A VERY BRIEF REFLECTION


A Very Brief Reflection

St. Matthew 19:30 “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
St. Matthew 20:16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
St. Mark 10:31 “But many that are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
St. Luke 13:30 “Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Revelation 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega” says the Lord God.
Revelation 22:13 “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

I write this in response to a text message that I received asking about this difficult saying. The statement of Jesus is certainly not a reversal of order in human relationships and events, resulting in unfairness and injustice. I find meaning in this verse in the context of St. Paul’s argument in Romans 3:27-28. He defends his belief on the principle of faith. “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”

Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

The principle of justification by faith is central to Lutheran Doctrine and Practice.

That the first will be last, and the last first must be established on the principle of faith.

The first and greatest shall not receive more grace than the last and the least.

The last and the least shall not receive less grace than the first and the greatest.

The pastoral example is Jesus himself. He announces himself as the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last. Those who have taken up their cross and followed him must see themselves as both first and last, just as He is. In him, first and last are integrated into One. He announces himself as “the beginning and the end.” In the resurrection of Jesus, the end is the beginning returning to itself. The first does not contradict the last, nor does the last negate the first. First and last are not moments in time. The first has always existed before time, as the last will always exist beyond time. The first and the last transcend time, and in doing so, exist where “here and now” does not hold sway. The first and the last share a sameness with Jesus in whose resurrection eternity prevails.

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Note to Readers


I have posted three studies that are not new. They were posted much earlier, but I think they are still relevant. One deals with the Passion of Christ. Two deal with the Easter story, in St. Matthew and in St. John. Please forgive me for re-posting old stuff.

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EASTER – 2017 – JOHN 20: 1-18


Easter – John 20:1-18

The Evangelist John has a Christology that makes the resurrection superfluous. The Gospel is singularly concerned with one question: who is Jesus? Every “sign” from the Incarnation to the crucifixion is designed to answer this question.  From begin to end, it is a manifesto of Christology. Christology is Christos and logos, which is teaching about Christ. However, the Evangelist offers little in the way of teaching about Christ. In this Gospel, Christology undergoes a transformation. The Evangelist uses the framework of the Gnostic redeemer myth to present Christ. But since most of that myth would have obscured the message, he rejected most of it and kept one idea: revelation. In this Gospel, Jesus is the one who reveals. Christology is revelation not instruction. Jesus Christ is the revelation of God. The Evangelist is even more specific than this. Jesus Christ is the self-revelation of God. In a very stirring scene, when some were withdrawing from Jesus, he asked, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter responded for all of them. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” 6:67-69. That phrase is the entire content of this Gospel. “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” 20:31.

The disciples can have come to know that only through revelation. From the beginning of this Gospel, Jesus did not come into the world via virgin birth. He arrived already as the transcendent Incarnate One, walked among the people as the Transcendent, and ascended as such. Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” 11:25-26. Mary them confesses that he is the Son of God. In the Gospel, the resurrection is hardly associated with post-crucifixion signs. Long before he goes to the cross, Jesus is present already as “the resurrection and the life.” These two words mean the same thing, and I will return to this theme in my conclusion.

The mission of the Incarnate One is accomplished on the cross. The cross gathers together the life of the Redeemer, his incarnation, ascension, exaltation, parousia and resurrection in the “It is finished” of 19:30. An examination of the narrative of the empty tomb will give us some insight into this, but first, I must consider Mary Magdalene.

Except for a mention in Luke 8:2, Mary Magdalene appears only at the end of the life of Jesus. She is present at the crucifixion and at the empty tomb. It is difficult to estimate her role and its importance from such sparse evidence. Perhaps an examination of the Gospel of John will provide some insight leading to useful conclusions.

The morning after the crucifixion Mary Magdalene arrived very early at the tomb. She saw that the stone had been rolled away, and she ran and got Peter and the beloved disciple. Why did Mary come to the tomb? She did not come to anoint Jesus, this much is clear. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had already taken care of that. 19:38-40. The text gives no indication as to her purpose so no conclusion can be drawn without further analysis.

She said to Peter and the beloved disciple. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” How does she know this? If she looked into the tomb, the text is silent on this. “They have taken the Lord.” At this early stage, how does Mary know that Jesus is “Lord?” This is not possible unless she has been given a special revelation as The Gospel of Mary Magdalene teaches. For the Gospel of John, the crucifixion is both the glorification and exaltation of Jesus. This is where Jesus is revealed as Lord for the entire world to see. But Mary cannot know this beforehand. It has not been revealed to her. Perhaps one hears the voice of the church here.

There are two traditions interwoven in this text. The first is a Magdalene tradition which might have been something like this: Mary arrives at the tomb. The stone is rolled away already. She looks in in and sees two angels who question her. She does not seem surprised by this encounter. She turns and sees someone standing behind her. He asks her the same question the angels did. She thinks he is the gardener. Jesus calls her by name, “Mary” and she recognizes him immediately. According to John Jesus is the shepherd who calls his sheep by name, and they know his voice and come to him, chapter 10. Mary calls him “Rabboni,” which means teacher. Jesus says “do not hold me for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them I am ascending to my Father and your father, to my God and your God.” Mary went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and told them the story. I will address this matter later.

The other tradition is the Petrine one with the beloved disciple, which emphasizes the role of Peter. He has to be the one who takes precedence. The anonymity of the beloved disciple is a literary technique that preserves the pre-eminence of Peter. Who is the beloved disciple? In 19:26-27, Jesus commends his mother into the care of the beloved disciple, “Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.” Is this not literally suggestive? “And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” Mary has other sons besides Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon and Judas, along with sisters (according to Mt. 14:55-56); James, Joses, Judas and Simon, along with sisters (acc. to Mark 6:3). Since James is mentioned first in both accounts, I assume he is the eldest son after Jesus. In John 7:5, it is stated that even his brothers did not believe in him. Who outside his family would know this? In 20:8, the beloved disciple went into the tomb, “and he saw and believed.” Perhaps it was James who stood with his mother watching his brother being crucified, who came to believe in him. The mother and brothers of Jesus stand with him at the Wedding at Cana, the place of his first sign. Why would they not be here at the cross, the place of his last sign? In both scenes, Jesus addresses his mother in a similar manner. Why would Jesus place his mother under the care of a disciple when he has four brothers and at least two sisters? Is he not bound to honor his mother in this way? I believe that Jesus commends the care of his mother to his younger brother, James. I suggest that the beloved disciple is none other than James, the brother next in line, who then takes his mother to his own home. I should mention that the name James does not appear in any of the Johannine literature.

The sprint to the tomb between Peter and the beloved disciple becomes understandable if the beloved disciple is James, as later tradition shows the competition and conflict of these two men in leadership.  In the present tradition Peter takes precedence. According to cultural norms, Mary could not serve as a witness to the empty tomb. Only men can serve as witnesses, and two men are required for truth. Peter and the beloved disciple serve this purpose: they can testify that the tomb was really empty. After this, Peter and the beloved disciples went back to their homes.

What the empty tomb proclaims is only this: the tomb is empty. The empty tomb is not a proclamation of the resurrection. No one knows what a “resurrection” is. The Evangelist does not speak of Jesus rising from the dead except at 2:22, 20:9 and 21:4, and all of these are later editorial additions. The resurrection has not been revealed to the world. It is not of primary interest to the Evangelist. For him the crucifixion is the point of the life of Christ. This means ultimately that Incarnation and Crucifixion, the Arrival and Departure, are one and the same. As I stated in another context, the Departure can never leave behind the Arrival. The Omega can never leave behind the Alpha. The one who has come from God (1:2) and the Father (1:14) must also return thither. The “beginning” from which Jesus came is a “source” rather than a point in time. So also must be the parousia. It is not a point in time for the “return” of the Redeemer. The parousia is the gathering place of the one whose abiding presence has transcended his coming and going.

