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 There are Old Testament interpretations and traditions that are all very late and were not intended to be historical documents.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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THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT 2017– THE GOOD SAMARITAN WOMAN


THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT – THE GOOD SAMARITAN WOMAN  John 4:5-42

“So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 4:6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 4:7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 4:8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 4:9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 4:10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 4:11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 4:12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 4:13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 4:14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 4:15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 4:16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 4:17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 4:18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 4:19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 4:20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 4:21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 4:22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 4:23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 4:24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 4:25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 4:26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” 4:27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 4:28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 4:29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 4:30 They left the city and were on their way to him. 4:31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 4:32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 4:33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 4:34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 4:35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.  4:36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 4:37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 4:38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 4:39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 4:40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 4:41 And many more believed because of his word. 4:42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

This is a revision and update of an earlier post.

In last week’s post, I said that Jesus initiated Nicodemus into a spiritual journey on which he discovered much about himself that changed the direction of his life. In the narrative about the Samaritan woman and Jesus, something similar happens. The Samaritan woman is taken on a spiritual journey, a journey rather of soul than of spirit, on which the fundamental questions of her life are asked and answered in a way that draws us into the narrative no longer as readers but now as the communion of Saints.

Therefore, story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman calls for careful study and reflection to uncover the message that John wants us to hear. There are literary and stylistic similarities between chapter 3 and chapter 4. In 3, Jesus enters into a religious dialogue with Nicodemus; Jesus reveals himself to him; the message of Jesus is passed on to others. In 4, Jesus enters into a religious dialogue with the Samaritan woman; he reveals himself to her as Messiah; the message is then taken to others. Both chapters emphasize that the mission of the church is established upon the foundation of the mission of Jesus. It is important for the mission of the church that Jesus reveal himself to males and females. The inner message of the revelation is that no one is excluded from the salvation which God makes available in the Son. (Galatians 3:28-29). This message is taken from Jerusalem to all parts of the world, and every nation can now hear the gospel. See Acts 2, the message of Pentecost. This mission is made clear in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

Jesus is on his way to Galilee. 4:3. The journey is motivated perhaps by reason of safety, because the Pharisees had heard of his baptizing activities which was not pleasing to them. He is passing through the region of Samaria, and by noon one day he stops in the town of Sychar because he was tired and thirsty. He stops for water at Jacob’s well. The name of the well and the description surrounding it may be a local tradition as it is not attested elsewhere. Perhaps the intention is to emphasize that the Samaritans had a history and tradition relating to Jacob. The well is the scene of encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. His disciples are not with him at the moment. Jesus going through Samaria is the story of the missionary enterprise of the church through the ages. It is the drama of salvation enacted in word and deed, using the estranged soul of human beings as the stage upon which the action takes place. But first, the savior of the world must find the entrance onto that stage. The human soul is a forbidding place. It is what grounds the human being to this earth. It does not easily render itself up. It seldom knows that it is an eternal place of conflict. The soul is the human being in its entirety, the gathering place of all history and culture, all that defines the human. The soul is the ultimate guardian of what is fully and truly human. “What shall it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your own soul?”

The drama begins when a woman of Samaria comes to draw water. Jesus asks her for a drink. She replied by asking Jesus how is it that a Jewish man is asking a Samaritan woman for a drink. Something about Jesus told the woman that he is a Jew. Her question reflects a tradition that Jews and Samaritans did not get along as is seen in the second part of 4:9. In Mt. 10:5 Jesus told his disciples not to enter any Samaritan town. In Luke 9:52 the Samaritans refused to welcome his disciples. In that cultural context, I would have expected at least that the rules of hospitality to have prevailed over cultural differences. John certainly had something quite different in mind as he prepared the scene for the dialogue. While she recognized Jesus as a Jew, in 4:10 he says to her, if you really knew me you would be asking me for living water. Jesus is much more than how he is perceived, as Nicodemus discovered earlier. He does not address her question. The fact that he spoke to her in the first place means that he has moved beyond what was customary and expected. He did not even acknowledge the status quo. He moved beyond it. Also, the fact that she spoke to him shows that she is not bound by custom either. Both of these people arrived at the well having relinquished something of their history.

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” This cannot have been the original response of Jesus to the woman. This response was certainly made to a question that John does not offer. He has something different in view. “If you knew,” goes to the fact that she does not know. It is not surprising, for the disciples according to the Synoptic gospels were prohibited from going to the Samaritans and proclaiming the gospel. Paul says in Romans 10:17, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.”  See especially 10:14. Jesus cannot have expected her to know who he is. If, indeed, she knew who he was then there would be no need for his revelation as Messiah. The “gift of God” was made clear in 3:16. It is the Son of God. The word for “gift” and the “give” in “give me a drink,” share a common origin. Jesus, the gift of God, is asking for a gift from the Samaritan woman. The word appears again in “given,” referring to the gift of living water. He who is the gift of God offers living water as a gift to the woman. The living water is spring water, running water that does not remain stagnant. It is always moving. However, this is not the point that John wants to make. The water from Jacob’s well belongs to this world. Jesus as living water is the one who has descended and will ascend again. The water from Jacob’s well is of the earth, earthly; Jesus the living water is of heaven, heavenly. John is again using Gnostic ideas to present Jesus.  “The gift of God” is none other than “who it is that is saying to you.” These ideas are not a part of the content of faith of the Samaritan woman. She does not know and at that time cannot know who Jesus is, and consequently cannot ask him for the living water.

The dialogue that follows discloses that the Samaritan woman does not understand what Jesus has said. This is somewhat akin to the misunderstanding concerning Jesus in the Synoptic gospels and even in this gospel. Her focus continues to be the well and its traditions. “Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us the well?” The well is also a “gift.”  Again, Jesus does not respond to her question about who is greater, Jacob or Jesus. He counters with his own gift. “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The contrast is again between earthly and heavenly. The Samaritan woman still does not understand. She wants Jesus to give her this water that she may never thirst nor come back to the well. This may be symbolic language, and John likes to use symbolic language. That she may not thirst again may be symbolic of something lacking in her life, something for which she thirsts always. She may believe that Jesus has the power to quench that inner lack or emptiness. This may be symbolic of her desire to forsake the local tradition or legend associated with Jacob’s well. Jesus does not respond to her request. She has completely missed the reference to living water and eternal life. As with Nicodemus, so long as the Samaritan woman’s life is determined by the flesh, by what is earthly, she cannot grasp the meaning of what is heavenly. John has accomplished one thing with this part of his narrative: the encounter and the dialogue of the earthly (Samaritan woman) and the heavenly (Jesus). However, John leaves off this discussion and nothing is resolved. He turns his attention to another matter.

The next stage in the development of the narrative will take this encounter to a different level. Jesus asks the Samaritan woman to go and get her husband. What importance her husband has for this encounter is not made clear. It appears to be some kind of narrative technique that will allow John another opportunity to disclose who Jesus is. So far, John has shown him as the Word” 1:1; “the true light,” 1:9;  “the only Son,” 1:14, 18; “the Lamb of God,: 1:29;  “the Son of God,” 1:34; “Rabbi,” 1:38;  “the Messiah,” 1:41; “him of whom Moses and the prophets spoke,” 1:45; “the King of Israel,” 1:50. John has not been reluctant to make known who Jesus is.

