How We Understand and Speak About REALITY


Sunday — 22 April 2018

In 1886 the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) dismissed all gods as unimportant window dressing and insisted that religions are just rites and rituals.

In The Origin of Species (p. 470), Charles Darwin wrote that: “The feeling of religious devotion is a highly complex one….Nevertheless, we see some distant approach to this state of mind in the deep love of a dog for his master, associated with complete submission, some fear and perhaps some other feelings.”

Ever since Darwin equated human devotion to God with a dog’s devotion to its master, biologists, psychologists, and some philosophers have been postulating religious instincts and other neurological bases for religion. Their work always attracts attention, especially in the popular media. Time Magazine and Newsweek, for example periodically announce a “new” revelation about religion. In his best-selling 2006 book, English biologist Richard Dawkins tried to say it all: The God Delusion.

And so the contemporary REALITY questions:

Dose God exist?

Have we discovered God, or have we invented God?

Are there so many similarities among the great religions simply because God is the product of universal wish fulfillment?

Have human beings historically created supernatural beings, because of their need for comfort in the face of existential tragedy and to find purpose and significance in life?

Or….have people in many places and in many times, to a greater and lesser degree, actually gained glimpses of God?

Theologians try to understand and interpret our experience of REALITY. I see three approaches in contemporary “theology,” as it tries to answer the above questions: (1) Static Belief, (2) Short-Sighted Humanization, and (3) Christian Humanism.

Before moving into these three categories, we need to clarify what theology is and is not.

Faith is our experience of God: the human experience of the Divine. Theology is an interpretation of that faith experience and finds expression in words and symbols. The best definition of theology is still that of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109): Fides quarens intellectum – “faith seeking understanding.” Theology is an interpretation. When we do theology we express ourselves in the symbols, words, and rituals that are products of our culture.

Cultural change means that theology changes as well – in small ways and occasionally in big ways.

In every age people scratch their heads trying to best express what they experience in their faith experiences of the Divine. There is always change in theology just because words change, thought categories change, and symbols and rituals that worked in one era do not always work in another time frame. This has always been my point with my blog “Another Voice,” the challenge I read long ago in Little Gidding by T. S. Eliot: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language; and next year’s words await another voice.”

Next week: Two strong but unhealthy contemporary theological trends – Static Belief and Short-Sighted Humanization…..Bear with me please!

Jack

jadleuven@gmail.com

Human Rights / Human Dignity


Sunday — April 15, 2018

“‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” Acts of Apostles 2:17

In my first post Easter reflection, some thoughts — for people of all ages — about being prophetic in living our dreams and visions.

First a brief story.

A friend sent me a short video about a young man’s vision of Jesus. A young white fellow was deeply troubled and tearfully crying and praying in church: “Jesus help me! Lord help me please!” Suddenly a dark-skinned man in a robe appeared and said: “Hey man, what’s the problem?” The fair-skinned fellow cries out: “I need Jesus!” The dark-skinned man replies: “Yes. I am here. What’s your problem?” The young man says: “but…but you don’t look like your pictures!” Jesus replied: “Get over it kid. I am dark-skinned and speak and act like a foreigner. I grew up in a different part of the world. My Mom and Dad were very dark-skinned as well. We all looked like migrants to people like you……now what’s the problem?”

The message of Christ proclaims the dignity and worth of every human person. There can be no exceptions. The must basic human right is the right to be oneself: to be accepted, to be acknowledged as a human being who by nature has value and deserves to be respected.

In authentic Christian behavior all must be acknowledged, respected, supported, and helped: male, female, transgender. Black, white, yellow and colorful combinations. Gay, straight, and uncertain. Americans, Mexicans, Syrians, and other foreigners. The young and old. Rich and pour. Handsome and ugly. Smart and stupid. Saints and sinners.

Are you listening bishops? Are you listening rabbis and imams? Are you listening White House? Are you listening Democrats and Republicans? Are you really listening United Nations representatives from around the world?

In the revelation of Jesus Raised from the Dead, this is authentic Christian behavior. It is authentic human behavior: not just our challenge but our duty. It is our responsibility. Political party or religious tradition differences allow no exceptions.

Next week some pointed theological questions.

Jack

jadleuven@gmail.com

Easter 2018


Happy Easter!

May we move forward, supporting each other,

in the Way of Jesus who is our Truth and Life.

“Instead of reading the Bible to assure ourselves that we are right,

we would be better to read it to discover where we have not been

listening.”– Raymond E. Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind, p150.

Jack jadleuven@gmail.com

I will be away for a couple of weeks.

Courageous and Confident


Palm Sunday – March 25, 2018

Today as we enter Holy Week 2018, I conclude my Lenten reflections about Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, with some final thoughts about the Johannine Gospel and its challenge to contemporary Christians.

Scholars like Pheme Perkins, at Boston College, emphasize, that the author of John presumes that much of the narrative about Jesus and its people and places was already well known to the Johannine audience. They would have been familiar with the various titles for Jesus, with Baptism, Eucharist, and the Spirit. They were already Christians, entering the second century of Christian life and experience. The Fourth Gospel then is a call to re-examine their lives as followers of the Risen Lord. That challenge of course rings true for us as well.

Last week we looked at the “Book of Signs.” Today we move to the “Book of Glory”: John 13:1 to John 20:31.

John 13:1-4 is a turning point in this gospel. Jesus’s “hour” had come “for him to pass from this world to the Father….he had come from God and was returning to God.”