After the disciples returned to their homes, Mary Magdalene is left alone again. Now she looks into the tomb and sees two angels in white. Why did the disciples not see the angels earlier? Perhaps it was given to them only to bear witness to the empty tomb. How does Mary know that the two figures are angels? She seems completely unmoved by this vision. She shows no sign of surprise, fear or awe. She had arrived here already overtaken by her grief. “Woman, why are you weeping?” they asked her. Well, maybe the angels have never lost a friend, so they don’t know about grief. I want to reader to know that these are not my kind of angels. If I am weeping because of my inconsolable grief I want my angels to sit down and weep with me, not ask really stupid questions. This is very bad pastoral care. But we must forgive them because they are messengers not healers. Mary told them why she was weeping, turned her back on them causing them to disappear from the narrative. She then sees Jesus but does not recognize him. He repeats the question that the angels had asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Instead, she repeats her answer. Jesus calls her by name, “Mary.” She recognizes him and responds, “Rabboni.”

The Teacher is how she knows the Redeemer. The past is the only means that Mary has of understanding Jesus. But the glorified, exalted Jesus is no longer a figure of the past. He and Mary no longer share the same history. This is indicated in the fact that Jesus repeats the question of the angels. The Evangelist aligns Jesus with the angels. They belong to the same transcendent realm. However, this is not a theophany. Mary sees and hears them because she has been called for this purpose. In the Synoptic gospels, Elizabeth and Mary his mother were similarly selected. This explains also why Peter and the beloved disciple did not receive this vision. Their opportunity will come later in the day when Jesus will appear to the gathered disciples.

Jesus says to Mary, “Do not touch me.” The sentence may be translated in a number of ways, and this is as good as any. Would it not have been unseemly for her to touch him just a few days earlier, given that they are not related? Yet, this time it is different. “I have not yet ascended to the Father.” This is the revelation of the Redeemer to Mary. Nothing more is necessary except “go and tell.” In his appearance to Mary Magdalene, the Incarnate appears as the Discarnate. He came to his own as the Incarnate. He departs from his own as the Discarnate. Later in the day he will pass through a closed door, as he will again eight days later. Yet, to whom he wants, he reveals who he is. Mary now knows who he is. Later in the day the disciples in the room will know who he is.

The presence of the two angels now makes sense. They bear testimony to the truth of Mary’s vision of Jesus.  Mary could not relate this on her own because she has no legitimacy to bear witness. The two disciples bear witness to the empty tomb. The two angels bear witness to the appearance of Jesus. Again, this is not about the resurrection. The appearance of Jesus to Mary is exactly that: an appearance. That is why Mary can say later in telling her story, “I have seen the Lord.” Appearance and resurrection have completely different meanings.

I can now answer why Mary came to the tomb that day. It has been given to her to bear testimony to the appearance of the Lord. When Mary arrived at the tomb she believed in Jesus, but she could not have had faith in Christ. She cannot know the Lord until he has revealed himself to her. Only now can she say, “I have seen the Lord.”

Jesus tells Mary “go and tell my brothers” (adelphoi, 20:7). She is entrusted with this message to his family because on the day, before from his cross, Jesus had seen Mary with many others, among them his mother, his aunt and the beloved disciple, whom I have identified as his brother, James. She has some kind of relationship with his family and they would receive her as his messenger. Mary instead tells the story to the disciples (mathetai, 20:8). I think this difference is important for John. His custom is to say “brothers and disciples” when speaking of a group. This is evident in 2:12, and in 7:3, 5, and 10. I believe that Mary misunderstood the concern that Jesus was expressing for his siblings and took his words to mean his disciples. I believe Jesus would have wanted his grieving siblings to know that they will see him again, and to let them know where he was going. “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” His siblings, with the exception perhaps of James, did not believe in him. He sends Mary to assure them that his Father is their Father and his God is their God. The fact that 20:19 – 21:25 deals with his disciples and not with his family speaks in favor of two distinct audiences: his family and his disciples.

 What is the Easter message according to John?

He who appears from the tomb as Lord is the message for Easter. Jesus has already revealed this to his disciples, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Earlier he had said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my words and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” 5:24. The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and live. “The hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice, and will come out – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” 5:25-29. The Easter message has been from the moment of his Incarnation: the Redeemer is eternal life. The focus is not on sin and atonement, sacrifice and forgiveness. These have little meaning for this Evangelist.

In 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” In 3:36, whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. In 8:51, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word shall never see death.”  The Easter message is that the one who appears from the tomb is life. “I am the bread of life. 6:35. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. 6:54. “I am the light of the world,” whoever walks with me shall have the light of life. 8:12. “I am the door…I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” 10:9. “I am the good shepherd.” 10:11. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. “I am the resurrection and the life.” 11:25. “I am the way, the truth and the life.” 14:6. “I am the true vine.” 15:1. Those who belong to the vine will bear much more and their joy will be complete.

As long as women and men come seeking the empty tomb they will come to their own emptiness. In that emptiness hope begins. When they have arrived at the empty tomb the silence will touch them. In that silence faith awakens. As they look into the empty tomb they will see angels and know that this is a new time. Now they will know that only when the Word becomes flesh is the primordial silence shattered; and only when the flesh surrenders up the Word is the silence silenced forever. They will hear a new sound upon the earth, the voices of angels blended with the voice of the transcendent one, saying “I am the resurrection and the life.”

What is this thing called life? No one knows what life is until it is not, and when it is not it is death. Perhaps only the dead can tell us what life is and that is why Jesus is the resurrection even before he dies.

The Lord God created me from a clump of clay and breathed into my nostrils the breath of life. But I am not merely oxygenated clay. Somewhere on this earth, where the Lord removed my clay, a hole awaits, a wound upon the earth. It is my empty tomb. It awaits me. I know what I call life is not something I possess like a pencil or a garment. I live between my birth and my death. I am temporary. I am time’s guest upon the earth. I know life preceded my birth and it will outlive my death. It is eternal. This is what Jesus offers me. The dead will hear his voice and live. Those who believe will have eternal life.

The self-revelation of Christ is resurrection and life. “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” 20:31.

“I am the resurrection and the life.” That must mean on this Easter day:

In the empty tomb death surrenders its mortality and life awakens.

The grave is silent only when we no longer speak the words of our beloved that shaped our life. Easter’s bold announcement is: Shout!

The grave is deaf only when we no longer hear the lullaby of love with which our beloved launched us from cradle to life. Easter’s bold announcement is: Listen!

The grave is blind only when we no longer see the hope for a redeeming future our beloved left us. Easter’s bold announcement is: Behold!

“I am the resurrection and the life.” That must mean on this Easter day:

As long as there are angels in the tomb it is not empty. The grace of Christ is equally full in life as in death. This is Easter’s bold announcement.

As long as there are angels in the tomb it is not fearful. The perfect love of Christ casts out all fear. This is Easter’s bold announcement.

As long as there are angels in the tomb it is not hopeless. Christ who is lifted up will draw us all to himself. This is Easter’s bold announcement.

 

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EASTER – 2017 – MATTHEW 28


Easter – Matthew 28:1-10

The Easter stories in the gospels differ in significant details that can be traced to apologetic and theological interests of the individual Evangelists. At the earliest stage of the tradition there were at least two separate kinds of stories. There were stories of the empty tomb; and there were stories of the appearances of the risen Lord. Over time the tradition brought these stories together so that there now exist stories that include both of these themes such as Matthew 28.

Matthew’s narrative begins with Mary Magdalen and “the other” Mary, probably “Mary the mother of James and Joseph,” of 27:56. He does not say why they are on their way to the tomb, only that they waited until the Sabbath was over. Matthew probably wants to show that these women were witnesses to the scenes he is creating. The following verses, 28:2-7, describe what is likely a Christophany. There is the great earthquake, the angel coming down from heaven, the description of the appearance of the angel as lightening and his clothing white as snow, and the consequent fear of the guards at the tomb. Matthew is preparing his audience, who are already apparently acquainted with theophanies, for the appearance of the risen Lord. Such an appearance would be a Christophany, something that was already present in the consciousness of the early church shortly after the death of Jesus, as is clear from I Cor. 15: 3-5. Matthew creates this theophany to show that the events associated with the death of Jesus are guided by the hand of God.

