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Iconostasis of Life

Father Alexander Schmemann wrote the following in his book, For the Life of the World:

“…And if I make this new life mine, mine this hunger and thirst of the Kingdom, mine this expectation of Christ, mine the certitude that Christ is Life, my very death will be an act of communion with Life.”

True Christianity can only exist among Christians who have not lost their hunger and thirst for the Kingdom – or better, of the Kingdom, as Schmemann wrote it. We are not hungry and thirsty for the Kingdom – in the sense that we are just waiting to get there, as if there is somewhere. What we need to experience is the hunger and thirst of the kingdom! The Kingdom of God is hungry and thirsty for us. Do we experience that longing in our lives? That is they key question for us who live in these treacherous times of desertion.

We sit around like the paralytic in today’s Gospel reading, waiting for someone to stir the waters, to bring life into a dying institution. But there is no life in institutions. Life is in each of us. Life is given to each of us from the tomb of Christ. Listen to another great theologian of the 20th century, Olivier Clément:

Death is an iconostasis

of the faces of our friends

so let him come who gives us death

as life in Eucharist.

An extraordinary statement. Death is an iconostasis of the faces of friends. Our lives are an iconostasis! And just as in the iconostasis in every Orthodox church, Christ is in the centre. So let him come who gives us death as life in Eucharist. Our lives and our deaths are not separate experiences. They are one. And they are united as Eucharist – as thanksgiving. In the Eucharist of every Liturgy we experience what Father Schmemann wrote: the hunger and thirst of the Kingdom…the expectation of Christ, who is Life…so that our deaths become acts of communion with Life. 

The iconostasis at Holy Trinity Church, Portland.

Here is Olivier Clément again, from his book L’Autre Soleil:

Clots of blood fall from the face of God and the Man of sorrows is resurrected. He and everything. Him in everything Everything in Him. The children of Rachel are resurrected, Lazarus leaps out of the tomb for good, the smell of roasted fish on the shores of the lake, the long hair of the harlot, that moment when he makes them lie down on the grass to receive from the five loaves, where Peter was forgiven, and every second of your wretched life where your veins were full of life: all is risen. Everything begins; one can try to love, since there is no more death, since death itself is full of God.


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Women of Freedom

I love the Gospel stories of the women who went to the tomb of Christ, especially the version in Mark’s Gospel (16:1-8). There is something almost comic about the women walking to the tomb, to anoint the body of Christ, and wondering who would roll the stone away from the tomb. Clearly they won’t be able to do it, and there are no men that they can count on. The men, the male disciples of Christ, are hiding, they are nowhere to be seen! But despite the impossible task that lies ahead of them, the women keep walking. They don’t let their minds get in the way of what their heart’s devotion urges them to do. Their minds obeyed their hearts. The words of doubt and argument were silenced and their action spoke. Their actions became prayer! 

(This painting appears to be by Herschel Pollard.)

Christians find it much easier to say, “I’ll pray for you,” than to reach out with tangible action and help someone in need and emotional support. Such ‘prayers’ count for little in the eyes of God. God is looking for Christians who walk to serve Christ, to anoint his ‘body’ wherever there is pain and need. Do not let the seeming impossibility of the task or your political preferences stop you from finding the tomb of Christ! The stone will be rolled for you! Trust that it will be. And in that trust is freedom. In their obedience to their duty to the ‘dead’ body of Christ, the women were the freest on the planet.

Søren Kierkegaard in one of his journals wrote:

The Christian is: the page of absolute majesty.

The only art is to worship absolutely – not in words and nonsense, in intricate prose or sonorous verse, but in acts of absolute obedience….to worship God absolutely in everything, always joyful, grateful, smiling.

But the fact is that the concept of the absolute and the image of absolute majesty have long since disappeared from Christendom. People have degraded God, drawn him down into the relativities and wretchedness of finite ends and purposes – foisted upon God the idea that world history is a matter of importance for him.

No, heavenly majesty is not majesty of this sort. The existence of a single Christian, if one does exist, concerns God more than all world-historical monarchies and empires and more than all the noise that we human beings have come up with and to which we attribute importance.

As always, Kierkegaard provokes radical thinking. He always used the word ‘Christendom’, as here, in a highly derogatory sense. For him, Christianity should have never become Christendom, a social-political entity marching through history hand in hand with empires and kings of all stripes. True Christian faith is obedience – not to church rules and regulations, which are prime products of Christendom – but obedience to one and one only: Jesus Christ. 