When Jesus asks her to bring her husband, she replies truthfully that she has no husband. Was Jesus testing her for some reason, since he already knew the answer? Jesus acknowledges her truthfulness, and then points out that she has had five husbands, and the one she currently has is not her legal husband. I have mentioned earlier that she is not afraid to go against custom. She lives her life the way she wants. Her marital situation is not a moral or spiritual matter for her. She is comfortable with her status. Commentators and pastors have tried to allegorize the five husbands, but I do not believe that this is necessary. She is a person who does not appreciate being alone.  The Samaritan woman is someone who does not prefer solitude. She is not embarrassed by having had five husbands. However, she might have been amazed that Jesus knew all this about her as her reply indicates. “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.” Jesus is something other than she earlier perceived. Can this mean that she too is other than she thinks she is? Being in the presence of Jesus has given her a moment of insight into herself, as Jesus held up before her eyes a picture of what he has seen in her. Perhaps this is what Paul meant in I Corinthians 13:12.

John has used the technique of the omniscience of Jesus before with Simon and Nathanael in chapter 1. When Jesus is called a prophet, it means he possesses the ability to know things.  Consequently, she feels permitted to discuss a religious issue with him, namely, worship. In a somewhat awkward construction, the text makes it appear that other parts of the dialogue are not recorded. She claims that Jesus said people ought to worship in Jerusalem rather than “on this mountain” that is, Gerizim. One of the points of contention between Jews and Samaritans is precisely the location for proper worship. For Jews, it was Jerusalem; for Samaritans, it was Gerizim. John uses a literary technique to get “worship” into the discussion. He brings the dialogue back to her original question: why a Jew was asking a Samaritan for water. Their conflict revolved around worship.

Jesus says, “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.”  In 2:4, even though the hour is not yet, Jesus still performed the first sign at the marriage in Cana. “The hour is coming” indicates that Jesus and the Samaritan woman are in a time of transition. While they were standing next to Jacob’s well (symbolic of the past) and speaking of worship (symbolic of the future) Jesus and the Samaritan woman are in a time when history becomes eschatology. “The hour is coming” is a reference to the eschatological moment which is even now dawning for the woman.  In the eschatological moment, the “neither/nor” of the place of worship is transcended because the Father transcends place and time, sacralizes space and sanctifies worshipers wherever they are. Jesus assures her that the place of worship soon will not be a matter that separates people. Both Jerusalem and Gerizim as geographical points are construed as belonging to “this world,” that is, of the earth, earthly. The Father as what pertains to the heavenly realm transcends the earthly. See revelation 21:22. True worship will rediscover its proper home in the human soul. Jesus in Samaria represents the ultimate triumph of the human soul. This is the true objective of the missionary impulse.

The eschatological moment depicted in “the hour is coming” is not congruent with 4:22. The ideas in this verse do not conform to John’s narrative purpose. The idea that “salvation is of the Jews” finds no place in John’s gospel. Already John informs his readers that “he came to his own home, and his own people did not receive him.” 1:11. It is likely that a later redactor inserted this verse for some purpose to appeal to a local tradition. The conflict is more strongly debated in 8:34-59.

Jesus continues in 23 the idea begun in 21. “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. For such the Father seeks to worship him.” Jesus is more specific here. Not only is the hour coming, it “now is.” The eschatological moment has broken into the present. The hour can mean only the redemptive moment is now. Nicodemus had learned that he had to be born of the Spirit to be part of the Kingdom of God. In 5:24 Jesus says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” One must worship God in spirit. In Revelation 1:10, the visionary says, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” Spirit and truth are not ways of worshiping God. Spirit and truth are not attitudes adopted for worship. Spirit and truth are fundamental dispositions of the whole human soul toward the divine. In worship one completely surrenders to the divine, renders up heart and mind, soul and body to the divine, knowing that when the historical moment becomes the eschatological moment one’s entire existence is transformed, and what is called eternal life becomes real and present for one. “And this is eternal life, that they know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” 17:3. See Romans 12:1-2 for Paul’s view. The human being who stands in the presence of the divine already stands on holy ground and is thereby already sanctified by the divine. In worship, spirit and truth can simply be called faith.

When she hears this, the Samaritan woman becomes reflective. “I know that the Messiah is coming; when he comes, he will show us all things.” 4:25. She is not without some understanding of the expectation of redemption. She is awaiting the arrival of the Messiah and this might indicate that she would be receptive when the Messiah presented himself. Jesus replies in 4:26, “I who speak to you am he.” In this one sentence is the entire content of revelation. The coming one, the Omega, is already present in history as the Alpha. History has become eschatology and the redemptive moment is already spreading out from the center, from the place in which the Omega stands, in concentric circles to draw in all of creation. This is the gift that Jesus gives to the Samaritan woman. This is the foundation of the missionary enterprise of the church. Now, for the first time, she hears the Gospel from the Messiah himself. He who brings the message is himself the message. John does not tell us her immediate reaction, for just at that moment, the disciples of Jesus returned, and when they saw the woman they marveled that he was having a conversation with her. For them this was a matter of propriety. They were not concerned that he was talking with a Samaritan! The issue of Jew and Samaritan is no longer a problem by the time that the Gospel of John was written. This makes its way into the text by its absence in the attitude of the disciples.

At this point there appears to be an interruption in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in 4:31-38. I will discuss this section after I have completed exploring the Samaritan story in 4:39-42.

The woman to whom the Messiah has just revealed himself leaves her water jar (a symbol of her leaving the past; she has now received living water), returns to her town. She told the people, “Come and see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Messiah?” 4:29. She has just met the Messiah, and she immediately brings others to him. See Romans 10:14. She invites the others to find out for themselves, “Can this be the Messiah?” The scene picks up again in 4:39 after an interruption of another episode between Jesus and his disciples. “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” This is something quite new. According to custom, a woman may not bear testimony. Now, in the eschatological age, something new has dawned. The new creation is gradually emerging. Galatians 4:28. She is not the first to bear witness to the Messiah in this gospel. John the Baptist bore witness, 1:7; Andrew bore witness, 1:41; Philip bore witness, 1:45. But she is the first woman to whom he revealed himself as the Messiah, and she testified to others. The Samaritans invited the Messiah to stay with them and he spent two days in their town. “And many more believed because of his word.”  Now that they have heard from the Messiah himself they no longer need the testimony of the woman. Now they can say, “we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” 4:42. John’s message is clearer now. In the missionary work of the church, people can hear the proclamation of the gospel directly or indirectly. They will come to believe and find redemption. To hear the word of proclamation is to be confronted by the Word of God, Jesus Christ. In this confrontation, the listener is allowed a moment of “soul review” that demands a response: to live in the flesh or to live in the spirit. To live in the spirit is eternal life, lived under the light of Christ and in the eternal presence of the divine. It is a choice between Jacob’s well and living water. Just as the woman had to stand before the Messiah and receive the revelation so also must the others. It is only in the presence of the divine that we can say with certainty “this is indeed the Savior of the world.” Something similar plays out at the crucifixion, when the centurion, in Mark 15:39, and the crowds, in Matthew 27:54 who stood facing Jesus on the cross, said, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”

Now I must take up 4:31-38. I am not sure what John intended in this passage. It does not seem to fit in here; it has no relationship to what has gone before and what comes after. It seems to be made up of a kind of parable that contains local proverbs or wisdom sayings.  The disciples have returned from their shopping trip. They offered Jesus something to eat. Jesus replied, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” The disciples misunderstand him and wonder if someone has brought him something to eat. Creating contexts of misunderstanding is one of the literary techniques of John. I wonder if John is saying that not only the Samaritan woman, but even the disciples of Jesus do not understand him. But just as with the Samaritan woman, the lack of understanding on the part of the disciples provides an opportunity for Jesus to define himself and his mission. In 4:34 Jesus replied, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” What is this will? It seems as if the will of God has been presented in 3:16-19. The “will of him who sent me” has to do with the bringing of eschatological salvation to those who believe in him. This is confirmed in 6:38-40. “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, and raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes inn him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” It follows, therefore, that the “work” of God that Jesus is to accomplish is salvation defined by “eternal life” and rising up “at the last day.”

