Ancient Answers


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Majesty on high

Psalm 24 is one of my favorites and it has lent itself to profound use by the Christian church. Christian tradition came to associate this psalm with Easter and Ascension, and that is how George Frideric Handel used it in his masterpiece Messiah. You can watch a fine performance of this segment of Messiah here. Or, a much grander but less authentic performance here. The great composers were, of course, steeped in Christian biblical tradition and Handel wrote entire oratorios and even operas that were either direct quotes of the Bible (as was Messiah) or derived their content from the Bible, especially what Christians call the Old Testament.

Christian use of Psalm 24 is an example of what we call “typology”. This is very different from “prophecy”. The fact that Christian tradition uses this psalm in connection with Easter and Ascension does not mean that it was composed by David as a prophecy of Christ ascending to heaven. Not at all. What Christian tradition did with a psalm like this is to look at the imagery of the psalm and transfer it to something in what we know about Christ – in this instance his ascension to heaven 40 days after the resurrection. So a “type” is not a prophecy of Christ, but an image or event in the “Old Testament” that foreshadows an event in Jesus Christ.

Originally this psalm would have been what scholars call an “enthronement psalm.” It probably refers back to the desert years of the Jews after the exodus from Egypt, when they set up the tent of meeting where God came down to speak with Moses. When the ark of the covenant was built, it was carried by the Jews into the promised land, and it was often carried into battle during the two or three centuries before David composed this psalm – hence the reference to the “Lord mighty in battle.” Eventually when the Temple was built in Jerusalem this psalm of David was probably used to celebrate the enthronement of God in the Holy of Holies of the Temple, where the ark of the covenant was placed.

The historical background of this psalm is all very majestic, and people need majesty in their lives. So when the early Christians, and the church tradition that developed over time, needed imagery to represent the majesty of what Christ has done for us, they borrowed heavily from the scriptures of the Jews. I have always been thrilled to see how much of the New Testament is indebted to what is commonly called the Old Testament. As I’ve said so many times I personally do not like this division between Old and New Testaments. It’s one whole. The scriptures for Jesus were what we call the “Old Testament”, and if he didn’t call it Old why do we? Jesus took up the imagery and language of the scriptures as his daily speech. Even on the Cross he quoted Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When David wrote those words he was speaking of his own situation, not prophesying Christ on the Cross. But when Jesus felt the loneliness and pain of the Cross and his abandonment by everyone except a few women, no more fitting words came to his mouth than these words of David.

Majesty is what we need and is so lacking in most modern Christianity. We don’t have to go back to Byzantium or Renaissance Rome to find majesty. Majesty is all around us – in nature and the animal kingdom, which we are so busy destroying. Majesty in the universe above and around us! Wonder and awe are in our DNA, and how poor we are when we take everything for granted and easy for us to destroy. Thank God the universe is beyond our power to destroy, though we’re doing a job on the space around our planet – space pollution and soon space weapons! Why not? We’re destroying the planet, why not the space around our planet? Because we’re no longer awed. We prefer looking at our smartphones all day and night instead of looking at the wonders that God has placed all around us. Here is how Psalm 8 says it:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
      the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
             what is man that you are mindful of him,
      and the son of man that you care for him?

It’s only when we look at the majesty of God and God’s creation that we have a proper understanding of our own role and our own place in the grand scheme. When we don’t look at the majesty of God’s creation we end up with an overblown sense of our importance. We need majesty in our worship and in our experience of God. When we turn God into an imaginary vending machine in the sky or blasphemously refer to God as the “man upstairs” we are far from the majesty that David and Jesus Christ experienced and communicated to us. Thank God there is still majesty in our Liturgy. It still connects us with the historical events of scriptures, and it’s not just about us and “my needs”! It still connects us with the natural world through the offering of bread and wine and our various sacramental and sanctifying acts throughout the year. We are not a dry place of cushioned seats and empty walls that represent empty modernism rather than the majesty of God.

And yet, even we, the inheritors of majestic language and imagery, come to worship to satisfy some imaginary and selfish “needs” rather than experience and worship the majesty of God. Why do Americans love British monarchy so much? A huge chunk of PBS programming is fixated on programs about the British monarchy, borrowed from the BBC. Is it because we long for majesty in our lives? If so, why do we waste our time on British majesty when we can experience divine majesty? Majesty on high – Majesty around us – Majesty in our lives! Thanks be to God for giving us a taste of his majesty, the majesty that awaits for us for all eternity. Start experiencing it, start seeing it, start tasting it.