The event that Matthew describes is terrifying. The Roman soldiers who were guarding the tomb shook with fear, “and became like dead men.” On the other hand, the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.” The Roman guards have become like dead men because this message is not for the unbelieving. In this sense, the unbelieving are like dead people. This message is for the women, that is, when Matthew says “women” here he intends to say that he is speaking to the church, the community of faith that can hear this message and accept it as a part of their discipleship. From Matthew 28:11-15 it is clear that the unbelieving world will not accept the presence or the message of the angel. It is not simple the women who are listening to the angel, it is the church itself through the ages that continues to hear the message and to respond to it with renewed proclamation in its preaching, teaching and healing. The church remains, and must remain in the proximity of the tomb as it must in the proximity of the cross. For the cross and the tomb constitute one single event, an event best described as Grace. The church must face the tragedy of the cross and the hopelessness of an empty tomb for that is where its reflection on God’s story of redemption properly begins.

The angel says, “Do not be afraid.” Often in his life among the disciples Jesus comforted them in this way. When the women hear this they are hearing his voice again. They recognize in the voice of the angel the same comfort that they must have felt in the presence of Jesus. Fear is the disposition of the whole person to something which is unknown. It is something that overtakes us when our soul and spirit feel that they stand before an abyss, a void that can consume them completely. When the angel says, “Do not be afraid,” he is speaking for Jesus, and the words are meant to show that Jesus himself stands before the abyss, the void, to shield the church from being consumed by the world. When pastors face their congregations and read the gospel message, “Do not be afraid,” they are doing exactly the same thing as the angel. This is something that we must never forget. Pastors are sent to the people exactly as the angel was sent. The pastor’s message is exactly the same. Just as the angel descended from the realm of the divine, so the congregation must understand that the pastor’s words have their origin in the realm of the divine. And when this word becomes a concrete Word to the hopeless who is in complete despair, this is then the authentic Word of God. Only to the extent that the pastor’s word addresses me in my concrete existential alienation does that word deserve to be called the Word of God. Like the angel, the pastor today stands before a people struggling to retain its hopes. It is Jesus who as the empty tomb becomes the abyss, the void into which the church must always venture for only by passing through the empty tomb does the church emerge into the light of the new world that is described in the word “resurrection.” It is only by living in the always fresh wound of Jesus’ hand and feet and side can the church discover the meaning of new life.

“I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.” The angelic messenger possesses knowledge that existed before his descent from heaven. 28:2. He knows before he has arrived at the tomb that the women had come to seek Jesus who was crucified. Matthew uses this method repeatedly to demonstrate that all the events regarding Jesus are in the hands of God. The church today continues to look for Jesus who was crucified. This is its ministry and its mission: to go out into the world and to seek the crucified Jesus in the face of children without food, parents without jobs, the homeless without means, the helpless without power, the sick without care and the healthy without conscience. Matthew is sending the church a message through the angel and through the hearing of the women that the church cannot cease from looking for Jesus who was crucified. The church continues to look for the crucified Jesus wherever there is injustice, where hope is threatened and optimism stifled, where hate is a way of life that leads to death always. The unbelieving world cannot hear the voice of the angel. It cannot know that it is on a course that leads to death. It cannot know this until the church emerges from the other side of the empty tomb and preaches the message that life has come out of the grave, and that the grace of God waits to embrace those who have ears to hear. To look for Christ crucified is nothing other than to proclaim the good news of salvation.

“He is not here; for he has been raised as he said.” There are complicated thoughts tied up in this verse. Jesus is not here. Jesus has warned about speculation as to his presence. Mark 13:30; 24:32. The women went to a place of death, the tomb. They and the church through the ages discover that Jesus does not remain in the tomb. The tomb is empty, and that means first of all that “as he said” he has been raised from the dead. “As he said,” and Mark records: 8:31; 9:30; 10:33-34; 14:28. “As he said” is identical to “in accordance with the scriptures.” However, the empty tomb is not some kind of proof for the resurrection of Jesus. Matthew’s story is not about resurrection. There is no eye-witness to the resurrection of Jesus. What is important for us is the “as he said,” the Word that Jesus proclaimed in his life, and the life he now shares in his death. The tomb is a witness to death; it is not a witness to life. The “as he said” continues to be the foundation for the witness of the church. The women at the tomb, and the church through them, must abide always in the “as he said.’ Only faith can appropriate what is contained in “as he said.” The faith of the individual, the faith of the church is always faith in the proclamation of Jesus and faith in the proclamation about Jesus. Faith must always accept “he is not here.” On the cross Jesus transcended the world. The manner of his presence in the church can be described only in the words “he is not here.” The “where” of his presence cannot be perceived, only believed. I cannot conceive of a more complete definition of faith than “he is not here.”

“Come, see the place where he lay.” The women have heard the word of the angel. Now they must see. Hearing and seeing are modes of existence that keep us in relationship with everything around us. The invitation to come and see is an invitation to participate fully in what is before them. The angel who took their fear away now gives them hearing and sight. Matthew’s message to the church is come and hear and see. It is an invitation to the church and to the world, and in time it will be the content of the missionary enterprise. The angel himself will make this clear to the women. The message is not only “come and see.” The message is also “go and tell.” This means that the story of the empty tomb is not a story about the resurrection. It is a story whose apologetic content is the mission of the church. This would mean that the story that Matthew tells comes very late in the life of the church, long after it has settled in different communities, and for this reason the story could not have been located “on the third day” after the resurrection. The Passion of Christ is the starting point of the ministry of the church as church.

The angel then tells the women, “go quickly and tell his disciples ‘he has been raised from the dead and he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’” The angel was sent to tell the women. The women are sent to tell the disciples. Sending is an essential part of ministry; it is the means by which the gospel is taken where human needs exist. The women are to tell the disciples that “he has been raised from the dead.” The language makes clear that it is God who raises Jesus from the dead. The resurrection as divine miracle is for of a matter of telling hearing. No one is an eye-witness to the resurrection. The church continues the activity of telling and hearing of the resurrection. This is the way in which each one individually and the church as the community of faith access the resurrection. It is something which first of all is “told” and then it is “heard,” and then it is believed. It is only faith that grasps Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Lord as is clear from Romans 10:14-17. The church now as then knows that the divine encounters us only in the proclamation of the Word, and that Word is made concrete in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That Word is today proclaimed in the Church, and by this fact the Church is itself the Word of God for the world. There is no distinction. The Word of God and Church form an indivisible unity, so we can say “We believe one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, the communion of saints.”

The women left the tomb with fear and great joy. So far in this proclamation by the angel, the women’s lives have been touched by hearing and seeing. Now they are touched by feeling: by fear which binds and by joy which frees. That is to say, the proclamation of the angel has touched their lives completely. This is the way the proclamation of the church works: it touches and changes lives. While on their way, they are met by Jesus. Throughout his ministry Jesus was presented as interrupting the journey of people and transforming their lives. The women must have seen this for themselves many times. Now it happens to them. Jesus greets them, they recognize him, and fall at his feet and worship him. Perhaps Matthew has been influenced by the liturgical practice of his own church in creating this scene. The church at worship today still reflects this scene. When the pastor says, “The Lord be with you,” he or she is making the Crucified and Risen Christ present here and now. Let us not rush past this, for this is the most important Word that the pastor proclaims. By invoking the Presence of the Living One, we stand before the Altar, the Throne of Judgment, which is none other than the Throne of Grace. Everything that happens after this, happens in the Presence of Christ and by the grace of Christ. We cannot fail to see the power of this Word, for Christ himself empowers us in this way to bring him out of hiding into the full light of worship and witness. And when the congregation responds, “And also with you,” the congregation is empowering the pastor by proclaiming that Christ is present in what the pastor says and does at worship.

