Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Blind Spots

 

Chapter numbers were introduced into the Gospels about a thousand years after they were written. So I like to think of Luke 17:20-19:10 as comprising one unit in the Gospel of Luke, and ignore the division into chapters. This section is the culmination of Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem and his fateful encounter with the powers and principalities opposed to the rule of God. And indeed, this section of Luke’s Gospel is precisely concerned with the rule of God – conventionally called the “kingdom of God.”

At the end of what is called chapter 17 in our Bibles (Luke 17:20-37), Jesus is questioned about the coming of the kingdom. He goes on to describe “the days of the Son of Man” – what most of us refer to as the second coming. But that’s not the coming of the kingdom! Jesus says, the kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed – the kingdom of God is among/in the midst of us!

He then goes on to describe various situations that are related to the presence of the kingdom – chapter 18 in our Bibles.

Luke 18:1-8 The parable of the persistent widow, who continues to pester a judge to give her justice. So also God will give justice to his people. “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” One of the most heart-rending questions Jesus ever asked! And he asked this not about people in general, but about those who presume to be his followers and who call themselves “Christians”.

Luke 18:9-14 The parable of the pharisee and the tax collector…we read this in one of the Sundays before Lent begins.

Luke 18:15-17 “Let the children come to me, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

Luke 18:18-30 The incident of the rich ruler, who turns away from Jesus after he hears what Jesus asks of him.

Luke 18:35-43 Jesus’ encounter with the blind beggar. Mark’s version identifies the blind man as Bartimaeus – son of Timaeus. A Gentile? His father had a Greek name. I think of Plato’s dialogue Timaeus. A gentile? A Hellenist Jew? Perhaps the reason why the crowd was trying to silence him? Yet this gentile or hellenist Jews called out, Jesus, son of David!

Regardless of ethnic identity, this man recognised Jesus in messianic terms – son of David! He shouted out, and shouted out even more as the crowd tried to silence him. He would not allow any obstacle to stand between him and the presence of God’s kingdom in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Luke 19:1-10 Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus – a Gospel passage we read every year in January or early February as part of our preparation for Great Lent.

From this unit in Luke’s Gospel we learn some things about who belong to the the kingdom of God:

Those who can receive it with the simplicity and purity of children.

Those who recognise their sinfulness and repent of it.

Those who are persistent – like the widow and the blind beggar – and don’t allow obstacles in their way.

On the other hand, the kingdom does not belong to:

Those like the pharisee who are deceived by their own good deeds and who think they have God all figured out.

Those like the rich ruler who turn away from Jesus the minute they hear something they don’t like, when they hear something that challenges a blind spot.

We all have our blind spots. Most Christians are against abortion, but many have no problem with capital punishment or pushing for war or a nuclear strike. They’re against killing babies in the womb, but have no problem killing babies, children and adults. And there are Christians who oppose war and capital punishment, but have no problem with abortion! Blind spots galore. What about Christians who say character is important in government, yet have no problem voting for someone in Alabama accused of sexual harassment? Or support a congressman also accused of sexual harassment because he was a civil rights hero? And there are blind spots closer to home, closer to our own personal lives.

Be careful with blind spots. They can become so powerful and controlling that we end up turning away from Jesus and the kingdom of God. But if we stay, if we continue calling out, the kingdom will fill our hearts and minds and heal us of our spiritual blindness and moral double-talk. Because the kingdom is among us, in our midst! Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus, glorifying God. Let us glorify  and thank God that we are here today. We haven’t given up. Here, in the Liturgy, we trust that salvation will become real in our lives – not as something future, but as something that transforms us here!


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Two Kings, two separate ways

Our Gospel reading today (Matthew 22:2-14)  is a very troubling parable – violent, condemning, exclusionary at the same time that it is inclusive. I usually focus on the inclusive aspects, but not today. In light of what’s going on in the world – the violence, the exclusion, the hatred and terrorism – it’s incumbent that I take this parable head on, in its full force, not only the part that suit my preferences.

