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Holy Week reflections

I plan later this week to post reflections on readings for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but I'm happy to hear from you about anything you might find helpful in your preparations for Holy Week. Please feel free to use the Comments feature to communicate with me and other readers of this site, or you can email me if you'd like to send a word directly to me.

And of course, a Palm Sunday reflection is below.

Blessings to you in this holy season!


March 29, 2004 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (0)

Palm Sunday, Year C

Luke 19:29-40 - link to NRSV text
Philippians 2:5-11 - link to NRSV text

In today's gospel, Jesus stages a triumphal procession into Jerusalem, following the route that Roman rulers and generals took into the city to proclaim their victory in battle. Those victory processions were extravagant in their display of wealth, and bone-chilling to the conquered in their display of military and political might. Jesus rides in not on a noble charger surrounded by an armored guard, but on a borrowed colt with his ragtag bunch of followers, simple fishermen and loose women. It's a stinging spoof of Pontius Pilate's parades and a brilliant act of subversive street theater, inviting all Jerusalem to dramatize what Jesus teaches his followers in Luke 22:25-27:

He said to them, 'The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.

And as we head into Holy Week, we move toward contemplation of the mystery Jesus spoke of in Luke 22:27, that the one we honor most comes among us as one who serves. As Jesus enters Jerusalem, a multitude of disciples is there to greet him and play along. But the conflict escalates with the chief priests and the scribes, the Temple aristocracy and their retainers, supported by Rome to maintain stability in the empire. Jesus "stirs up the people" everywhere he goes, and it's a short-term rush for followers who are glad to participate in Jesus' send-up of Pilate's processions. But as we read in today’s epistle, the only one who truly deserves the titles of lord and king "emptied himself, taking the form of a servant," and even becoming subject to a death on a cross that his family and his culture would have seen as profoundly and unalterably shameful.

How would our communities be different if we all gave the most honor to those whose status was most humble? How would our lives be different if we were freed from all need to demonstrate our importance or power to others? How would our nation and our world be different if we really believed and lived out the Good News we proclaim, that true power and honor is expressed not in demonstrations of unmoveable might, support from power brokers, and ability to make others pay for any insult, but in Jesus' playful yet pointed street theater, his prophetic condemnation of those in Jerusalem who profited from exploitation of the poor, and above all in his willingness to forgive even from the cross?

Thanks be to God for Jesus' willingness to deflate the pretensions of the powerful, to confront the injustice he sees, and to show us the wideness of God's mercy!

March 29, 2004 in Holy Week, Luke, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)


Welcome to the new lectionary blog site.  I hope you enjoy the new look; please feel free to offer feedback, either via email or by using the Comments feature.  Please do change any bookmarks or links you have to this new site, as I don't know how much longer the old site will be working.

Thank you for your readership, your comments, and your encouragement!



March 26, 2004 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C

Luke 20:9-19 - link to NRSV text

We're pretty well conditioned to interpret parables allegorically, as if that were the only way to interpret them.  At times, the writers of the gospels encourage reading a parable allegorically, and sometimes such a reading can be very fruitful.

Even then, though, I think the best place to start when reading Jesus' parables is to try to understand what's literally going on the story first, and to understand as much as possible about what that story would be saying in the context of the first-century Mediterranean world.  Sometimes, doing that makes a significant in what we come up with when (or if) we move on to allegorical interpretation.

I think this parable is a good example of how important it is to start with a literal reading.  If we start with allegory, we end up with something like this: "God sends prophets to God's people (Israel), and the people beat up the prophets.  So God sends his son to the people, and the people are going to kill the son."  So the story becomes a story about how Israel will reject Jesus.  But how well does that fit the story?  How well does it fit the context in which Luke presents the story?  How well does it fit Luke's theology?  At the very least, the fit isn't perfect on any of those levels.