Jesus comforts the women again. “Do not be afraid.” Is there any doubt now that the word of the angel is none other than the Word of the Crucified and Risen Lord? It is the same word that we can sense and feel at worship, a sublime upsurge of the spirit that brings quietness to the troubled soul. Again, when the pastor reads this lesson and says, “Do not be afraid,” we have to hear the voice of the Crucified and Risen Lord in the voice of the pastor. We still abide in the context of the Word, “He is not here.” The voice of the pastor is the voice of Christ, making Christ present in word and witness, in bread in wine, in song and celebration. Jesus repeats the message of the angel to “go and tell.” But he does not say “my disciples.” He says, “my brothers.” Jesus of Nazareth had disciples. The Crucified and Risen Lord has brothers. Matthew is proclaiming that those in the church are not followers but family. In the presence of Christ something new happens. The world is being created anew. The old relationships are transformed. That is why we never leave the church after worship as the same person who entered there earlier. We leave as those who have been transformed by the Word that we have heard, by the bread that we have eaten, by the wine that we have drunk. We have been transformed by the lives that we have touched and those whose lives have touched ours. We leave cleansed, forgiven, reborn, and raised from the dead and still living at the center of a wound still fresh.

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluya!

 

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THE PASSION OF OUR LORD – 2017 – MATTHEW 27


The Passion of Our Lord – Matthew 27:11-54

 St. Paul writes, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” I Cor. 15:3-4. The First Letter to the Corinthians was written around 50-55 CE, that is, about two decades after the crucifixion of Jesus. Paul’s testimony shows that already a tradition of the Passion was developed, “in accordance with the scriptures.” The Passion narratives in the four gospels searched the Old Testament for information to make sense of the death of Jesus, none more so than Matthew. By the time Matthew’s gospel was written towards the end of the first century, the tradition had been enlarged to such a degree that a complete narrative was then handed on to the church through the ages. 

The Passion narratives in the gospels are composed of materials that come from different sources, to which “Matthew has added legendary material of all kinds,” according to Bultmann. There are Old Testament interpretations and traditions that are all very late and were not intended to be historical documents. “The Passion narrative is more strongly coloured with legendary material.” The only event that has historical credibility is the crucifixion. After the arrest of Jesus all his followers went into hiding and could not possibly be eye-witnesses to succeeding events. Everything that comes after the arrest is a theologically shaped literary composition. The followers of Jesus had to find an explanation for what happened to him. The earliest oral tradition looked to the Old Testament for answers. Decades later, there were attempts at narratives that would shape the understanding and beliefs of the early Church. Under this impetus, gospels were beginning to appear. Mark was the first, and was influenced by the traditions that were before him, as were the other Evangelists. Often, the various stories that made up the whole were based on the application of Old Testament prophecies rather than on actual history. Other stories were legends created to respond to the doctrinal and apologetic motifs of the early Church. The stories were joined together by the editorial processes of the Evangelist themselves and later redactors or copyists.  

Each of the four Passion narratives represents the theological and doctrinal views of the Evangelists and the Christian communities they represented. The Passion itself is a theology of history rather than an historical account of each of the events of the last days of Jesus. This theology of history is the vehicle that bears the message of Jesus and the Church from then to now. To hear the message of the story of redemption one must listen to the voice of theology as this is presented in the New Testament. 

The following study is based on the reading from Matthew 27: 11-54. This section begins with the trial of Jesus before Pilate and ends with the crucifixion. The trial before Pilate is reported differently in each gospel and shows how doctrinal and apologetic motifs shape the content of the narrative. In Matthew, when Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews, Jesus simply says, “You say so.” Apart from that Jesus says nothing to defend himself. Matthew concludes “the governor was greatly amazed.” Matthew makes an attempt to portray Pilate as a sympathetic governor. The actual fact is that Pilate was a brutal governor who would not have concerned himself with a Jewish prisoner. The story of Barabbas is a legend that has been inserted by each Evangelist for purposes congruent with his own point of view. The legend might have originally been motivated by the name, for Barabbas means “son of Abbas,” or “son of the father.” Here it is Pilate who asks whether they want him to release Jesus Barabbas instead of Jesus. There was no Roman tradition of amnesty for prisoners on days of Jewish festivals. No Roman governor would release a condemned prisoner. The demand from the crowds would have no effect on them. In any case, crowds would never be permitted at a Roman trial. The Evangelists, beginning with Mark, found in this legend a way to accommodate Roman authorities. Matthew is the only one to show Barabbas’ first name as “Jesus,” that is, “Jesus, son of the father.” The high priest encouraged the crowds to demand the release of Barabbas who is described simply as a “notorious prisoner.” Matthew intends to use this legend of Barabbas to place the burden of conviction on the Jews. Pilate as the Roman governor must have in mind first and foremost the interest of Rome. The fate of a Jewish prisoner was of no consequence to him. 

Other important legends played into this, the dream of Pilate’s wife and the washing of his hands. Both of these legends absolve Pilate of guilt. While the trial was in progress, Pilate’s wife sent him word “Have nothing to do with this innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Matthew uses Pilate’s wife as a neutral observer and witness to the innocence of Jesus. When he delivers Jesus to the Jews, he is convinced that he has delivered an innocent man to them. He washed his hands publicly, in view of the crowds, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Not only is Jesus innocent according to Pilate’s wife; Pilate now announces his own innocence. He and Rome are thereby declared innocent of the fate of Jesus. Any guilt for his death is upon the Jews. This is confirmed in verse 25. “Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” This verse is motivated by Pilate’s declaration of his own innocence and belongs to the legend of the washing of hands. The statement has no basis in fact. It serves Matthew’s purpose of absolving Rome of any guilt in the death of Jesus. Pilate then released Barabbas and handed over Jesus to the crowds “to be crucified,” just as the crowds demanded in 27: 22-23. The fate of Jesus is now completely in the hands of the Jews. It was important for Matthew’s audience to see that the divine submits to human judgment and punishment. It is not meant to cause distress in the church, but rather to encourage them to face persecution with the same sense of mission, courage and faith as Jesus did. Catholic Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan refers to the trail in Mark as “consummate theological fictions.” One must hear the message not only in the fiction, for that is all that is before us; one must hear the message beyond the fiction. Each story has an excess of meanings, and there is a redemptive meaning here for all who have ears to hear. Certainly these stories are compositions and reconstructions, and Crossan offers this caution. “If you cannot believe in something produced by reconstruction, you may have nothing left to believe in.” 

The incident reported in 27:27-31 is not historical fact. But Matthew has placed that verse in the mouths of the Jewish leaders, and he has a purpose for this. His audience is Hellenistic Christian, Jewish Christian and non-Jewish such as the Canaanite woman and the Roman Centurion. His message at the early stage of the church was anti-Jewish as he wanted his church to be theologically and doctrinally different from Judaism. In the history of the interpretation of this verse, it has been repeatedly misused for anti-Semitic slander and prejudice. This was never Matthew’s intention. Crossan calls this incident a “magnificent theological fiction.” Nevertheless, the incident needs to be explored to uncover its purpose in this context. Jesus has just been declared innocent by Pilate, yet he is subjected to maltreatment by Roman soldiers right in their barracks. The mock forms regal garments, crown and scepter seem to be an attempt by the church to point to the redeemer being despised and rejected. The meaning beyond the mockery is that the mockery itself is a revelation of the kingship of God as this is presented in the person of Jesus. One of the functions of fiction is to reveal the human condition as a state of existential anxiety in the face of meaninglessness and death. Anxiety motivates the search for meaning. Theological fiction subscribes to that view also while at the same time it presents a framework within which the quest is carried out and answers revealed. The mocking and spitting arose as a reflection on Isaiah 50:6 and Psalm 22 and then became embedded in the Passion story. The message throughout the history of the church is that the redeemer suffered at the hands of sinful people; that he “became obedient unto death” and that was part of the price to be paid for the redemption of the world. 

On the way to the crucifixion, the soldiers compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross for Jesus. Since the earliest traditions do no normally name persons it must be assumed that this incident has been created for a specific purpose. It lends vivid imagery to the procession. It creates the impression of an eye-witness account. Cyrene, an important Roman city, is a long distance away, on the very northern coast of Libya. The early Church might have been saying that the story of Jesus is not only a local story. It reaches far beyond Jerusalem. Matthew is teaching his young Church that at times it will be necessary for strangers to share in their suffering. Again, let it not be lost to sight that it is the soldiers who recruit Simon to bear the cross. Fiction often operates at an unconscious depth that when brought to light reveals the truth behind it. The enemies of Jesus by their own actions confirm the identity and mission of Jesus. Perhaps even Matthew was unaware of how deeply the divine was embedded in this story as the one who was enabling the movement of redemption. The divine knows no strangers, only seekers. Seekers will be brought into the church and will bear the cross as everyone else. The missionary enterprise of Matthew 28 will bear this out. 