Note first of all the language in the original Greek: ὡμοιώθη ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ = The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king… but the English translation is missing a word: the word human, highlighted in red in the Greek! None of the most used translations bother with that word – only two less commonly used translations, Lexham English Bible and Young’s Literal Translation bother taking account of it. It’s not a minor, insignificant omission. A contrast is implied between heavenly king and earthly king. It’s easy to miss this contrast if you don’t translate that word, and that’s not a minor problem.

Continuing with the Greek text: ὅστις ἐποίησεν γάμους τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ. καὶ ἀπέστειλεν τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ καλέσαι τοὺς κεκλημένους εἰς τοὺς γάμους. The word for wedding is not in the singular, γάμος, but in the plural, γάμους! There’s good reason for this, and easy to miss if the translation does not take into account the plural. (Young’s Literal Translation does.) The Jewish custom of marriage involved seven days of celebration! So what we translate as “wedding banquet” was not just a dinner but a wedding celebration that included the marriage ceremonies and several days of celebration! I believe that’s the reason why the plural γάμους is used. Perhaps now the refusal of the guests to attend might be a little more understandable?

But some of the guests did not just refuse to attend, but killed the messengers of the king! And the king sent troops to destroy them and their city. Overreaction all around, wouldn’t you say? Not something that happens when guests refuse to show up. This is an extreme parable, meant to make us uncomfortable.

We don’t like to be made uncomfortable. The media shielded most of us from the more “disturbing” photos of 3-year-old Aylan’s dead body this past week. We are very sensitive creatures, after all. But Jesus had no problem making people uncomfortable. Right before today’s parable, at the end of last week’s parable reading, Matthew tells us that the priests and pharisees understood that Jesus was speaking about them. Jesus was speaking to them with every intention of disturbing them.

Jesus is mixing metaphors here. The violence is in the realm of the human king. The open invitation is the act of the heavenly king. The violence is extreme and unjustified – but violence in general is unjustified, in ancient or modern times! Is there really any acceptable excuse for what we see happening in Middle East or in any neighborhood in America? Can violence ever be justified? Especially violence committed in the name of religion?

This entire section of Matthew (ch. 21-23) is controversial to the nth degree. Jesus entered Jerusalem and went straight to the Temple, where he violently drove out the sellers and money changers. A huge blow at the heart of the marriage between money and religion – a marriage that persists to this day. He then gets into a series of confrontational exchanges and parables. Jesus was at war with the habits of the powerful – he still is – so he uses images of power to get their attention. But just as he did not enter Jerusalem as one of the powerful, so in today’s parable he throws a switch that the powerful can’t relate to.

But regardless of what Jesus says, the religious and the powerful still believe they are the in crowd – even after they have refused the invitation to enjoy the kingdom of God instead of the kingdom of their own making. But they can’t bring their ways into the kingdom of God – the two kingdoms are incompatible. That’s why a man is thrown out at the end. He has sneaked into the banquet! He is not wearing a wedding garment. He is not wearing the garment Jesus has prepared for him!

This parable has been interpreted as aimed at Israel and Jewish religion. Certainly it was aimed at the leaders of the Jewish nation, but we are misusing it if we limit its meaning to ancient Israel and the Jews. It is for all times and all places. Every religion, every nation, every individual stands under the same judgment.

I personally do not like this parable the way it’s written. Whether Jesus himself spoke it exactly as Matthew reports it or whether Matthew did a major edit and rewrite we cannot know. Matthew clearly wants it to be taken as an attack on the Judaism of that time. We can see its broader significance.

I take two messages from this reading:

  1. God’s salvation is always for the poor – not only the economically poor, but the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3) – everyone who recognizes that without God we have nothing.
  2. Jesus became one of us so we could be clothed with him – we put on Christ (Romans 13:14, Galatians 3:27); it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20). That’s the meaning of the wedding garment; it is Christ’s garment of righteousness.