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The Word in Hebrew and Greek

What a towering statement, a highpoint of biblical theology, a pinnacle of human understanding and spirituality. Thousands of years of human search for truth and for God, culminated in this statement by the Gospel writer John. The Word, the Logos was in the beginning – was, which means did not come into being at the beginning or some time before the beginning; but already was, in an indefinite past tense of the verb εἰμί, ‘to be’. This indefinite past tense is called the ‘imperfect’ in grammars – indicating no specific time, but a continuing state. And of course how could the Logos be anything other than always existing, since, as John tells us, ‘the Word was God.”

The noun λόγος, logos, is one of the most important gifts of ancient Greece, especially to philosophy and religion. But the religious weight of ‘word’ is not only derived from ancient Greek philosophers, but also from the Hebrew scriptures. The noun דָּבָר (dā·ḇār) is especially important in the form דְּבַר יהוה, dā·ḇār yhwh, “the word of the Lord.” It was by ‘word’ that God created the universe in the beginning of the scriptures, Genesis chapter one. So ‘word’ in the Genesis context can also mean ‘command’.

It is an open question whether John had more of the Greek background or the Hebrew background in mind. My own assumption has always been that John’s poetic inspiration in chapter 1 of his Gospel came from both the Hebrew and Greek usages of logos/dā·ḇār. How could it be otherwise? How could any single language ever do justice to the profound acts and revelation of God? So John borrowed from the two most important languages of the ancient world. That may sound chauvinistic, but let’s face it, what other languages have had the influence on human existence and history that these two languages have had? Yes, ancient Chinese produced extraordinary philosophical concepts independent of the Mediterranean cultures. But it is only in recent decades that Chinese philosophy became widely known and influential outside of eastern Asia – and that is happening at a time when eastern Asian cultures themselves are increasingly embracing western philosophies and cultural and religious concepts! The same can be said of the civilizations of the Hindus valley. And closer to home, Latin thought and language was so derivative of Greek that it doesn’t warrant much attention on its own. So it is not chauvinistic to assign such prime importance to the two languages that formed the Christian mind of John the Evangelist.

Another reason why John borrowed from both linguistic frameworks is that the Hebrew and Greek minds were very different but complementary for the purposes of what John needed to express: the Greek mind more contemplative, given to discourse and rational exploration; the Hebrew mind more earthy, more concerned with action. And the different minds are perfectly expressed in the noun ‘word’. The lexical definition of the Greek logos involves English words and concepts like the following: “word, saying, command, speech, conversation, report, story, law, proportion, explanation, argument, debate, reason, opinion, reflection, esteem, account, reckoning….” The philosopher Heraclitus (about 500 BC) was the first to give philosophical weight to logos. For him it meant the universal law, and thus the rationalism of the universe and the relationships among objects including the relationships among human beings. In later Greek philosophy logos also came to mean method of argument and discourse, so it came to refer primarily to the interactions of human beings in community. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis concludes the development of the Greek concept of logos this way:

Heraclitus’s general universal law and the Sophists’ individual oratorical ability are the extremes beyond which one cannot go within the frame of ref. provided by the understanding of λόγος that characterized the class. period. A fundamentally new orientation of thought, namely, the thesis that ethics is the basic problem faced by humanity, was provided by the Stoics, who confronted the Gk. starting-point of knowledge with the formulation of their question: How must I live in order to be able to be happy? Nevertheless, here too the complex of ideas from which the answer is worked out is denoted as the λόγος…

A thorough intellectual organization of the world and the definition of each person’s location in it—a fundamental precondition for ethics—is undertaken on the basis of Aristotelian schematization. There are, however, certain seminal, seed-bestowing Logoi (σπερματικοὶ λόγοι) that permeate the whole world and bring about the continuity of all growth and occurrence and thus its meaningful course. Furthermore, there is a “right reason” (ὀρθὸς λόγος) or universal law that bestows on human beings the power of knowledge and thence of moral behavior. Corresponding with the dual conceptuality of the term λόγος (thinking and saying), a distinction is made between the inner Logos (thinking) given by the God-Logos and the Logos ordained for articulation (speaking).

