We Must Do Better

The bankruptcy of popular Christianity in America is on full display. The plight of immigrant children, ripped from their parents and housed in cages in camps and warehouses, is heartbreaking, and a new national low in the Trump era. This, we tell ourselves, is not what the self-crowned greatest country in the world does to anyone, much less refugees.

Amy-MissingChildrenPerhaps worst of all, to those of us who identify as Christian and care about the future of the faith, is Attorney General Jeff Sessions defending the policy as “biblical,” by citing the much misused and maligned chapter 13 from Romans, a set of verses often seized upon by those in power to justify whatever immoral and evil actions they are taking at the time. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, daughter of evangelical loud mouth and hyper moralizer Mike Huckabee, repeated the claim. And one only has to glance quickly at Facebook or Twitter to see self-proclaimed conservative Christians claiming that they care about children and families, but laws are laws and must always be enforced, no matter the outcome. All of this, after almost two years of full-throated evangelical support for every action of Trump, and almost 40 years of co-option of the Christian mantle by the Republican Party.

Christianity has to be better than this. It simply has to be about more than moralizing and conservative politics. But, even more crucially, it has to be seen as something worthy of loyalty, something life giving, something that has outcomes that are full of love and compassion, not cruelty.

This is the call of all religion, and the reason it is dying in the world today. Too much of religion in this world – whether it be Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or anything else – presents a face to the world that is small, and cruel, and intolerant. Millions of people across the globe no longer see religion as something worthy of their time, because it so often doesn’t seem like something relevant to this world, in 2018.35750760_10211566573669719_8473202165488287744_o

In the case of Christianity, it so often seems concerned with a salvation mechanism formulated in a pre-scientific, pre-rational age, something that just doesn’t make sense to people anymore. It rejects a broader and broader swathe of people everyday. It seems stifling and deadening and angry.

Christianity doesn’t just exist to work as personal fire insurance, in which you save yourself and God take the rest. It has to be more than that if it is going to be worth anything at all.

A belief in God has to serve as more than that of an anxiety-inducing apprehension of a condemnatory old man in the sky. Christianity should point us towards the things God is, which is love and mercy and compassion. Everything else Christianity does – communion, baptism, theology, ethics, orthodoxy, the church – must direct people to life, to love, and to care for others.

For too many Christians here, their faith is nothing but a personal salvation machine, a set of rules that each individual is responsible for following. If they don’t, that’s on them, and them alone, and they deserve whatever consequences God deems appropriate. God, in this conception of faith, is cruel and capricious.

But faith is not this. Faith is about knowing and desiring God, knowing and desiring love. It’s an attitude, one that should transform us. Love should always be recognizable as love. If it takes squinting and convoluted reasoning to justify your actions as some form of love, then you are doing faith all wrong.

This is why the child separation policy in America is so anti-Christian. It is a policy conceived in cruelty and fear. It places following the rules and bowing to authority over love and mercy and compassion. Any human law is never more important than actual human beings. God’s justice for the oppressed and the downtrodden always take precedence.

The first Epistle of John states, unequivocally, that “God is love,” and that “love drives out all fear.” Fear and despair are not the fruits of love. They are the fruits of evil. This policy of separation and internment produces fear. It goes against God, and it goes against humanity. It is evil. Those who formulated it, who enforce it, and who defend it, are practicing evil. They are putting loyalty to the arbitrary idea of “America” before God, and before their fellow human beings. It must be ignored and replaced. We must, as Christians and as people, do better.

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The Inauguration of the Kingdom of God in Luke

The following is a paper written last December, for my New Testament class at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. It is an exegesis of Luke 4:14-30.

  1. Introduction

The rejection of Jesus at Nazareth, and the invocation of Isaiah’s prophetic words, is a crucial, tone-setting moment early in Luke’s Gospel. A close reading and analysis of its parts can provide important context to the story of God’s salvific work that Luke is trying to tell. In order to better understand this passage, this paper will explore Luke’s use of Mark and Isaiah, and how he repurposed and shaped elements of both, to tell a story that is programmatic for the entire Luke-Acts story arc.

Ge_Christ_Synagogue_710Occurring in chapter four of the Gospel of Luke, this story is preceded by accounts of Jesus’ family before his birth, his miraculous conception, birth, infancy, and childhood. In chapter three, just prior to this, John proclaims the coming of Christ, Jesus is baptized and anointed by the Holy Spirit, and then tempted in the wilderness for forty days. He is just returning from that temptation to embark upon his Galilean mission, which he inaugurates in his hometown of Nazareth.

  1. Luke’s sources

2.1 Luke’s use of Mark in telling this story

Most Biblical scholars accept that Luke used the narrative of Mark, along with other sources, in crafting his own account of the life and ministry of Jesus. Thus, an analysis of how Luke makes use of Mark in this particular passage is useful. In comparing to Mark, one can see what themes Luke wishes to emphasize or diminish.

Luke appears to draw upon Mark 6:1-6 for this the passage, although it is clear Luke has greatly expanded the story. Additionally, the source of Luke’s inauguration of the Galilean mission in vv. 14-15 is debated amongst scholars. Bock summarizes scholarly opinion well: “Some discussion exists concerning the source of 4:14-15. Many explain the passage as a variation of Mark 1:14-15.” He goes on to detail some of the shaky arguments put forth by scholars to establish linkage, but his conclusion is convincing: “The question of sources is difficult to resolve, but it would seem that either an independent source has been used or Luke has supplied a summary that adequately captures the initial response to Jesus’ early ministry.” Bovon and Johnson both affirm this judgement.