The occasion in John 13 is the Last Supper. Unlike the Synoptics, the Johannine Gospel has no mention of Eucharist, but Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” (John 13:15) I think we forget that people’s feet back then were really dirty! Washing feet was not a pleasant task. Reading this scripture, I think we forget as well what Jesus also said: “Whoever welcomes the one I send, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (John 13:20) The Johannine author did not mention the Eucharistic bread and wine because he wanted to emphasize that Jesus is present in the Community of Faith. Jesus promises that his Spirit (the Advocate) will be with them. (John 14:15-16, 15:26, 16:15) For centuries, in my Roman Catholic tradition, people have argued and fought about Jesus’s “Real Presence.” The Johannine Gospel is very clear: the primary real presence of Jesus is in the community. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches (John 15); and we are to love one another. The branches cannot survive without the vine; but the vine cannot survive without the branches. The profound mystery of life. No one can do it alone…. In Mark, Matthew, and Luke the stress was on Divinity talking on humanity. That is true in John as well, of course. In John, however, we see another emphasis: humanity taking on Divinity. God is truly with us: in the very heart of our being. (Some of the old images of God no longer speak to contemporary people; but God has not abandoned us. We should not abandon God. We simply need to reflect on better ways of conceptualizing and speaking about our experience of the Divine.)

The Johannine account of the crucifixion does not stress Jesus as one who suffers, as we saw for example in Mark 15.25–39. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is the one who is exalted, “lifted up” in his moment of glorification. In John 13 to John 16, Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent departure followed by his “high priestly prayer” in John 17. Here we see a very strong and confident Jesus. “I have glorified you on earth and finished the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, it is time to glorify me…” (John 17:4-5)

The final Johannine chapters contain the accounts of Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. The Jesus who stands before Pilate is strong. On the way to Golgotha Jesus carries his own cross. He does not need the help of a Simon of Cyrene as we saw in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Also in John, unlike the other three gospels, Jesus crucifixion occurs on the day of preparation of the Passover (John 19:14) rather than on the Passover holiday itself. Here Jesus prepares himself for the departure to the Father and seems to be in complete control of his destiny, even to the extent of commending his mother to the Beloved Disciple (John 19:26–27).

The Book of Glory concludes with the discovery of the empty tomb by the women and other disciples (John 20:1–10), Jesus’s appearance to them (John 20:11–18), and the narrative of “Doubting” Thomas (John 20.24–29). The last two verses contain what many scholars think may have been the gospel’s ending: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

Appendix: Many scholars consider John 21 to be a later addition to the Johannine Gospel. It not only contains resurrection appearances in Galilee, but it also emphasizes the authority of the Beloved Disciple, who likely died a normal death in contrast to Peter’s martyrdom (see John 21.15–23). Quite possibly, this appendix reflects a controversy among the second or third generation of believers, who may have considered the Beloved Disciple inferior to Peter. Chapter 21 reinforces the Beloved Disciple’s role as the authorized witness of the Jesus tradition for the Johannine community.

I titled today’s reflection “Courageous and Confident.” That is how I perceive Jesus in the Johannine Gospel. With courage and confidence, Jesus spoke out against the hypocrisy of the self-centered arrogant. In conflicts with Judean religious leaders he stressed that religiosity is not faith.

Today we encounter the same kinds of hypocrisy and are confronted with un-Christian religiosity from religious and political leaders. As members of Jesus in the community of faith, may we sustain each other with courage and confidence. That is the message for this Holy Week, as we prepare for Easter 2018.

– Jack jadleuven@gmail.com

According to John


18 March 2018 — Fifth Sunday in Lent

General Observations: The Gospel According to John (the Johannine Gospel) differs from the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) in style and content in several ways. John’s Gospel omits a large amount of material found in the Synoptic Gospels, like the temptation of Jesus, Jesus’ transfiguration, and the institution of the Lord’s supper. The sermon on the mount and the Lord’s prayer are not found in the Fourth Gospel. In John we do not see proverbs and parables but symbolic discourses. Jesus’ miracles are designed to provide symbolic insight into Jesus’ identity and his relationship to the Father. In the Johannine Gospel, Jesus is clearly the Wisdom of God, the source of eternal life, and still continually living within the community of faith.

According to the Johannine Gospel, Jesus’ public ministry appears to extend over a period of at least three years. During that time, he went, several times, from Galilee to Jerusalem. The synoptics, on the other hand, have Jesus making only one journey to Jerusalem — the final one — with most of his ministry taking place within one year.

The Johannine Gospel uses a “post-resurrection” point of view. The author looks back on the Jesus events and emphasizes the inability of the apostles to understand the things that were happening at the time they occurred. See for instance: John 2:17-22, where there are obvious references to the Resurrection, “He was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body, and after he rose from the dead his disciples remembered.” John 12:16-17, “At the time his disciples did not understand this but later, after Jesus had been glorified, they remembered….” And John 20:9, “Until this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Perhaps we do not always clearly understand?

The gospel’s prologue (John 1:1-18) is most likely an elaboration of an early hymn. Interestingly, the rest of John’s Gospel does not speak of Jesus as the pre-existent, creative Word. Many biblical scholars suggest, therefore, that the prologue was added after the gospel had been completed.

