“Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it” (Gen 28:16). Here we wonder about encountering G-d at the intersection of Bible and Life–typically prompted by the (Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer.
Matthew begins his narrative with the angel’s appearance to Joseph and comments “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us’.” He ends the narrative with Jesus’ words: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” “God is with us;” “I am with you always;” Emmanuel. Appropriately, the Lectionary chooses the portion of Isaiah which includes “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over– a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” In these chapters of Isaiah Emmanuel is about both judgment and salvation (7:14; 8:8, 10)—depending largely on the hearers’ choices. We might hear “Do not call…” as also a guide to making good choices, for then as now there is plenty that demands our fear. Few of us have as much freedom as we’d like, but we can choose whom to fear. As did Matthew.
“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” This sounds like the mantra I need to adopt through at least mid-January. And I would really like to know how James read the Book of Judith.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” A timely warning also for those of us who use social media.
Judith. “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD” (Deut. 23:3). Perhaps this text has functioned twice like the proverbial grain of sand in the oyster, for in our canon we have both the Book of Ruth (from Moab) and the Book of Judith with its attention to Achior (of Ammon), who at the book’s end is received into Israel.
Acts. “…nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” This is bedrock for Paul, and for both Testaments. Yes, both Testaments speak of God’s servants—as further testimony to God’s generosity.
John. John (the Evangelist) is interested in witness. The noun ‘witness’ (marturia) 14x in John, 4x in the other Gospels; the verb ‘to witness’ (martureō) 31x in John, 2x in the other Gospels. Many commentators think chapter 12 wraps up a major part of the book. Today’s text: Jesus describing the logic of his witness. I wonder: is this also a description of the readers’ witness? They say what they’re commissioned to say. Their task is not to judge, but to save. We could have saved ourselves a good deal of grief had we heard the text in these terms.
Jesus’ description also reframes the question. While there is obvious overlap, the question is not Jesus but God. Who is this God really that the Jews have been worshipping for centuries, and what is this God up to? And—the overlap—to receive Jesus’ testimony is to move from darkness to light (recall John’s prologue!).
Judith is a novella, probably from the 2nd century B.C. and reflecting the Maccabean crisis, whose heroine (introduced in chapter 8) is a mash-up of Jael (Judges 4-5), Esther, and Lady Wisdom (Prov 1-9; Sirach 24). In today’s text we’re dropped into the middle of another moment in which—as in Esther and the Maccabean crisis—the survival of the nation is at stake. The villain: Holofernes.
John. I, with many, find the frequent use of Isaiah 6:9-10 in the New Testament (Matt 13:14-15; Mk 4:12; Lk 8:10; Jn 12:40; Acts 28:26-27) deeply puzzling. Two things worth noticing: (1) the Jewish tradition (OT, NT, Mishnah, etc.) affirms both divine and human responsibility without attempting a resolution. (2) Isaiah might be understood as seeing 8th century B.C. Judah in parallel with the Exodus: as God’s judgment then included the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, so now (an additional reason to repent!). Christian tradition, seeing Jesus as a second/one-greater-than Moses, may have found it particularly appropriate to speak again of divine hardening of this new Moses’ opponents.
All that said, the core of the puzzle remains, both because (1) Scripture elsewhere emphasizes God’s desire that all be saved (e.g., Ezek 33:11; 1 Tim 2:4) and (2) various combinations of the seven deadly sins (recall Holofernes & his modern counterparts) seem more than adequate explanation for human opposition to God.
Job. Among the multiple ways we might enter the text, here are two. (1) The poem is a timely reminder of the difficulty of attaining wisdom and understanding. Timely, in a society that often confuses wisdom with what I just saw on the internet. (2) Within Job chapter 28 comes at the end of the dialogue (argument?) between Job and his friends, serving as an implicit negative verdict on their success in attaining a shared wisdom. The Lectionary’s placement of the chapter at the end of the book invites us to incorporate (privilege?) the Lord’s speeches from the whirlwind and Job’s response as we hear “the fear of the Lord” and “depart from evil.” Recall Habel’s translation of 42:6 (“Therefore I retract / And repent of dust and ashes”) and Davis’ commentary cited in yesterday’s post.
John. Here again Jesus’ context and John’s audience’s context merge: vv.34-36a reflect equally the latter’s arguments. “The Messiah remains forever:” this reading of the law is ever attractive, negating Jesus’ “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (12:24). The crowd understands that the Messiah’s trajectory and his followers’ trajectories run parallel. The crowd has a point: what good is salvation if it means taking up the cross? What’s the point of Passover if Jesus’ message is that the model for all the participants is that poor lamb whose blood is on the lintel (whose blood keeps death away)? And this theology of glory as an alternative to a theology of the cross leaves us defenseless before swindlers and shysters. “While you have the light, believe in the light,” so that, like the disciples as portrayed in the Gospels—slow on the uptake on their best days—we may continue exerting ourselves to attaining and practicing wisdom.
Job. Verse 6, critical to the book’s interpretation, is laconic. The NRSV gives the traditional (worst case) option; CEB and NJPS move in a more positive direction. Davis: “Therefore I recant and change my mind / concerning dust and ashes.” Habel: “Therefore I retract / And repent of dust and ashes.” Among the most useful essays on Job I’ve encountered: Davis’ “The Sufferer’s wisdom” in Getting Involved with God. It ends like this: “The two portraits of Father Job that stand at either end of this book mark the true measure of his transformation. Job, this man of integrity who was once so careful, fearful of God and of the possible sins of his children, becomes at the last freewheeling, breaking with custom to honor daughters alongside sons, bestowing inheritances and snappy names. The inspiration and model for this wild style of parenting is, of course, God the Creator. Job learned about it when God spoke out of the whirlwind. And now Job loves with the abandon characteristic of God’s love—revolutionary in seeking our freedom, reveling in the untamed beauty of every child.”