Orthodoxy in its true essence is not about rules and regulations; it is not the church as handmaid to earthly rulers. No, the real essence of Orthodoxy is freedom – freedom to experience God and the mystery of Christ in Liturgy, in sacraments, in prayer, in icons, in sacred music and chant, in the beauty of worship and earthly majesty. Freedom – not rules, not regulations, not bondage to history and old empires and ancient languages and cultural imperialism. And yet it is precisely bondage to the past that characterizes most Orthodox visions in the 21st century. For some people it works, for others it is a reason to escape and find freedom elsewhere. Tragic, because true Orthodox vision is all about freedom.

And in that vision is the only freedom that is worthy of the name freedom, and the only freedom that truly liberates human beings from all the lies – the brutal lies – of history and the rulers and powers of today. The tragedy is that very rarely do Orthodox people receive from their church leaders this message of ultimate freedom. So we construct myths of our own vainglory. 

Father Alexander Schmemann was one of the most prophetic Orthodox voices of the 20th century. He wrote this in his journal on February 1977:

I realize how spiritually tired I am of all this “Orthodoxism,” of all the fuss with Byzantium, Russia, way of life, spirituality, church affairs, piety, of all these rattles. I do not like any of them, and the more I think about the meaning of Christianity, the more it all seems alien to me. It literally obscures Christ, pushes him into the background.

Fr. Alexander at the Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy at St. Vladimir’s Seminary Chapel in the early 1980s.

Father Alexander Schmemann was at his best during the Paschal season, the season we are in now. And he perhaps sometimes saw himself like one of the myrrh-bearing women, going with absolute trust to an encounter with Christ. Those amazing women did not know they would meet the risen Christ; they didn’t even know how they would open the tomb to go in and anoint the body of their Lord. But they went, in beautiful obedience, in obedience to freedom! Sounds like a paradox? Obedience to freedom? Aren’t freedom and obedience opposites? Not when Jesus Christ is the source of the freedom and the one who receives the obedience. In Jesus Christ obedience becomes freedom. Those precious women were the freest people on the planet when they walked to the tomb.

Am I speaking nonsense? According to a Princeton University study quoted in Harper’s magazine, Facebook users who are over 65 are SEVEN times more likely to share fake news stories than Facebook users who are between 18 and 29. No wonder Donald Trump was elected president in 2016! Just think how easily people believe stuff that do not liberate their spirit, and how difficult it is to trust that Jesus can lead people to a life of true freedom in the beauty of obedience. The myrrh-bearing women thought they were going to anoint a dead body and they found life – life full of divine beauty and energy. We have been given life – life of divine beauty and energy – and have turned it into a dead relic. I want to be one of those women. Don’t you?

CHRIST IS RISEN! 


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Trinitarian Thoughts

I recently had lunch with a friend who has always impressed me with his knowledge of the Bible. Though I must admit – as I have also told him more than once – the Bible for him is mostly the letters of Paul. Nevertheless, with Paul as his anchor and guide he has in the past managed to delve deeply into the truths of the Christian revelation.

He shocked me, however, in this my latest encounter with him. He has come to a new understanding of the Christian message that excludes faith in Trinity or the divinity of Christ. So he is basically an Arian; and he did indeed refer to Arius and other ‘heretics’ of the first centuries as the heroes of the faith that he reveres.

To be truthful, I found myself agreeing with much of his exegesis that he used to support his new understanding. I also have sometimes questioned the dogmatic definitions of God as Trinity; they are too confident! But instead of denying the Trinity I prefer to resort to the apophatic approach that was very dear to those very same fathers of the church in the fourth century that established the doctrines of the Trinity.

Icon of the “Hospitality of Abraham” at the entrance of Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (Click to further enlarge)

The apophatic approach is the way of negation, which provides a defence against taking our doctrines as complete representations of God. So I have always seen the Trinity as a metaphor, an approximation in human terms of the ineffable. It should come as no surprise that the Orthodox tradition, though rich in iconographic representations, does not allow a literal icon of the Trinity. Though ‘icons’ of two men and a dove to represent Father, Son and Holy Spirit have crept in, in imitation of western paintings, the Orthodox tradition allows only one icon of the Trinity – and it is not even called an icon of the Trinity. That’s because it is not an icon of the Trinity. It is a representation of the scene in Genesis 18, where three men receive hospitality from Abraham and Sara. And thus the icon is called The Hospitality of Abraham. One such icon sits at the entrance to our church building in Portland, as our church is named Holy Trinity.

