Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Unfinished Business with the Devil

 

What did Jesus do after his baptism? Why was he baptized to begin with? Perhaps we will find the answer by looking at what happened after his baptism. Today’s Gospel reading coming on the Sunday after Epiphany might give you the impression that right after his baptism he began preaching, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But between the baptism and today’s passage in the Gospel, something very significant happened in the life of Jesus.

You’ll remember that at his baptism the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus. Mark then tells us, “And right away the spirit drives him out into the desert – και ευθύς το πνεύμα αυτόν εκβάλλει εις την έρημον.” The implication of the verb εκβάλλει is that the spirit drove him out into the desert in a forceful manner. Jesus was thrust, almost thrown into the desert. Why? Matthew tells us in order to be tested/tempted πειρασθήναι by the devil, the διάβολος. Luke’s version puts it in a softer, more spiritual manner: “Jesus departed from the Jordan full of Holy Spirit, πλήρης πνεύματος αγίου, and was guided by the spirit (but the Greek says, ήγετο έν τω πνεύματι!) into the desert, where he was put to the test by the devil for forty days.”

Note the more aggressive action of the spirit in Mark’s version – ευθύς…εκβάλλει! What happened in the desert is the key to understanding his baptism. There he was tested by the devil three times. I’ll follow Matthew’s sequence of the three temptations instead of Luke’s.

First temptation: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” An echo of the time in the desert when God fed his people with manna from heaven. Jesus goes right back to that time and quotes Moses’ words in Deuteronomy: It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” It is interesting that Moses himself said that in the same sentence as he reminded his fellow Jews of the manna! As if he was saying to them, don’t get too excited about the miraculous manna; get excited about the words God speaks to you and the reasons why God sends the manna and does other miracles in your lives.

Second temptation: The devil takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem and tells him to throw himself down to see if angels will come to rescue him. Jesus answers again from Deuteronomy: You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. Jesus allows himself to be tested/tempted, but he will not test God!

Third temptation: The devil shows him all the kingdoms of the world and all their glory and promises to give all these to him if Jesus would bow down and worship the devil. This is the last straw, and now Jesus calls him by his more proper name: Away from me, Satan. For it is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only – and again Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, the same chapter 6 he used to fight the second temptation. It is in that same 6th chapter of Deuteronomy that we hear those wonderful words: “Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” This is the Shema Yisrael – the most important affirmation that Jews speak morning and night as the summary of their faith.

Jesus’s baptism was necessary as his own immersion into the history of his people. The God of the Bible is not an aloof God; he is in the midst of his people. As he was in the desert with Moses after the exodus, he is here in the person of Jesus. But the baptism was not only an immersion in the history of his people, it was also the conclusion of that history. Something new, something great was about to happen. “Behold, I do something new,” God spoke through the prophet Isaiah. God was always doing something new, something surprising. And the greatest surprise was about to unfold.

But first some unfinished business. The devil had to be dealt with. He was and is the constant opponent of God’s new order. And he does this with the tricks of the marketplace: good food, security, idolatry… Anyone who promises a comfortable and secure life we will gladly vote for and gladly worship. Money, security, and all the goods the marketplace has to offer – that’s all we need to turn away from God. Ancient Israel had barely escaped slavery in Egypt that they wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt: at least that was better than facing an uncertain future with Moses!

Can you love God more than you love the trinkets and comforts of a secure life? And how secure really is our life, really? A wrong button in Hawaii yesterday could have started a nuclear war! “Someone clicked the wrong thing on the computer.” Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength – that is the challenge. Don’t accept the deceptive promises that the gods we have created make.

Matthew and Mark tell us that after the devil left, angels came to look after Jesus. Luke says something more ominous, no angels in Luke’s version: And when the devil had finished all his tempting, he left him, for the time being – άχρι καιρού – until another time. Ominous. The devil is the same tempter at all times. He does not change. God changes – the devil does not! He tested Israel in the desert; he tested Jesus in the desert; he tests every one of us in the desert of our own failures. Jesus was baptized in order to immerse himself completely in the story of his people. He re-lived all the temptations of his people by confronting the devil. Then and only then does he go out and start preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent, change your mind about God and life. Don’t worship the false gods and the enticing promises they make. Worship the Lord your God, and let the Holy Spirit take you into the marvelous new life of Jesus. He was baptized for you; he lived for you; and he died for you. But he then rose from the dead so you and I might also rise from the dead. Awake, O sleeper, face the new dawn!