Jesus says that this is what he has been sent to do. In 4:38 Jesus tells his disciples “I sent you to reap.” The sending of the disciples, the basis of apostleship, has its foundation in the sending of the Son of God. The proclamation of redemption which constitutes the “work” of the disciples is nothing other than the work of eschatological redemption that Jesus is accomplishing.The work of Jesus and his disciples is described in 4:35-38 as a harvest. There is a time for sowing and a time for harvesting. The sowing has been accomplished and “the fields are already white for harvest.”  The harvesters will reap “the fruit of eternal life.” One sows, another reaps. “He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit of eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.” 4:36. Rejoicing is a characteristic of redemption.

Verse 38 presents some exegetical problems. “I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”  I have pointed out that the sending of the disciples is established on the basis of the sending of Jesus. Why would Jesus send them to reap where they did not sow?  Who are these “others” who did the sowing? This may be understandable only from a later time during and after the development of the young church where missionaries had built churches that were later led by others. If this is so, it reflects John’s understanding of the missionary impulse to build churches and then to move on to other areas where they were ready to sow the gospel.

While I still cannot fit this passage into the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, the passage does make clear the whole mission of the church. This may be John’s way of saying, “Go therefore into all the world, making disciples of all nations.”

 

 

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SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT – THE PEOPLE’S VICTOR


SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT- 2017 – John 3:1-17

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 3:2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3:3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 3:4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  3:5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 3:7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 3:8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 3:9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 3:10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 3:11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 3:12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel. Today, he will be a teacher of the Church. He arrives to reveal to us what only he can reveal. He knows! That’s what he said to Jesus. He knows who Jesus is. He knows that Jesus has come from God. He knows that Jesus has done signs (miracles). He knows that Jesus is empowered by the presence of God. Nicodemus is a keen observer. From his observation, he draws conclusions. With his conclusions, he develops an idea. With this idea in mind he approaches Jesus. This is good scientific reasoning. Nicodemus has come to Jesus with a body of knowledge that allows him to enter into a conversation with Jesus. This is not simply a conversation. It is in effect a profound spiritual journey into which Nicodemus is initiated by Jesus. We who witness by sight and hearing become participants, students of a divine teacher gently leading a human teacher into a revelation from heaven.  On this spiritual journey, Nicodemus will grow from a man who knows Jesus based on his miracles, to a man who finds faith, based on God’s grace.

The event I am exploring describes a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. I personally believe that the story of Nicodemus ends at verse 10, which is the real end of the dialogue. The rest of the verses through 17 go on to speak about the Son of Man, who is a person quite different from Jesus himself, as the conversation at this point is in the third person. The writer has created this dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus to make a particular point about the nature of the kingdom of God and redemption. As the dialogue progresses, we get a good picture of who Nicodemus is and who Jesus is.

Nicodemus – his name means “the people’s victor.” (Is not Jesus also the people’s victor?) It is a common name, but not much is known of this particular individual. However, what is known about him reveals him as a man of singular courage. He is a Pharisee, a member of a religious group that regularly challenged Jesus on points of law and practice. He is also a leader of the Jews, an “archon” which means that he is a member of the Sanhedrin, the institution of justice for the people of Israel. He is called a “teacher of Israel,” which means that he is a scribe. After the crucifixion, he provides one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare the body of Jesus for burial. It is clear that Nicodemus is a man of great authority, learning, position and wealth. From this I conclude that it was not only the common people who listened to, and followed Jesus. People in authority like Nicodemus certainly showed an interest in him, and were probably filled with questions that troubled their souls. It is from this sector of the religious community that Nicodemus sought out Jesus. I am convinced that he does not come for his own sake only, but he appears before Jesus as a representative of the group to which he belonged, and which was certainly troubled by the activity of Jesus.

It is unimportant that he comes to Jesus “by night,” as if to say he does not want to be seen in the presence of Jesus. As a representative of his faith community he did not need the cover of darkness to speak with Jesus. The Pharisees challenged Jesus openly regularly, without fear of consequences. However, by the end of the gospel, we get an insight into the history of Nicodemus which reveals the kind of a man he was. Later in the gospel, in 7: 50-51, Nicodemus will defend Jesus in the Sanhedrin, of which he was a member, and such an action may have incurred the wrath of other members. It is clear that the Sanhedrin wanted to know who Jesus was, and what his mission was, but also that they could not reach a decision. Nicodemus insists that matters about Jesus be decided on points of law. Nicodemus will appear again after the death of Jesus in 19:39f. where he will join Joseph of Arimathea in removing the body of Jesus from the cross and preparing it for burial. Nicodemus brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes with which to do this, which indicates that he is also a person of means. This is the extent of what is known about Nicodemus. The fact that he comes to Jesus with questions means that he knows something about what Jesus had been doing. It is clear from the way he began the conversation that he is aware of the activity of Jesus, and that these activities, especially the miracle at Cana and the cleansing of the temple. Through his understanding of these activities, Nicodemus formed an idea of who Jesus is. What Nicodemus knows of Jesus is that he is a worker of miracles. His entire knowledge of Jesus was based on the fact that Jesus performed miracles.

Nicodemus addresses Jesus as Rabbi. He is aware (“we know”) that Jesus has performed signs and that these prove that “God is with him.” This is reminiscent of the Prologue where “the Word was with God,” and the Word became flesh. The story of Nicodemus takes us back to the beginning, and this is one of the most important features of this story. One may say that the meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus was itself the prologue to the rest of his life. He approaches with a question, but before Nicodemus can ask his question Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew.” The kingdom of God is used only here in this passage in the gospel. It is a common idea in the synoptic gospels. Jesus says unless one is born anew he cannot see (verse 3) or enter (verse 5) the kingdom of God. The preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus in the Synoptics begins with “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  However, “repent” and “born anew” do not share the same content. Nowhere in John do we find the term “repent.” (metanoia). The writer, however, is not alone in his use of “born anew.” The term occurs in I Peter 1: 3, 23; and Titus 3:5. It appears, then, that the idea of being born anew was already a part of the vocabulary of the young church.

Does Jesus read the mind of Nicodemus? I don’t believe so. Jesus is called Rabbi, and Nicodemus is called a teacher of Israel. They are both aware of words and meanings in the faith that is common to them. When Nicodemus says no one can do these things unless “God was with him,” that statement is identical to “no one can do these things unless he is already living in the kingdom of God.”  Nicodemus knows that Jesus already participates in the kingdom of God on the basis of the signs that Jesus has done. Jesus perceives that Nicodemus’ unspoken question is “how does one come to belong to the kingdom of God?” Jesus replies, you must be born anew. This translation is the most appropriate and most accurate translation of the Greek word “anothen.” In others parts of the gospel the word certainly can be translated “from above” as in 3:31; 19:11, and 19:23. There are other such occurrences in the synoptic gospels also. Jesus is saying that this present creation that gave birth to Nicodemus holds no possibility of allowing him entrance into the kingdom of God. Hence, Nicodemus must be born in a way different from this creation. The meaning of “anew” is that Nicodemus must have a completely new origin, a completely new beginning, because that is the only way into the kingdom of God. Just as Jesus is from the beginning so also must be Nicodemus.

The gospel of John is quite different from the Synoptic gospels on this point. This gospel does not know of the tradition of the virgin birth. Jesus has always existed from the beginning and it is as “the beginning” that he enters into human history. In other words, Jesus enters the sphere of the human as the Alpha, and it is as the Alpha he discloses the nature and presence of the kingdom of God. Chapter 3 must be read in light of the Prologue of the gospel. “In the beginning was the Word,” and the beginning in this context is not a point of time. The beginning is the incipient source of all that has come to be. The beginning, where the new emerges and comes to stand, is presented to Nicodemus as being born “anew.” It is to this source that Jesus points Nicodemus. You must be born from that which is new and which always remains new because it is from that source that the kingdom of God emerges and manifests itself among humans. No wonder that Nicodemus is astonished. His mind could not comprehend the dimension of Spirit to which Jesus points. He is not only astonished; he is completely confused. Nicodemus’ question in verse 4 indicates that he does not understand what Jesus has just said. At the same time the impossibility of the idea of natural rebirth shows clearly that what is at issue is not a physical matter but something transcendent. Nicodemus is still very much a part of this present creation, the natural world from which it is impossible to be born anew. He cannot understand rebirth in any way other than physical. Jesus invites Nicodemus to expand his thinking, to entertain a different point of view, to see his life from a different perspective.