The text in Genesis 18 opens with the statement, “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre,” and then immediately goes on to say, “Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby.” So these three men were the Holy Trinity out for a walk in the desert? Highly unlikely. Were they angels, messengers and representatives of the Most High God? Probably – and the three figures are indeed shown with angelic wings in the icon. But they are also shown with definite identifiers of trinitarian ontology. The figure in the middle gives it away. The halo around his head has a cross inscribed within the circle and three Greek letters, ὁ ὢν. The cross and these three letters are inscribed within the halo in every icon of Jesus Christ. The reference of the cross is obvious, while the three letters form part of the self-identification of Jesus in Revelation 1:8 and Revelation 22:13. The next thing to notice is that the middle and third figures both incline their heads and bodies toward the first figure. Now we can complete our identification: The first figure on the left represents the Father, the middle figure is the Son, and the third figure is the Spirit. Both the Son and the Spirit receive their being from the Father, which is why they both incline toward the first figure. But these identifications are only meant figuratively. This is not a literal icon of the Trinity. It simply takes Genesis 18 at face value and interprets the three men who appeared to Abraham and Sara as somehow representing the three persons of the Trinity. But the iconographic tradition adds ontological symmetry and the dynamic of movement within the symmetry. A fairly sophisticated slice of trinitarian theology is found in this scene of a hospitality in the desert. Let’s leave it at that.

The church fought for the establishment of icons because they added a mystical dimension to theology that mere words and conciliar decisions could not fully express. Icons are genuine expressions of faith. They remind us of the centrality of the incarnation and the human extension of God. My friend now chooses to see Jesus as only a man. He rejects all statements of “the death of God” or “the crucified God” – anything that connects the Cross of Golgotha to God in the flesh. In this manner my friend is saying the Cross has nothing to do with God’s being, since there is no Father-Son relationship. The Cross is thus reduced to a mere instrument for the expiation of our sins. An entire dimension of Biblical teaching is completely lost in such a reductionist revision of Christian truth.

Paul’s letters are the cipher upon which forensic theologies are built. Yet, even Paul sometimes touched on something deeper. Consider that great passage in Philippians 2:5-11.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (ESV, English Standard Version)

There is nothing about an expiatory death here. Of course elsewhere Paul did define the expiatory significance of the death of Christ. But here in Philippians, the entire dynamic of pre-existence-incarnation-death-glorification is expressed solely in the context of Christ’s relationship to God the Father and the exalted status of Jesus Christ as Lord. One doesn’t have to be a trinitarian to see that there is something more than a man dying on a cross here.

I respect my friend and I have always valued his approach to Bible study. But I fail to see how his commitment to the forensic significance of Christ’s death survives the reduction of Jesus to mere man. I feel the church has overreached in its dogmatic definitions. The apophatic approach was forgotten when intricately detailed dogmas were articulated to describe God’s inner essence and the interpersonal relationships of the three persons of the Trinity. Way overboard, in my opinion. Gregory Palamas in the 14th century attempted a less presumptuous approach to knowing God, but he too ended up inventing a new language of essence and energies that led to new confusion and neo-gnostic monastic practices. But I cannot join my friend in his rejection of the Trinity. The Trinity is at the core of everything that Christianity is about. But it is much more than any dogmas can define. I prefer to meditate on our icon of the Trinity than spend much time trying to understand the Nicene Creed.


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It’s His Nature

In the middle of Lent we pause to reflect on the Cross of Jesus Christ. And we hear again Jesus calling us to take up our cross and follow him. Take up the cross that represents the weight of my ungodly thoughts and actions, the weight of my neglect of the least of his brothers and sisters. Pick up your cross – don’t let it weigh you down any longer. Pick it up so you can follow Christ with it. And as you follow Christ, it will become light and lighter to the point where it simply disappears. That’s the miracle.

There is a beautiful story of an old man who used to meditate every morning under a big tree on the bank of the Ganges River. One morning, after he had finished his meditation, the old man opened his eyes and saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the water. As the current brought the scorpion closer to the tree, the old man quickly stretched himself out on one of the long roots that branched out into the river and reached out to rescue the drowning creature. As soon as he touched it, the scorpion stung him. Instinctively the man withdrew his hand. A minute later, after he had regained his balance, he stretched out again to save the scorpion. This time the scorpion stung him so badly with its poisonous tail that the man’s hand became swollen and bloody and his face contorted with pain.