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Cruciform Love

A few weeks ago I had told of a woman we met in October at the island of Hydra in Greece. She had just returned from Latin America and vowed never to return. She was turned off by the proliferation of crucifixes. Everywhere she went in Latin America there were crucifixes, and she wanted no further experience of those depressing sights. She much preferred the images of Buddha in East Asian countries.

The crucified Christ is scandalous to many people. Saint Paul indeed calls the cross a scandal (σκάνδαλον) to Jews and foolishness (μωρίαν) to Gentiles. Skandalon and foolishness, but despite all that, “we proclaim Christ crucified … Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). The theologian Hans Kung, in his bestselling book of over forty years ago, On Being a Christian, stated the foundational truth of Christianity:

Paul succeeded more clearly than anyone in expressing what is the ultimately distinguishing feature of Christianity….as opposed to the ancient world religions and the modern humanisms …[It] is quite literally according to Paul “this Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ crucified.”… It is not indeed as risen, exalted, living, divine, but as crucified, that this Jesus Christ is distinguished unmistakably from the many risen, exalted, living gods and deified founders of religion, from the Caesars, geniuses, and heroes of world history.

But this foundational, distinctive truth of Christianity is not about bleeding crucifixes in Catholic or Orthodox churches, nor is it about superficial sermons about “the blood of Christ” that saves the comfortable evangelicals who crowd the entertainment centers that pretend to be churches. Paul went on, in his great letter to the Corinthian Christians: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).

Nothing, except Jesus Christ crucified! That’s all that Paul wanted the Corinthians to hear from him. Yes, he gave them all sorts of teachings about personal behavior, about order in the church. He even wrote a whole section of his letter about the resurrection of Christ and its meaning for all Christians (chapter 15). Nevertheless, he wanted to preach nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified. This was the heart of his teaching. But it was not about crucifixes or about sermons to comfortable, suburban Christians.

Have the same mind that was also in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be grasped (ἁρπαγμὸν),
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

“Have the same mind,” Paul tells the Christians in the northern Greek city of Philippi. In other words, exhibit the same cruciform love that Jesus showed by taking on our nature and accepting death on the cross. For whom, did Jesus die? For us, his brothers and sisters, since he became as one of us. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” Paul wrote to the Philippians immediately before the remarkable passage quoted above. This is an invitation to cruciform living. It’s not about hanging crucifixes in churches or around our necks. But neither is it about sermons to “me”-Christians. Jesus did not die on the cross to create a me-centered people. His death on the cross is about creating a new humanity, a new human community – exemplified by the church, but only if and when that “church” lives in accordance with the cruciform love of God in Christ.

Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν, he wrote to the Philippians (2:5). It’s all in the plural: [You – plural] have this mind in, or among, you (plural). ἐν ὑμῖν can be translated as “in you” or “among you” – both in the plural – but more likely as “among you”, as this fits better with the communal advice that Paul is giving to the Christians in Philippi. His concern was to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12), the church – but not just the church with the name “church”, but the church that lives by and reflects the power of the cross of Jesus Christ: εἰ γὰρ σύμφυτοι γεγόναμεν τῷ ὁμοιώματι τοῦ θανάτου αὐτοῦ, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῆς ἀναστάσεως ἐσόμεθα· “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5). The Greek adjective σύμφυτοι goes all the way back to Aeschylus in Greek literature and can be translated in many ways, including the one quoted here, “united” – but also, “planted together”, “joined”, “grown into union”, “identified”, “incorporate”….. ὁμοίωμα [in the dative, ὁμοιώματι, here] is translated “like his”, but more literally, “in the likeness”. So a more literal translation of Romans 6:5 would go like this: “For if we have become joined in the likeness of his death, so also we shall be to his resurrection.” This passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is read at every baptism, but people are more interested to watch the baby than to listen to words of such profound, transformational meaning.

The church is here to be for others – not for our own selfish spiritual needs. Jesus never attended to “spiritual needs”! He never knew the term, nor did the New Testament writers. Jesus told us to live for others, just as he lived for us; we are the “others” that he had in mind when he ascended the cross, when he brought into the world and poured out the cruciform love of God in Christ. May we become a church of cruciform love. May we become the church for others. Because we also are “others” who have been brought into the embrace of Christ. Paul reminds us that we also were “without Christ, aliens … and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13). We are in this together, σύμφυτοι in the cruciform love of Christ.