In 3:5 Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” This is the word of hope that Nicodemus hears for the first time. The testimony of John the Baptist in 1:32-34 about Jesus, brings together baptism and Spirit. Jesus clarifies for Nicodemus what he means by being “born anew.” Jesus does not refer to baptism in this passage. It is very likely that the phrase “born of water” was not an original part of the story but was inserted much later in the developmental stages of the gospel. The gospel of John does not have an interest in sacraments, so it is unlikely that what is implied here is some idea of baptism. It is likely that Jesus tells Nicodemus that entry into the kingdom of God is through the Spirit.  Here the Spirit is not some kind of disembodied entity that is at work in the world. It is the power present in Jesus, 1:12, that Nicodemus has seen in the signs that Jesus performed. Spirit proper is none other than God acting to renew and transform the life of Nicodemus, and therefore also of the church. Spirit is creative activity and transformative power, and both point to Christian life determined by a power that is other than itself. Jesus is saying that to be born anew is to be born of the Spirit. The Spirit is the origin and primal source of all that is and if Nicodemus is to participate in the kingdom of God he must come to understand that born anew and born of the Spirit and the kingdom of God are all one and the same thing: to be thrown forward by the beginning which is present in every “now” making new all creation that will finally be revealed as “Spirit.” The answer that Jesus gives is that only the power of the divine can bring about the new birth and that the real content of power is Spirit. Verse 6 presents contrasting worlds. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of Spirit is spirit.”

Nicodemus stands in the world of flesh. As long as his life is determined by flesh he will dwell within chaos, the inevitable disorder of his world and his existence, and ultimately everlasting death. At the same time, Nicodemus by his own self or will cannot choose the life of the Spirit. Life in the flesh cannot break out of itself; it can be only what it already always is: the inevitable march towards death. Life in the Spirit is given to him only as a free gift of God, and that is being born anew, an act whose origin lies beyond his present sphere of existence.

Jesus tells Nicodemus “Do not be astonished that I said to you ‘you must be born anew.’”  I stand with Nicodemus in that I am astonished at what I am hearing. This makes no sense to one who lives according to the flesh. Like Nicodemus, I marvel that what I have heard so far convinces me that this new birth, which is another name for salvation, is beyond my reach. Such an idea leads to the anxiety of despair. It confronts Nicodemus with the existential certainty of death. From this certainty, begin the stirrings within his soul to seek life. Jesus consoles an anxious Nicodemus by using what is known to explain the unknown. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound if it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The example is one of origin and destiny. Whoever is born of the Spirit has a past and a future that inhabits the unknown but is nevertheless present because it can be experienced. The Spirit must move in order to survive. Spirit exists in movement. When it comes to rest, it dies. The spirit goes where it wills. That is its nature. It seeks out what is new, different, excitingly dangerous, taking risks to be true to itself, always challenging whatever affects us to grow us to maturity. The spirit is the playful play of futurity, daring to release from lingering the things that surreptitiously bondage us to what is merely time. The spirit is the adversary of time, of the reasonableness of quotidian accidents whose aspirations to divine will or named tragedy inevitably fail. Spirit remains spirit only as the untamed, the radical uprooting of all anchorage, the absolute freedom to will itself multitudes of divergences from the normal. Spirit has no norm, resists norming, as norming breeds permanence and conditioned definitions that seek to set the frame for freedom as community. Spirit grants a reckless, restlessness to community without which there is neither liberty nor redemption. Spirit is fulness, here, there, everywhere pervading where the human stands and takes a stand. Spirit is the transcending futurity that invites what is next and proximate to become, linger, pass. Spirit brings about what comes to pass, so that in its passing it creates a clearing for the new to dawn. Spirit is the dawning of what is new and needs to be told for the first time. Spirit is the human story, still unfolding, spreading across the expanse of soul into tomorrow. This is what is troubling to Nicodemus. He is not easily consoled. For the second time he asks, “How can these things be?” Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel; he carries within himself the content of the definition of Israel. However, that content still belongs to the natural world, under the real threat of existential annihilation, the existence in the flesh. There is nothing in life after the flesh that can understand what it is like to live in the Spirit. On this spiritual journey, Nicodemus is faced with a choice: flesh or Spirit, death or life.

I believe that verse 11 onwards is no longer part of the dialogue. Now, Jesus instructs Nicodemus about something different. In verse 11 Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; but you do not receive out testimony.” The singular personal pronoun is replaced by the plural. Jesus speaks of “we.” There are serious problems with this verse, and it has been suggested that it does not belong here. I’m not sure that I can make sense of it. In 3:2 Nicodemus came to Jesus saying “we know” even though he seemed to be speaking for himself. Is Jesus using the same linguistic technique? Perhaps the “we” refers to the early church that is bearing witness to the “world,” and the world does not receive this witness. In the Prologue, “he came to his own people and his own received him not.” It seems as if both the testimony and the bearer of the testimony are rejected. In the next verse Jesus returns to the singular pronoun speaking of “earthly things” and “heavenly things.”

What constitutes “earthly things,” and “heavenly things”? This is not made clear since Jesus has been speaking so far only of being born anew. Is being born anew a heavenly thing? The contrast is again flesh and Spirit, below and above, earth and heaven. This verse stands as a transition to the next thought. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” It is by descent, by the downward movement of the soul, by its seeking out anchorage and grounding, that it can cast its vision upwards. That the soul is grounded, cleaving itself in its primal substance, is its hope of arising. The writer is using Gnostic imagery and ideas to present his message. This makes it likely that his congregation was aware of these ideas and even that Gnostic beliefs were already a part of the practice of the church, as Paul discovered in his own ministry at Corinth. Jesus speaks of the Son of Man in the third person. He seems to create some space between himself and the Son of Man, and I believe that this space is meant to be filled by faith. It is faith that allows the believer to see in Jesus the Son of Man. In the ascent of the Son of Man to heaven, presumably something that will be witnessed, that faith will arise. Perhaps verse 13 is what constitutes heavenly things. However, it is difficult to make sense of an ascent that comes before a descent. It appears in this verse that the ascension, glorification of the Son of Man is spoken as prior to the incarnation, the descent into humanity under the conditions of flesh. If the Son of Man is to be exalted, is it not because first of all “the word became flesh”? In any case, incarnation and exaltation belong together theologically.

The following verses seem to attempt an explanation. In 3:15 the image of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness is compared to the lifting up of the Son of Man. His being lifted up is another way of expressing his ascent or exaltation. Again, the writer is using something that is known (the story of the bronze serpent) to explain what is unknown (the exaltation of the Son of Man). But this at once presents another difficulty, for the serpent and the Son of Man have nothing in common. It appears that the writer uses this analogy awkwardly to introduce a new concept. Now, “whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The writer has transitioned from “born anew,” to the “kingdom of God,” to “eternal life.” Eternal life is a comprehensive concept that integrates within itself all that has been said so far. The writer has been moving his readers gradually from unbelief to the possibility of belief. He is saying now that the possibility exists for them to believe in heavenly things, which is none other than eternal life.

