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Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Matthew 17:1-9 - link to NRSV text

If you've got one of these -- a book that has parallel passages (different versions of what seem to be pretty much the same story) from the four canonical gospels -- this would be a great week to break it out again. The story of Jesus' transfiguration appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the outline of the story (unlike, say, the story of the woman anointing Jesus found in Mark 14:3-9 and par.) is largely similar. But each version of the Transfiguration has small differences that draw attention to themes that are particular emphases of the author of the gospel in which it appears. In Luke (as I've blogged about before), it's a choice word -- exodus, to be precise -- that swings it, making the story of the Transfiguration a powerful reminder of the parallels between what Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem and what Moses accomplished for God's people in Egypt.

Matthew also has a choice word that plugs his telling of Jesus' transfiguration into something that's a major theme in that gospel: VISION.

It comes in verse 9 -- the place where our lectionary cuts off the reading, and the start of Matthew's explanation of the Transfiguration's significance in his story of Jesus. For Matthew, Jesus' transfiguration is a vision -- a prophetic vision for all of God's people, a vision that will birth countless other visions.

In one sense -- particularly from Peter's angle on the scene -- it's a vision of glory. It's a vision that inspires awe, as in Peter's addition of “if you wish” to his proposed plan to build three dwellings for the dazzling prophets. That dazzling glory is why there's good reason to call the story of the Transfiguration -- especially this telling or the story -- a kind of retrojection, a premature resurrection appearance.The God of Israel raising Jesus from the dead (it was expected by many, after all, that God would raise people from the dead, but it was supposed to be the RIGHTEOUS who were raised -- not to mention the strangeness of the timeframe in which God raised Jesus) was a final and undeniable vindication of Jesus' ministry; as shocking and seemingly impious as his behavior was, he really was functioning as an agent of the God of Israel. Jesus' transfiguration, and the bat qol, heavenly voice affirming that Jesus is indeed a son of the God of Israel, is in a sense a foretaste of the vindication in Jesus' resurrection.

In particular, and particularly in Matthew, the vindication places Jesus in the company of the prophets. That's a literal thing, of course, with the appearance of Moses and Elijah on the scene. This presentation of Jesus as a prophet is underscored by Jesus' transfigured clothing -- not regal purple, like the pretenders to the title of “Lord” who call themselves Caesars, nor like richly multi-colored robes worn by the Temple hierarchy and purchased with revenues from poor Israelites, but pure, simple white (a point made by Neyrey's Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew).

And then there's that one extraordinarily apt word to describe the Transfiguration as portrayed by Matthew: a vision. It's a vision of prophets in at least two senses (subjective and objective genitive, for grammar junkies). It's a vision of Moses and Elijah, and of Jesus in their company, Jesus as a continuation and perhaps a climax of the prophetic trajectory. But it's also a vision of the prophets in the sense that it is a vision claimed by God's people who recognize the Spirit's speech and action in the ministry of Jesus. Peter, the wavering disciple who gets it wrong at least as often as he gets it right, gets in this Sunday's gospel a glimpse of the vision that will make him a prophet too, on the day when the vision of Joel 2 becomes a reality at Pentecost.

But I also am talking about us as readers. As readers -- at least, if we read the whole of Matthew's explanation of this story's importance, rather than leaving off at verse 9 with the lectionary -- we get a glimpse in the Transfiguration of the power that will call God's people -- young and old, men and women -- as God's prophets. The story of the Transfiguration doesn't end with the dazzling glory around which Peter wants to build his tents, but the greater glory of the Son of Man appointed as God's judge of the nations choosing to submit to the Cross rather than strike out at those -- even, or perhaps especially, his tormentors -- he had come to save.

That's why this moment in Jesus' story -- a “special effects moment,” as I call it (can't help it -- I grew up too close to Hollywood) -- comes where it does in the story. I think for Peter, Jesus' transfiguration on the mountain, especially seen in hindsight after Pentecost, might have been anticlimactic in a way a little like the transfiguration at the end of the movie Shrek, the lights and the music underscoring all the more just how mundane -- and how sacred -- true love's true form is once the supernatural glow subsides, and we get down to the difficult and rewarding business of being together as we really are.