Addendum: I should point out that the initial incentive for this post came from the book by Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross, published by Eerdmans in 2001. I have only now started to read this book, but the term “cruciform love” is used by the author.


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Powers and Principalities Then and Now

 

Jesus encountered constant opposition and criticism for breaking sabbath rules and the taboos of society. In the healing of the woman in Luke 10:10-17, the synagogue leader could not tolerate Jesus healing on the sabbath. He was following the biblical rules that clearly prohibited work on the sabbath. Jesus responded that healing was not a work but a grace. If it was permissible to untie animals and let them drink, certainly it should be permissible to untie a woman from her bondage. The leader could not see that mercy might be more important than rigid rules or that God might work in new ways that open wide the flow of grace. Jesus was opening wide the curtain to reveal the truth about God.

Jesus actually broke more than the Sabbath rule by touching her! Both her illness and her gender forbade such an act. By touching her, Jesus himself became unclean according to the rules that governed people’s lives. Imagine that! But Jesus was only concerned to restore her identity as a “daughter of Abraham”. He brought her from the margins back into the center of the community, and he did it on the Sabbath. The choice was between law and grace, between rules and healing, between tradition and newness. What if God is working in new ways?

Note however that Jesus did not call this an act of healing; rather, he spoke of being in bondage and being set free. The language of being in bondage and being set free is the language of the exodus. One of the main reasons that keeping Sabbath is so important for Jews is that it serves as a reminder that God has brought them out of bondage. Jesus is reminding his listeners that Sabbath keeping is freedom to be God’s people, just as when they were set free from slavery in Egypt.

But what does it mean for Christians? We were not set free from slavery in Egypt. We are not under obligation to keep the Sabbath. Tell that to people who want to install the Ten Commandments in public buildings! Note especially Exodus 20:2 & 8.

But are we free? We are not in bondage in Egypt or to Satan. But are we in bondage nevertheless?

Ephesians 4:11-13:

Put on the whole armour (πανοπλίαν) of God,

that you may be able to stand firm

against the stratagems of the devil (μεθοδείας τοῦ διαβόλου). 

For we are not contending against flesh and blood,

but against the principalities (ἀρχάς),

against the powers (ἐξουσίας),

against the cosmic masters of this darkness (κοσμοκράτορας τοῦ σκότους),

against the spiritual powers of wickedness in the heavenly places (τὰ πνευματικὰ τῆς πονηρίας ἐν τοῖς ἐπουρανίοις).

Therefore buckle on the whole armour of God

that you may be able to offer resistance in the evil day

and be prepared in every respect to stand firm.

Statue of Artemis of Ephesus

Christians in Ephesus would have been under pressure to worship the emperor at the newly constructed temple of Domitian. Ephesus was also a thriving commercial city and the cultic center of goddess Artemis. They’re a little closer to us than the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. They could understand the language Paul uses of powers and principalities.

Temple of Artemis of Ephesus

William Stringfellow spoke of the time when he lectured on the biblical idea of “powers and principalities” to divinity students at Harvard. They found the terminology outdated; their theology was too sophisticated to accept such mythological language. But when he addressed students in the business school, who had done time serving at the church of realism, they recognised the language immediately.

Paul’s language is not outdated, it is very modern. It is the language of money, sex, fashion, sports, politics, consumerism, and religion. It is language that exposes our bondage to the powers: racism and segregation, organized crime and corruption in high places, addiction, depersonalization and loss of identity, economic and political authoritarianism, pornography, the celebrity culture of glamorized Bad Girls and Boys, and genocide.

Paul even exposes powers in the heavenly places – a passage that caused much trouble for the early Fathers of the church. In our more cynical age, it is less difficult to imagine evil in the heavily places – or the places that we think are heavenly!

Paul does not call us to make war on the devil or any of the powers – but to be prepared to defend ourselves – through prayer, faith, thoughtful living, through knowledge of scripture, and above all, through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our churches.