Before the crucifixion, the soldiers offered Jesus wine to drink which he refused because of its taste. Mark and Matthew differ as to what substance was in the wine. Again, Matthew is demonstrating that Jesus assumes the pain of sin in its completeness. Jesus has been presented as the divine, the Son of God, the Messiah throughout the gospel. He does not need to take a pain reliever for his suffering. Then it says simply, “they crucified him.” There is no special description here of the process of crucifixion. It was not necessary. Matthew’s audience would have been completely aware of the nature of a crucifixion. A simple sign was placed on the cross: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Then the soldiers sat down and kept watch.The narrative then reports that two bandits were crucified on either side of Jesus, by reason of the interpretation of Psalm 22. It indicates that the crucifixion of Jesus was of no greater importance to the Romans than the two obscure bandits. The ordinariness of the event seemed settled until people passing by began to deride Jesus. Immediately, Jesus stood out from among the three crucified as one deserving attention. Again, according to Matthew’s method, strangers point to Jesus. The deriders said, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself. If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” It is clear that the bystanders have no idea why Jesus was condemned and crucified. They put an old charge in his mouth that had nothing to do with his trial. Pilate himself found nothing of which to convict him. Yet there is a purpose to the taunts of the bystanders. They prove the historical fact of the crucifixion! Matthew has constructed this scene carefully to show that it is not the followers of Jesus who are bearing testimony to the crucifixion. They are nowhere to be found in any case. The enemies of Jesus are presented as eye-witnesses who can testify to what happened. Among those enemies Matthew names “the chief priests also, along with the scribes and the elders,” who were there as part of the crowd that was mocking Jesus. Both the Jewish authorities and the anonymous crowds witness the crucifixion. Even the bandits mocked him. 27:44. In Matthew’s view the sacred and secular worlds conspired against the divine. In consequence of this, the church will be seen as a gathering of strangers and exiles standing against these authorities as a characteristic of Christian life. 

The scene then shifts to the events surrounding the death of Jesus as presented in 27:45-54. The upheaval in nature suggests that this event has the character of a theophany as was seen oftentimes in the Old Testament. The curtains in the temple were torn, dead were raised, something that would also take place at the resurrection of Jesus. As with other scenes in the Passion narrative, the death scene is also a legend shaped by reflection on Psalm 22 among others, and created for the purpose of developing a redemptive history in which Matthew’s congregation is able to participate. Bultmann calls this gospel a Catechism or Teaching Book. Matthew is teaching his congregation that the death of Jesus brings in the end times when those in the graves will be restored to life and a new world will come into being. As with other gospels, Matthew is teaching that history comes to an end in the death of Jesus and that the church exists in an eschatological age. History has become eschatology. 

As darkness descended upon the world, the selfsame darkness that existed before the creation of the world in Genesis, Jesus began to speak with a loud voice. But this time it is not the “Let there be!” of Genesis. This time, Jesus cries out in the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew has repeatedly presented Jesus as the Son of God, and as the Son of Man through whom God will inaugurate the eschatological age. The cry of abandonment from the cross cannot be understood from a point in history. It is legend, not history, and only as legend can it be understood. Matthew has to make it clear to his audience that it is God alone who has initiated these events, and this he does my putting the words of Psalm 22 into the mouth of Jesus, “My God, my God!” The invocation of God makes God present. Matthew has Jesus testify that this is a divine work, that God alone is creating the world anew as a place where redemptive life is possible. The onlookers did not understand the cry of Jesus. They believed that he was calling upon Elijah to rescue him. Let it be remembered that it is Matthew who is putting words into the mouths of the onlookers. He uses this means to tell his story. Even this thought of the onlookers subscribes to the idea that the events of the death of Jesus have their origin in the Old Testament. Malachi 4:5-6, says, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the world with a curse.” At this point Jesus cried out loudly again and then died. 

At the moment of the death of Jesus the curtains of the temple were torn in two. These curtains, according to Exodus 26:31-35, served the special purpose of preserving the integrity and sanctity of the holy of holies, the throne room of the divine to which John was brought in Revelation 1. The curtain itself symbolized sacred space. Matthew is teaching that henceforth the temple is no longer the sacred space of the divine. Rev. 21:22.The death of Jesus brought the divine from hiding. It is now in the open, and it will be present wherever the cross exists. In the death of Jesus the divine manifests itself to the world. That is why the death of Jesus is accompanied by signs that are related to theophany in the Old Testament, such as Exodus 19. The death of Jesus, like his birth, is the new theophany; that is why “he shall be called Emmanuel.”

“The earth shook and the rocks were split.” The death of Jesus affected heaven and earth and under the earth. The world was plunged into darkness. The earth shook and the rocks were split, and the earthquakes so severe that graves were opened and “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised to life.” The idea here is that nothing in all of nature remains untouched with the Lord brings about the new creation. To this is added, as if by way of recollection, “After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” It is clear that this verse does not belong here. It must have been part of a resurrection story that has been placed here because of its affinity with the rest of the legend. 

The centurion and others there exclaimed, “Truly this man was God’s son.” Matthew has often used the stranger and the outsider to proclaim this message. He was introducing strangers and outsiders to a new way of life, a new faith. To proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God has been his one and only objective. He has brought his readers on a theological and spiritual adventure, beginning with three strangers coming from a distant land to see the child and to worship him.

He has welcomed many strangers along the way, and made them a part of his story. In the end he presented Jesus as himself a stranger dying in the midst of strangers and foreigners for the salvation of the world.

 

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FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT – 2017 – EMERGING INTO LIGHT


FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT – 2017 –  EMERGING INTO LIGHT  John 11:1-45

This story of Lazarus who was raised from the dead by Jesus is told only by John. It is a dramatic presentation of how a family’s meaning is transformed through their encounter with tragedy. Lazarus is even a subsidiary character; his death provides the occasion for the exploration of his family’s grief and their consolation in the coming forth of new life. He is not to be confused with the Lazarus of Luke 16: 19-31. John’s story may be a local legend, probably associated with Bethany, alongside the legend of the anointing by Mary. Both of these stories have in view the death and resurrection of Jesus. The greater significance of this miracle (sign) may be seen against the background of the healing on the blind man in chapter 9. There the blind man himself exclaimed, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.” 9:32. I suggested there that giving sight to the blind is qualitatively giving life to him. The one born blind lived all his life in a place of deep darkness; Lazarus in death may be said to take up residence in the same place. I will point out later that Jesus’ command, “Lazarus, come out!” has the same force as the Genesis 1 story of God’s command, “Let there be!” The Evangelist John is presenting the narrative of Lazarus as a drama in which the new creation has begun and the coming forth of the eschatological moment into the present testifies to this. This narrative is another example of the idea that the End is the Beginning returning to itself. John introduces this narrative of death and resurrection as the factor that initiates the Passion and leads Jesus to the Cross. 11:53.

The story begins by locating Lazarus within his family and community. It is quite unusual that people are named in miracle stories. He is from Bethany; his sisters are Martha and Mary. The two sisters will appear again in the legend of the anointing at Bethany in chapter 12. They appeared in Luke 10:38-42 without their brother, in a village that was not named. There is a curious statement here. “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” 11:2. It is curious because the event of the anointing has not yet taken place! Apart from this chapter, and 6:22, Jesus is not referred to as Lord until Mary Magdalen announces him as such in 20:18 after his resurrection. Lord is a Christological title, and in this case it is associated with the resurrection. Why is the statement placed here? Does this mean that the raising of Lazarus did not occur until after the anointing by Mary, and is misplaced here? It would make sense if the raising of Lazarus, the last of the signs that Jesus performed in this Gospel, came immediately before the entry into Jerusalem, as the precipitating factor for the Passion. In Mark and Matthew the anointing took place two days before Passover. In John, it is six days before Passover. This would allow time for the event of the raising of Lazarus, if indeed this came after the anointing. Then it would suggest that Lazarus’ illness and death were sudden. Jesus and his disciples would have left Bethany right after the anointing, only to return four days later after the death and burial of Lazarus. 11:17. Again, this would put Jesus in Bethany two days before the Passover in agreement with Mark and Matthew. However, time for John is theological rather than chronological, and it is difficult to draw conclusions here on the significance of the two different theological meanings of history between John and the Synoptic gospels.