Life in the Spirit is accomplished in the incarnation and exaltation of the Son of Man. Being born of the Spirit is now finally defined as eternal life. This is confirmed in 3:16. It becomes clear now that the Son of Man is none other than “his only Son.” The divine motive is also made clear: the work of the Son is the result of the love of the Father. The ascent and descent of the Son, his incarnation and exaltation, constitute the work of salvation. God has sent his Son to save the world not to judge it. Salvation comes about through the love of God. The writer of the gospel presents the story of Nicodemus to unravel for the young church the meaning of eternal life. Like many new members, Nicodemus has come to Jesus seeking answers. From his later actions in the gospel, defending Jesus before the Sanhedrin and providing for his burial, I conclude that he became a follower of Jesus. Through his conversation with Jesus, we get an insight into who he is and who Jesus is. He is therefore not only a teacher of Israel, but also a teacher of the Church.

He came to Jesus on the basis of knowledge based on miracles. He discovers that even miracles cannot be the foundation of faith, for faith itself in order to be authentic can never have a foundation. Faith is the way in which the soul understands itself, as that which is always self-surrender, in order to uncover a more original ground that turns out to be self-reflective. Faith must surrender itself repeatedly to sustain the original ground. Faith is not cumulative, nor does it accumulate. It constantly sheds whatever adheres in order to be true to itself as “pistis,” that which alone can know itself, its true nature, faith. This faith understands that it can never have a foundation and still remain faith. Faith nurtures itself through its self-surrender. On his spiritual journey, Nicodemus discovers that true life is life in the Spirit and of the Spirit. He discovers that this life is offered to his him as the free gift of God and is appropriated by faith alone. This is what it means to be born anew. The Church today continues to be the place where people are born anew through water and the Spirit. The Church, whose essential nature is the transcendental presence of the Holy Spirit, is the voice of the redeemer calling out to the world, come, be born anew, receive eternal life. Live!

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THE FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT  – THE TEMPTATION OF JESUS


THE FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT  – THE TEMPTATION OF JESUS

Matthew 4: 1-11

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 4:2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 4:3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4:4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” 4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 4:6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” 4:7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 4:9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 4:10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” 4:11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Deut. 6:4-5. Matthew’s use of Deuteronomy 6 in the narrative of the Temptation indicates that he would have known the Shema. I interpret the Temptation as a singular event in the life of Jesus, but at the same time an event that never distances itself from him nor he from it. The Temptation is a transcendent event. I will address this matter in more detail later. Because it is transcendent, it is it is always present, illuminating Matthew’s narrative motive and meaning. It culminates in an eschatology of cosmic inclusiveness reaching forward to a mission of baptism of all nations, backwards to the baptism of Jesus that occasioned the Temptation, sustained by the promise, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” 28:19-20. On a separate note, I believe that the Passion narrative is superimposed over the Temptation, for which it is but a summary and an indication of what is to follow, and whose silent message is always that Jesus is victor not victim.

The Temptation was not originally a unit as is evidenced by the way it is treated in the several traditions. Mark and John have no interest in the Temptation. Mark barely mentions it as if to say that the Passion story suffices. It is apparent that Mark does not know of the version in the Q Document. John never mentions the Temptation. Both Matthew and Luke use the Q Document, but Luke’s version is almost exactly that of Q. Matthew makes a number of changes for apologetic and didactic reasons. He expands the dialogue between Jesus and the devil. He reverses the last two temptations. Matthew also knows Mark’s version, as is evidenced by the mention of the angels in Matt. 1:11. The primary apologetic reason for the narrative of the Temptation is to demonstrate, as does the baptism of Jesus, that Jesus submits totally and unconditionally to the will of the divine. Beyond this, the Temptation narrative reveals nothing new about Jesus that has not been known up to this point. As a result, it has always been a puzzle as to the reason for this narrative, and scholars will continue to debate it. However, the story encourages, and even demands that the early Christian church behave in a similar manner in the face of all the challenges and persecutions they faced daily. An exploration of the gospel discloses that Matthew addresses doctrinal and administrative matters that were affecting the development and functioning of his congregation. The narrative of the temptation of Jesus is one such event through which the evangelist speaks to his church. On a broader note, Matthew is presenting his gospel as the narrative of the new creation. He has both Genesis and Deuteronomy in mind in the Temptation. In addition to Deuteronomy, Matthew must have known of the story of manna from heaven in Exodus 16, and of the temptation of the Lord in Exodus 17. He is drawing upon the history of the Jews to insist upon his didactic message to his congregation. A new creation story requires a new humanity, and Matthew intends to offer a theological anthropology that will define his understanding of a new humanity. At the heart of that anthropology is Matthew’s view of discipleship that I have addressed in earlier postings,  that will form the foundation of his missiology, the redemption of the whole world. I believe that Matthew revises the Temptation narrative that he found in the Q Document for apologetic and didactic purposes, to prepare the disciples and the young church for the difficulties ahead.

Matthew begins his narrative by identifying Jesus. He is the son of Abraham, 1:1, and Matthew intends Jesus as the fulfilment of all the promises made to Abraham. (Gen. 12: 1-3; 17:5-7). The wise men of the east call Jesus “the king of the Jews,” and they came “to worship him,” Mt. 2:2. When they found him, “they fell down and worshiped him.” Mt. 2:11. One may pledge loyalty and obedience to a king, but does one worship him? The word for worship, proskuneo, is used with reference to Jesus nine times in Matthew, hence it holds special importance. The devil will use this same word in 4:4, demanding that Jesus worship him. Matthew must mean something quite specific with this incident. He is saying that Jesus is the son of Abraham, but he is more than that. Matthew clarifies that, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” 2:15. Jesus is son of Abraham, inheriting the promises, and he is the son of God. In the scene of the baptism of Jesus,  as well as the Transfiguration, the identification of Jesus is more pronounced. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” For Matthew, the identity of Jesus is settled, the Divine itself has announced it. Consequently, in what follows, I shall focus on what the devil demands of Jesus: command these stones to become bread; cast yourself down from the pinnacle; fall down and worship me.

The ideas presented here lead me to the conclusion that the Temptation of Jesus is not intended to affirm the identity of Jesus. That is an established fact for Matthew. He has demonstrated it through genealogy, 1:1-17. He has shown it through history, “in the days of Herod the king,” 2:1. It makes a difference whether one believe that Matthew himself has constructed the narrative of the Temptation or has adapted it from Q. The latter has no interest in Jesus as the Son of God. For Q, it is enough that Jesus is identified as the Son of Man. Matthew clearly identifies Jesus as the Son of God. It is as the Son of God that Jesus enters the desert and is tempted. However, Jesus was not alone in the desert. He was led out there by the Spirit that descended upon him at his baptism. After the Temptation, the angels came and ministered to him.