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Behind the Curtain

The Guardian newspaper published an article today about the super-rich of Greenwich, Connecticut, and how they benefit from a tax code loophole called “carried interest”. As a result of this loophole, they pay taxes at a much lower rate than most Americans. People are beginning to wake up, and today’s article in the Guardian was provoked by peaceful demonstrators who upset the morning quiet of Greenwich neighborhoods this past Saturday. These super-rich are mainly Wall Street tycoons and hedge fund owners. Many of them have personal wealth in the billions of dollars.

I have very little or no understanding of such things as hedge funds. And I’m not particularly interested in learning about the esoteric practices of Wall Street manipulators. I’m not interested because I understand these practices and their practitioners by the rubric of the “powers and principalities” that Scripture speaks of:

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [meaning the cross – but many translations finish the sentence as “over them in him,” which makes no sense]. (Colossians 2:13-15)

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Who are these powers and principalities? Are they mythical beings like demons and angels? That probably was the understanding of the early Christians who read these letters of Paul. But even within the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there is another stream of understanding. Consider Chapter 10 of Daniel:

In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks…. And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly beloved, give heed to the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” While he was speaking this word to me, I stood up trembling. Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, so I left him there with the prince of the kingdom of Persia…. But now I will return to fight against the prince of Persia; and when I am through with him, lo, the prince of Greece will come.

What we have here is a peek behind the curtain. Behind the wars and struggles of our worldly existence there are battles in the heavenly and spiritual realms. Who are the prince of Persia and the prince of Greece that this passage refers to? They are angels that personify the character of each nation. They are appointed by God as guardians of the nations, according to Deuteronomy (32:8-9): When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the Lord’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.

According to the “number of the gods” – now that’s a strange statement to find in one of the five books of Moses, the Torah! And the Hebrew of this phrase can be translated in other ways, “the sons of God” being perhaps the most popular. The ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the so-called Septuagint, translates as “angels of God”, ἔστησεν ὅρια ἐθνῶν κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ.

The non-canonical Book of Jubilees goes further: … For there are many nations and many peoples, and all are His, and over all has He placed spirits in authority to lead them astray from Him. But over Israel He did not appoint any angel or spirit, for He alone is their ruler, and He will preserve them and require them at the hand of His angels and His spirits, and at the hand of all His powers in order that He may preserve them and bless them....(Jubilees 15:31-32)

The highlighted phrase, “to lead them astray from Him,” is very challenging. Is it a statement that reads history in hindsight? To the Hebrew mind, everything was under the control of God, so if some nations resisted God or fought against Israel, it must be because God ensured that they would be led astray! The Book of Jubilees was written a little before the year 150 BC, roughly around the same time as the Book of Daniel was written. The important thing about Daniel and Jubilees is that they portray the angels (or spirits) of the nations in a negative light. The demonization of these angels of the nations would follow naturally from such depictions.

So when Paul came to write his letters from which I quoted earlier in this article, there was a whole plethora of spiritual beings that came under the broad label “powers and principalities.” Clearly, from the writings of Paul, these powers and principalities were viewed as evil and enemies of God and Christ. In every generation, in every stage of history, the powers and principalities take different form. For Jesus, the powers and principalities were three: Satan (who tempted him three times); the Jewish religious class (who challenged him at every turn); and the authorities of the Roman Empire (who crucified him). All of them celebrated their apparent victory at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But behind the scenes, in the spiritual realm, the victor was Jesus!

Clearly the entire apparatus that I have summarized here is primarily mythical and belonging to a different cognitive age than our own. Today I don’t have to think of demons and angels who represent the nations. The nations do a very good job of destroying life without any help from angels or demons. But nevertheless, there is still a “spirit of the age”; there is a spirit of a nation; there is a spirit of the marketplace; there is a spirit of Wall Street.

And that’s what today’s Guardian article represent for me: the spirit of the marketplace. And without any help from angels, the marketplace has done an excellent job of making the rich super-rich and the rest of us… well, the rest. Hedge funds and the other contortions of the financial sector are foreign to most of us. Perhaps the practitioners themselves don’t fully understand how they work, since so much is done in millisecond transactions by computers. Is this how today’s powers and principalities operate, in the hidden realm of billions of dollars moving along fiber optic highways at the speed of light? Have the powers and principalities of our age triumphed where previously they failed? Has the cross of Christ finally met its match? Don’t bet on it.