Authorship and Locality: The old tradition, from the second century, was that the author was the apostle John, son of Zebedee. Most contemporary scholars are not of this opinion. Scholars such as Raymond E. Brown believe that the original author of an oral tradition, that evolved into the Johannine Gospel, was a companion of Jesus, the “Beloved Disciple,” who formed a community, most probably in Ephesus. Scholars call this “the Johannine community.” An oral tradition of eye-witness recollections of the Beloved Disciple evolved and began being written down around 90 CE. The final redaction occurred ten to twenty years later, giving us a gospel composition date of between 90 and 110 CE. We don’t know who the “Beloved Disciple” was. There is quite a variety of scholarly opinions: a truly unknown disciple, the Apostle John, James the brother of Jesus, or even Mary the Magdalene.

The Johannine community was greatly concerned with hot issues in the church–synagogue debate and defined itself primarily in contrast to Judaism. The final version of the gospel was composed after the crisis created by the expulsion of Christians from the synagogue. The Judean criticism is strong; and, over the centuries, some have incorrectly used the Johannine Gospel as an excuse for anti-Semitism. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is unfortunate that English translators have so often used the words “Jew” and “Jews,” when “Judean” and “Judeans” would have been more correct and less problematic.

Four sections: Contemporary biblical scholars, break the Johannine Gospel into four parts: the Prologue (John 1:1-18); the Book of Signs (John 1:19 to 12:50); the Book of Glory (John 13:1 to 20:31) and the Epilogue (John 21).

The seven “signs” point to a new creation brought by Jesus and are clear indicators of his divinity: Changing water into wine at Cana (John 2:1-11) “the first of the signs;” Healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum (John 4:46-54); Healing the paralytic at Bethesda (John 5:1-15); Feeding the 5000 (John 6:5-14); Jesus walking on water (John 6:16-24); Healing the man blind from birth (John 9:1-7); and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45).

Signs and Personal Reflections: Once again, as I re-read the Johannine Gospel, I see texts that speak loud and clear to our contemporary life situation. (Next week, as we enter Holy Week 2018, I will have some reflections about the “Book of Glory.”)

Authoritarian Self-Defense: The inability and unwillingness of “respected” leaders to see the obvious. In their obsession with secrecy and defending their good name, “seeking the glory that comes from men” (John 12.43; 7.18) they refuse to rock the boat. Jesus says they put the honor that comes from people before the honor that comes from God. It is a question of ethics: an ethic of only self-love.

Authoritarian Followers: Why did the Judean leaders, including conscientious Pharisees, conspire to crucify Jesus? Why did so many ordinary people collude in their decision? Was the High Priest Caiaphas any different from contemporary national leaders in his simple judgment that “If we let him [Jesus as the just and prophetic person] go on speaking in this way, everybody will believe in him…. it is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:48-50) Today, political leaders – and some church leaders — know well the power of demonizing specific people and certain groups, as a way of achieving a semblance of social or institutional unity: high school students demonstrating against guns, radical feminists, Mexicans, and gays.

Conversion: Throughout the Johannine Gospel Jesus persists in his call for conversion: “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.’’ (John 7:37-38) Jesus’ call is significant. The pre-requisite for faith is thirst. Thirst for more. Thirst for justice, truth, and com-passion. Thirst for the divine.

Systemic Sin: In the Johannine Gospel, I see systemic sin as the deeper sin: the origin of other sins. All people need to interact socially, they need to base genuine community on love, mutual respect and openness to difference. Not on ideology and accepted customs (John 5:10); nor on a common enemy (John 7:32); nor the exclusion of dissenters (John 7:47-48; John 9:35). Genuine believers need to face every-one’s propensity to sin. And not deny it nor cover it up, nor simply ignore it, as has happened with the clerical sexual abuse of children and with the lying, dishonesty, and gross sexual immorality at the highest levels of our political leadership.

——

Jack jadleuven@gmail.com

Healing and Reconciliation


The Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 11, 2018

While Mark focused on the mostly Gentile Christian community in Rome and Matthew was more focused on the Judeo-Christian community in Antioch, Luke stresses that Christianity is a way of life for Gentile as well as Judeo-Christian believers; and that it warrants legal recognition in the Roman Empire. Luke is about healing and reconciliation: actions greatly needed in our own contemporary society.

Luke’s author was a highly educated Gentile Christian who came from a thoroughly Greco-Roman environment. Unlike Matthew’s author he is not well-grounded in the Judaic tradition. Scholars speculate on whether his “ordered account” was written for a Christian community in Antioch or some other location in Asia Minor, like Ephesus or Smyrna. Luke and the Acts of Apostles make up a two-volume work often called simply Luke–Acts; and they are addressed to the “most excellent” Theophilus (Friend of God).

For documentation, Luke’s author drew from the Gospel of Mark, the sayings collection called the “Q” source, and a collection of material called the “L” (for Luke) source. The author is not named in either volume, but a tradition dating from the 2nd century suggested that the author was the Luke who was a companion of Paul. While this view is still occasionally put forward, many biblical scholars today question that supposition. I tend to agree with them. There are significant contradictions between Acts and the authentic Pauline letters. Textual analysis suggests that Luke-Acts was written not earlier than 80–90 CE; and most likely as late as 90–110 CE, because the text was still being revised well into the 2nd century.