Just then, a stranger was passing by. He shouted out: “Hey, stupid old man, what’s wrong with you? Only a fool would risk his life for the sake of an ugly, evil creature. Don’t you know you could kill yourself trying to save that ungrateful scorpion?”

The old man turned his head. Looking into the stranger’s eyes, he said calmly, “My friend, just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting, that does not change my nature to save.” Just because it was the scorpion’s nature to sting did not mean that the man would change his nature to help and to save. Powerful.

Can you hear Jesus in the old man’s words? “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.” We are like the scorpion, we know not what we are doing. But that does not change Jesus. It is his nature to save and to lead us to new life. But we have to leave the scorpion life behind. Or, better yet, pick up the scorpion nature and stretch it out for Christ to take and heal it. That is the meaning of our cross. So take up your scorpion, your cross, and follow Jesus. Feel your cross get lighter and lighter as you follow him. It is his nature to heal and to save.


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Room for Mercy

At the heart of our Liturgy is Mercy. We say it so often that there’s a Greek saying that makes fun of it. But make no mistake, Mercy is at the heart of our faith. And mercy is precisely what is missing in the world today. Everything comes from mercy. And the parable Jesus teaches today touches at the core of what we call religion and what we call gospel. Religion and gospel are not the same thing.

The great theologian Karl Barth said that religion is man’s rising to  go to God. But the essence of Christianity, what we can call the gospel, is God’s rising to go to man. Brilliant distinction. God rises to come to us because we need forgiveness, we need mercy. For some people that makes Christianity too negative. I still remember the woman we talked to at the harbor in Ydra two summers ago waiting for our boat back to Athens. How she was repelled by the many crucifixes she saw while traveling in Latin America and other Catholic countries. What perhaps she didn’t understand is that she was repelled not by the crucifixes, but by the Cross! The Cross, that “scandal” (σκάνδαλον, Galatians 5:11, translated as “offense” in most English Bibles) that strikes the heart of human thought; that reminder that we need forgiveness, that we need God to come to us – to be born among us, to walk among us, to be ridiculed and rejected by us, and finally to be crucified by us. 

Yes, we prefer our own versions of God. No Cross, no forgiveness, no praying for mercy. Those are all a big blow to human ego and self-satisfaction! No, all we need is love. Imagine no religion, sung the same John Lennon. Indeed, imagine no religion, yeah why not? Imagine the gospel instead. But no, we don’t want to imagine gospel. Gospel, evangelion, good news? Why do we need good news? We have fake news! 

Without mercy and forgiveness what do you have? Look at the Pharisee in today’s parable. He had no need of mercy. He was self-sufficient. He had all his religious requirements down pat. All he looked to receive from God was congratulations for being such a good religious man. But was he? His heart was full of hatred and contempt for the publican. He did not thank God for mercy, because he had no need of mercy. I thank you, God, that I am not like other men. You see, without mercy and forgiveness, you can pretty much hate anyone. Especially someone like the publican, who stands in the back and beats his breast asking for God’s mercy. Look how terrible that man is acting. Why is he so negative about himself, dragging himself like that? He must be a terrible sinner. Thank God I’m not like him.

One of the great ascetics of the Orthodox Church, Saint Dorotheos of Gaza (6th century) wrote this beautiful bit of advice:

God is the creator of all human beings, with their differences, their colors, their races. Be attentive: Every time you draw nearer to your neighbor, you draw nearer to God. Be attentive: Every time you go farther from your neighbor, you go farther from God.

Elias Chacour was priest of a small village in northern Israel before being made Archbishop of Haifa. When he first arrived at the village church in 1965 he found a church both physically and spiritually in total disrepair. When the people assembled in church he could see the deep divisions that existed among them. Four distinct groups, each keeping distance from the others. “The empty space between the four groups made the sign of the Cross” he said. On Palm Sunday of his first year at their priest, Father Elias looked at the grim faces in church. After the Gospel reading, when it was time for the sermon, he walked to the back of the church and padlocked the door. Returning to the front he told his parishioners:

Sitting in this building does not make you a Christian. You are a people divided. You argue and hate each other. You gossip and spread lies. Your religion is a lie. If you can’t love your brother or sister whom you see, how can you say that you love God whom you don’t see? You have allowed the Body of Christ to be disgraced. I have tried for months to unite you. I have failed. I am only a man. But there is someone else who can bring you together in true unity. His name is Jesus Christ. He has the power to forgive you. So now I will be quiet and allow him to give you that power. If you will not forgive, then we stay locked in here. If you want, you can kill each other. In that case I’ll provide your funerals gratis.