The First Temptation: Everything that takes place in the Temptation narrative does so under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was in the desert, fasting for forty days and forty nights, at the end of which he was hungry. Moses was on the mountain with God forty days and forty nights, “he neither ate bread nor drank water,” fasting as he received the commandments. Ex.34:28. Matthew would have known this. The Pharisee in Luke 18:12 boasted that he fasted twice a week. He was fulfilling the minimum requirements of the law. Fasting and hunger are not words used lightly. They tell us something important if we listen intently. In the pre-Pauline hymn in Philippians 2, Christ emptied himself so that he became fully human. Fasting in the desert and emptying himself conceal a truth that needs to be revealed. This first Temptation is not simply about turning stones into bread. It is not a challenge to the authority and identity of Jesus. Hunger in this context is not a metaphor. It was real for Jesus, and it might have been real for the church. The devil says, “Command these stones to become loaves of bread.” He is demanding that Jesus change what God has made. This is the essence of this Temptation: the devil tempts Jesus to take God’s place, to dislodge the divine and to assume its place. This is exactly what the devil wishes for himself. The devil himself wants to replace the divine.  Jesus rejects the demand. This creation is a gift from God, the stones are a gift from God, but only so long as they remain what they were intended to be. Is not Jesus himself stone also? “The very stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” 21:42. In 7:9 Jesus says, “Who among you, if your son asks for bread, would give him a stone?” Stones and bread are both gifts from God, having different purposes. Jesus is both stone and bread, yet he has a singular purpose, to be himself in the act of accomplishing the purpose for which he was sent. (The changing of water into wine at the Marriage at Cana in John’s Gospel calls for a different analysis in the context of the meaning of that Gospel). Bread is a daily gift from God, so we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” In 26:26 Jesus took bread and said to his disciples, “Take, eat, this is my body.” Jesus, the bread of life, the bread from heaven, gives himself as a gift to his disciples and to the church. He who is bread itself does not need to make stones into bread. He is stone and bread. He is self-sustaining and self-nurturing and for this reason he can fast for forty days and nights. He empties himself; he is hungry; he gives himself as a gift to be consumed by his disciples and the church. The Church does not exist as rocks and trees exist. Its roots can reach only so far into the earth before it becomes “earthly” and loses its divine transcendent nature. The Church is always temporary housing for lost souls that come seeking its redemptive shelter. It is not and cannot be permanent upon the earth, without losing its fluidity of water and Word that called it into being. As transient, the Church is always the wilderness that beckons to a world in search of its soul, speaking with the voice of the living Christ, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give your rest for your souls.” The temptation of the Church is always to silence the voice of the living Christ.

The Second Temptation: The devil takes Jesus to the holy city, and up to the pinnacle of the temple. It is somewhat curious that the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert and the devil leads Jesus to the holy city and the temple. There will be another time when Jesus will enter the holy city to the shouts, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord!” But for the present, Jesus is accompanied by the devil. Now he commands Jesus, “Cast yourself down.” He whose name, dia-bolos, meaning “the one cast down” (Luke 10:18; Rev. 12:9; John 12:31), wants Jesus to join him as one cast down. He wants Jesus to share his fate. If Jesus were to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, he would be giving up his life in the holiest place. Jerusalem is the center of the world; it is the place from which salvation will go out to all parts of the world. It is the scene of the final struggle between the divine and the demonic in a great apocalyptic event. That is what we are told in the Revelation of John. We are also told that in the new creation John “saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb.” Rev. 21:22. He who is himself the temple cannot cast himself down. But for the moment, in the scene of the Temptation, all of this is hidden. It will be revealed at the appropriate time.

The didactic content that Matthew wants to communicate here is this: danger lurks even in the holy city and the holy temple. But where danger exists, the church can be assured that the Lord God will deliver the people. The devil knows this. He can quote scripture to support this. The devil himself was cast down, not of his own will, but by the will of the divine and the divine did not send angels to deliver him. Perhaps he himself was unsure that God would deliver Jesus. And this uncertainty is something that might have prevailed in Matthew’s congregations. He had to provide an answer that would inspire the faith of the members of his church. Matthew is warning the members of his church that danger lurks in the church itself, as Paul saw so clearly in many of his congregations. He is encouraging them to be careful and to continue trusting that God will deliver them from internal and external dangers. He does this by showing how Jesus faced such dangers and overcame them by trusting in the word of the Lord. Indeed, Jesus will later give up his life in a holy place, but not at the command of the devil. For the moment, this too is hidden from the public.

Jesus says, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” Matthew is cautioning his church not to tempt the Lord by any show of unfaithfulness or doubt. They are living in critical times, and they need to be careful of their words and their actions. The young church has just discovered new life in Christ, and they know that it is difficult to practice their faith in public. Matthew has constructed the narrative of the Temptation in this way to teach his church that they must not surrender their life to the temptation of the world. The devil asks Jesus to surrender his life, to give it up, in fact, to attempt suicide if his faith is so strong that God would deliver him. Matthew is saying that the dangers and trials which the church faces must be dealt with in the same way that Jesus rebuffed the devil. I find it curious that the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and asks him to sacrifice himself by jumping off the pinnacle. Jerusalem is the place where the Spirit will lead Jesus to the cross, to be lifted up, and then after a while to be taken down by his disciples and then again to be lifted up by the Spirit in the resurrection. The devil’s task is to cast down; the Spirit’s task is to lift up. One may pray to God, “Deliver us from evil,” but one may not tempt God by willing evil and then tempting God for deliverance. Matthew’s apologia is that God will certainly deliver the faithful.

The Third Temptation: The devil takes Jesus to a very high mountain. Luke’s version has no mountain. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the kosmos, the natural world. In Luke, Jesus is shown the oikoumene, the populated kingdoms. “All these I will give you if you will bow down and worship me.” We may recall that all the kingdoms of the natural world have already been given to God’s first son, Adam, Genesis 1:26-31. These kingdoms are not the devil’s to give. What is Matthew trying to teach his church with the use of this Temptation? The Q Document which is Matthew’s source for this, originated in the Palestinian Christian community. Perhaps some of the newer members who have come from Hellenistic backgrounds are not accustomed to a monotheistic faith. Some of them did not have a sense of a transcendent God who was at the same time imminent. We learn this from Paul who speaks of the people “who do not know God.” I Thess. 4:5. It is because of monotheistic preaching that these people “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God.” I Thess. 1:9. See also Gal. 4:8-9.

Note that in this third Temptation the devil does not say, “If you are the Son of God.” The Temptation is intended for a broader audience. I believe that Matthew is using a didactic technique that is intended to teach his church that the world will indeed offer them many things that are not theirs to offer to draw them away from their new-found faith. Later, in the Revelation of John, we will discover that Jesus will defeat Satan and everything will indeed be delivered to Jesus. Matthew is encouraging his church to be patiently faithful in these critical times and that their faith will be rewarded in time to come. In Rev. 2:20, the church at Smyrna which is under tribulation is told, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life.” Matthew is teaching a lesson about the strength and persistence of faith.

How shall we understand the episode of the testing of Jesus? Twentieth century scholarship saw the Temptation of Jesus as a carefully written haggadah, a public disputation between two authorities with different points of views. In the Palestinian Christian church where the narrative of the Temptation originated, there must have been many such open disputations, challenging the new faith that attracted so many people from a variety of cultures. The narrative of the Temptation seems to have been an apologia for the defense of the faith. Matthew re-worked his source to address the concerns of his own congregation.

The devil is certainly not a flesh and blood adversary standing before Jesus challenging him, as for example the Pharisees and Sadducees did. What are we to make of the dialogue? Is it really a monologue between two distinct personas of Jesus? How to understand all this? I believe that Matthew has presented the Temptation of Jesus as an ecstatic apocalyptic vision in which Jesus is caught up, as John was in Rev. 1:10. John was “in the Spirit,” when he was caught up. Jesus entered this episode after the Holy Spirit had descended upon him, and he was led by the Spirit for forty days. When the testing was over, “angels came and ministered to him.” See also Paul’s apocalyptic vision, 2 Cor. 12. The demonic is hostile to the divine. An apocalyptic vision does not need to include each and every item that defines the content of apocalyptic. Mark 13 is an example of this. The young church was aware of such apocalyptic visions, and incorporated them into their worship as in Paul and the Apocalypse of John. Here in Matthew, there is a supernatural entity offering itself in place of the divine. There is symbolic apocalyptic language, the kingdom of this world as opposed to the Kingdom of God. There is also transport of the visionary without leaving the scene as in Revelation. There is a gradual progression within the narrative that culminated in the victory of the divine.