Last week I stressed that Matthew saw Jesus as the fulfilment of Hebrew history. He began his infancy narrative with a genealogy of Jesus from Abraham down to Joseph and Mary. Luke, on the other hand, understands Jesus as the high point in all human history. His genealogy is presented at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and runs backwards from Joseph to Adam. Luke is also more Mary-oriented than Joseph-oriented. In Matthew’s infancy narrative the light is on Joseph. In Luke’s account, it is Mary who shines. She is the one who hears and keeps God’s word.

What strikes you, as you re-read this gospel? Three themes caught my attention: women, building bridges, and religious hypocrisy.

WOMEN: In Luke Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39), a 12-year-old girl (Luke 8:41-42, 49-56); a woman with a 12-year infirmity (verses 43-48); and a woman who had been crippled 18 years (Luke 13:10-17). In Luke we see Mary, an early disciple of Jesus. She sits before Jesus and listens to him. Her sister Martha complains to Jesus that Mary should be helping her with serving. Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha…it is Mary who has chosen the better part.” (Luke 10:38-42). In the Resurrection accounts, women not men are most important: Women were among those who observed the crucifixion (Luke 23:27, 49). Women prepared spices to anoint Jesus’ body (verses 55-56). Women were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty (Luke 24:1-3) and angels told them Jesus had been raised from the dead (verses 4-8). Women were the first to proclaim the Resurrection to Jesus’ other disciples (verses 9-11). (Reading these verses, I thought: How ironic that the former president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, was barred by the Vatican from taking part in a conference celebrating International Women’s Day, due to her views on gay rights and clerical sexual abuse.)

BUILDING BRIDGES NOT WALLS: Luke’s stress on peace-making implied a new relationship with the Roman Empire. Dialogue had to start, and destructive polarization had to end. In Luke’s infancy narrative, angelic messengers proclaim: “Good news of great joy for all people. To you is born this day . . . a Savior! . . . Peace on earth among those whom God favors!” (Luke 2:10-11,14] These words echo and go far beyond the Roman monument inscriptions that had praised Augustus Caesar as “god” and “savior.” Luke hereby stresses that Jesus had completed more fully and uniquely the work of Augustus. Later in this gospel, Luke offsets the fact that Jesus was executed by the Romans, by having the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate declare Jesus innocent three times (Luke 23:4,14,22). Only Luke, unlike Mark and Matthew, has the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross exclaim: “Surely, this man was innocent.” (Luke 23:47) Building bridges. In Luke’s narration, Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate become unlikely friends, after being in Jesus’ presence (Luke 23:12). And finally, only in Luke’s Gospel does Jesus pray for forgiveness for his crucifiers (Luke 23:34).

RELIGIOUS HYPOCRISY: Some observers accuse Luke of antisemitism, because he regularly shows Jesus criticizing Jewish religious leaders (Pharisees, scribes, and Levites). I think these critics miss the point. Jesus was strongly critical of the arrogant religious hypocrisy of the religiously elite in his day. When invited to dine in the home of a Pharisee, for example, the religious leader accused Jesus of not washing ahead of time. Jesus replied: “Now then, you clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people!…give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you…you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God….Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:37-44) Luke speaks strongly to our own contemporary society, in which the religiously elite praise God and ignore the poor, the oppressed, the diseased, and the marginalized.

And I conclude this week’s reflection with a quote from Billy Graham: “It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” I think Luke would agree with that….

Next week, we look at John.

— Jack jadleuven@gmail.com

THE RABBI


THIRD SUNDAY of LENT: March 4, 2018

A bit longer reflection today, with two opening thoughts:

(1) Each of the four gospels is carefully crafted to present the message and person of Jesus — the Messiah, the Human One and Son of God, the Christ — to a specific audience. Depending upon the “audience” and its specific needs, elements mentioned or stressed in one gospel are minimized or even ignored in another. Last week we saw that the Gospel According to Mark makes no mention of a virgin birth or of Jesus’ infancy. The gospels of Matthew and Luke do indeed mention a virgin birth; but their accounts of Jesus’ infancy are imaginative and quite different in some details. The gospels, again, are about the meaning of the Christ-event and are not strictly-speaking historical accounts.

(2) Translations of the scriptures are necessary, of course, because people in different places and times speak a variety of languages. Most contemporary scripture readers are not fluent in biblical Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. (As a friend said, I am a bit unconventional. When it comes to languages, I can squeak by in Hebrew; but my Greek and Latin are really quite good.) Ideally, people who want a more comprehensive understanding of biblical texts should use a good biblical commentary, because all translations are filtered through the vision and vocabulary of the translator. Sometimes this creates problems in correctly understanding a passage.

An example of what I mean: In recent years, scholars and translators of the New Testament have suggested that we seriously reconsider how one translates the Greek term ioudaios, originally translated in English as “Jews.” Ioudaios is more accurately translated as “Judean,” not “Jew.” The Greek ioudaios and the Latiniudaeus come from the Biblical Hebrew word Yehudi meaning “from the Tribe of Judah.”

Bear with me. The word “Jew” did not appear in the first English translations of the New Testament. The best known early editions of the New Testament in English are the Douai Rheims edition and the King James Authorized Edition. The Douai Rheims translation was first printed in 1582; but the word “Jew” did not appear in it. The King James Authorized translation was first published in 1611. The word “Jew” did not appear in it either. For the first time the word “Jew” appeared in both these well-known editions in their 18th century revised versions.