As you can see from the above, John the Evangelist had a huge conceptual background when he composed the opening of his Gospel. And the concept of seed-bestowing logoi (σπερματικοὶ λόγοι) briefly mentioned in the above paragraph became essential building blocks of early Christian theology, especially when the early church had to engage in dialogue with pagan philosophy. The word ‘theology’ itself is composed of two Greek words: theos (God) and logos (word, speech, concept). Thus, theology is: words about God – words, concepts!

The Hebrew mind saw ‘word’, dā·ḇār, primarily as force, action. The ‘word of the Lord’ was not a matter of discussion and speculation. It was active, sharper than a two-edged sword, as the Epistle to the Hebrews (4:12) so eloquently expressed it in the New Testament. And as God spoke through Isaiah (55:11): so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. In the Hebrew mind the ‘word’ is all about action. So God sends his word to the prophets and to other chosen individuals – and those who receive the word have no choice but to act; sometimes against their own will, as in the case of Jeremiah, who fought tooth and nail against what God was instructing him to do!

Jeremiah is indeed a classic case of the prophet being overwhelmed by the power of God’s ‘word’. Consider how the book of Jeremiah begins:

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

You see here the power of God’s word; as Jeremiah will speak the ‘word of God’ whole nations will be destroyed or built up! But it wasn’t easy for Jeremiah, he could not stomach pronouncing words of judgment, especially since it brought on the ridicule and violence of his listeners. So in chapter 20 Jeremiah cries out:

O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

Such was the power of the word inside Jeremiah, like a fire, and he could not resist against it, even as it endangered his own life.

John took the importance that the Greeks assigned to logos and made logos the very definition of God. But that’s as far as John went in conceptual talk about logos. He brought the Greek fascination with logos to its logical (another logos word) climax by saying “the word was God.” (And let’s no forget that John gave another similarly concise description of God, when he wrote “God is love” in his First Letter.) Where can you go after that? That’s the end of Greek philosophy right there. Then the Hebrew mind takes over in John. And he continues his Gospel’s opening with these words:

All things were made through him [the Word], and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 
Here John echoes Genesis, where God created by ‘word’, spoken command. The Hebrew mind is now in control of John’s writing, and it culminates in perhaps the most radical statement of Hebrew understanding of God’s ways, in verse 14 of John’s first chapter:
And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.
The Hebrew mind could not conceive of God becoming man. But the Hebrew mind could conceive of God’s word becoming incarnate. After all, the passages from Isaiah and Jeremiah above give us an image of God’s word present in living, active power in the world! So I don’t go for the usual assumption that John was more influenced by Greek philosophy. Certainly in introducing the term Logos he was definitely influenced by the Greek background. He was writing in Greek after all. But in my opinion the way he used logos in the first chapter of his Gospel is pure Hebraic.


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The Commandments of Theocracy

For many years evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the United States have been fighting for the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, especially courthouses, city halls and legislatures. I have always understood this as only a political move to assert the mythology of America’s Christian origins. I see it as political because there is no theological rationale for evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who claim salvation by faith alone and not by works to be so obsessed with placing the Ten Commandments on buildings. After all, they quote Saint Paul and his opposition to the law (meaning the Mosaic law, of course) every opportunity they get. They love Paul’s rejection of the Law, and yet they want to promote the heart and soul of the Mosaic Law! Go figure. But as I said, this is not a theological project; it is purely political and theocratic, the delusion of Christian nation.

The Ten Commandments have lasting value in and of themselves. They don’t need American theocrats to buttress them. They are essential building blocks of the covenants that God established with the people of Israel. But one has to question their validity outside the covenants with ancient Israel. One could accept the last six of the Ten Commandments (“words” as Exodus 20 calls them); they have some universal validity. But even among these last six commandments, there are questions that arise. What does it mean to honor father and mother? In the Mosaic Law, children are to be stoned to death if they disobey or rebel against their parents:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

So along with the commandment to honor father and mother, will we also consider the punishment by death on those who don’t honor parents and who disobey their parents? After all, punishment is part of the bargain that a commandment implies.