Jesus' transfiguration on the mountain gives us a vision of the glory we anticipate for the whole world once Jesus' redeeming work among us in complete -- and God knows we need to be people of vision to see the journey to its completion. But the speed with which that glory subsides on the mountain and our journeying with Jesus in what follows reminds us that the redemption of the world we anticipate is not just a distant hope of a light and a voice now beyond the clouds; it is here with us, to be seen and touched in service to those present with whom Jesus suffers, in love of those who embrace or scorn, in the fellowship of Christ's Body and the work of reconciliation with all whom God loves -- with all that God has made.

Thanks be to God!

January 31, 2005 in Epiphany, Prophets, Transfiguration, Year A | Permalink | Comments (1)

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Micah 6:1-8 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 5:1-12 - link to NRSV text

I think that perhaps more than any other passage, the Beatitudes need a fresh translation. I like a lot of Eugene Peterson's The Message for a lot of things (I recommend it in general, and bought a copy for my partner for Christmas), but it's really, really awful for this Sunday's gospel.

Petersen renders the first beatitude (Matthew 5:3) as "You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule." The colloquial language doesn't bother me at all, and I'm not at all opposed to the idea of "dynamic equivalence" in translation, in which translators try to communicate the sense of a text as accurately as possible, even if that means not translating each word of it. The problem in this passage is that Petersen, in my opinion, gets it very badly wrong in his rendering of all of the beatitudes.

Petersen plays up even more something that I think is already a problem when we take the familiar and traditional "Blessed are ..." language of the Beatitudes and read them through the lens of Western individualism:

We end of with a collection of pious platitudes about the attitude with which you go about your business -- business as usual, as our culture defines it. We end up reading the Beatitudes as something like what Robert Schuller called them in his book: the "Be-Happy Attitudes." That's not at all what they are.

I think that Jerome Neyrey ends up with a MUCH better reading of this text in his book Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, and there are two things that get him there:

First off, he starts with a good translation, following K.C. Hanson in translating makarios, the Greek word that the NRSV renders as "blessed," as "honored." These verses don't show Jesus as pop psychologist, telling people how to be happy; they show Jesus giving honor to those pushed out to the margins of their culture.

Second, Neyrey suggests that we take the last Beatitude -- "Honored are you when people revile and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account" -- as our starting point for understanding what's going on here.

In the New Testament world, the esteem you commanded was in large part a function of how important your connections -- your family members, your patrons, and your clients -- were. If you were (whether by birth, adoption, or being a slave or freedperson) part of a very important family, you were important. If your family was less important, you were less important. If you weren't connected to others, that didn't make you "your own man"; it made you nobody. That's serious stuff, because nobody wants to do business with a nobody; being pushed out of your network of social relationships could also mean being left with nothing to live on and no way to get out of that position.

That situation brought about all kinds of other hardships. The one pushed out could be destitute (ptochos), like the person Jesus honors in Matthew 5:3, and the hunger and thirst that Matthew 5:6 talks about -- literal hunger and thirst incurred for righteousness as Jesus redefined it -- would certainly follow, as would mourning (Matthew 5:4).

Why would the families of Jesus' followers push them out, though? The scandalous behavior Jesus' followers displayed left their families little other choice in their culture. The free social intercourse between men and women, respectable folk and sinners was shocking to many, and people who behaved like that paid a steep price. Perhaps even more shocking to many was the way Jesus' followers treated their fathers. Jesus himself was said to advocate abandoning one's aging parents to follow him, rather than staying by them to care for them until they died, and to make sure they received an honorable burial ("let me bury my father," as in Matthew 8:22 and Luke 9:60, was shorthand for this). St. Paul counseled Christians in 1 Corinthians 7 to choose whom they would marry, completely ignoring the authority of fathers, who would have arranged marriages for their sons and daughters according to what they thought best. Such disobedience shamed the whole family, threatening everyone's welfare in the process; small wonder that those who engaged in it were so often pushed out.