My reasoning does not resolve the problem. It becomes more complicated when we read in the story of the anointing, about “Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.”12:1. This makes it look like the anointing came after the raising of Lazarus. The two stories cannot be reconciled on this point. The easiest answer is that an editor inserted 11:2 from a later time to connect the two stories.

But to return to our story, Lazarus is ill. His sisters sent word to Jesus saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” He and his disciples were not in Judea at the time. Jesus received the message and knew the deeper meaning behind the illness. This is not a sickness unto death; its purpose is for the glory of the Lord. We saw the same motive in the blindness of the blind man in chapter 9. John has begun the gradual revelation of the glorification of Jesus that will be completed in his own death and resurrection.

Even though Jesus loved this family, 11:5, he did not respond to their call for help immediately. He stayed with his disciples two more days before leaving. This reminds me of his response to his mother at the wedding at Cana. “My hour has not come.” 2.4. The work of the Redeemer has a schedule that is known only to himself. He alone will decide when to act. There is another motive according to John. The late arrival of Jesus after the death of Lazarus is “so that you may believe.” 11:15. The disciples need to be witnesses to the raising of Lazarus so that their faith may be confirmed. But the return to Judea was not without its problems. The disciples were afraid to return because they remembered their last stay there resulted in the threat of being stoned to death.10:31. Jesus responded to them with a statement that seems to be a proverb. He must do his work while it is daylight, that is, he has only twelve hours in which to complete his work. The 12 hours may not be interpreted numerically. Put another way, the time is short. Jesus is focusing on a particular time, his “hour” which is arriving, in which his own destiny is sealed. After he explains that Lazarus is dead and that they will go to him, Thomas replied, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” In the view of Thomas, when Jesus returns to Judea he is returning to face his death. When they arrived in Bethany there is no mention of the disciples anymore. The focus is entirely on Jesus and the miracle he is about to perform.

When Jesus arrived he learned that Lazarus has been interred for four days already. This idea heightened the significance of the miracle, for there is no doubt that Lazarus is really and truly dead. The “four days” may already indicate an ancient understanding of death and burial where the soul of the deceased lingered in the neighborhood of the body for three days before departing this world. From this perspective, it was completely impossible for Lazarus to be raised from the dead.

Mary and Martha were being consoled by the Jews who had come from Jerusalem. This seems to be the normal religious practice when death has occurred in a family. It shows that this is indeed a religious family. It may also indicate their high socio-economic status. Martha meets Jesus and says, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will grant you whatever you ask of him.” 11:21. This is how Martha expresses her grief. She acknowledges the death of her brother, yet at the same time she believes that Jesus can reverse this through the power of prayer, in that “God will grant you whatever you ask of him.” She takes comfort in the power of Jesus. Jesus has the power to heal her grief. Martha’s understanding of the power of prayer reflects that of the early church. Mt. 6:6; 7:7-8. Jesus assures her that her brother will rise from the dead, to which she replies that she knows that he will be raised on the last day. Resurrection was already a part of the faith of the Jewish community. It is clear that Martha believes that Jesus has power over; illness that he is a healer, as she says, “if you had been here my brother would not have died.” I am not sure that she believes that Jesus has the power to raise the dead. Just as he revealed himself to Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman and the blind man, now Jesus reveals himself to Martha. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus is saying that in him the last day has arrived already, and that her belief in the resurrection will find fulfilment even now. Death belongs to an age that is passing and in Jesus life is now a present reality. That Jesus is the resurrection means that something new has dawned for humanity: life is possible only in the resurrection. Martha is learning that “resurrection” and “life” are identical. But the full healing of her grief is yet to come.

Life is not the opposite of death. Birth is the opposite of death. Life is its own definition in this context. Death is seen as the status that prevails when life is absent. John can use life as a word that takes its understanding from birth. Jesus says to Nicodemus, unless you are born of the spirit you will not see the kingdom of heaven. “Born of the Spirit” is then how John defines life, for “to see the kingdom of heaven” means to have eternal life. When God says “Let there be!” in Genesis, God commands creation to emerge from primordial nothingness and darkness. God is able to bring life and living things from that primal darkness. God’s “Let there be!” is the bringing to birth of living things.

Birth is the emergence from darkness; death is the return to darkness. When Jesus says “Lazarus, come out!” he is commanding Lazarus to emerge from darkness into the light, that is, he is giving Lazarus new birth, for light and life are identical in this Gospel. Lazarus can return to the kingdom of light. When Jesus tells his disciples that Lazarus “has fallen asleep,” he is saying that sleep and death have something in common. Sleep is a going forth from this world temporarily. One returns upon awakening. Jesus is telling his disciples that sleep and death are both temporary states of existence. One can emerge from both of these into the kingdom of light. Life is what occurs between birth and death. Life is experience shaped by faith and lived under the dominion of the Spirit. One does not have to die to receive the gift of resurrection, for “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” 11:26. Resurrection is not simply the emergence from the grave. More appropriately, resurrection is leaving behind the world of darkness and death. “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” 5:25. When Martha hears the affirmation of her faith, she responds, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 11:27. In this one statement are three Christological titles: Lord, Messiah, and Son of God. In Martha’s words, we get a glimpse into the confessional faith of the developing church. That Jesus is the Messiah is already a part of the faith of the early church. Mark 8:29; Matthew 16: 16; Luke 9:20. The difference here is that John identifies Jesus as “the one coming into the world.” John is making the point again that in Jesus the eschatological moment has arrived, the new world is coming to birth, and it is characterized by resurrection and life. See the way this is presented in Revelation 1:8.

The next stage of the drama brings Mary onto the stage. She is not alone as the Jews who were comforting her in the house came with her because they thought she was going to the tomb to weep. Instead, she went to where Jesus was. She knelt at his feet when she arrived. There is a tradition of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus so this is not strange. She repeats what Martha had said earlier, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The fact that Mary knelt at his feet and addressed him as Lord discloses this as an act of worship. We have seen others fall at the feet of Jesus before: the leper in Matthew 8:2-3; the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5:6; Peter at the large catch of fish in Luke 5:8; Jairus in Luke 8:41; the woman with the blood flow in Luke 8:47; the one of ten lepers who returned in Luke 17:16, and the women at the tomb in Mt.28:9. When Moses ended his proclamation of the Passover, “the people bowed down and worshiped.” (Exodus 12:27). What Mary does is an act of devotion. It is an act of worship. This is how it would have been understood by the Jews who accompanied her. Martha had not taken this position. She entered into a dialogue with Jesus about the resurrection. Mary brought her grief to the feet of Jesus. Martha invoked traditional beliefs. Mary weeps at his feet as did another woman a long time ago. Shortly, Mary will anoint his feet and dry them with her hair.

Jesus saw that Mary was weeping, as were the Jews who came with her. The outward grief of a village had an effect on him. “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Surrounded by grief, Jesus felt an internal spiritual and emotional upheaval. Grief is a lived experience of the total person. It is a fundamental state of existence of human beings. Grief is what overtakes us when death, the complete Otherness of life, emerges from its silent abode in flesh and blood and bones. Death and grief are always already fundamental modes of who we are. In them are grounded that human essence of alienation, the utter isolation from grace. Death wrenches from us every aspect of relationship by which we define ourselves. It is outer darkness of existence from which none can hope to return. The divine itself trembles before it. To redeem humanity from this state of complete oblivion, the divine must take into itself death and its otherness. Thus Christ will humble himself and become obedient unto death, gathering up all death in an instant, and in this way setting humanity upon a new course of freedom. So Jesus gathered Martha and Mary into himself in an instant standing before the tomb of their brother. They disappear from the narrative. Jesus often demonstrated his capacity for empathy with those who suffered. He knew the cause of their grief was Lazarus’ death, and so he asked, “Where have you laid him?” As they were on the way, Jesus began to weep. He has fully joined them in their grief. This is much more than an expression of empathetic solidarity with this family that he loved. Jesus as the Logos that had left its own abode to dwell with humanity knows what it is not to be “at home.” This is the state of existence of Lazarus. Through death, he is not “at home.” Jesus grieves with the sisters and with Lazarus.