“So, what?” a friend asked. Well, since the late 19th and early 20th centuries the word “Jew” has been used increasingly in a pejorative way and has greatly contributed to antisemitism. Expressions like “Jew someone” or “Jew lawyer” or “Jew down” have been common negative terms. Over the years, a mythology grew up around Jews, linking them with greed and avarice. One can recall Christopher Marlowe’s play “The Jew of Malta” and its demonic image of Jews; but even earlier in Shakespeare we found the “Jew” moneylender Shylock and his bloodthirsty desire to claim his “pound of flesh.”

Today, some people try to avoid using the word “Jew” and use “Jewish” instead. Nevertheless, one needs to stress (especially today when antisemitism is growing so strongly) that “the Jews” did not condemn Jesus. Judean religious leaders in Jerusalem condemned him. Jews did not kill Jesus. Judean religious leaders turned Jesus over to the Roman Pontius Pilate, the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea; and the Romans crucified Jesus.

Now some reflections about Matthew. Brief, but I think to the point.

Last week I stressed that the Gospel According to Mark was designed for Gentile Christians in Rome, and composed by an anonymous author, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Mark’s Gentile Christians in Rome faced and feared persecution and death at the hands of Roman authorities; but they also had to live with negativity and discrimination from Judeo-Christians living in Rome.

The Gospel According to Matthew, was most likely written by an anonymous Judeo-Christian scribe in the mid-80s CE. The most probable location for the Matthean community was Antioch, whose ruins today lie close to Antakya, Turkey. The community was strongly Judeo-Christian. There were Gentile Christian members, but they were expected to obey Torah norms. Some scholars say even circumcision. The Matthean Jesus came, therefore, “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it” (Matthew 5:17).

One can say that Matthew was organized for Judeo-Christian instructional purposes; and the stress is on the “Judeo” element. It contains five sermons of Jesus (Matthew 5:1-7:29; 10:1-42; 13:1-52; 18:1-35; and 23:1 through 25:46) which, for the evangelist’s audience symbolized the five books of the Torah. In the first of these, the “Sermon on Mount,” the rabbi Jesus, like a new Moses, presents his definitive teaching about the Torah. Notice how he so often says “you have heard it said of old . . . but I say to you . . .” (Matthew 5:21-22) Rabbi Jesus takes a teaching found in the Torah and then intensifies and expands on it.

For Matthew Jesus is the great embodiment of all preceding Hebrew history. He constructs an infancy narrative that begins with “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, Son of David, son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1-17). Matthew’s genealogy features four notable Hebrew women, a number of “fulfillment” passages that relate Jesus to prophetic texts; and allusions to famous Hebrew men of the past. Note for instance that Jesus, like Moses, was rescued as an infant from a murderous king (Matthew 2:16-18). In Matthew’s creative narration, Jesus’ ministry begins with three temptations in the desert. They correspond to the experiences of Israel in the desert, after the Exodus. Jesus is God’s great liberator, the new Moses.

What strikes me as I re-read the Gospel According to Matthew, is Jesus the rabbi: the great teacher. And I conclude this Sunday’s reflection with my own translation and contemporary reflection on Matthew 5:1-10, where Jesus goes up a hill with his disciples and begins to teach what we have come to know as the “Sermon on the Mount.” It is truly a charter for Christian life today.

The Christian Charter Based on the Sermon on the Mount

1.How fortunate are those people, who are humble in spirit.

The humble in spirit realize that greatness is achieved through service not domination. Power and control over people have no place in the community of faith. The humble in spirit realize they are not masters of the universe. They understand they cannot survive on their own.

2.How fortunate are the gentle.

The gentle are the meek: those people who can make room for someone else, even for the “losers.” They are neither so arrogant nor so self-centered that they see only what they want to see. Arrogant and crude belittling of other people has no place in the words and behavior of those who claim to be followers of Christ – even when they sit in high political office or wear colourful clerical uniforms. “You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them; and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you.” (Matthew 20:25-26)

3.How fortunate are those with compassion.

They can feel the pain of another. They put an arm around the fearful and the oppressed. They do not simply send their “thoughts and prayers,” and then head out to play golf. They lift oppressive burdens from the shoulders of the old, the infirmed, and the impoverished. They do not cut their food stamps and health care benefits

4. How fortunate are those whose greatest desire is to do what genuine Christianity requires.

We are fortunate if we have high ideals, strong values, noble goals, and the motivation to build up what is best in others and in ourselves….. But the temptations are strong: to conform, to do what everyone else does, to simply read the news and then not rock the boat.

5. How fortunate are those who show mercy to others.

Merciful love is assistance without conditions. Genuine Christians are not fear mongers who scapegoat Hispanics, feminists, blacks, gays, or immigrants from “shithole countries”

6. How fortunate are the pure of heart.

The pure of heart are honest-hearted. They are not two-faced, with hidden agendas or secret desires to advance themselves by using and abusing other people. They do not brag and joke about grabbing genitalia. The pure of heart honor and search for truth. They do not fabricate “facts.”

7. How fortunate are those who work for peace.

Those who work for peace do not erect walls. They do not launch oppressive trade wars. They are bridge builders. They cooperate rather than compete. They struggle to resolve political, social, and religious polarization through tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect. To paraphrase Matthew 25:52, “put your guns away, for all who draw their guns will perish by guns.”