As for adultery, of course it’s a sin. But put up this commandment in a courthouse? Are courts going to punish people who commit adultery? Moses of course said stone them to death. And how is one to define coveting, when our whole society is motivated by greed and competition?

But the real problem with the Ten Commandments lies in the first four; and I will claim that it is primarily for these first four that our evangelical and fundamentalist theocrats want to push the Ten Commandments into the public square. Let’s take the first four commandments one by one.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” If I am a Christian, I certainly will have no other god but the Lord. But the Lord did not bring me out of Egypt – perhaps out of slavery to sin, but certainly not out of slavery in the land of Egypt. This first commandment was God’s announcement of his covenant with the people of Israel whom he had just brought out of Egypt. It has nothing to do with me. My covenant with God is not rooted in an exodus from Egypt! And what right do I have to shove this commandment in the face of people who have no connection with the biblical narrative and worship a god of their own liberation?

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” By this commandment, most Catholic and Orthodox Christians stand condemned. Regardless of how our traditions have rationalized the use of images in our churches, the evangelical and fundamentalist theocrats reject the Catholic and Orthodox use of images, so in their eyes we are transgressing against the second commandment. No wonder Orthodox and Catholics will not go up in the Rapture, right? Don’t make me throw up in your face, Mr. Evangelical Preacher!

But isn’t it ironic that the same theocrats who blast Catholic and Orthodox use of icons and statues like to start their worship services with the American National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag? When a conservative Evangelical or Baptist stands at attention at the start of a worship service with his or her right hand placed over his or her heart, how is that different from a Catholic or Orthodox venerating an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary? Granted the difference in theologies, I consider the veneration of flag in most Evangelical and Baptist churches a sheer example of idolatry and a clear violation of the second commandment. And finally, with respect to the second commandment: really, we are to promote the idea of God punishing the sins of parents to the third or fourth generation of children? Really, we should promote that image of God. Oh, I know, the theocrats only want to exhibit the short versions of the commandments – but that’s just dishonesty.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” Who can disagree with this commandment? And yet it is the most universally disobeyed of all ten commandments. So, good luck with this one.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” I love the Sabbath, but who observes the Sabbath besides observant Jews. Do Christians? Or have we replaced the Sabbath with Sunday? Yes, that’s exactly what the Christian church did back in the early centuries of Christendom. But do Christians even observe Sunday as a replacement for the Sabbath? How many of these theocrats resist the urge to go to the Mall on Sunday afternoon? And how many of them are out there watching their kids in team sports instead of being at worship? Oh, I forgot they don’t need to be at worship on Sunday morning because they prefer to go in the evening or Wednesday night instead. Those times are more convenient and do not interfere with kids sports. So how does anyone observe or honor, not the Sabbath, but the Sabbath idea?

But let’s return to that first commandment one last time. God begins by declaring, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” It begins there, that is the root cause and justification for everything that follows.

Consider now Exodus 22:20“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And Exodus 23:9“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” In the same way that the first commandment begins with a reminder of Egypt, so also the commandments about how strangers and foreigners are to be treated are based on reminders of Egypt. But these commandments hardly register in the minds of flag-worshipping theocrats, because then they would have to disagree with their government’s policies toward refugees and migrants. No, their idolatry of flag and country and guns must endure! But let’s not be fooled by their pretense of honoring the word of God. In their minds and hearts these are the commandments of theocracy, nothing more or less.

 


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A Love Song

The Bible is a love song. Western Christianity has turned the Bible into a dry source of doctrines and judgments, all neatly wrapped up so as to make sense to the boring lives of people who are immune to the immensity of divine imagination and romance. People struggle to understand why there is so much warfare and ugliness in the Bible, not just in the Old Testament but in the New Testament as well. But when you look more closely you see a God who is passionately in love with his people and struggles with their unfaithfulness. So when the Lord God pours out violence upon his people in their calamitous journey of faith and unfaith, you also hear him groaning with anguish and even self-doubt. The language is extremely human, earthy, physical and emotional. That’s because the Bible does not present us an abstract, distant God, “the man upstairs” that we have mockingly reduced him to. No, the biblical God is ever-present in the lives of his people and he experiences their torments as his own.