A long silence followed. Finally one man stood up, faced the congregation, bowed his head and said, “I am sorry. I am the worst of all. More than any of you, I need forgiveness.” Father Elias embraced him, and the church immediately became a chaos of embracing and forgiveness. Father Elias had to shout to be heard. “Dear friends, we are not going to wait until next week to celebrate the Resurrection. Let us begin it now. We were dead to each other. Now we are alive again.” He began to sing the paschal hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life.” The congregation joined in. Unlocking the door, Father Elias led them into the village streets. The rest of that day, in every home, at every door, there was forgiveness. It was resurrection for the entire village.

It’s a beautiful story from the recent past. Elias Chacour is still alive, retired now. Three times he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He describes himself as a “Palestinian-Arab-Christian-Israeli.” It doesn’t get much better than that. In 2001, Chacour gave a commencement address at Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia, where he accepted an honorary degree. An excerpt from his speech:

You who live in the United States, if you are pro-Israel, on behalf of the Palestinian children I call unto you: give further friendship to Israel. They need your friendship. But stop interpreting that friendship as an automatic antipathy against me, the Palestinian who is paying the bill for what others have done against my beloved Jewish brothers and sisters in the Holocaust and Auschwitz and elsewhere.

And if you have been enlightened enough to take the side of the Palestinians — oh, bless your hearts — take our sides, because for once you will be on the right side, right? But if taking our side would mean to become one-sided against my Jewish brothers and sisters, back up. We do not need such friendship. We need one more common friend. We do not need one more enemy, for God’s sake.

Those are words of mercy, those are the words of someone completely under the power of the gospel. Mercy, dear friends, is at the heart of healing – not only at Mercy Hospital here in Portland, but the healing that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring to human relations and how we see each other and ourselves through the eyes of God. Thomas Merton, one of my great heroes, wrote:

If we believe in the Incarnation of the Son of God, there should be no one on earth in whom we are not prepared to see, in mystery, the presence of Christ. 

“In mystery” is the key. Do you have room in your life for mystery? Then you have room for mercy. 


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The Mystical Power of Prepositions

I was about to start writing a commentary on today’s verse, Psalm 139:9-10, when I looked at my weekly email from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that had arrived yesterday but which I hadn’t read yet. You can read it on his website. It is a very eloquent and profoundly theological statement, and in it he quotes this section of Psalm 139. Let me quote a large segment of what he wrote:

We tend to forget how profound the concept of a synagogue was. Professor M. Stern has written that “in establishing the synagogue, Judaism created one of the greatest revolutions in the history of religion and society, for the synagogue was an entirely new environment for divine service, of a type unknown anywhere before.” It became, according to Salo Baron, the institution through which the exilic community “completely shifted the emphasis from the place of worship, the Sanctuary, to the gathering of worshippers, the congregation, assembled at any time and any place in God’s wide world.” The synagogue became Jerusalem in exile, the home of the Jewish heart. It is the ultimate expression of monotheism – that wherever we gather to turn our hearts towards heaven, there the Divine Presence can be found, for God is everywhere.

The very idea that one can build a home for God seems absurd. It was all too easy to understand the concept of sacred space in a polytheistic worldview. The gods were half-human. They had places where they could be encountered. Monotheism tore this idea up at its roots, nowhere more eloquently than in Psalm 139:

Where can I go from Your Spirit?

Where can I flee from Your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, You are there;

If I make my bed in the depths, You are there.

Hence the question asked by Israel’s wisest King, Solomon: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain You. How much less this temple I have built!” (I Kings 8:27).

The same question is posed in the name of God by one of Israel’s greatest prophets, Isaiah:

Heaven is My throne,

and the earth is My footstool.

Where is the house you will build for Me?