The outline of the story has a great deal in common with the parable in Luke 19:11-27, in which a power-hungry lord goes abroad to petition to become a king (a clear and derogatory reference to Herod Antipas), leaving some of his slaves in charge during his absence.  The one who refuses to lend money at interest (a practice condemned in both the Hebrew bible and Jesus' teachings) is left with nothing, but those who opposed the nobleman's grab for power are slaughtered in his presence.

Yes, I've heard the allegorical interpretation of this parable, in which the money represents the talents God has given us and expects us to use.  But let's resist the temptation to allegorize for a moment.  For starters, the whole talent (unit of money)/talent (gift or ability) wordplay doesn't work at all in Greek, as it does in English.  And besides, the unit of money here in Luke is NOT a talent, but a mina.  But most importantly, is this how God acts?  God IS king; God doesn't have to go off to ask someone else for kingship.  Or is the nobleman supposed to be Jesus?  Does Jesus demand that people lend money at interest?  Does Jesus have his enemies slaughtered in front of him?

As with the parable of the unfruitful fig tree that was the subject of my blog entry two weeks ago, I think the parable of the noble who would be king is more of a story about how far from God's intention the mighty have strayed in use of their power than it is about how God's rule is.

And I think we've got another story about how messed up things have gotten in this Sunday's gospel.  It's a graphic illustration of the spiral of violence.  It starts with the familiar situation of the wealthy absentee landlord charging exorbitant rents to tenant farmers who do all of the work.  The landlord sends a slave to demand his (considerable) share of the harvest from the poor tenant farmers.  The tenants rebel, beat up the slave, and send him packing.  Some of the people might have let loose with a cheer at this point.

The same thing happens with another slave sent to collect the rent.  Another cheer erupts from some of the hearers, the poor folk who have come to Jerusalem, the big city where many of their landlords live, for the Passover.

The landlord, intent on getting the rent, sends his son, at which point the tenants think they're close to winning their freedom with one more act of violence.  If the son (the only son?) has come to the estate because his father has died, and if the son then dies without an heir, the land is up for grabs.  So the tenants kill the son, and find out what you reap when you sow with violence.  But the landlord isn't exactly a winner either; he's lost what was dearest to him.

This is a nasty situation all around; I don't think there were any more cheers at that point.  An important part of the message of this parable -- a part I think we miss if we leap too quickly to allegory -- is that violence begets more violence.  This was an incredibly important point in the cultures of the first-century Mediterranean world (which were what anthropologists call "honor-shame cultures"), in which the only honorable response if someone hurt you or someone in your family was to retaliate against the attacker and his family with equal, or more likely greater, force.  The act of taking revenge would then require the recipients of the vengeful attack to respond in kind, and so on, and so on ...

The command in the Hebrew bible to limit revenge-taking to "an eye for an eye" was an important and incredibly helpful way to curb the spiral of violence that inevitably resulted, but Jesus wants to go further than that, to stop the spiral of violence entirely by putting forward nonviolence rather than limited violence as the standard.  He talks about how we SHOULD respond to injustice and attacks elsewhere; here, he underscores the consequences of violence.  It's a broad critique of those who see violence as the solution to problems -- to exploitative landlords, to foreign rulers, to prophets who stir up the people.

But what sparks the unrest that results in so much devastation in this Sunday's parable is initially the landlord's demand for rent -- in the words of the previous parable of the absentee landlord in Luke 19, to reap what he did not sow.  The chief priests were among the aristocracy; many of them were absentee landowners.  Their scribes were among the retainer class who had cast their lot with the aristocrats.  They're not very pleased with Jesus' pointed remarks about the conduct of the aristocracy.  Like John the Baptizer, Jesus stirs up the people not only against the Roman rulers, but also against local authorities who lord it over the people in much the same way.

Of course, Luke's readers would see this parable in light of what they as Christians already know: that the local authorities in Jerusalem handed Jesus over to Pilate to be executed for treason.  They also know, and Luke will remind them again, of how Jesus responded, meeting violence not with more violence, but with forgiveness.  Luke throughout his gospel has in mind the good news for the poor proclaimed in the Magnificat.  The mighty are being cast down and the lowly raised up, not through violent revolt, and certainly not by worldly rulers and their armies, but through Jesus' obedience to the will of his Father, which is inexhaustible grace.