This passionate God is especially visible in what we call the “Old Testament”. I personally don’t like that term because it seems to make that part of the Bible as of less importance to Christians than the so-called “New Testament”. New is always better than Old, right? Not necessarily, as anyone can see about the newness of life in today’s world. There is nothing “old” about the first part of the Bible. It is as new as every word spoken by our Savior Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is the voice of the Lord Jesus that I hear and read every time I open the Psalms and the Prophets, and even many parts of the historical books and the “books of Moses”.

Jesus was the ultimate and final expression of the passionate God. Too bad that Christian tradition has turned Jesus into another remote deity, another version of “the man upstairs.” I love this little quote from Kahlil Gibran that I found in one of his books:

Once every hundred years Jesus of Nazareth

meets Jesus of the Christian

in a garden among the hills of Lebanon.

And they talk long.

And each time Jesus of Nazareth goes away

saying to Jesus of the Christian,

“My friend, I fear we shall never, never agree.

Kahlil Gibran was born in Lebanon and emigrated to the United States with his parents, but never left behind the earthy soul of the Middle East – that same earthy soul that formed the humanity of our Lord. There is something deeply monophysitic about how most Christian churches view and represent Christ. And so when we come to something like the Song of Songs we turn it into an allegory – a dry, passionless allegory. That’s what the Christian tradition did with this beautiful poem right smack in the middle of the Bible, from which our verse today is taken.

The Song of Songs is a love song. Most English translations call it the Song of Solomon – but the old Greek translation of the scriptures correctly calls it ΑΣΜΑ ᾀσμάτων. It is a dialogue between a man and his beloved. It is passionate, earthy and physical – much as God is represented in those “old” scriptures. But that does not make it an allegory. It is a love poem that the Hebrew editors of the Bible decided belongs as scripture – much as they also chose Ecclesiastes as scripture, even though it is hardly the most “orthodox” book of the Bible. The Song of Solomon is not an allegory of Christ and the Church, as Christian tradition has treated it. But the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels is indeed passionate and earthy. He did not wear a crown when he walked the hills and deserts of Judea; nor was he richly robed as we show him in our icons. He probably wore a plain white tunic – much as men still wear in the poorer regions of the Middle East and central Asia – and walked barefoot most of the time. He was a poor man among poor men and women. He embraced sinners and invited himself to dinner wherever he could. He did not wear his deity mightily. As Saint Paul told us, “he emptied himself” (Philippians 2:7). In this great passage in Philippians, Paul tells us that it is precisely because “he emptied himself” that he is our Lord and Savior! It is precisely because he became earthy and barefoot that he is our Lord and Savior. And Kahlil Gibran tells us that we are far from that Jesus of Nazareth.

So don’t turn Jesus into “the man upstairs” – he is among us: not as an allegory, but as the way, the truth and the life. It is time to rediscover the earthiness of the Bible, in all its gut-wrenching passions, love imagery, and even its violence. It is not a Hellenistic book of philosophy, nor a dispassionate book of ascetic nonsense. It is full of real humans and a real God who shares their lives. It is full of war and human hatreds, but also of human and divine love, and a lot of eating and drinking. So in our verse today, the lover takes his beloved to the “banqueting house”, in the usual English translations. The Hebrew text says beth hayyayin, meaning “the house of wine”! Even the old Greek translation of the scriptures, the so-called Septuagint, correctly translated it as οἶκον τοῦ οἴνου. Is it because teetotal Anglo-Saxons want to avoid all talk of wine, just as they turn the wine of communion into grape juice? But it was wine that Jesus drank; and it was with images of food and drink that he spoke parables of heaven and the kingdom of God. He was speaking biblical language, the earthy language of his people. And there was nothing ascetic in the language of Jesus.

So don’t turn away from the Bible because you find some of its language unacceptable. And don’t turn the “unacceptable” parts of the Bible into allegories. If you want to get your feet wet in the earthy language of the Bible, the Song of Songs is as good a place to start as any. As are the prophets, as are the Psalms, as are the historical books. But why not start with a love song? That’s what the Song of Songs is, and everybody loves a good love song.

 


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The Provocative Jesus

Two versions of the same Gospel story, the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter.

First, Mark’s version:

And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. 