Where will My resting place be? (Isaiah 66:1)

The very concept of making a home in finite space for an infinite presence seems a contradiction in terms. The answer, still astonishing in its profundity, is contained at the beginning of this week’s parsha: “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in them [betokham]” (Exodus 25:8). The Jewish mystics pointed out the linguistic strangeness of this sentence. It should have said, “I will dwell in it,” not “I will dwell in them.” The answer is that the Divine Presence lives not in a building but in its builders; not in a physical place but in the human heart. The Sanctuary was not a place in which the objective existence of God was somehow more concentrated than elsewhere. Rather, it was a place whose holiness had the effect of opening hearts to the One worshipped there. God exists everywhere, but not everywhere do we feel the presence of God in the same way. The essence of “the holy” is that it is a place where we set aside all human devices and desires and enter a domain wholly set aside for God.

Every time I read something by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks I find something that enlarges my understanding of God’s profound ways. This week’s post is one of the best. What he wrote here is very much to the point of what I wanted to say today about the verse from Psalm 139 and that psalm as a whole. But what really caught my attention is the rabbi’s quote of Exodus 25:8. Rabbi Sacks is one of the most respected exponents of the Hebrew language of the Bible. In quoting Exodus 25:8, he prefers the interpretation offered by the Jewish mystics rather than the conventional interpretation and translation that is almost universal.

Look at any translation of the Bible and you’ll find the Exodus verse translated something like this: “Have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.” Or, “that I may dwell in their midst.” I’m certainly no Hebrew scholar and I would never argue with a master of the Hebrew language such as Rabbi Sacks, but clearly there is a choice in how to translate the preposition בְּ in the word betokham on which Rabbi Sacks bases his comment. Indeed, the preposition can be interpreted as meaning “in, at, among, upon, in the midst…” So the reader of the Hebrew text has to make the choice between God ordering a sanctuary so he could dwell among his people, or in his people – or the more unusual choice the Rabbi includes, “in it.” Wow, that’s an amazing range of choices, all coming from how one interprets the preposition and deciding whether it’s pointing to “them” or “it”. The choice made by all transactions, “among them” sounds like the logical choice. But Rabbi Sacks and the mystics prefer “in them” as the meaning. I like his discussion, and I like his and the mystics’ choice, “in them.”

The ancient Greek translation of the scriptures, what we call the Septuagint, offers this rendering: καὶ ποιήσεις μοι ἁγίασμα, καὶ ὀφθήσομαι ἐν ὑμῖν. The choice in the Greek version is the same. The preposition ἐν can mean “in, among, in the midst of” – the same range of choices as the corresponding Hebrew preposition! The only difference is that the Hebrew says “in [or among] them” while the Greek says “in [or among] you” and “you” is in the plural, ὑμῖν. But it gets even more interesting when we move beyond the Hebrew scriptures.

As a reader of the Greek New Testament I am drawn to Luke 17:21, which reads in the original language: ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ἐντὸς ὑμῶν ἐστιν. What is interesting is that most modern English translations render this as, “for the kingdom of God is among you” or, “in your midst.” But older translations, including the King James version, translate “for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Why such a decision in the modern translations? Are modern translations allergic to any kind of spiritual or mystical sense? Does everything have to be external for the modern mind? The fact of the matter is that the preposition ἐντὸς is far more specific than ἐν – it means “inside, within”, not “among”! If you look at the biggest and most reputable dictionary of ancient Greek, the Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon, you find only one meaning: “inside, within” and the opposite is listed as ἐκτός, meaning “outside”. And yet, when you look at lexicons of New Testament Greek, the meaning of “among” crops up. Why? The only other place in the New Testament where this preposition occurs is in Matthew 23:26 – “First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” Note the Greek text: καθάρισον πρῶτον τὸ ἐντὸς τοῦ ποτηρίου, ἵνα γένηται καὶ τὸ ἐκτὸς αὐτοῦ καθαρόν. Note the contrast between τὸ ἐντὸς, the inside, and τὸ ἐκτὸς, the outside.

So I ask myself again. Why these maneuvers with language? The Hebrew text of Exodus 25:8 does seem to imply the usual translation, “among them” or “in the midst of them,” though Rabbi Sacks and Jewish mystics make a strong support for “in them.” The Greek text of Exodus 25:8 is more open to the other translation – at least linguistically. But the Greek text of Luke 17:21 is definitely something else. The preposition ἐντὸς has only one meaning in classical Greek. Why should it take a new meaning in the New Testament – and in that one instance of Luke 17:21, when in the only other occurrence in the New Testament, Matthew 23:26, it clearly means “inside, within”? What gives translators of the Bible the freedom to come up with a new definition? Especially when the new definition changes the meaning of a Bible verse completely?