8. How fortunate are those who suffer persecution because they truly live the Gospel.

There are a lot of phony Christians in high places these days, who love to denigrate and oppress their critics. They profess love of Christ. In reality they love only themselves. Matthew’s Jesus is adamant about this. He spoke of religious leaders who wore impressive religious garments and talked God’s values but never lived God’s values. “Do not do what they do,” Jesus said “for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see. (Matthew 23:3-5)

It is still winter, but spring is on the horizon.

Jack – jadleuven@gmail.com

According to Mark


23 February 2018

Many contemporary biblical scholars believe that what we call Mark’s Gospel was composed around 70 CE but probably after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70. (The prominent biblical scholar Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) saw an unambiguous reference to the destruction of the temple in Mark 13:2, when Jesus says “You see these great buildings? Not a single stone will be left on another. Everything will be destroyed.”)

Mark’s Gospel was written for Gentile Christians in Rome, suffering Roman persecution but also discrimination from Judaeo-Christians, who felt superior to Gentile converts. Up until the nineteenth century, and in some circles even later, the general theological understanding was that the author of Mark’s Gospel was “John Mark” mentioned in Acts of Apostles. Contemporary scholars, however, reject that thesis and generally agree that the final author of Mark remains anonymous. Although it is the oldest of the four, Mark’s Gospel is also much shorter than the other gospels, with just 16 chapters compared to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24, and John’s 21.

It is interesting to note that of the Synoptic Gospels, only Mark’s starts with the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον (transliteration: euaggelion) the Greek word for “good news”: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) As part of the vocabulary of early Christians, this word did not refer to a specific type of literature nor to a book. The term had a more dynamic meaning. It was a proclamation of an event of major importance. “Gospel” for the primitive Church designated God’s saving actions in and through the person of Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel narration begins with John the Baptizer. John was an itinerant preacher, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” (Mark 1:3) preparing the way for the Messiah. He had many followers and it appears, from Mark’s Gospel, that Jesus from Nazareth was one of them; but John says that Jesus is far greater than he: “I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals.” (Mark 1:8) When John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan, a voice from the heavens speaks to Jesus: “You are my son, the Beloved. My favor rests on you.” (Mark 1:11) Note, the Spirit is speaking directly to Jesus. It is his call to public ministry moving far beyond that of John the Baptizer.

Throughout his life, Jesus comes to a gradual realization of who he is as Human One (“Son of Man”) and Son of God. His disciples as well come to a gradual realization of who he is. Just like people today, who are called to grow in faith, wisdom, and understanding.

Mark’s Gospel has no account of Jesus’ virgin birth or his infancy. The focus is on the adult Jesus as Messiah. The gospel does mention that Jesus had brothers and sisters in Mark 6:3. (In the fourth century when Christian bishops established the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, this text became problematic. Church authorities then began to explain Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” as either children of Joseph from a previous marriage or actually “cousins” of Jesus. In the fourth century human sexuality became problematic. Enough about that for now.)

Mark’s Gospel also has a rather abrupt ending. Like the other three gospels, Mark does report the visit of Mary, the Magdalene, and her companions to the tomb of Jesus early Sunday morning. When they arrive at the tomb, however, they find the entrance stone removed and a young man (not an angel) tells them: “’Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:6-8). And there Mark’s Gospel simply ends!

Most scholars today really believe that the Gospel of Mark originally ended with Mark 16:8. Yet some scholars contend there was in fact a lost ending. Already in antiquity editors and copyists, uncomfortable with such an abrupt ending, provided three different endings for Mark to correct the abruptness of 16:8. The most favored of these added endings is Mark 16:9-19, called the Marcan Appendix, or the Longer Ending. It records three appearances of Jesus raised from the dead: to Mary, the Magdalene; to two disciples; and to the eleven. It mentions Jesus’ ascension into heaven and his sitting at God’s right hand.

Not everything about Mark’s Gospel can be summarized in my weekly blog reflection…….Re-reading Mark’s Gospel this past week, however, two thoughts struck me: (1) Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is a rejected and suffering Son of God, and (2) following Jesus is a discipleship of the cross. Life is not always easy. Many people still live, as did Mark’s congregation, in fearful and threatening times. (Parkland, Florida is but one example.) There are always people, focused just on themselves and their ignorance, who denigrate, take advantage of, and who use and abuse the young, the old, the impoverished, non-whites, and the “losers.”

Already at the end of Mark 8, we read that the person who wants to be Jesus’ disciple must pick up his or her cross and follow Jesus. People living in Nero’s Rome had a very good understanding of the way of the cross. Mark is clearly a gospel of the suffering Messiah and of suffering and fearful discipleship. It is a gospel for those who are suffering and need to find consolation, people who can relate to the fearful cry of those disciples in the sinking boat, in Mark 4. They were frightened by the storm. They wake-up the sleeping Jesus and ask him if he is just going to let them all drown. Jesus calms the storm, and then says to his disciples “Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?” Faith is a strong theme in Mark.