Along the way, some questioned why Jesus did not keep Lazarus from dying. He certainly had the power to do so as evidenced by the healing of the blind man. John wants to demonstrate that what moves this tragic drama is a dialogue between faith and faithlessness. He maintains this dialogue so that when the miracle does take place it is heightened and silences the faithless. Jesus himself might have been disturbed by such faithlessness. He is agitated as he arrived at the tomb. It seemed to be an ordinary cave, the entrance to which was covered by a stone. The scene is a portrait of tragedy: life outside; death within. The stone seemed to be a boundary between life and death. Is not Jesus himself the stone which the builders rejected? He, too, is a boundary beyond which darkness and death cannot advance. Jesus asks that the stone be removed, and his request is met with objection from none other than Martha. Martha emphasizes the decay of the body and reminds the audience that Lazarus has been dead four days. Her statement serves John’s purpose, to take an impossible situation and impose upon it the power of God. Martha can speak only from a position of “this world.” Jesus speaks as the resurrection and the life.

Jesus reminds Martha that he told her if she believed she would see the power of God demonstrated. When the stone was removed, Jesus, looking upward, prayed, “Father, I thank you for having heard me, but I have said this for the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” Jesus does not ask the Father to raise Lazarus from the dead. His prayer is one of gratitude that the Father hears him. What Jesus says is for the benefit of the crowd standing by. They will believe that God has sent him only through a miracle. The sending of the Son is the empowerment of the Son. This is a theme that is repeated throughout this Gospel. Just as the Father has heard Jesus, so now Lazarus will hear him. In a loud voice Jesus commands, “Lazarus, come out!” Here we see the divine demonstrating its power over life and death. The divine has not ceased creating. Where Jesus stands, that is the place where creation continues to take place, because he is the one through whom all things were made. The voice of Jesus, the Father’s voice, moves through the darkness and brings Lazarus into the light. The dead man, no longer bound by death, but still bound by the human wrappings of death, emerges into the light of day. Who is this that emerges from the tomb? There is no way to identify this person as Lazarus. Even his sisters would not be able to identify him. They are no longer a part of the drama. John does not mention them again here.

The drama now transcends the human dimension. What is taking place no longer happens in the sphere of history; what happens from now on takes place in the domain of faith. The one who emerges from the tomb is wrapped in bands, his face covered by a cloth. The one who is raised from the dead, remains hidden from sight, just as later Jesus will not be recognized when he emerges from the tomb. John is communicating to his audience that the resurrection is not an event that is visible to sight. This is crucial for understanding the Gospel as a whole. The One who descended from the Father remains hidden as the One who abides in Jesus. The resurrection is not a matter for sight; it is not a matter of history. It is the eschatological moment of the dawning of the new creation, and this is perceived only by faith. Faith in God cannot be supported by proof. No one can prove that the one who emerges from the tomb is Lazarus. To emphasize this, John removes Martha and Mary from the rest of the drama. When Eve is created in the Genesis story, Adam is first put to sleep. Eyes cannot behold the creative work of the divine. When Adam awakens from sleep he is no longer what he used to be. He is now the ground of his other Self, no longer alone. When Adam emerges from his sleep what comes into view in a new world. The divine has absorbed the loneliness of the old. The same idea prevails here. Humanity is blinded to the fact of the resurrection; it is a matter that can be grasped only by faith. The divine has absorbed death into itself. The divine has brought life again where life was not. It is yet again creation from nothing. Now there can be no doubt as to who Jesus is. “I and the Father are one.”

Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” This is how the drama ends. Even resurrection legends cannot pierce the veil of mystery that shrouds the coming forth of new life. I am reminded of 8:37. “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

 

 

 

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FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT 2017 – BORN BLIND, BORN DEAF


FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT 2017 – BORN BLIND, BORN DEAF

John 9:1-41

“As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 9:2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 9:3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 9:4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 9:5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 9:6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 9:7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.  9:8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9:9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 9:10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 9:11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 9:12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” 9:13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 9:14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 9:15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 9:16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 9:17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 9:18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 9:19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 9:20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 9:21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 9:22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 9:23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 9:24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 9:25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 9:26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 9:27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 9:28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 9:29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 9:30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 9:31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 9:32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.  9:33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 9:34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. 9:35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 9:36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 9:37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 9:38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 9:39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 9:40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 9:41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

In chapter 8 Jesus revealed himself as light. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” 8:12. John is again using Gnostic ideas: light and darkness, death and life, to present Jesus as the one who was sent as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The world, which is a part of “all things,” belongs to him. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life; the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” 1:3-5. He has come to save what he created in the beginning. The essential ideas of John’s theological anthropology were laid out in the Prologue. In everything that follows throughout the Gospel, the human being is disclosed as to its nature, which is darkness, unbelief, and how this was the occasion for the descent of the Son into flesh. He must enter the dominion of unbelief, the existence of the human in its myriad manifestations, to redeem it. The divine must become other than itself to accomplish all things “for us and for our salvation.” The human being is the Otherness of the divine. The blind man who lives in darkness is a metaphor for “world,” the antagonist of light. In chapter 9 John shows how the Logos continues to create “the life which is the light of all people.”

The miracle of restoring sight to the man who was born blind recalls another such story in the gospel of Mark. There are significant parallels also to the miracle of healing in John 5. In John 9, the miracle initiates a series of dialogues that John uses to reveal the Logos as it continues to vanquish darkness, which is sin and death, and to bring life where life was not. This miracle is an essential part of John’s theological anthropology. The Evangelist Matthew says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness.” Mt. 6:22-23. This is an example of how the Synoptic gospels understand anthropology. Blindness, which is the same as darkness, is the content of unbelief or sin. In John, the question as to whose sin caused the man’s blindness points to a more ancient anthropology. “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents.” Ex. 20:5. Illness and disease were not merely somatic disturbances; they were punishment for sin. Jesus rejects this ancient anthropology. The man’s blindness is not the result of sin. For John, sin is unbelief. 8:24; 16: 8-11. It is the rejection of the light, antagonism towards life, for “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

Jesus does not speak of the origin of this man’s blindness, but of its purpose, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” 9:3. What John means by “God’s works” is seen at the Marriage at Cana where Jesus “revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” The same idea occurs again in the illness of Lazarus. “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 11:4. God’s works are events and signs that reveal the glory of God. John is even more precise than this. “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” 14:10. The work of God is identical to the word of Jesus. In the preaching of Jesus, the work of God is accomplished. Miracles as signs are also to be seen as the word of Jesus, for through the signs Jesus declares that the Father has sent him with this message. Simon Peter’s answer to Jesus is significant. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” 6:68-69.