As I said, this was meant to be a reflection on the verse of the day, Psalm 139:9-10, when I was sidetracked by the Rabbi’s article. But the issues he raises are very much pertinent to anything I would say about Psalm 139. The question in Psalm 139 that prompts the answer in the highlighted verse is: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” The answer, of course, is nowhere. God is everywhere and he knows us inside out: O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar…. For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…. Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

There is power in prepositions – even mystical power – and prepositions can make all the difference in how we read a biblical text. Careless reading and translation of biblical texts should not be accepted, especially when they’re also wedded to a particular world view. The Bible touches both the inside and the outside of our existence. Let’s not limit the Bible’s reach. Psalm 139 tells us that God knows us inside and out and everywhere. The word of scripture is like a double-edged sword, “piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). So yes, God commanded the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus, not because he needs a place to stay, but as a visible reminder that God lives in his people; and the kingdom of God is in us, inside us!


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A speech to end all speeches

By itself the verse highlighted today, Job 12:13, is not particularly remarkable. Ho hum, yes, we know God has wisdom and power, and all other good things. Let’s move on to something more interesting, right? Aha, yes move on and you find yourself in the midst of a very extraordinary speech by a man called Job.

The Book of Job is endlessly fascinating. The first two chapters show us a contest of sorts between God and someone named “Satan”. This is not the place to discuss the name “Satan” and the person given that name in the Book of Job. Most people read the Book of Job as the testing of Job by this person named Satan. God gives permission to Satan to test Job. But the deal with Satan is also a testing of God! It is a testing of a man’s faith in God. Is Job’s faith purely material, because he is wealthy and healthy, with a large family and respect among his peers? Is this the kind of faith that God receives from people, a transactional faith? Satan is not really interested in making Job suffer. His concern is to expose Job’s faith as superficial and transactional. It’s not real faith, in other words. And if Satan could expose Job’s faith in this manner, it would undermine God’s standing. So it is a testing of God more than it is a testing of Job. Fascinating stuff.

So Job is subjected to the most extreme personal suffering and even the killing of his children! His wife, exasperated by Job’s holding on to faith in God finally throws at him those famous words, “Curse God and die!” Fascinating stuff to be part of holy scripture. But the bulk of the book, chapters 3-37, consists of dialogues between Job and three friends who come to comfort him but end up mostly attacking him and pressing to prove the conventional religious idea that Job is suffering because he must be a terrible sinner. In a sense these three friends are also putting God to the test! They’re basically saying: Of course Job must be a sinner, and God is punishing him. How could it be otherwise, if God is going to be faithful to his law? This is man telling God: You better be good to your word! Listen to Elihu, one of the three friends:

“Therefore, hear me, you men of understanding:
far be it from God that he should do wickedness,
and from the Almighty that he should do wrong.
For according to the work of a man he will repay him,
and according to his ways he will make it befall him.
Of a truth, God will not do wickedly,
and the Almighty will not pervert justice….’ (Job 34:10-12)

This is man telling God how to be God. If Job is suffering it must because God is punishing Job for his sinfulness. Isn’t that how many Christians of today also think when they see bad things happen to people, that it must be because God is angry with them? Job will have none of it, though he has his own outbursts against God during the pages of the book. In chapters 12-14 he speaks what I can only call a speech to end all speeches. It is profound, and this speech is the context of the verse highlighted today. Without the context, the verse is ordinary, simply what everyone assumes about God. But read it in the context of this extraordinary speech by Job and you realize that it’s part of something truly grand.

Then Job answered and said:
“No doubt you are the people,
and wisdom will die with you.
But I have understanding as well as you;
I am not inferior to you.
Who does not know such things as these?’  (Job 12:1-3)

Job mocks their wisdom. It’s conventional, it’s what people believe. And he goes on to describe the conventional thinking: “In the thought of one who is at ease there is contempt for misfortune… The tents of robbers are at peace, and those who provoke God are secure, who bring their god in their hand.” Nice commentary on what goes on today as well – how the rich and powerful pass judgment on those who are poor, while they serve their “god”, whoever or whatever their “god” is. In two short sentences Job has identified the sin of our own modern societies. Oh, but wait, more to come:

“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you;
or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of all mankind.’