Thanks be to God!

March 22, 2004 in Lent, Luke, Parables, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C

Luke 15:11-32 - link to NRSV text

I've had a few experiences in which I went out on a limb for someone and they let me down badly, or even did something that felt like betrayal.  At my best, I haven't lashed out or struck back at the person, but I was never keen to risk much for them after they'd shown their "true colors" in turning on me.

This Sunday's gospel stands goes way beyond anything I've experienced in any human relationship, save for my relationship with Jesus.  It's a story of two betrayals, one astonishing moment of forgiveness, and at least two astonishing surprises.

As with last week's gospel, the primary setting is the estate of a wealthy landowner.  But right away we can tell that the landowner this week is not like the one last week; this week, the lord of the manor lives on the land he owns with his sons.  I'd say that he treats even the lowliest of his hired hands justly, or his younger son might not have expressed the desire to be treated as one of them in verse 19.  He's a good and prominent man, respected by his fellow villagers.

And then the younger of his two sons asks for his inheritance now, essentially saying to his father, "I wish you were dead."  This is a threefold blow.  First, there's the emotional kick in the gut a father would experience when hearing his son say something so cruel.

Then, there's the loss of honor.  There's no such thing as "privacy" in a village like this; everybody knows everybody else's business, and the shameful conduct of a son would be seen by the entire village to reflect poorly on the father.  Honor was of tremendous value in the first-century Mediterranean world, and losing it would have tangible and immediate effects.  It would be harder for the father of such a disgraceful son to obtain a propitious marriage for the rest of his children, to do business with honorable villagers, to prosper as he'd done up to that point.

And finally, there's the division of the property, which would weaken the entire family forever, even in subsequent generations.  Normally, brothers who shared an inheritance of property would be expected to keep the extended family -- and its estate -- together, for the benefit and honor of the family for generations to come.  That's why the imagery St. Paul uses for Christians as siblings and co-heirs is so powerful -- it's about a relationship that brings honor to family members when the family can keep it together, and that brings shame to the family (and its Father) when the siblings feud (especially publicly) and divide the inheritance.  What the younger son does in today's gospel in convincing his father to divide the property and then squandering his share is irrevocable, and will be visited on his entire family, and their children, and their grandchildren, and more.  This would also hurt the family's employees -- less ground to work means fewer hands needed and fewer resources with which to pay them.

So it's astonishing that the father gave in to the younger son's request.  The minute he did, the audience would think they had identified the villain of the story: clearly it's the disloyal son who shames his family publicly and permanently.  The one who divides the family irrevocably.  We know who that is, right?  Hold that thought, as there's a surprise coming at the end of the story.

For now, let's get back to the plot.  The younger son has convinced his father to divide the estate.  The whole village now snickers at the father and the elder son, or at best pities them and how far they've fallen.  The younger son squanders his fortune, and finds himself in the worst kind of degradation -- without a family or a home, attached to a foreigner's household, envying the food of unclean pigs.

So the lost son decides to go back to his father's house and throw himself on his father's mercy.  What did he have to lose?  The answer to that is "his life."  The whole village would have been furious at him; such a rebellious son can give other people's children bad ideas, and disrupts the life of the village.  Socrates (a citizen of another culture the anthropologists refer to as an "honor-shame culture," like those of the first-century Mediterranean world) was accused of being a corrupting influence on the young people of his home town, and the punishment for that was death.  A brat of a son who behaved so abysmally was in serious danger of being killed by an angry mob if he dared show his face in his hometown.