An exegesis of verses 4-5 is almost impossible. These verses do not make any sense in this context, and may have been added by a later redactor. They interrupt the flow between 3 and 6. The “we” very early presented much difficulty and many early manuscripts have “I”. It is also difficult to understand who belongs to the “we.” It certainly cannot mean the Father and Jesus, inspite of 5:17. It cannot mean the disciples, for Jesus alone is doing “the work of him who sent me.”  The “we” is not consistent with the “me.”  The original reading certainly would have been “I.” Furthermore, the verse describes the work of Jesus as temporary, “while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” A further constraint is seen in “As long as I am in the world.” Day and night may symbolize light and darkness. This would be incongruent with “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” 1:5. Does the Son of God who descended as the light, cease to be the light of the world when he ascends again? These are difficult issues that need to be sorted out with a more rigorous exegesis than I can offer.Verses 6-7 present the healing of the blind man and verses 8-13 the consequences. This is not unlike the miracle reported in Mark 8:23. The miracle consists of action (anointing the eyes with mud) and word, “Go and wash in the pool of Siloam.” I am reminded of the healing of the ten lepers in Luke. Jesus said, “Go and show yourselves to the priest, and as they went they were healed.” Luke 17:14. See also the healing of Naaman the Syrian in II Kings 5. There appears to be a play on the word “sent.” Jesus has been “sent” by the Father; the meaning of Siloam is “sent.”  I have pointed out in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman that the sending of the disciples, the church, is established on the foundation of the sending of the Son. Sending is active apostleship. The blind man is sent to a pool called “sent.” Jesus is also “living water” that can give life. The blind man receives his sight when he washes in the pool of Siloam. Sight is light, and light is life. Is this a result of “water and the word?” In receiving his sight, the blind man now lives in the light, which is the definition of new life. In John’s anthropology, the Logos brings with itself the Beginning, and pours it into the Now. Creation is now the active process of redemption. Eschatology no longer hails the present from a distant future. Eschatology no longer inhabits a future horizon, the joining of heaven and earth, above and below. Eschatology is drawn into the present, and the horizon is the place where Jesus stands. In him the new has dawned as if for the first time. In Jesus, the End is the Beginning returning to itself as the New Creation.

In this gospel, there are many modes of seeing. There is normal sight that perceives things in the natural world where darkness prevails in spite of sunlight. There is also the vision that pierces the darkness and perceives Jesus as the Holy One of God. 6:69. The man who is healed says “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 9:25. However, his restoration is not yet complete. He can see, but he does not yet understand.  Later, in 35-38 Jesus will reveal himself as the Son of Man, and the healed man will say, “Lord, I believe.” The Son of Man is present; the eschatological moment has arrived. The ground for faith has been prepared. This is a movement from seeing to vision. In John, this kind of sight is nothing other than faith.

This extraordinary event caused some consternation among the people who had known the blind man all his life. It was a unique event. As he said later, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.” 9:32. People could not believe their own eyes. They questioned him intently, the consequence of which is first, that he had to identify himself. The healing has made him into something that he was not. Just as the Logos in assuming flesh became other than it was, so the blind man is now other than he was, and he has to define himself with this new understanding. Secondly, the blind man having received the gift of sight now testifies to Jesus. He speaks openly of Jesus, like Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. He speaks openly not only to his neighbors, but also to the religious authorities, the Pharisees, telling them that Jesus “is a prophet.” 9:17.

It is not clear who the “they” is who brought him to the Pharisees in 9:13-17.  It is likely the neighbors. The action in this section shifts to Jesus. Who is he? What did he do? Why did he do it on the Sabbath? The religious authorities view Jesus as a sinner because he broke the Sabbath laws. Others challenged this view and nothing was settled until the witness said, “He is a prophet.” This still does not convince the authorities. They did not believe that he was the man who was born blind. In verse 13 it is the Pharisees who carry on the interrogation of the man; in verse 18, it is the Jews who interrogate the parents. This change of terminology does not affect the internal meaning of the episode, which is that the unbelieving world cannot “see” the work of the Messiah. When the parents are interrogated in 9:18-23, they affirm (a) that this is indeed their son who was born blind; (b) they do not know how he now sees or who caused him to see. They referred the interrogators to their son who can speak for himself because he is of age. The parents are portrayed as acting in their own interest because they did not want to be cast out of the synagogue. The identity of the man has been established, but the problem of the miracle that breaks the Sabbath laws is still unresolved.

The Pharisees may be commended for their persistence. Having failed with his parents, they now summoned their son a second time to be interrogated. They demand, “Give glory to God.” Perhaps this was a way of shaming the man into changing his testimony. In effect, they are saying to him, “Tell the truth. We know that this man is a sinner.” What they “know” is refuted by what he “knows.” He says, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  The knowledge that the authorities possess is still knowledge in the dominion of darkness. Their ears belong to the world of sarx, they cannot hear the words spoken under the domain of pneuma. They are the world that does not receive the Son, therefore they cannot “know” the Son. They are the deaf.

There is considerable debate in which the man holds firmly to his testimony. The Pharisees emphasize their authority and their certainty on the basis of tradition. They are disciples of Moses. They know that God spoke to Moses. Like the Samaritan woman, their tradition is the ultimate judge of the rightness of their position. The man reminded them of the “astonishing” fact of the miracle which he believes to be enough proof that God has granted Jesus the power to perform miracles. The Pharisees insist that they “do not know where he is from.” The man answers, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Behind this debate, John is pointing out that in the eschatological moment, in this time when the new creation is coming into being, the Son does arrive with a sword that brings division. Two perspectives, the flesh and the spirit, are struggling for vindication. Two types of humanity, those who belong to darkness and those who belong to the light, are involved in the travail that will bring to birth the new creation. In the presence of the redeemer, one must choose.

The Pharisees will not concede their position. They are the deaf. Their anger at the man emerges. “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” All along they were denying this man who is healed could not have been the man born blind, because that man’s blindness disclosed that he was born in sin. Now, in their anger, they announce that he was born entirely in sins. They finally acknowledge that he is, indeed, the man born blind. And this immediately makes the miracle a greater problem for them. Where does Jesus get the power to heal the blind? They cannot hear that this is the sign that the eschatological age has dawned in the person of the Son. In Matthew 11:4-6, Jesus sends word to John in prison. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and to poor have the good news brought to them.” All that pertains to this world where darkness reigns, is transcended. Jesus the divine horizon, is the place where healing happens. He who has come with a sword is at the same time the one who has come to heal. The Pharisees remain unconvinced. “And they drove him out.” The man suffered the fate that his parents feared for themselves. 9:22. He was exiled from their world.

The next in the series of dialogues, 9:35-38, takes place between Jesus and the man. Jesus had heard that he was driven out and he found him. Jesus asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man wants to know who that is, so that he may believe. It is then that Jesus reveals himself to him. “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  This is how Jesus revealed himself to the Samaritan woman. This is another way of saying that the eschatological moment is the present moment. Only time that has been transformed, sacralized, by the presence of the Son is capable of being redeeming time. The man can now say, “Lord, I believe.” Faith is immediately followed by worship. John has shown how this man emerged from the world of darkness into the light of the world. He may be a metaphor for the transformation of the world from flesh to spirit. Jesus completes the dialogue with a kind of summary statement. “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”9:39. The theme of judgment has already appeared from the Prologue onwards. The content of the judgment is that the present status of the human being is confronted and changed. Those who are blind now see, and those who have sight become blind. The same thought is reflected in Matthew 11:4-6. Jesus does not seem to be speaking to a particular group. The message that John wants to convey is that everyone exists in a state of blindness, that is, darkness, until confronted by the person and message of the redeemer.  “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” 3:19. Once confronted, everyone must make a decision for or against the redeemer. The choice is to live in darkness or to live in the light.

His statement about judgment was overheard by the Pharisees, and this introduces the last in the series of dialogues. (:40-41. They ask him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” They think because they can see with their eyes they are not blind. They do not understand that blindness is the condition under which all unredeemed humanity exists. Jesus tells them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now you say ‘we see’ your sin remains.”  Jesus reinforces the idea that sin is not the result of blindness. The Pharisees still do not understand this. They do not realize that all who live in this world live in the sphere of sin. They remain oblivious to sin, and in that oblivion, their insistence on their own sight, their sin remains. They continue to resist and oppose the Son of Man who is the light of the world. Consequently, they continue to abide in the darkness. They remain deaf.

Blind Milton, Blind Teiresias, Blind Oedipus, all were able to see into the heart and soul of humanity. They refuse to be confined by their dramatic roles, as poet and characters. They rise from their written lines, transcending the absurdity of human existence, to offer an ever-enlarging hope, an optimism born of tragedy, to a humanity at home in its own tragic destiny. They want to see and to tell: the Messiah has arrived upon the earth; redemption has dawned for all.

 

 

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