Job asserts that the animals and the birds and the plants of the earth know God’s ways better than human beings! Everything that is alive is under his care. Animals, birds, vegetation, the planet! In our un-wisdom we show contempt for life and are thus showing ourselves to be dumber than the animals. The Bible – especially the part we call the “Old Testament” though there’s nothing old about it – constantly reminds us that the earth and all life on it are singing the praises of God. Just look at Psalm 148. First come the universe and the earth and the animals of the earth before any human beings are named. All creation praises God. And human beings are last in the catalogue of those who offer praise to God.

Psalm 148 Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his hosts!
Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord!
For he commanded and they were created.
And he established them forever and ever;
he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.
Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and mist,
stormy wind fulfilling his word!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Beasts and all livestock,
creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and maidens together,
old men and children!
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his majesty is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people,
praise for all his saints,
for the people of Israel who are near to him.
Praise the Lord!

How trite human wisdom appears to Job, especially as represented by the three friends. And it is only then, after he has summarily dismissed their wisdom as inferior to the wisdom of animals that he speaks the verse that is highlighted today: “With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding.” And with these words he begins the next phase of his speech, in which he elevates the supreme authority of God over and above human conventions and prejudices. And in the midst of all this, he speaks directly to God. The language is strong. But it is free of the sophistry of the friends and of conventional religion. This is a speech to end all speeches!

‘But I would speak to the Almighty,
and I desire to argue my case with God.
As for you, you whitewash with lies;
worthless physicians are you all.
Oh that you would keep silent,
and it would be your wisdom!
Hear now my argument
and listen to the pleadings of my lips.
Will you speak falsely for God
and speak deceitfully for him?
Will you show partiality toward him?
Will you plead the case for God?
Will it be well with you when he searches you out?
Or can you deceive him, as one deceives a man?
Your maxims are proverbs of ashes;
your defenses are defenses of clay.
Let me have silence, and I will speak,
and let come on me what may.
Though he slay me, I will hope in him;
yet I will argue my ways to his face.
How many are my iniquities and my sins?
Make me know my transgression and my sin.
Why do you hide your face
and count me as your enemy?
Man wastes away like a rotten thing,
like a garment that is moth-eaten. (Selected verses from chapter 13 of Job)

That last sentence from chapter 13 leads Job to a beautiful meditation on death in chapter 14, which in one crucial moment leads to a question about resurrection (verse 14). In this last segment of the speech, Job speaks directly to God.

“Man who is born of a woman
is few of days and full of trouble.
He comes out like a flower and withers;
he flees like a shadow and continues not.
Since his days are determined,
and the number of his months is with you,
and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass,
look away from him and leave him alone,
that he may enjoy, like a hired hand, his day.
“For there is hope for a tree,
if it be cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.
Though its root grow old in the earth,
and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put out branches like a young plant.
But a man dies and is laid low;
man breathes his last, and where is he?
As waters fail from a lake
and a river wastes away and dries up,
so a man lies down and rises not again;
till the heavens are no more he will not awake
or be roused out of his sleep.
Oh that you would hide me in Sheol,
that you would conceal me until your wrath be past,
that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
If a man dies, shall he live again?
All the days of my service I would wait,
till my renewal should come.
You would call, and I would answer you;
you would long for the work of your hands…”  (Selected verses of chapter 14)

Let’s not go any further for now. Those last lines are an anticipation of resurrection. But note why Job even raises the question, “If a man dies, shall he live again?” His reasoning is rooted in his understanding of God’s creative work! “You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands.” Do you see it? Are you glad you read so far down in this reflection? Do you see it? God longs for what he has created! How can God allow his creations to be extinguished. God longs for us while we are alive, to be in fellowship with him. And God will long for us after we die. Do you need any other reason for why there should be resurrection; why life after death. And at this point, the mighty Messiah of Handel comes to mind, the song that comes immediately before “Lift up your gates” in yesterday’s post. And what is this song in Messiah? The words come from Psalm 16:10, and Handel used these words to announce the resurrection of Christ in his marvelous oratorio:

“But thou didst not leave his soul in hell, nor didst thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.”

God could not endure to see his “holy one” see corruption. It’s the same rationale Job offers. These verses from the so-called “Old Testament” show us the passion of God that is at the core of everything God does – creation, preservation, redemption, resurrection. It’s all one continuous demonstration of God’s character. It is in God’s character that Job places his hopes. And it is in God’s character that we place our own hopes.