So it's all the more surprising what the father does when he sees his lost son heading toward the village.  The father gathers up his robes and RUNS -- something that a dignified elder in that culture does NOT do -- to meet his son.  Most likely, he is running to beat the angry mob to the prodigal.  He is running, risking any shred of honor he had left, to save his son's life.  He takes his son in his arms, gives him a robe, shoes, and a signet ring to show that the son is under his protection, and hustles him back to what's left of the family estate.  Then he throws a feast to force the village to recognize that the son is once more part of the family.  The father's radical forgiveness, and his willingness to risk even more to protect someone who had betrayed him, is a major surprise.

And then comes the other major surprise, as we find out who's really the villain of the piece, who is truly the disloyal son who wants to tear the family apart ... and that's the elder son.  In front of all who are gathered for the celebration his father has arranged, the elder son refuses to go in.  He says his father has treated him like a slave.  And in the words he chooses to announce his refusal to reconcile with his brother, calling the prodigal "this son of yours," the elder son not only denies his kinship with his brother, but also with his father.  We might be able to understand why the elder son is angry, but the parable's audience would find his public and repeated scorn of his father to be inexcusable and profoundly shameful.

For this reason, this Sunday's gospel has a lot in common with the "Parable of the Two Sons" in Matthew 21:28-31.  In the end of the story, the parable's traditional title of "The Parable of the Lost Son" could more accurately apply to the elder son than to the younger.  And that brings us to what I'd say is the moral of the parable in this Sunday's gospel.  We don't have to always be right to be counted among Jesus' family, but we do have to welcome God's forgiveness, not only for ourselves but for all whom God chooses to forgive.  The elder brother cuts himself off from his father by refusing to forgive his brother; refusing to come in to the feast is the only thing that can override his welcome to it.  As children of God, we are called to receive graciously God's extension of grace to the disgraced.

And speaking of grace, thanks for being patient with me when I called in sick yesterday.  I'm feeling much better now.

Thanks be to God!

March 16, 2004 in Lent, Luke, Parables, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

calling in sick ...

I'm sick, alas, and therefore I'm taking the day off to rest.  This week's blog entry will go up tomorrow.  Many thanks for your patience!

Snuffily yours,


March 15, 2004 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (0)

Third Sunday in Lent, Year C

Luke 13:1-9 - link to NRSV text

The message of these two linked passages -- Jesus' comment on arbitrary deaths and the parable of the unproductive fig tree -- is clearly proclaimed by headers for this section in many bibles: "Repent or Perish."  Or is it?  I don't find that reading entirely satisfactory.

"Repent or perish" doesn't work for me as a summary of this section first and foremost because those in power in these stories are not like God; they pay no regard for who is penitent or unrepentant.  Pilate slaughters Galilean pilgrims who had committed no crime.  This portrayal of Pilate agrees with what we know of him from other first-century sources, most notably Josephus: Pilate was a brutal ruler who did not hesitate to kill hundreds or even thousands at a time, especially when he thought it might make an example to dissuade others from causing trouble.

It's a helpful corrective to the kind of portrait drawn of Pilate in places like Mel Gibson's The Passion as a principled but waffling man who is deeply concerned with whether Jesus is innocent.  In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus (who himself is a Galilean) uses Pilate as an example of how oppressive Rome's rule could be, how arbitrary the "powers that be" in Palestine used their power, noting specifically that the Galileans Pilate slaughtered were as innocent as any of their countrymen.  Pilate came down on them like a ton of bricks, as it were; he didn't check to see who was guilty and who was penitent any more than the tower in Siloam did before it fell.

And then there's the parable of the fig tree.  K.C. Hanson and Douglas Oakman (p. 106) present the scene as one that pops up repeatedly in Luke: the estate of a wealthy and mostly absentee landowner (people who owned land and employed gardeners were wealthy) with a staff to run it.  The gardener, who knows how to grow figs, as peasants grew for sustenance, counsels patience; the landowner, whose ignorance of how fig trees are customarily handled is shown in his desire to cut down the tree rather than dig it out, as would usually be done, is eager to move on to crops like grapes or olives, more valuable for trade, but of far less use to those who actually plant, care for, and harvest them, and who pay exorbitant rents for the chance to work the land.  For the parable's audience, who would be familiar with the fig tree's frequent use as a symbol for Israel, the languishing fig tree under threat from a distant owner could have brought to mind Israel's own precarious situation, subject to the whims of an authority that, especially in contrast to the gardner, is not shown as being particularly reasonable.