Matthew expands on the smaller set of Beatitudes as Luke presents them, and the additional ones make clearer what other kinds of behavior got Jesus' followers into such trouble. They were "meek," refusing to engage in contests for honor that affected their entire family as much as it did the individual male who refused to "be a man" when challenged. They were "merciful" and "peacemakers," seeking reconciliation with rather than revenge on someone who wronged them. They were "pure in heart," and as Jesus defines purity, that meant doing things -- like eating with any who would break bread with you -- bound to render them impure in others' eyes.

Jesus gathers in all of these people who have are completely bereft and without honor in their culture's eyes, and he gives them two gifts which more than compensate for their very real losses.

Jesus gives them honor. In front of all the crowds, Jesus ascribes honor to them, declaring that these are the people whom the God of Israel honors. Their human fathers may have disowned them, but they are children of the God who created the universe, to whom all honor belongs.

And that brings up the second gift that Jesus gives them: He makes them family. They are children of one Father, and that makes them brothers and sisters. They will never be bereft in a community that sees themselves as family, and that cares for one another in ways that show that they take that family relationship with utmost seriousness.

What a challenge to the church! I think that's why I wanted to post that prayer from Jeffrey John yesterday, as I was reflecting on the texts for this coming Sunday.

What does God require of us? Not sacrifices of blood, not impressive buildings, not achievement or respectability: just justice, and mercy, and humility. Sounds simple, but living into that in our culture has costs. We probably won't be left destitute (kind of puts the financial hits that parishes take after taking strong stands on justice issues into perspective, doesn't it?). But if you say "YES! In my backyard!" to a homeless shelter in your neighborhood, and your neighbors will be pretty pissed off at the way you're lowering everyone's real estate values. But keep on doing it -- God values what you're doing. God honors that, as God honors the poor whom you're serving.

What would it mean if we honored those whom God honors? What would happen if we stopped playing all of our culture's games for status and power and privilege? What would it cost us if we lived more deeply into justice, and mercy, and humility? And more importantly, what blessings await us on that journey? It's quite an adventure.

Thanks be to God!

January 25, 2005 in Epiphany, Honor/Shame, Matthew, Micah, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4)

a prayer

It's not a comment on the lectionary, but I feel moved to offer a prayer authored by the Very Rev'd Dr. Jeffrey John:

Lord, do something about your Church.
It is so awful, it is hard not to feel ashamed of belonging to it.
Most of the time it seems to be all the things you condemned:
hierarchical, conventional, judgmental, hypocritical,
respectable, comfortable, moralising, compromising,
clinging to its privileges and worldly securities,
and when not positively objectionable, merely absurd.

Lord, we need your whip of cords.
Judge us and cleanse us,
challenge and change us,
break and remake us.

Help us to be what you called us to be.
Help us to embody you on earth.
Help us to make you real down here,
and to feed your people bread instead of stones.
And start with me.

Lectionary reflection coming tomorrow morning.



January 24, 2005 in Personal Notes | Permalink | Comments (1)

Attn: SBL members

On a personal note: are you a member of the Society of Biblical Literature? If so, please consider prayerfully -- and in scholarly fashion, of course -- this resolution:

The United States election of 2004 witnessed the emergence of "values," often referred to as "Christian values" or "biblical values," as key political issues. The "values" most commonly identified in public debates were the issues of gay marriage, abortion, and stem-cell research.

The Society of Biblical Literature, which is the largest international, professional association of teachers and scholars of the Bible, calls attention to the fact that the "values" so prominently and divisively raised in this 2004 U.S. election are not major concerns in the Bible, and in fact are not even directly addressed in the Bible. Rather, they tend to reflect the underlying problems of homophobia, misogyny, control of reproductive rights, and restraint of expression (including scientific research) in U.S. society today.

With over 7,000 members representing a broad range of political and religious leanings, the Society of Biblical Literature has fostered discussions of such fundamental problems against the background of biblical ethics and respect for all human beings. As many of our members have indicated in publications and lectures, the moral issues dominating the biblical texts focus instead on concerns such as the well-being of individuals, the integrity of community, care for the powerless and the vulnerable, economic justice, the establishment of peace, and the stewardship of the environment.