Acts. Witness can be messy, and Luke, to his credit, leaves the messiness in full view. The slave girl is now free from that spirit, but is still a slave, and of less value to her owners. Paul’s action provided a pretext for the owners to stir the Jew/Gentile pot, and the Jews will have to keep dealing with that after Paul leaves. God will bring good out of the situation; much good remains to be done.
John. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” A protean parable, which in turn calls for discernment: when is it time for this grain to fall into the earth? (“Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun” [Eccl. 11:7]. “Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come” [Jn. 7:8].) I wonder: is Jesus as a Jew also talking about Jewish identity? When do other groups or institutions need to hear this parable?
In John we read “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’” The source is often identified as Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Here Raymond Brown’s attention to detail is helpful: the “as it is written” points to not only Zech 9:9, but also (first!): “On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.” From the context of this verse in Zephaniah, Brown wonders if there isn’t a counterpoint to the crowd’s messianic celebration: Jesus’ presence is God’s presence, which brings restoration (Lazarus!) and blessing to the nations (the Greeks who wish to see Jesus in the next verses in John!).
Symbols are important. Entering Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt was important. At the same time, with the Lord’s proud descriptions of Behemoth (Job 40—bumped yesterday by Holy Cross) and Leviathan ringing in our ears, was there not a part of Jesus that would rather have been entering astride one of them?
AD 335: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was dedicated on this date, a fitting day to celebrate the victory of the cross. I like what James Kiefer does in his reflection at Mission St Clair, recalling Tertullian’s report that “Christians seldom do anything significant without making the sign of the cross” (early 3rd century). So we might take the day as an opportunity to wonder about the many possible meanings associated with crossing oneself. The sign as a starting gun for violence—in Jesus’ Name, of course—we probably want to stay away from that one, even in an election year. Kiefer recalls Minucius Felix (late 2nd century) on the ubiquity of the sign, e.g., a ship’s mast and spar. That one resonates: I sign myself: Jesus has claimed this boat. There will be storms; Jesus is in the boat.
“Come out of her, my people…” When is this the word we need to hear? This is a question of community discernment, and highlights the importance of an element in today’s Gospel reading: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” It’s likely that the brother or sister whose voice we most need to hear for discernment here (and elsewhere!) is the brother or sister with whom we’re at odds.
Job. I yield the floor to G. K. Chesterton (The Book of Job, 1916):
…it is one of the splendid strokes that God rebukes alike the man who accused and the men who defended Him: that He knocks down pessimists and optimists with the same hammer, And it is in connection with the mechanical and supercilious comforters of Job that there occurs the still deeper and finer inversion of which I have spoken. The mechanical optimist endeavors to justify the universe avowedly upon the ground that it is a rational and consecutive pattern. He points out that the fine thing about the world is that it can all be explained. That is the one point, if I may put it so, on which God, in return, is explicit to the point of violence. God says, in effect, that if there is one fine thing about the world, as far as men are concerned, it is that it cannot be explained. He insists on the inexplicableness of everything; “Hath the rain a father? … Out of whose womb came the ice?” (38:28f.). He goes farther, and insists on the positive and palpable unreason of things; “Hast thou sent the rain upon the desert where no man is, and upon the wilderness wherein there is no man?” (38:26). God wIll make man see things, if it is only against the black background of nonentity. God will make Job see a startling universe if He can only do it by making Job see an idiotic universe. To startle man God becomes for an instant a blasphemer; one might almost say that God becomes for an instant an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things, the horse, the eagle, the raven, the wild ass, the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile. He so describes each of them that it sounds like a monster walking in the sun. The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody of the sense of wonder. The maker of all things is astonished at the things He has Himself made.
This we may call the third point. Job puts forward a note of interrogation; God answers with a note of exclamation. Instead of proving to Job that it is an explicable world, He insists that it is a much stranger world than Job ever thought it was. Lastly, the poet has achieved in this speech, with that unconscious artistic accuracy found in so many of the simpler epics, another and much more delicate thing. Without once relaxing the rigid impenetrability of Jehovah in His deliberate declaration, he has contrived to let fall here and there in the metaphors, in the parenthetical imagery, sudden and splendid suggestions that the secret of God is a bright and not a sad one—semi-accidental suggestions, like light seen for an instant through the cracks of a closed door.
It would be difficult to praise too highly, in a purely poetical sense, the instinctive exactitude and ease with which these more optimistic insinuations are let fall in other connections, as if the Almighty Himself were scarcely aware that He was letting them out. For instance, there is that famous passage where Jehovah, with devastating sarcasm, asks Job where he was when the foundations of the world were laid, and then (as if merely fixing a date) mentions the time when the sons of God shouted for joy (38:4-7). One cannot help feeling, even upon this meager information, that they must have had something to shout about. Or again, when God is speaking of snow and hail in the mere catalogue of the physical cosmos, He speaks of them as a treasury that He has laid up against the day of battle-a hint of some huge Armageddon in which evil shall be at last overthrown.