So the "repent or perish!" doesn't work for me as the overriding theme of this Sunday's gospel first because being penitent doesn't seem to be any guarantee of not perishing.  One could say that this is the bad news of the passage -- even for those of us fortunate enough not to live under a brutal dictator like Pilate, even if we're pious and hard-working and we play by the rules, there's no guarantee of a happy ending in this world.

But there's another way in which "repent or perish" doesn't entirely sum up the passage, and this one is good news: the parable of the fig tree comes up short on the perishing side of the equation -- especially in comparison with Matthew 21:19's cursing of the fig tree.  In this Sunday's gospel, the landowner has waited three years for fruit that didn't appear, and still the gardener is still willing and able to to care for the tree and to intercede with the landowner to save it.  Not bearing fruit is, in this parable, no guarantee of destruction by the end of the story.  Mercy is still possible.

Don't get me wrong; I definitely think that repentance is a major theme here.  But there's a flip side to the sense of loss and danger running through this passage.  There's an invitation.  Repentance is not entirely about a conviction that transgressions are invariably and immediately punished any more than it's from a conviction that this world will immediately and invariably reward virtue or repentance.  The invitation to us here springs from grace, from an awareness of how precious this moment is, this life, this mercy, this chance.  We're not just fleeing from future wrath; we're embracing God's mercy in the present.  That's a fruitful life, regardless of our fortunes.

Thanks be to God!

March 8, 2004 in Lent, Luke, Parables, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Second Sunday in Lent, Year C

Luke 13:(22-30)31-35 - link to NRSV text

This is a long entry, but I'm such a fan of Luke's craft as a writer that I can't keep myself from examining and admiring it here.

I can see why the good folks who crafted our lectionary decided to make verses 22-30 optional. A lot of commentary authors comment on it in a section apart from their comment on verses 31-35.

But Luke is a VERY careful writer, and I see a possible thematic connection here. It seems clearer to me when I read a larger section -- say, starting from Luke 11:37 and continuing through 18:14. I wouldn't say that this whole thing is one big thematic section, but there's a much higher concentration of material that mentions the Pharisees, or seems -- at least in Luke's seemingly idiosyncratic portrayal of the Pharisees -- to be targeted at them. And I'm interested in this, in part because I think it helps to answer the question most interests most folks commenting on Luke 13:31-35, the section in which Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod Antipas is out to get him -- namely, were the Pharisees here trying to do Jesus a favor, or were they trying to set him up in some destructive way?

So, check out Luke 13:10-17, the section just before the optional section of this Sunday's gospel. It's one of those controversial healings in a synagogue on the sabbath, criticized by "the leader of the synagogue." Jesus answers by saying that someone with a thirsty ox or donkey would untie it on the sabbath to give it water. Who met in synagogues? Pharisees. So even though the word isn't used here, Pharisees are Jesus' foils in the passage. And then look at Luke 13:31-35 -- it's the Pharisees again. Look at Luke 14:1-6.  It's another story of a controversial healing in front of Pharisees on the sabbath -- and to top it off, Jesus again (in some manuscripts, at least) talks about how one would treat an ox or donkey on the sabbath. And look at Luke 14:7-23, which, with 14:1-6, completes a trilogy of stories involving a host giving a dinner and pointing toward Pharisees. It's a good bet that that Luke 13:20-30 (and vs. 18-20 before that) little bit of text in between, also, for Luke's readers, has something to do with Pharisees. That's Luke's style.

Today's gospel, including the optional part, ties well into the themes Luke is raising in this large section of the gospel. In the opening and optional part of the gospel, Luke 13:22-30, someone asks Jesus whether only a few will be saved. That was a live question, in Jesus' day. I wonder whether the questioner hoped the answer was "yes" -- only a few will be saved -- or "no" -- a great many will be saved.