The Society of Biblical Literature urges citizens and political agencies to direct their energies toward securing these goals and values of well-being and responsibility.

If you want to weigh in on this, here's the place.

Many thanks!


January 19, 2005 in Personal Notes | Permalink | Comments (1)

Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Matthew 4:12-23 - link to NRSV text

I've seen quite a few license plate frames, bumper stickers, and caps over the years that said something like, "I'd rather be fishing." And who can forget the fabulous fishing scene from the movie Office Space, in which cubicle workers feeling dehumanized as cogs in the most impersonal of corporations escape to a local lake for a day of casting rods and drinking beer? To us twenty-first-century urbanites and suburbanites, fishing serves almost as a synonym for doing nothing, for vacation, for relaxation. And when we come across language of fishing in the New Testament, we're often tempted to do something that I think we often do without thinking with imagery of shepherds and sheep -- we imagine a kind of idealized, peaceful, pastoral version of these activities. And then we're puzzled and disappointed when our walk with Christ doesn't match up to the tranquility of these scenes we've imagined.

But fishing wasn't an escape from work for folks like Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John. It was work. Fishing was a major industry in the Galilee, and fishers like the two pairs of brothers we encounter in this Sunday's gospel were very small cogs in the whole works. Fishers who didn't own their own boats had to rent them. Even fishers who did own their own boats had to pay a seemingly endless series of taxes and fees to gain fishing rights and work their trade. In the end, their catch -- if they were lucky enough to have one -- went more to make the richest in their society -- folks like Herod Antipas -- even richer than it did to benefit those whose backbreaking labor got the fish out of the sea and into the processing plants and markets. Fishers of fish, even those who owned their own boats, weren't their own bosses; they were cogs in a machine at least as impersonal and dehumanizing as the one that was grinding Office Space's disgruntled workers down.

Maybe that's one reason that Peter and co. were so willing to leave their nets when Jesus called. To be sure, Jesus said that if they followed him, they'd still be fishers. Being a fisher is no day at the beach, if you'll pardon the pun. A fisher's life is full of uncertainty and extremely hard work; Jesus isn't promising them a life of ease. But Jesus' call could have offered two things potentially of immediate appeal, even if the work was just as hard as their former trade:

First, meet the new boss -- not at all the same as the old boss. Jesus is lord of this new enterprise. Maybe even then, the fishers to whom Jesus called could tell that Jesus was not going to use his power and his followers' labor simply for his own benefit. Maybe they were figuring that whoever Jesus was, he couldn't be as bad as the toll collectors to whom they answered. Little did they know at that point that Jesus would be calling toll collectors too, but they were right about what kind of boss Jesus is: the kind who uses power to empower others, rather than to increase his own honor, status, and wealth. They're not just going to work; they're going to work with Jesus. The new enterprise brings them into relationship with him.

Second, and maybe I'm off-target about this, but there's something about becoming "fishers of people" that sounds a lot less dehumanizing than descriptions of the ancient fishing trade that I read (for one of them, check out K.C. Hanson's and Douglas Oakman's Palestine in the Time of Jesus for good information about this and other aspects of Jesus' society and culture -- and it's a fairly readable treatment designed for undergraduate courses). Becoming a "fisher for people" is going to bring these Galilean fishers not only into relationship with Jesus, but into a whole new network of relationships with others. Their relationship with Herod Antipas and the powers of this world, with the hated toll collectors, with their neighbors, with their families, with Gentiles and Pharisees, with anyone who hears Jesus' call and, responding to it, becomes a sister or brother ... none of these will ever be the same.

In America, our culture exalts "being your own boss" and "being your own man," being independent. Even -- or especially -- those who seem to be closest to those goals often discover that they're illusory. The kings of this world answer to the kingmakers, the kingmakers to bosses of their own. Having Jesus as lord -- as one's only Lord -- frees us from the webs of ambition we make only to get caught in them ourselves. Working for and with Jesus, we can cast a different kind of net -- one that frees and empowers rather than binds and dehumanizes. Answering Jesus' call, we start to hear the world's cries; we are drawn into relationship as we find what we need to serve as Jesus' co-laborers in the world. It's not easy work, but it's the work we were born to do. It's the vocation where we will become more fully human and understand better what the divine is up to among us.

