of this section of Matthew, Jesus sends his disciples out, giving them authority to heal and instructions regarding their journey.  Suddenly, they are not just disciples (students) any more, but they are called apostles (those who are sent out).

Do they know everything yet?

No.

Just a thought.

At the end of the reading, Jesus' family comes to see him, and he uses the opportunity to re-define the whole concept of family, "Everyone who does the will of my father is my mother and my brothers."  Depending on your pont of view, this could be good news or bad news.  I imagine Mary and Jesus' brothers (and what about his sisters? I want to know) leaving, rebuffed.  But I imagine that those who have been ostracized by their families for following Jesus might feel differently about his words.

Reading these three chapters, one of the things that strikes me is how we might (especially when we read large sections of scripture like this) gravitate to certain stories and sayings, and some to others.

Like right in the middle, Jesus' says the words, "Come to me, all you who are weary, and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest."  If you are in a certain frame of mind (like, perhaps, weary), it's hard not to single that passage out, and sort of ignore the rest.  I like to delve deeply into passages like this, to discover that they are deeper than I think, with more layers of meaning.  (for example, what is so easy about wearing a yoke?)

Some of us enjoy the challenge of wrestling with the scripture passages that defy easy interpretation.  The passage regarding the unforgivable sin and "blaspheming the Holy Spirit" was a favorite discussion back in the days when I was associating with the Pentecostals.  People loved to weigh in on just what they considered it meant to "blaspheme the Holy Spirit."  (right now, today, conveniently, I remember none of those possible interpretations.)

In these chapters are the first inklings that not everyone is enamored of Jesus' teachings (i.e. the religious leaders).  There are warnings about coming persecution, and promises that God will be with disciples who endure.  (However, there are no promises that disciples of Jesus will escape harm.) 

I did notice that repentance (common called, in my version of the New Testament, "changing our ways"), or actually, failure to change our ways, is a recurring theme.  Failure to change our ways is a recurring theme, and not just in the Bible, actually.

There is much more to chew on in these verses than I have touched on here.  There is the difference between John the Baptist and Jesus, there is healing on the sabbath (and why we might not think it is such a big deal -- but what is it that offends US?), there are the instructions for the disciples turned apostles.  ("Travel light" is one instruction.  I took a large trunk with me to Japan.)

How do the warnings about persecutions strike us, as people who live in a time and place where Christians aren't actively persecuted?
Do you gravitate to the verses that challenge or those that comfort? 

One of the things that I'm beginning to realize is that I won't be able to resolve everything.  And tomorrow, there will be a new reading, which presents new insights and new issues.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Day 3: From Preaching to All Kinds of Miracles, or "What's Going On?"

Jesus has a little more to say on the mountain, more about judging and taking the log out of our own eye, and about watching out for false prophets.  And when he's finished, the people are amazed.

And then he comes down from the mountain, and the healings begin.

Leprosy, paralysis, a fever, demon possession, paralysis (again), death, hemmorhaging, blindness, inability to speak.

But somehow the healings can't be reduced to the names of the illnesses -- we need to know the people who were healed, and something about them:  So there is a centurian's servant, healed by command from a distance, a twelve year old girl, a man lowered on a mat through a roof by four of his friends, a man who was made an outcast by his skin disease, a woman who touches the hem of Jesus' robe.  Oh, and Peter's mother-in-law.  Among others.

I'm still getting my brain around Jesus' tough words in his sermon, and his compassionate acts here. 

In the middle of all these things, Jesus finds time to quiet a storm, to call another disciple (Matthew, from his tax booth), to answer questions regarding fasting.   By the way, Matthew the tax collector and the four fisherman might not be inclined to be so friendly with each other.  Tax collectors were collaborators with the Roman occupiers, and they did really well by collecting more taxes than they needed to.

Jesus is putting together a really interesting group of followers.

so, how are you doing?  Are you right on schedule?  Behind?  Take a deep breath.  Don't worry.  Catch up little by little. 

What are you wondering most about in these passage of scripture?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Day 2: Jesus begins his ministry: Being Tempted, Calling Disciples, Preaching (part 1)

Suddenly (perhaps because of conversations I have had since yesterday), I am aware of the Old Testament peeking through all these stories.

Jesus is led to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for 40 days.  Can it be a coincidence that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years?  (I think not.)

Jesus calls disciples out by the sea of Galilee, while Matthew recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah:  "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light."

Jesus goes up a mountain and begins to teach people.  Can it be a coincidence that Moses also went up a mountain and brings down God's great teaching, the Ten Commandments?  (I think not.)

So 'Jesus' ministry begins not with miracles but with temptations and with teaching.  In fact, although Jesus will eventually do plenty of miracles, he begins his ministry by refusing to do miracles: turning stones to bread, jumping off the temple and letting the angels catch him.  (You can make the case, I suppose that the disciples immediate decision to drop everything, get up and follow Jesus was a sort of miracle.)

Then there is the Sermon on the Mount.  It begins with Jesus making some incredible statements about who is really blessed in this world.  And it goes on and on.  "You have heard it said," "but I say to you."  "Even the Gentiles love those who love them.  You're better than that!"  (By the way -- you and me:  we're gentiles....)

So, what do you think?  What is the most challenging thing you have read so far in the Sermon on the Mount?  What is the most provocative?

Why do you suppose the first thing that happens to Jesus after he is baptized is temptation?  Do you think it's important HOW Jesus is tempted?

And, notice this:  When James and John, Peter and Andrew are called -- they aren't in church.  They're by the sea.  Hmmmm.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Day 1: Family Trees, Dreams, Repentance

I am starting my summer reading with a new Bible Translation:  The Common English Bible.  So that will shape at least some of my reflections over the summer.  I hope that you will think about the particular words you read in the Bible, and part of our conversations will be around the similarities and differences we see.

Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy:  Jesus' family tree.  I will admit that in the past I've found these lists of names to be something to skim instead of really to read.  If you really want people to keep reading your story, why would you start with a list of names?  Why begin with  "A record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ." instead of something like this:  "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," or "Call me Ishmael," or even "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"?  But Matthew must have thought that it was most intriguing, because he put it first.  He must have thought it would draw people in, make them curious.

There's actually a lot to be curious about in this family tree.  There are stories underneath every single name, and perhaps the people to whom Matthew wrote know more of these stories than we do.  For me, the women named are most interesting:  Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah (that would be Bathsheba), and Mary.  Delve into just one of their stories, and suddenly this boring genealogy gets a lot more interesting!

Reading along, I noticed how often God speaks through dreams:  to Joseph and to the magi.  To both the good news is announced in dreams; both are warned about dangers through dreams.  I wonder how often we consider a dream as a sign from God?

I noticed as well, reading three chapers at a time, how abrupt was the shift to John the Baptist.  Joseph returns with his family in Egypt, settles in Nazareth, and suddenly! -- John the Baptist is crying in the wilderness, offering forgiveness with repentance, haranguing the scribes and the Pharisees, baptizing Jesus.

In my translation, the voice from heaven says, "this is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him."

Some questions:
1.  As you read these three chapters, what images or themes leap out at you? 
2.  What do you wonder about?  What is most difficult?
3.  Who is one person from Jesus' genealogy that you are curious about?
4.  In the NRSV, the passage from Matthew 2:2, "we have seen his star in the east," is translated, "we have seein his star at its rising."  Either translation works; does it matter which we use?
5.  Do you think that the baptism of John is different than baptism in the name of Jesus?  If so, what is the difference?

*Image is from The St. John's Bible, Genealogy of Matthew.