Jesus' answer leads me to believe that he saw his questioner as exactly the sort of person Luke criticizes in Luke 11:53-54 -- a person who wants to see others tripped up, someone who takes more pleasure in seeing someone, or at least an "unrighteous" person, destroyed than in seeing that person saved. Jesus starts off talking about a "narrow door," and about "many" who will strive to enter it and won't be able to get in. His questioner probably would have perked up considerably at that point; he's being invited to think of himself not only as an insider, but as a very select group of insiders. Then the questioner hears about all those on the outside weeping and gnashing their teeth. So far, so good.

And then Jesus pulls the rug out. He talks about people coming "from east and west, from north and south" to "eat in the kingdom of God." That's a vision of the nations, ta ethne -- AKA "the Gentiles" -- feasting in God's kingdom. And Jesus says, "some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last" (13:30). Jesus doesn't condemn any group wholesale, but he observes that it's going to be very hard for people to get in who want to be invited to the feast because they think it's a selective affair. Once they see the guest list, they're going to have to tame some pretty major revulsion about the person who'd be passing them the salt at the feast, and that's just too hard for some folks who see themselves as among the "first." So some may find themselves shut out from Jesus' table in the only way one can make that happen: by refusing to share it with the others invited.

And then comes the Pharisees' warning to Jesus: Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, is out to get him. Were they trying to help him or harm him? Either way, they are trying to tame him. If they are doing Jesus a "favor," it's worth remembering that this is what anthropologists call an honor-shame culture, in which any favor someone pays you will be called in for a favor to be given in exchange at some point (think of the film The Godfather as a helpful comparison). If they are helping Jesus by encouraging him to flee from Galilee and Herod's power, Jesus will owe them one, and he'll be in their power.

And then it's worth pointing out that the Herod in question is Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee -- these people are telling Jesus to flee from Galilee to Jerusalem. They could full well be counseling Jesus to go where he is most likely to run afoul of Roman authority, and furthermore to look like a coward in doing so.

Jesus is too smart to be tamed that way. In his response, he says what we already know is true from Luke 9:31, which I blogged on a couple of weeks ago. That's in the story of Jesus' Transfiguration, in which Moses and Elijah speak of Jesus' "departure," his exodus, "which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem." Jesus knows he's headed for Jerusalem, regardless of what Herod Antipas does or does not want. He's not going to be distracted from his mission: freeing people from the powers and illnesses that hold them down and apart from community, and then finishing his work in Jerusalem (Luke 13:32). He refuses to act as the Pharisees' client or as Herod Antipas' subject here -- ironically, because he is headed for Jerusalem to be exposed, made vulnerable, and treated as a slave to all.

Luke's portrayal of the Pharisees is complicated; throughout Luke-Acts, some are friendly to Jesus and his disciples (see, for example, Gamaliel in Acts 5:33-39, and the Christian Pharisees who are present at the "apostolic council" in Acts 15:5). But in Luke's gospel (as in the work of the ancient historian Josephus), Pharisees are shown as having significant power and influence, and as a result Jesus' dealings with them are fraught. Whether they are trying to recruit him or trap him (and is there always such a big difference between those two things?), they present serious challenges. These are good people seeking to do right, but they're caught in a system, a kosmos or world order, in which good people seeking to do right sometimes end up persecuting prophets. When we who seek to follow Jesus read passages in which Jesus interacts with Pharisees, we're tempted to identify with Jesus. But I think that it's a good discipline for us, especially in Lent, to prayerfully ask how much we're like the Pharisees -- how much we good, religious folk manage, through our participation and complicity in unjust systems, end up despising those whom God honors, hurting God's healers, trying to silence God's prophets.

Thanks be to God for Jesus' life, ministry, and death, through which Jesus defeated the powers that oppress, and that turn us into oppressors.

March 1, 2004 in Lent, Luke, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)