Then, Matthew’s version:

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Mark calls her “Syrophoenician”, Matthew “Canaanite” – either way, a pagan, an outsider to the community of God’s people. She comes to the Jewish man of God as a beggar. Matthew writes that she called him Lord and Son of David. Perhaps that is the title that she heard other people calling him, for she a pagan would not “son of David” in her vocabulary. But more likely it is simply Matthew’s insertion, as Matthew among the four Gospel writers is the most concerned to refer to Jesus as son of David – 9 separate times in Matthew, only 2 in Mark, 2 in Luke, and none in John. And only in Matthew’s version does Jesus speak of “the house of Israel.” And only in Matthew does Jesus commend the woman’s faith! In Mark he simply commends “this word” (διὰ τοῦτον τὸν λόγον) that she spoke to Jesus. I prefer to see Mark’s version as the more original version. Both Gospel writers recognize the Jewish-pagan contrast at the heart of this story, but by calling the woman a “Canaanite” Matthew places the encounter in the context of the ancient conflict between the Israelites and Canaanites. Matthew’s hand in his version is heavy indeed.

The much-missed late Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan reflected deeply on this passage in the Epilogue to his book, Sorrow Built a Bridge, Friendship and AIDS, a book in which he recounts his care of people with AIDS during the 1980s in the Supportive Care Program of St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. Berrigan’s ministry toward people with AIDS was one more chapter in his extraordinary life of resistance to the culture of death that reigns over much of human affairs. The fight against AIDS went hand in hand with his life-long fight against war and nuclear weapons and against social and government institutions that are indifferent to suffering, poverty and exclusion.

After quoting the passage from Mark’s version, Berrigan went on to write:

I commend this text to you, and to my own soul. Many of us have, we are told, for different reasons, something less than a human claim on the bread of Christ; which is to say, on his attentiveness, his response, his healing. Certain claims are neither large nor persuasive. What, after all, is the worth of a canine claim, proceeding as it does from a dog’s life? … Those securely in possession, established where they sit – they are given to glances, words, slamming of doors in faces, such acts as might improve the occasion when a stray dog enters a banquet hall. Or a church.

Berrigan is speaking to me and you. He is provocative as he always was in his books and in his life work. As a Catholic who devoted his life’s work to human suffering and exclusion, he cannot avoid bringing the “bread of Christ” into his meditation – the exact thing that most Christians, and certainly we Orthodox, do not date to do. Imagine that, bringing the holiest of the sacraments into a discussion about AIDS and a pagan woman’s encounter with Jesus!

The church has more rules about participation in the Eucharist – the communion of the body and blood of Christ – than about anything else. The modern rules that most people grew up with are pathetic – rules about food, sex, and other trivialities. Of greater importance are the developments during the formative centuries of Orthodox theology and jurisprudence. The bishops who met at the various ecumenical councils could not find enough reasons to exclude as many people as possible from communion! They were certain that God had entrusted them with protecting the holy sacrament from defiled hands and souls.

Jesus provoked the Syrophoenician woman by calling her a dog. In doing so, Jesus was parodying the way most Jews mocked pagans. But the woman had substance, she would not go away just because a man treated her this way. She met Jesus’ insult head on and earned his respect and her daughter’s healing. When the church today refuses communion, are we treating people as “dogs”? Do we exclude where Jesus included?

Last Sunday morning an elderly man of a rather haggard appearance walked into our church during Matins and clearly wanted to speak with the priest. I was in the midst of a service and obviously I could not attend to him. I actually felt bad as I saw him leave the church, and I placed myself in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Was I like the priest or the levite who were more intent on their religious duties than to care for the wounded man? Had I put my liturgical responsibility above hearing a man’s cry for help? I struggled with those thoughts as I continued Matins and Liturgy. However, after Liturgy was over, I was told what this man uttered on his way out: “I thought this was a church for whites!” Clearly he was disappointed to see black people in our church. He walked into our church that morning, intent even to interrupt a service in progress, to ask for money. This happens quite often in our church as we are an inner-city parish. And yet, this needy man could not avoid spewing out his racist filth.