Early in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is confronted with difficulties and rejection. Starting his ministry of healing and teaching, he had quite a popular following, but difficulties with his own family. In Mark 3, Jesus goes home to visit his family but they all think he needs to be taken care of because he has gone “out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21) Then scribes come down from Jerusalem and accuse him of having “Beelzebub the prince of the devils inside him.” In Mark 6, Jesus again visits his mother, brothers, and sisters in Nazareth. He starts teaching in the synagogue and his listeners reject him because they see him as just the carpenter and the son of a woman. Some negative sexism here as well. It is hard to see and appreciate people beyond the old stereotypes. Jesus says: “A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house.” He is amazed “at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6:4-6)

Later in Mark’s Gospel, following Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus changes his speaking style. He speaks with a new urgency. He starts to talk about his upcoming death. Peter tries to rebuke him, but Jesus says: “away from me Satan” (Mark 8:33). Jesus now sees his own painful death on the horizon and fears having to experience it. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. A sudden fear comes over him and he is in great distress. Like a loving child he speaks to his father: “Abba everything is possible for you. Take this cup away from me….” (Mark 14:35-36).

Jesus’ own disciple, Judas, betrayed him. The other disciples abandoned him. People spit on Jesus. He is blindfolded and beaten. Even Peter rejects him three times. (Mark 14:53-65) The triumphal Palm Sunday refrain: “Hosanna! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mark 11:9) is now like an old dream. The next day he appeared before Pilate and was again taken to be beaten, mocked, and ridiculed by the soldiers. They made fun of him as “King of the Judeans” and put a crown of thorns on his head. Even the chief priests and scribes mocked him.

Jesus was put on the cross and died in agony, crying out fearfully in a very human way: “My God, My God, why have you deserted me?” (Mark 15:1-37) But it does not end here.

The Roman centurion at the foot of the cross exclaims: “In truth this man was a son of God.” Three days later the young man at Jesus’ tomb proclaims: “He has risen. He is not here.”

These things happened two thousand years ago. They happen every day as well today. Mark’s Gospel is a narrative that was crafted and constructed to engage and encourage people to have faith in Jesus raised from the dead. Fear and uncertainty, if one allows them to take control, can disable, blind, and paralyze people; but Christianity is not a religion of fear. We are challenged to be alert and faithful to the Good News.

In Mark 8:18-21 Jesus reprimands his disciples: “Do you not yet understand? Have you no perception? Are your minds closed? Have you eyes that do not see, and ears that do not hear?”

—Jack

jadleuven@gmail.com

First Came Peter, James, and Paul


February 16, 2018

First Peter, James, and Paul: Then Four Gospels

Most contemporary scholars agree that Jesus began his public ministry when he was about thirty years old; and they place the date of his death at Passover time around the year 30 CE. What did Jesus do before his public ministry? We don’t know. We can can only speculate. Some believe he was like a first century “blue collar” worker in the construction business outside Nazareth. Others that, after his father’s death he, as first-born son, took over the carpentry business to support his mother, brothers, and sisters. Still others theorize that Jesus was a monk and spent years in study and prayer, before entering his public ministerial life. Frankly, I have no pet theory. I am more interested in what Jesus said and did.

Earliest Christian scriptures: If we turn our attention to the New Testament books, the earliest “scriptures” we have are the letters written by Paul and composed in the decade of the 50s CE. Today we know as well that not all letters attributed to Paul were authored by him. There is general scholarly agreement that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon are genuinely Pauline. Other letters bearing Paul’s name are disputed among scholars, namely Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. Most contemporary biblical scholars agree that Hebrews was certainly not written by the Paul. In fact, the emphasis on Melchizedek and priesthood in Hebrews seems out of sync with Pauline theology.

Early apostolic leadership: When we look at the history and biblical testimony about the post-Resurrection apostolic community of Christians in Jerusalem, clearly the leader was James, the “brother of the Lord.” Peter played a role in the Council of Jerusalem, around 50 CE; but James was in charge and James issued the definitive judgment that converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcised. Then, according to the epistle to the Galatians, Peter went to Antioch. There he tangled with Paul, who rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Judaic Christians.

There is a tradition that Peter and Paul went to Rome and were put to death at the hands of Nero probably between 64 and 68 CE. According to an old legend, Peter was crucified upside down. Other folklore fills out the details of Peter’s life and death in Rome: his struggles with the magician Simon Magus, his miracles, his attempted escape from persecution in Rome, and a flight from which he was turned back by a vision of Christ, the “Quo Vadis” legend.

By the second and third centuries, we see stories about Peter springing from historical suppositions, legends, and much creative imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 CE). Contrary to what some think, neither Peter nor Paul brought Christianity to Rome. Before Peter and Paul would have arrived, there were already Christian elders and house churches in Rome; but there was no central administrator. No bishop. At some point Peter may have been one of these elders. We really do not know for certain; but contemporary Catholic and Protestant historians would stress that Peter was never a bishop of Rome. Raymond Brown and John P. Meier were emphatic about this in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity, (Paulist Press 1983): “There is no serious proof that he (Peter) was the bishop, or local ecclesiastical officer, of the Roman church: a claim not made till the third century. Most likely he did not spend any major time at Rome before 58 CE when Paul wrote to the Romans, and so it may have been only in the 60s and relatively shortly before his martyrdom that Peter came to the capital.”

Peter “the first pope”: Thanks to Constantine (272 – 337 CE) and the influence of his relics-collecting mother Helena, Peter and legends about Peter were held in high regard in third and fourth century Rome. The first great acclamation of “Peter as a pope,” however, came from Pope Leo I, also known as Saint Leo the Great. Leo was pope from 440 CE until his death in 461 CE. Leo greatly contributed to the development of the doctrine of a papal Petrine succession based on his personal devotion to St. Peter.