Thanks be to God!

January 17, 2005 in Call Narratives, Epiphany, Matthew, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4)

Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Thanks for your patience, folks.  Phew -- what a week!  At long last, here's this week's blog entry:

John 1:29-41 - link to NRSV text

John the Baptizer proclaims that Jesus is the "Lamb of God," and immediately two of John's disciples go to follow Jesus -- and not just to follow, but to remain with him (a very important word for the author of the Gospel According to John).

When we think about "lamb," we tend to think of kebabs.  OK, maybe that's me, and the lesson learned here is that I shouldn't blog on an empty stomach.  But seriously, if I asked you to complete the phrase "like a lamb ... ," I bet you'd be pretty likely to say, "to the slaughter."  We think of lambs as meek and mild little creatures who go with docility to their fate (i.e., to become kebabs), mostly because they're a little dim.

That's how a lot of folks would have us read the "Lamb of God" language in this Sunday's gospel, as if people in John's time would say to themselves, "gosh, that fellow looks like someone who will trot happily off to get slaughtered ... hey, let's become his disciples!"  Not so.  I've talked quite a lot before about honor/shame cultures (Jesus' culture was one) and what they saw as masculine virtues, and being a doormat was most decidedly not seen as a virtue for men.

Furthermore, I've blogged before (here) about the nature of John the Baptizer's hopes for and the source of his disappointment in Jesus.  We ought to be very careful before using Matthew's and Luke's presentations of John the Baptizer to interpret what we see in the Gospel According to John (among other things, that would be a clear violation of biblical scholarship's "Rule of Thumb #11," as presented in the totally wonderful book, What They Don't Tell You: A Survivor's Guide to Biblical Studies). It's possible for the gospels of Matthew and John to have entirely distinct ideas about John the Baptizer and his relationship to Jesus. But even if the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John don't share all their ideas about John the Baptizer, they do share the values of honor/shame cultures.  Given that, it's safe to say that when John presents Jesus as the "Lamb of God" in this Sunday's gospel, John couldn't have meant it as a compliment if he was saying essentially that Jesus was someone who was going to go meekly to be slaughtered.

But then what does the phrase "Lamb of God" refer to? How did John the Baptizer understand it, and what was so appealing about it that, according to this Sunday's gospel, men like Andrew and his anonymous companion would immediately want to follow Jesus when they heard it?

What I have to say about this relies heavily on Bruce Malina's and Richard Rohrbaugh's Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, which I highly recommend as a supplement to any other commentaries on John you may use.

Bruce Malina is fond of pointing out that in the ancient world, watching the night sky was the closest equivalent to what watching television is to a lot of us.  It was entertainment, and it was also news, as the stars were seen as having profound and divine influence over human affairs. And if we want to understand the significance of the term "Lamb of God," we too need to look to the night sky.

Specifically, we look to the constellation we (following the Romans) call Aries, which Jews of the Second Temple period (i.e., of Jesus' time) as well as Greeks saw as a male lamb. And across numerous traditions in the ancient world, it was a pretty kickass (can I say "kickass" in a biblical blog?) lamb at that.  Ancient descriptions of Aries mirror that of the first-century astronomer Nigidius Figulus, who called Aries "the leader and prince of the constellations" (Malina and Rohrbaugh, pg. 51). Aries the divine Lamb was the ruler of the other constellations, and the starting point from which all other constellations were mapped.

But isn't this whole astronomy thing foreign to a biblical worldview?  Not in the least -- depending, of course, on what you mean by "a biblical worldview."  If you mean a worldview that we ought to hold in our own time and culture if we take the bible seriously, then no, astrology isn't part of a "biblical worldview."  But a close and culturally sensitive reading of the bible, Old and New Testaments, shows at the very least that imagery drawn from astrology was of profound importance to a number of biblical writers.  As we seek to understand the context in which the Gospel of John used the phrase, "Lamb of God," it's important to note how prominently it is tied to astrological imagery in the Revelation of Jesus to John, another work in the family of Johannine writings in which scholars place both Revelation and John.  Can you imagine what the book of Revelation would look like if you blacked out every reference in your copy of it to the heavens and their stars?