The Temptation of Jesus is a singular event, (apocalyptic visions by nature cannot be repeated, only re-told), a story that transcends time and place and uniqueness of meaning. It is a singular event that inhabits every proclamation, every “now” of the church. The church always exists in the context of temptation, that is, the church always exists in contexts of choices. As long as we can believe with Jesus, we too will transcend the divisions that challenge the church each day, each moment. We can never forget that the life of the church is a life of choosing.  In Deut. 30:19 we read, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses; therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and cleaving to him.” Later, Joshua will say to the people, “choose this day whom you will serve…as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” 24:15. Matthew adds his voice to theirs. Now is the day of salvation!

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THE TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD


THE TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD  –  Matthew 17:1-9

“The future ain’t what it used to be.” Yogi Berra

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 17:2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 17:3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 17:4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 17:5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 17:6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 17:7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 17:8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 17:9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Matthew has used the tradition of the Transfiguration in Mark 9:2-10. As is his custom, Matthew follows Mark with significant changes. In 17:1, Matthew leaves out the word “apart” which Mark has used perhaps to emphasize the patently private event. In verse 2, Matthew adds, “and his face shone like the sun.” Regarding the clothing of Jesus, Mark says that they became dazzling white, “such that no one on earth could bleach them.” Matthew leaves out this description. In verse 3, Matthew reverses the names Moses and Elijah, and does not name Jesus, as does Mark. In verse 4, Peter addressed Jesus as “Lord” whereas Mark says “Rabbi.” Peter volunteered himself to make three dwellings, while in Mark Peter says, “Let us make three dwellings.” Mark adds, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Matthew leaves this out. Matthew’s verse 5 is more explicit than Mark. “While he (Peter) was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them.” Mark says simply, “Then a cloud overshadowed them.” To the voice from the cloud, Matthew adds, “with him I am well pleased.” Matthew adds verses 6-7 to Mark’s account. Verse 8 in Matthew is almost the same as verse 8 in Mark. This is where Mark’s version of the Transfiguration ends. Matthew adds verse 9, asking the disciples not to speak of the event “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Ever since the early twentieth century, Biblical scholars have interpreted the Transfiguration as a resurrection story that was placed earlier in the narrative of Jesus. It has been pointed out that the sixth day mentioned in verse 1 is associated with the Epiphany, when the calendar days are counted from the day of the crucifixion. It is also likely that the story originally was told only about Jesus, and that later the names of the disciples were added as the tradition developed. Matthew’s Transfiguration narrative also shows elements of a theophany. The scene is on a mountain, the event is accompanied by bright light, cloud, shadow and a voice from the cloud. However, this in itself does not make the event a theophany. In the context of New Testament apocalyptic, such descriptions may have been a normal part of the recitation of stories from the life of Jesus. While the Transfiguration is not a theophany, it certainly is an apocalyptic event in the life of Jesus. Luke’s version of the Transfiguration in 9:28-36 is much more detailed, and I believe in the interest of his theology of history.

Matthew begins his narrative by saying “six days later.” He and Mark are agreed on this, but Luke has it as eight days. Matthew dates the Transfiguration from the time of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, where Peter responded to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Matt. 16:16. Those intervening days are an important part of Matthew’s narrative. Jesus warns his disciples not to disclose his identity. He predicts his passion and resurrection. He rebukes Peter. He teaches his disciples self-sacrifice. He promises his disciples that soon, in their lifetime, the Son of Man will arrive with angels and with judgment. It seems as if all of these themes are rolled up into the story of the Transfiguration.

The mountain is not identified. It does not seem to make sense trying to identify it, because the only description is that it was “high.”. However, mountains are important in the history of Jesus. The mountain is where miracles can happen, Matt.17:20; 21:21. It is a place of nurture, where the shepherd feeds his flocks. Matt. 18:12. He is tempted on a mountain, Matt. 4:8. Jesus teaches on a mountain, Matt. 5:1. He goes to pray on a mountain, Matt. 14:23. He is transfigured on a mountain, Matt.17:1, and it is to a mountain that he invites his disciples to see him after he is raised from the dead, Matt.28:16.  It seems the natural thing for Jesus to do with his disciples when he takes them to the mountain to pray. After the confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus seems to need secrecy and isolation. In 16:21-23, he knows what will befall him, and he prepares himself for this by prayer. Of the three synoptic evangelists, only Luke 9:28, states that the purpose of going up the mountain was for prayer. That is assumed by Mark and Matthew, perhaps on good grounds, because it might have been the habit of Jesus to pray on mountains. After the celebration of the Passover (the Institution of the Last Supper), he and his disciples “went out to the Mount of Olives.” 26:30. Prayer was important in the life of Jesus and his disciples. It is likely that they prayed, as he did, regularly, and were not reluctant to learn different ways of praying. In Luke 11: 1, Jesus was at prayer. His disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” From this we learn that John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray. Then Jesus taught his disciples what is now known as the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus had belonged to the Baptist’s sect. He would have known the prayers that John taught his followers. Is it possible that the Lord’s Prayer could have originated in the Baptist’s sect? There is no evidence for that, but it is still an interesting question. Luke’s version is identical to that of the Q Document, and is likely the earliest available, though whether it is original or not cannot be ascertained. There are events that show the content of other prayers of Jesus. In Luke 22:31-32, Jesus prays for Simon Peter. “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail, and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Jesus does not pray only for himself, but for his disciples. In Luke 10:21; Matt. 11:25, Jesus prays, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” The prayers of Jesus are always for submission and obedience to the will of God. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was with Peter and the sons of Zebedee, praying. He was himself “grieved and agitated,” saying to his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even unto death.” Then going some distance from them, “he threw himself upon the ground and prayed.” It is clear from this that Jesus was agonizing over what was to befall him. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.” He prayed this same prayer three times before leaving the garden. There are other instances of Jesus teaching his disciples about prayer. Jesus emphasizes brevity and sincerity in prayer, Matt. 6:7. The one feature that is characteristic of all of his teaching on prayer is the eschatological hope of the kingdom in which the will of God is finally fulfilled. The one who comes to God in prayer submits to the divine obediently. Prayer is a request, a petition, a thanksgiving. Those who approach the divine in prayer do not expect to change the mind of the divine. They come offering up their will as a sacrifice, and asking that the divine will descend upon them and carry them day by day toward the fulfilment of God’s will for their lives. Prayer as submission and obedience to the divine will is at the same time confession. Every prayer is a confession because one cannot invoke the name of God by any other means than as a sinner who comes seeking grace and forgiveness. Jesus understands this. In Gethsemane, he throws himself upon the ground in the absolute condition of humility and obedience. From this grounding in humility he invokes the divine. Humility is the absolute rejection of what one is, of what one thinks that one is, of what one pretends to be, and empties oneself completely of will and desire, thought and action, even of the faintest hope that one has held. One can bring nothing of oneself to the altar of the Lord, for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it; for he has founded it.” Psalm 24:1. It is with this disposition of soul that Jesus ascended the mountain.

Jesus “took with him” his three disciples up the mountain by themselves. After this, another verb is used here and in Mark 9:1 in this special sense of “lead up.” In other New Testament passages it is related to lifting up of sacrifice, but this sense is not warranted in the narrative of the Transfiguration. The idea of going up the mountain was initiated by Jesus. In 16:24, he had told them, “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I have pointed out elsewhere that the essence of discipleship is to follow. His three disciples followed him up the mountain. Mark has “by themselves apart,” which may indicate that they were not the only ones on the mountain at that time. “And he was transfigured before them.”