Fine. I would agree that today one can understand the popes as successors of Peter in faith, witness, ministry, and leadership. Ahem. One can also understand today’s bishops, Catholic and Protestant, as sharing in that same tradition, as successors of the apostles. It is only with a bit of creative theological imagination, however, that one can really call Peter the first pope. Sometimes we need to adjust old understandings based on better historical research.

Four Gospels: After the deaths of James, Peter, and Paul, as well as others who had known Jesus face-to-face, it became essential for the survival of the way of Jesus that his words and deeds be recollected and written down. This led to the birth of the four Gospels.

Although some researchers disagree, the clear majority of contemporary biblical scholars believe that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, sometime around the year 70 CE. This scholarly consensus holds that the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke were composed, independently of one another, sometime in the 80s or 90s. Both used a written form of the Gospel of Mark as source material for their own narratives. In addition, because both Matthew and Luke contain a large amount of material in common that is not found in Mark, most scholars hold that the authors of Matthew and Luke also drew from a collection of Jesus’ sayings that they incorporated into their works. These sayings of Jesus, known as “Q” were most likely assembled in the 40s or 50s. (The “Q” comes from the first letter of “Quelle” the German word for “source”.) This understanding of the origins of the “synoptic” Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke explains why they are similar yet different in details, descriptions, and focus. The Gospel of John emerges from an independent literary tradition that is not directly connected to the Synoptic tradition. This explains the major differences between John and the Synoptics.

All four Gospels evolved from oral traditions, passed on from person to person and from place to place. More than one single person (i.e. Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) composed the final versions of the four Gospels as we have them today. Each time the narrators adapted their accounts to the needs, understanding, and cultural / religious backgrounds of their listeners. The Gospels were not written therefore to give us strict “history.”

The Gospels contain bits of history, parables, metaphor, symbol, re-interpreted passages from the Greek (Septuagint) Hebrew Scriptures, and imagined scenarios for key events in the life of Jesus. We see for instance, in Matthew and Luke, two quite different accounts about Jesus’ infancy. Their focus was not primarily to present an historical narrative, but to affirm and proclaim their theological belief about Jesus Christ. Anchored in Christian faith, the authors of the Gospels – using a variety of literary forms — wanted to pass on to future generations their understanding and belief in and about Jesus Christ. Their words inform, stimulate, and encourage us to grow in our own Christian faith.

During Lent 2018, I would like to share my own reflections on the Gospels, based on my lived experience, ongoing study, and Gospel-reading. I welcome your own reactions and reflections. I subscribe to an historical/critical understanding of Sacred Scripture, because I find it not only helpful but biblically correct and responsible. I am not a literal-interpretation fundamentalist. I am also keenly aware that correct translations of biblical texts are essential for a correct understanding of what the biblical authors were saying. One small example: the Greek word ecclesia or ekklesia (εκκλησία) is often translated as “church.” The original biblical meaning of the word however is an “assembly” or a “gathering of people.”

Thanks to the life, message, and witness of Jesus of Nazareth crucified and raised from the dead, we have faith, hope, and confidence to move forward today. Living that faith is our contemporary Christian challenge….

Next time some reflections about the Gospel According to Mark

– Jack

jadleuven@gmail.com

Changemaker


February 11, 2018

This year on Wednesday, February 14, we celebrate not only Valentine’s Day but the beginning of Lent. Perhaps this year it is a convenient calendar coincidence. There can be no Christianity without love.

Looking at Jesus in the Gospels, it is quite clear that love is much more than having nice feelings. Love is an action word. It builds relationships. It promotes values and principles that are lived realities. Love means acceptance, belonging, trust, forgiveness, honesty, openness, generosity, and faithfulness. This is the way of Jesus. The person, who puts her or his faith in Jesus, trusts that Jesus taught the right way to live and accepts Jesus as one’s master and spiritual guide. The Way of Jesus. And so, we read in the Gospel According to John: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Over time, however, faith in Jesus, for many Christians and institutional Christian leaders, became less a way of life and much more a doctrinal statement to be accepted and taught. Accepting the word became more important than living the word. It became paramount to believe, for instance, that Jesus was divine, regardless how one lived one’s life. We see, for instance, throughout the history of medieval Europe that adulterers, thieves, and liars accepted the divinity of Christ and went about their ways. Some were even popes and great political leaders. People who questioned or challenged church teaching, however — regardless how they lived their lives — were denounced, tortured, and even burned at the stake.

And today?

Clearly the historical Jesus was not egotistical. He did not focus on himself. He was not ego-centered but other-centered. Through his lived spiritual values of courage, cooperation, fairness, forgiveness, and faithfulness, Jesus revealed divinity as well as authentic humanity.

People who are ego-centered become slaves to habitual behaviors that become addictions: selfishness, deceitfulness, callousness, and arrogance. Those addictive habits can provide momentary satisfaction, and even applauded “greatness;” but eventually they diminish life and destroy it.

Yes, the Gospels make it very clear that Jesus was not focused on himself. And yes, Jesus was abused, tortured, and murdered on a cross; but God brought him to the fullness of life “on the third day.”

And so, here we are today: followers of Jesus. This week end we prepare ourselves for forty days of reflection about the life of Jesus and our lives as his followers. I see Jesus as the great religious changemaker. We are invited to follow and live his example.

This Lent, in Another Voice, I would like to look at what contemporary theology is saying about Jesus and the Four Gospels. I hope I have something of value to share….

– Jack jadleuven@gmail.com