And then there is the connection to Passover, the feast that observed in the first month of the year, when Aries the lamb rules the sky. It's the Israelite New Year's celebration, when the coming of spring reminds us of how God is at work to make all things new.  That kind of imagery came into play as Jesus' followers imagined what the climax of God's redemptive work through Jesus would be like.  Much as pagan and Israelite stories alike portrayed Aries, the Lamb, as ascendant at the moment of Creation, Hellenistic Christians used that imagery to talk about what the moment is like in which it can be truly said, "as it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end."

So when John the Baptizer says, "Look -- the Lamb of God," he is articulating a hope that spanned multiple cultures in the ancient world.  He was saying that in Jesus there was power, power that would rise above the other powers in the sky, power present in the beginning, power to make all things new.  When Andrew and his companion are drawn to Jesus in John's gospel by that vision of Jesus as the "Lamb of God," they are drawn by an understanding that here is power.

But John's gospel is also the one in which Jesus says, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32).  The author of the Gospel According to John understands something that his namesake the Baptizer does not; that the power of the "Lamb of God" is shown most fully not in his displaying power over others, but in his humble service to others, and in his willing submission for the sake of others to death on a cross.  To understand the Baptizer's hope in proclaiming Jesus as "the Lamb of God," we must look to the night sky; to understand how Jesus redefined that hope in fulfilling it, we must seek Jesus' presence with the lowly, the suffering, the prisoners, those our culture pushes to the margins -- those whose lives are seen of being as of little account as Pontius Pilate saw Jesus'.  Recognize the power of Jesus' kenosis (Philippians 2), and we will see the signs: all Creation is being made new.

Thanks be to God!

January 12, 2005 in Epiphany, John, Revelation, Year A | Permalink | Comments (1)

First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Matthew 3:13-17 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 89:1-29 - link to BCP text
Isaiah 42:1-9 - link to NRSV text

"This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

That's what our gospel for Sunday reports that Jesus heard as he emerged from the waters in which he was baptized. We toss the phrase "son of God" around a lot in the church, as if we all know what it means. But what did it mean in Jesus' time?

I'm very glad to have Psalm 89 paired with Matthew 3 in this Sunday's lectionary, as Psalm 89 illustrates what I think was the primary reference point for language about a "son of God" in Jesus' time and culture, and that's King David.

Psalm 89 (verses 20-29) presents God as saying:

I have found David my servant;
with my holy oil I have anointed him. ...
He will say to me, "You are my Father,
my god, and the rock of my salvation."
I will make him my firstborn
and higher than the kings of the earth.
I will keep my love for him for ever,
and my covenant will stand firm for him.
I will establish his line for ever
and his throne as the days of heaven.

That image of the relationship between God and David being like one between a father and a son caught on in a big way, to the point where David became the archetypal "son of God" in many people's minds. The phrase didn't imply that there was anything unusual in the way David was conceived, and it certainly didn't imply that David was God. While we confess in the Nicene Creed that Jesus was born of a virgin (however you're inclined to interpret the word -- the Greek word parthenos doesn't mean what we tend to mean when we say "virgin") and is "true God from true God," those things were almost certainly not part of the cluster of meanings surrounding the phrase "son of God" in Jesus' time. Indeed, the things that were most prominent in how the earliest Jewish Christians viewed the term "son of God" have fallen too much by the wayside in popular Christianity today, and I'd like to recover more of the richness of the earliest confessions that Jesus was anointed (and Christ is the Greek word meaning, "anointed") as David (Psalm 89:20) was, and is "son of God" as David (Psalm 89:26) is.

A lot of what is implied in calling someone a "son of God" stems from a son's status as one who inherits the family name, the family honor, and the family's estate or business, and whose call includes building up all of these.

In Jesus' culture, family members share the family honor; the son of a great man is automatically great, and the father of a son who behaves shamefully is shamed right along with the son. Insult either one of them and you insult both. In Jesus' culture, the saying "like father, like son" is not just an observation about family resemblance; it describes the equation of honor between the two.