This is decidedly an apocalyptic vision as a comparison with Rev. 1:14 would show. Jesus has called for repentance, because the kingdom of heaven had come near. In the kingdom of heaven believers are transformed already by their repentance. This is the content of the eschatological salvation that Jesus had promised his disciples. The Transfiguration of Jesus is a vivid demonstration of the transformation of the disciples. The disciples are allowed to see the Lord as he really is in his divine nature. Everything earthly about him falls away both in his body and in his garment. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” The benediction in Numbers 6:24-26 comes to mind. The idea is that an intensely bright light shines from within Jesus and surrounds him. According to the Numbers passage, through the shining of the face of the Lord upon the people, the name of the Lord is placed upon Israel. (Numbers 6:27) Light has something to do with naming, owning and identification. Here, the light reveals the presence of Moses and Elijah conversing with Jesus. In this apocalyptic vision, the celestial precursors are clearly seen by the three disciples. The Transfiguration is an event in which Jesus releases from within himself the Light that he, himself, is. He who is Light from before the beginning, who is himself the source of all light since the beginning, permits the disciples to behold him in the complete Otherness of his origin. Whatever meaning one associates with Moses and Elijah, from now on it is clear that only in the revelation of the Light of Christ can their meaning be uncovered. The Light of the Transfiguration reveals them talking with Jesus. In Luke 10:23-24, Jesus said to his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” However, the conversation is not noted. I wonder, did Moses and Elijah bring a message to Jesus? It is often said that Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets. For Matthew, the Law and the Prophets are the entire content of Scripture. But Moses and Elijah were known for other great things. Moses saved his people from slavery. Elijah saved his people from idolatry. In the Light of revelation, Scripture still speaks to us of salvation.

The Light of the Transfiguration that emanated from Jesus did not only reveal Moses and Elijah. The Light also encompassed Peter, James and John. They too are brought within its radiance. They too belong to the celestial vision. The Transfiguration of Jesus is not only about three persons; it is clearly about six persons standing within and under one Light. Peter, James and John are not merely witnesses to the Transfiguration. They are participants. That this is so is clearly demonstrated by the fact that Moses and Elijah were speaking with Jesus, and at the same time, Peter addressed Jesus. He said, “Lord, it is good for us to be here, if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Nothing is said about how Peter recognized Moses and Elijah, and perhaps nothing definitive can be said. I would like to suggest, however, that in this apocalyptic vision, everything that is necessary is immediately revealed to Peter and the other disciples. Peter did not recognize Moses and Elijah because he had some inner idea as to their identity. He recognized them because the Transfiguration is an event of revelation, and they were revealed to him as soon as they entered into the Light of Christ. The revelation brought the disciples completely into the event. They belong within the Transfiguration as much as Jesus, Moses and Elijah. They were “taken up” the mountain by Jesus for some reason, and one must seek within that Light to uncover why Jesus chose them to accompany him.

Peter’s suggestion to build dwellings indicates that he expects the heavenly company to remain with them on the mountain. Or, perhaps it is an expression of Peter’s fear that Jesus would depart from them along with Moses and Elijah. Whatever conclusion one reaches, it is clear that Peter did not want the event of the Transfiguration to come to an end. He understood the eschatological message that the kingdom of heaven had come near and he wanted to preserve it. This is one way of understanding Peter’s role here. Peter wants to preserve something to which he now belonged. The dwellings of which Peter speaks announce one thing clearly: the divine has come to dwell among human beings. This is how Peter understands the Transfiguration, and he speaks for the disciples. James and John are curiously silent throughout. This is an indication of the prominence given to Peter very early in the church. When he says that it is good that “we” are here, he refers to himself, along with James and John. He is not referring to Jesus, Moses and Elijah. The Transfiguration embodies the divine and the human. Peter recognizes the divine and wants to preserve its presence. It was Peter himself who six days earlier confessed to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The Transfiguration is the second revelation of the divinity of Jesus that has been given to Peter. Matt.16:17. In the confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus says he will build his church on this Rock. In the Transfiguration, six days later, it is Peter who wants to build.

The apocalyptic vision continued while Peter was still speaking with Jesus. For, “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’” There are phenomena that need exploration: the face of Jesus that shone like the sun; the dazzling white garments; the bright cloud. One may indeed inquire how it is possible for a “bright cloud” to “overshadow” anyone. I interpret the bright cloud as the encompassing light that emanated from the face of Jesus. In Exodus 40:34-38, the glory of the Lord settled upon the tabernacle as a cloud. In the same way, the “bright cloud” settled upon the six persons on the mountain of Transfiguration. In this apocalyptic vision, it is the glory of the Lord that descends upon and envelops them. In the intensity of its radiance they could see nothing. The Apostle Paul had a similar vision, recorded in Acts 9:1-9, in which he was blinded by a bright light, and remained blinded for three days. John the apocalyptist also had a similar vision, Revelation 1:9-20. In all three events, those who were caught up in the vision fell to the ground in fear. In all, temporary blindness was followed by hearing the voice of the divine. It was as if their sense of sight having been blessed by the vision, must now give way to their sense of hearing. In the early part of the vision they could hear nothing. Now, the glory of the Lord speaks from the cloud. “This is my Son, the Beloved.” In Matt. 3:17, the same words were uttered by “a voice from heaven” at the baptism of Jesus. The voice does not issue a call to mission to Jesus. It is addressed to the disciples. It is the divine affirmation of itself. The divine, which has entered fully into human history, announces that it has arrived, bearing a message, therefore, “Listen to him!” The Transfiguration of Jesus is at the same time the proclamation of Jesus. Transfiguration is proclamation.

The messenger is the message. This is something completely new upon the earth. And the message is freedom. Jesus is joined by two ancient prophets who had a message of freedom for their times. Jesus has a message of freedom for his time. The disciples are temporarily lifted from the earth and taken up into the vision. They see and participate in the ineffable momentarily. They cannot endure the presence of the divine for long. They fell to the ground in fear, but not until after they had heard the message. They had already heard from the lips of Peter, six days earlier, that Jesus is the Son of the living God. This did not cause them to fall to the ground in fear. But here on the mountain what they heard was something completely different. The divine had broken into the human dimension and had spoken directly to them. The word of God is nothing other than the divine itself. These disciples had an encounter with the divine itself, and they knew from their religious history that to encounter the divine face to face is sure and certain death. This was the true cause of their fear. How long they were in that condition is not known. What transpired between Jesus, Moses and Elijah in that interval is not known. All that is stated is that Jesus came to them, touched them, and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” His touch conveys the assurance that they are still alive and that he alone is with them on the mountain. The apocalyptic vision has come to an end. In it, Jesus and the three disciples were all transfigured, in different ways. They all descended the mountain with a message to announce to the world. They have been empowered by being in the transforming presence of the divine. They have heard the voice of the divine itself. They have become the first real listeners, the first to hear directly from the divine what the message is. “Listen to him!”

On the way down, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one of the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” The verb for “ordered” is quite strong having the sense of to forbid a specific thing from being disclosed. After Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus also warned the disciples not to announce that he was the Messiah. So far, his identity is known only to those closest to him. So also, the Transfiguration is an event that must remain undisclosed for a particular period of time, until after the resurrection. The Transfiguration reveals something specific, quite unlike the similar words used in the event of the baptism of Jesus. In the baptism, sonship was proclaimed publicly, the divine making known its presence. In the Transfiguration, Moses, Elijah and Jesus do not announce presence; what is new is that the divine announces that it is history; it has been present throughout human history but in a way that was not revealed until now. History is no longer to be determined by lawgivers and prophets, that is, by human authorities. Henceforth, history is determined solely by the divine. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!” History in the hands of the Beloved is sacred history, history transformed by the love that the divine grants to the earth. By sacred history we must now understand the term “absolution.” The Transfiguration is the welcoming absolution by means of which the divine embraces creation. It is the reclaiming of earth and world. The Transfiguration is therefore a direct challenge to the historical forces, that is, to the secular and religious authorities of the times. This challenge has to be issued only when the time is right, and that day as they were descending the mountain was not the right time for it.

Only after the resurrection, when the divine discloses that life arises anew wherever human beings bring death, will be meaning of the Transfiguration be revealed. Yogi Berra is right, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

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