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The Language of Blessing

 

Water is a prime symbol in all religions. No surprise, since water covers over 70% of the earth’s surface. In Genesis, the earth is all water at the beginning. Then we have the Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, the Jordan, etc. In the New Testament, water is again prime symbol. John baptizes in water – but asserts that Jesus will baptize in fire and the Spirit. But Jesus himself says to Nicodemus that unless you are born of water and the Spirit you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus stood and proclaim to all the people: If any one thirsts, let him come to me and drink. If you believe in me, out of your heart will flow rivers of living water. And this he said to mean the Holy Spirit which would be given to all believers.

So water is life. But it is also a destructive force. In all ancient religions, water represents chaos, the uncontrolled destructive forces of nature. Every ancient religion had powerful gods associated with the sea or the great rivers that governed their lives.

In the second century, a group of Gnostics in Egypt were preaching that Jesus had been born a mere mortal like all other men, but then received divinity on the day of his baptism, when the Spirit of God came upon him in the form of a dove. They chose to commemorate this important event on the sixth of January, on the same day that Egyptians celebrated a pagan feast in honor of the god of the Nile.

The Church opposed the teachings of the Gnostics but kept January 6th as the date for celebrating the baptism of Christ. In addition to Epiphany, the alternate name Theophany was promoted to emphasize the orthodox idea that it wasn’t a man who was made divine, but the divine second person of the Trinity became man and lived among us.

theophany

Medieval icon of the Baptism of Christ (Click to enlarge)

Medieval icon of the Baptism of Christ (Click to enlarge)

In many icons of the Baptism, there are little humans shown in the river, along with various creatures. These undoubtedly represent the mythological figures associated with water. But now, as Jesus steps into the water of the Jordan, these mythological figures lose their power over human beings. This is the first thing that Jesus accomplishes in his baptism – he removes from human consciousness the fear of the unknown, the fear of nature, the fear of gods and goddesses. Water is once again restored to its divine mission to sustain life. Water becomes a means of sanctification – which is why we celebrate the Blessing of Water. We bless water – which means we reveal its divine purpose.

Detailed view of the bottom of the icon on the left to show the two mythological figures in the waters of the Jordan (Click to further enlarge)

Detailed view of the bottom of the icon on the left to show the two mythological figures in the waters of the Jordan

When we bless each other, we reveal our divine purpose. When we bless God, we declare God’s purposes. “Bless you” is not a little pious sentiment, a little bit of spirituality to show that we are religious. Greetings are holy acts! In Liturgy too!! No, when I say, “God bless you,” I’m saying may God reveal your divine purpose, may God speak good into your heart and soul so that you can wake up to why you are really here. Think how beautiful that is, how truly unique you are – not because some afternoon talk show tells you, but because God has a unique word, and a unique purpose that he reveals to you. And we can help each other. Next time you say “God bless you” to someone you are asking for the most transformative things that can happen in that person’s life.

Jesus restores water. He restores all creation. He takes back everything that the ancient people surrendered to gods and goddesses. Everything is brought back to its proper relation to us and to God. And everything is a blessing, a path to the divine life. Superstition should have no place in human lives. It never ceases to amaze me how superstition still rules the lives of many who call themselves Christian.

The other great symbol is light. This is a feast of light. In Greek, the feast of Epiphany is simply called Τα Φώτα – The Lights. Jesus is the light of the world. He came from light in order to bring light to those who were sunk in darkness, the darkness of unbelief and pagan superstition. He came to bring light so that we can see with clear eyesight the beauty of the world around us, the nature that is sanctified along with us. Look at the icons around us. Light everywhere. Jesus brings light to the world at his baptism; light from the mount of transfiguration; light into the city of Jerusalem and every city and neighborhood; light into the depths of Hades, the realm of death, so that death itself is freed from being our enemy = light at the death of his mother and of every mortal.

It’s all light, dear friends. Fear nothing. Evil exists and does great harm on a daily basis. But evil never endures, it is always defeated. Bless God in the sanctuary; bless God in our lives. Amen.


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Some Biblical Thoughts on the Transfiguration

“Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” A beautiful welcome today from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. A welcome on this feastday of the Transfiguration – a day that reveals the glory of God to us.

transfiguration

 

Jesus said: “The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!”

Jesus could have also said – something greater than Moses is here; something greater than Elijah is here. Moses and Elijah were front and center in the people’s consciousness. Remember that they questioned whether John the Baptist or Jesus himself was Elijah come back to earth. And Moses, the giver of the Law, of course was constantly the issue whenever Jesus was confronted with challenges about the Law.