Very rarely indeed are moral lines clearly drawn or visible. Human behavior never ceases to surprise and confuse. But whether it’s a man spewing racial hatred or governments keeping people out or religions seeing the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are heading for disaster unless we begin to take Jesus seriously – not in the apocalyptic terms that many American Christians do, but in the terms he defines in the various Gospel stories that show us his true face.

The December issue of National Geographic magazine has a challenging article by Jared Diamond that paints in convincing terms competition for the earth’s limited resources as more and more people and nations aim to achieve the same standard of living we are used to. The results will be disastrous for the planet unless governments – starting with our own – take steps to decrease income inequality and the chasm between rich and poor. Unless a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources is achieved, the growing clamor of people to have what we have will spell disaster before this century is out. The article is available online. It’s well worth reading if you care about the world around you, or the world your children or grandchildren will live in.

The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is a parable for today. It should provoke us to think deeply about how we view others. But more importantly, it is a parable for governments and churches. Who do we exclude? Who do we treat like ‘dogs’? And when are we who call ourselves Christians start following the example of Jesus?


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Reflections on the Sistine Madonna

I came upon a story called The Sistine Madonna, by Vasily Grossman, a writer and survivor of Soviet and Nazi antisemitism. A black and white picture of the painting Sistine Madonna was included in the story, so my curiosity was piqued. I found a good quality color reproduction of this painting and I wish to share with you my thoughts.

The Sistine Madonna (click to enlarge)

The Sistine Madonna is a painting by the great Renaissance artist, Raphael. It shows Mary in full standing form holding the Christ child who is looking straight at us. It is called the Sistine Madonna not because it was in the Sistine Chapel, but rather it was commissioned in 1512 by Pope Julius II for the church of San Sisto. It is an incredibly human painting of the young Mary, her face glowing with motherly love. As a matter of fact I would say that this painting shows Mary as a human mother more than any icon I have ever seen. Our icons tend to emphasize the transcendent rather than the earthly. 

I like talking about Mary, the mother of Christ. Yes, she is Theotokos, the Mother of God, and all those other amazing titles the church has bestowed upon her. But I like to think of her simply as Mary, Miriam, the young Jewish girl who was chosen by God for a most amazing miracle. In three days the Orthodox Church celebrates her entrance into the Temple in Jerusalem. The sheer irony never ceases to amaze me. The church celebrates the entrance into the holy of holies by a girl – something strictly forbidden by Jewish laws – and yet after 2,000 years the church still does not allow women or girls to serve in the altar in any way! As I said, irony.

I was so overcome by the beauty of this painting that I took the upper portion of it and made it the wallpaper of my computer. So when I turn on my computer I immediately see the two faces touching each other and looking out toward me, toward all human beings. Mary looks a bit to her left while Christ looks straight at me. It is with my humanity, with your humanity, that Christ looks out. Looking at Christ I see my humanity in all its glory and all its sorrows and deficiencies. It’s all there. And Mary holds the Christ tenderly but firmly, as if to protect him from what the world will unleash against him. And we know that Mary did precisely that. The Gospels tell us that she kept a close watch on him and even tried to pull him away from combative encounters with the religious leaders.

Sistine Madonna – enlargement of top portion (click to further enlarge)

The Mary that I see in this painting is the Mary who sang the Magnificat in Luke, chapter 1. Do you know it? She spoke these words when she was pregnant. We sing her words at every matins service. 

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.

For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;

for he who is mighty has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

And his mercy is on those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm,

he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,

he has put down the mighty from their thrones,

and exalted those of low degree;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent empty away.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

as he spoke to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”

She considers herself a humble handmaiden – but she is also a rebel and rejoices in the downfall of the mighty. As she looks slightly to her left in this painting she is perhaps imagining those centuries in the future when the mighty of the earth will try to refute her prophetic words by enlisting her son to their ambitions. And she holds her child tight. She does not want to see him used and abused by 2,000 years of human greed and hatred. But she does not hold him so tight as to restrain him from facing his destiny – his destiny on Golgotha; but also his destiny as Savior and Judge. So the child looks straight at us and 2,000 years of human history, with a look of defiance and already a look of judgment. The face of the Christ child in this painting reminds me of the Star Child at the end of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both images strike deep chords in me. 