In Jesus' culture, because sons inherited the family trade and any family land, they literally had a stake in the family business. When the sons do well, they serve essentially as their parents' social security, their only means to a decent retirement should they make it to old age. When the father does well, the sons' wealth increases with the fortunes of the family.

Because of all of these things, sons were recognized as agents of their fathers. Because they share their father's name, a good son can act in that name and with that authority. After all, the family name -- good or bad -- is their name. The family honor -- or the family shame -- is their honor or shame. The family business is their business. In this sense, when we say that Jesus is God's son, we are making a claim for and about Jesus. We're saying that Jesus has authority to act in God's name. We're saying that God is honored by our honoring Jesus. And we're saying that Jesus' activity is Jesus' going about the family business.

That last point in particular is closely tied to something else, something vitally important that proceeds from our confession of Jesus as God's son:

When we say that Jesus is God's son, we're also making claims about God.

That's the point that was scandalous almost to the point of blasphemy for many. "Like father, like son," as they say. When we say that Jesus is God's son, going about the family business, we are saying not only that Jesus is like God; we are saying that God is like Jesus (a point that was well inculcated in me by S. Scott Bartchy, my Ph.D. supervisor). We are saying that what Jesus did -- his feasting indiscriminately with Pharisees and sinners alike, his free association with "loose" (unattached) women and taking them into his inner circle as disciples, his refusal to defend his own honor or his families by retaliating, even to the point of his death on a cross -- was God's business on earth. Indeed, we're saying that the best framework through which we can interpret what God's business on earth looks like is Jesus' behavior.

To those who find Jesus' behavior shameful, saying that Jesus is God's son is shaming God. To those of us who gladly receive the grace of his fellowship, his healing, and his call to us, saying that Jesus is God's son is the best news there is.

As they say in t.v. ads, though: But wait! There's more! In Christ, as our preface for the Incarnation in our service of the Eucharist says (BCP, p. 387), we receive power to become God's children.

In other words, God's business on earth is "Yahweh and Sons" (and daughters, of course!). As God's children, we are co-heirs with Christ. God's business is our business, and carrying out that business in the style of our elder brother Jesus is among the chief ways we honor God. As God's children, God's compassion and God's mission are at the core of our truest and deepest identity.

That's why I love an exhortation that landed in my email inbox (after a long chain of forwards, I'm sure) from Rabbi Steven Folberg of Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, Texas. Folberg encourages us to pray for the victims of the tsunami disaster in countries around the Indian Ocean -- but only after we have acted, donating what we can to help, so that "the reality of your actions lift the word of your prayers." So please, for our family honor as God's children, for the family welfare, which suffers for every member whose life and gifts we lose, for the sake of Jesus', whose self-giving showed us what God's business on earth is really about, help the suffering. And then pray. The prayer Folberg quotes, distributed by the Union for Reform Judaism, is profound:

On this Shabbat, we begin telling the saga of our people's Exodus from Egypt, our journey from slavery to freedom, from servitude to covenant.
We recall that moment of deliverance at the Sea of Reeds when we miraculously passed through the waters, yet witnessed the watery death of others. Rather than rejoice at our own survival, we are taught to hear the cries of the victims; God silenced the angels who would celebrate the survival of the Israelites, proclaiming "The work of My hands is drowning in the sea."

As we gather this Shabbat, we remember the loss of tens of thousands of God's children killed this week in the Asian Tsunamis. We pray that the survivors find strength and comfort. We pray that those who search for missing loved ones be sustained with courage and hope. We pray that those who have lost so much have the fortitude to rebuild their lives. Loving and gracious God, who created the earth in all its fullness, grant them comfort, healing and peace. Be their help, in this, their time of need.

God's children will not grow faint or be crushed until justice is established in the earth. The coastlands wait for God's teaching, for God's children to do God's business (Isaiah 42:4). Amen, and thanks be to God, who gives us power to become God's children, going about the family business.

January 3, 2005 in Baptism, Current Events, Epiphany, Isaiah, Justice, Matthew, Psalms, Year A | Permalink | Comments (1)