Why did Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration? They both represented the ministry of prophets in the Old Testament.

προφήτης = προ-φημί to declare openly, to make known

Moses himself was the prophet par excellence – not in the sense of prophesying the future, but in the far more important sense of proclaiming God’s word to the people. Elijah spoke the word of God in a most difficult time in Israel’s history when the people were in danger of losing all connection with God. Not only that, but they both had profound mountaintop experiences with God. They both passed on from life in unique circumstances – in a sense, they did not die! And both were denied the privilege of openly seeing the glory of God. Now their desire was fulfilled.

But the most important meaning of their appearance, I believe, has to do with their ministry as prophets. There were three primary offices in ancient Israel: the King, the Priest, the Prophet. In appearing with Jesus, it wasn’t only their desire to see God’s glory that was fulfilled, but also their ministry. Someone greater than Moses, someone greater than Elijah, was here. Jesus took upon himself the full ministry of the prophet: “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth.” And not only to bear witness to the truth, but “I am the way, the truth and the life”! He was the Truth; he was the Word! The ministry of the prophet came to an end with Jesus – regardless of what Moslems believe about Mohammed.

In his mouth, the word of God became the word of man. The word is near us, on our lips, in our hearts, St Paul told us two Sundays ago. We can say that Jesus fulfilled the ministry of prophet, so that the ministry can be shared by all of us, individually and communally. We all share the responsibility of owning the word of God, making it our own.

Jesus brought the ministry of Moses and Elijah to an end so he could be our Great High Priest – to fulfill also the ministry of the priest. In his version of the transfiguration, Luke tells us that he spoke to Moses and Elijah about his exodus that he would accomplish in Jerusalem – namely his death. Moses was not a priest; that office was given to his brother Aaron.

In a sense we can say that the Transfiguration was the anointing of Jesus for his high-priestly ministry. The Holy Spirit anointed him to the prophetic ministry at his baptism. Now the Holy Spirit overshadows Jesus as the cloud and the voice of God again proclaims he is the beloved Son. The priest in Israel offered sacrifices for the people’s sins. Jesus offered himself. The priest was the means through whom God sanctified his people. Jesus now is our sanctification. Hebrews unites us so completely with Christ, that we read: For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one [source, Father]. (Hebrews 2:11)

Psalm 24 asks:

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?

And who shall stand in his holy place?

Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,

who do not lift up their souls to what is false,

and do not swear deceitfully.

This was a psalm of ascent, chanted or sung by the people as they went up to the Temple in Jerusalem. It was a psalm of entry. We also today are invited to ascend with Christ to the heights, where we are transfigured, filled with God’s presence, and brought to ministry in Jesus’ name. We are sanctified (made holy) together with him. We are of one source; we have the same Father.


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“… and also much cattle”

In the Liturgy of Holy Saturday, the Orthodox Church includes 15 readings from the Old Testament – mostly readings that directly or symbolically refer to the Passover, to Resurrection, or to Baptism. These readings are remnants of the original all-night Paschal Vigil which developed in the church during the centuries of its prominence in the Roman Empire. Indeed, the entire baptismal character of this Holy Saturday Liturgy reminds us that the most important day for baptisms in the first millennium of the church was precisely this holiest night of the Paschal Vigil.

In many of today’s Orthodox churches, this original group of 15 readings has been reduced to just three (Genesis 1:1-13; Jonah 1:1-4:11; Daniel 3:1-23 & Song of the Three Youths from the Septuagint). Undoubtedly this is a surrender to the short attention spans of modern churchgoers, but it’s also a recognition that this is no longer the Paschal Vigil. It is a Liturgy on the morning of Holy Saturday, and there remains hardly any baptismal connection – though it is not uncommon for adult baptisms to be scheduled on this morning, as part of the Liturgy. The Greek traditions in particular have reduced this most sacred Liturgy of the year to a mere communion service for the once-a-year crowds. A shocking and inexcusable betrayal of what is best in the Orthodox liturgical tradition.

One of the three readings that still remain is the entire Book of Jonah. Undoubtedly the reason for its inclusion in the Paschal Vigil was the statement that Jesus made to the Pharisees that questioned him: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:4; also Matthew 12:38-39). The church has always taken this statement of Jesus as a prophecy of his death and resurrection. So the hymnography of Easter constantly compares the 3-day burial of Christ to the three days that Jonah spent in the whale; with the resurrection itself prefigured by the emergence of Jonah from the whale.