Regardless the subtext that I’m reading into the Sistine Madonna, it remains a profoundly beautiful painting. It is profoundly humane, full of sorrowing compassion. It confronts us with questions: Do we see our humanity in Christ? Do we see the love of a mother and the love of a savior who is one of us? And do you see the unity that calls us forward in these times of profound danger? There is one body and one spirit, Paul tells us today in his letter to the Ephesians. We are called to unity, despite how much division and hatred keeps spreading in the world around us. Grossman lived through the decades of Nazi terror, world war, and Stalinist tyranny. As humanity was disappearing around him, he found humanity in this painting. Every one of us can be a beacon of humanity, Christ humanity! Only then do we prove to the world that Mary’s life was not in vain. That she who once held Christ in her arms is now held in his arms. It’s there, in his loving embrace that we find our true humanity.


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Leviticus to the rescue!

What is the least popular book in the Bible? Most people would say, Leviticus! For very good reason, as Leviticus consists mostly of laws that Moses gave to the people of Israel. And many of these laws are the kind of thing that give the Bible a bad name among many modern people. And yet, the central theme of Leviticus is HOLINESS. God is HOLY, and God’s people are called to be holy. God “separated” the Jews from the peoples of the world in the sense that they were set apart to be holy. This was to be the quality that identified them as God’s people. This matter of holiness was not meant for the people of Israel to feel superior to others; it was not a matter of ego inflating! It was a matter of their mission in the world.

I needed some uplifting inspiration when I logged into my Logos account at midnight to see what today’s verse might be, and I was very happy to see this verse from Leviticus. I had spent the afternoon watching Simon Rattle’s final concert this past June as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. The program was Mahler’s 6th Symphony, an overwhelming 85 minutes of music and an overwhelming performance by the greatest symphony orchestra in the world.  I got into the Mahler mood and continued by listening to couple older recordings of Mahler symphonies. But in the midst of Mahler, I turned to my Apple Music library and came upon John Lennon’s Christmas Song. One verse caught my attention: “And so this is Christmas, for weak and for strong, for rich and the poor ones, the world is so wrong,” But for some reason, I didn’t hear “the world is so wrong.” I heard “the world is so young.” And I thought, wow, what a great line, John! But then I went back to play the song again and I turned on the Lyrics that Apple Music provides and I realized that I had not heard correctly. “The world is so wrong,” were the words John Lennon sang. But I think the song would be better if John had sung what I thought I heard, “the world is so young”! “Young” brings hope, and it seems that’s what I wanted to hear. “Young” brings hope that we can overcome what is wrong with the world and once again rediscover God’s call to be holy. “The world is so young” can be the antidote we need to apocalyptic visions of an aging world and a humanity that has lost its ethical moorings and will to live.

I still have not recovered from the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue two Sabbaths ago. It continues to haunt me and it has caused me to question so much of who we are. I can’t shake off the conviction that we Christians will be judged by God for how we have treated the Jews through the centuries. Every year I cringe at some of the words we read or chant during Holy Week services. The blatant anti-semitism that the Orthodox Church still promotes in our theology and hymnography is indefensible – especially after the Holocaust. And especially as we see antisemitism again on the rise. Will the Church ever wake up to the poison that medieval words and superstitions perpetuate? All the shows of solidarity with the Jews that our ecclesiastical leaders parade for photo ops will not erase our continuing guilt. When will we say, Enough, we will no longer use such horrible words in our worship?

There is wrong in the world, John Lennon, but the world is not wrong. As long as there is a holy God and people who are called to be holy, we can hope that we will see again that the world is beautiful and longs to be holy together with God’s people. Even Paul said something like this in chapter 8 of Romans. Read the whole chapter, you won’t regret it. Leviticus tells us what is the mission of God’s people in the world: to be holy, to bring to reality a different standard by which we live and by which we view each other and our beautiful world. The Jews through their adherence to those antiquated laws of Leviticus are showing that they have not forgotten their original calling. And they have survived thousands of years of persecution because they are and always will be GOD’S PEOPLE! I wonder when we Christians will realize that our calling and destiny are to unite with them in holiness. Holiness is not limited to monks who supposedly pray for the world; nor is holiness for those who the Church decided should be called “saints.” Holiness is the mission of all God’s people. Two thousand years later we still don’t get it. And that’s why “the world is so wrong.”