But is that all there is to the saying of Jesus about “the sign of Jonah”? I doubt it. As so often happened in the Christian tradition, starting with the New Testament itself, proof texts from the Old Testament were used as “prophecies” of Christ, even when violence was done to the original context of the Hebrew writings. No wonder Jews have always been angry at how Christians have used (or misused) their scriptures!

Medieval icon of Jonah (click to enlarge)

Medieval icon of Jonah (click to enlarge)

Did Jesus himself explain what he meant by “sign of Jonah”? Yes, he did, and it’s a multifaceted explanation. In Matthew 12:40 he gives the interpretation that is favored by church tradition: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Not quite accurate, of course, since Jesus was not three days and three nights in the tomb, more like a day-and-a-half and two nights, but biblical time is never about scientific precision. It’s the symbolism that is important, not the scientific or mathematical accuracy.

But that’s not the only interpretation Jesus gave. In Matthew 12:41 he goes on to say: The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” Jesus here points to the whole of his ministry, not just his death and resurrection! The whole of his ministry had to do with repentance and wisdom, leading humanity back to God. But humanity will be judged for rejecting the ministry of Jesus.

In Luke 11:29-32, Jesus repeats the statements about the men of Nineveh and the queen of the South, but the interpretation he offered here did not include a reference to his burial and resurrection! Instead, he said: When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nin′eveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation” (Luke 11:29-30).

I believe Luke’s version is closer to what Jesus said and meant. Matthew tended to be more concerned with “fulfillment of prophecies” (even when the “fulfillment” was forced on the original Hebrew texts), but Luke seems to have had less need of this type of use of the Old Testament.

The episodes of Jonah's story (click to enlarge)

The episodes of Jonah’s story (click to enlarge)

What was the sign that God gave to the people of Nineveh through Jonah? Mercy. Jonah was sent to Nineveh to preach to them and warn them of God’s judgment (Jonah 3). Much to Jonah’s surprise, the people repented! But instead of rejoicing that his message had succeeded, Jonah became angry and despondent.

Chapter 4 of the book of Jonah describes a rather strange dialogue between Jonah and God which I’m not going to try to analyze here. Suffice it to say that the conversation revolves around God’s mercy. Jonah admits so much: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” God at the end exposes Jonah’s anger as misplaced and delivers the coup de grâce: “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” And that’s how the book of Jonah ends, with God’s concern for cattle!

20257367-standardWhy am I thinking of Jonah two months after Holy Saturday and Pascha? Because of Father Dan Berrigan. He died this year, at the age of 94, on April 30th, exactly on Holy Saturday in the Orthodox Church. Father Berrigan was a Catholic priest, known especially for his activism against the Vietnam War and social justice. I have been a reader of his many books for several years and I was reading some pages today in his book Minor Prophets, Major Themes. In the chapter on Jonah, I read:

This God, thinks Jonah, how is he to be borne? He changes plans without once consulting with his prophet. A courtesy to be sure, and long due. He bends low, lends ear to humans and their lunatic behavior.

[And what of God?] The last word belongs to Him. It concerns children and animals, which is to say, the future of living things. Whose well being, one concludes, was of small concern to Jonah.

But as to how this last word of God’s tenderness was received, what change it wrought, where it beckoned our hero?

Perhaps more to the point, where it beckons ourselves?

For “a Greater than Jonah is here.”

Today, also, the preachers of gloom and doom proclaim judgment on sinners but don’t expect mercy. Just like Jonah, they relish thoughts of punishment; God’s mercy and tenderness come as a surprise to them.

Mercy, tenderness, concern for the future of life – here is the real message of Jonah. And this is the message of Holy Saturday and Christ’s Resurrection. This is the message every day of the church’s life and on every page of Scripture. “And also much cattle” – all life is sacred to God. We don’t know if Jonah got it in the end. That is why a “greater than Jonah” came: to bring the message home, to plant it in our hearts.

The “sign of Jonah” is simply the coming of Christ to be our advocate, our friend, our companion on the path. He is a sign to us of God’s mercy and forgiveness. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so the Son of Man is a sign to us (cf. Luke 11:30).

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