The connection of vv. 16-30 with Mark 6:1-6, on the other hand, is well-established. Luke based his account of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth on the Mark story, but added much to it, giving it a more prominent place in the picture he was painting of Jesus. The question is in what way Luke interacted with the Marcan text to compose his own story. Bock rounds up a variety of hypotheses among commentaries trying to answer this question. The account he accepts, however, is that “Luke knows Mark 6, but choose to use another source for this event.” In other words, the story from Mark is obviously known to Luke, as he is using a text of Mark in his composition, but that he chooses to use a different but similar story or stories to craft vv. 16-30. Mark is certainly a source for Luke, but clearly not the only one.

Bovon sees more dependency on Mark than Bock, writing, “Mark 6:1-6 lends the descriptive setting…” But that this section is “a redactional expansion of Mark 1:14-15.” Evans points out that this expansion is “obviously conflated,” that is, it is several pieces stitched together by Luke. This evidenced by the sometimes clumsy story-telling, such as the multiple reactions to Jesus by the congregation, as Evans, Bovon, and Bock all note.

While there are no doubt similarities in the Lukan and Marcan accounts, Luke chooses to move the account of Jesus’ rejection up considerably in his narrative. In Mark, this story comes after a previous preaching tour of Galilee that stretched across four chapters. Here in Luke, this story initiates Jesus’ ministry. This has a purpose. As Stein notes, Luke’s “orderly presentation of the things Jesus said and did was more important than chronological exactness.” In Luke, this story is “programmatic”, in that is announces “the purpose and content of his mission as the fulfilment of the promises of salvation.” This story is no longer just about Jesus’ rejection at home; it is now his “mission statement” of sorts, the opening declaration of his ministerial purpose.

Evans speculates that Luke had several accounts of Jesus being a regular synagogue preacher, but few or no accounts of the content of that preaching. Thus, he writes one such story, possibly combining several accounts (including Mark) to do so. “And where better than at the opening of the ministry?” As a result, this story – Jesus reading at synagogue in Nazareth, declaring his own fulfillment of the words, and being rejected by the local Jewish population – sets a thematic tone for the rest of Luke’s Gospel. It is impossible to be sure which sources he did bring in along with Mark, whether it was the infamous Q document, a source unique to his situation (“L”) or oral traditions. Whatever the source, Luke clearly used his editorial discretion here by using more than one tradition to create a story that serves a specific purpose in his telling of Jesus’ story.

2.2 The scripture quotation from Isaiah

In making this story Jesus’ programmatic statement of ministry, Luke uses a paraphrase of the Septuagint’s Greek translation of Isaiah 61 and 58. The mashing together of different Isaiah quotes, along with the use of the Greek translation as opposed to Hebrew or Aramaic, indicates that this is a construction of Luke, rather than a historical account. “After all,” Ringe says, “no one would have been following Jesus around like a modern press corps on the trail of a political candidate, taking notes on his speech and the crowd’s response.”

Most the Isaiah quote is drawn from chapter 61:1-2 and, most likely, 58:6, with various restatements and omissions from the original. In Luke’s telling, there are five things Jesus claims to have been “anointed” to do: (1) “bring good news to the poor”, (2) “proclaim release to the captives”, (3) “recovery of sight to the blind”, (4) “to let the oppressed go free”, and (5) “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV). Statement 4 is not in the original selection from Isaiah 61, replacing “to bind up the brokenhearted” (Isaiah 61:1, NRSV). It is unclear why Luke replaced the original phrase here. Bovon indicates that there are multiple, unconvincing explanations, but seems to settle on a technique of reading the prophets called haphtara, which draws links on passages that share words (which 61:2 and 58:6 do.)

Additionally, the phrase “recovery of sight to the blind” is an alteration of the original Hebrew version of Isaiah 58:6. Whereas the original refers to “the exchange of the darkness of prison for the light of day,” the LXX text takes that figure of speech literally (i.e. as light coming to the eyes of the formerly blind, rather than the light of freedom to those imprisoned.)

Luke also omits “and the day of the vengeance of our God” at the end of verse 19. Scholars indicate this omission serves Luke’s vision of the coming Kingdom of God. The original Isaiah verse is alluding to the Jubilee year ordained in Leviticus 25. A vision emphasizing salvation and grace is Luke’s mission here, not one focused on judgment. As Gonzalez says, “The text from Isaiah is one of comfort and hope. As applied to Jesus, it means that his mission is to bring good news…” Words of judgement and condemnation, obviously, don’t bring much comfort and hope.

  1. The key concepts of Isaiah 61 as quoted in Luke 4:

3.1 “anointing”

One of the chief arguments amongst scholars about this passage is the theological meaning of the word “anointing” in verse 18. Applied to Jesus, the reader would make the connection to the baptism as the anointing event, which had just occurred at the end of chapter 3. But what did that anointing mean? The question comes down to whether Luke intends to mean Jesus has been anointed as a prophet, or as the messiah, by reference to this verse. The interpretation one chooses colors how one sees Jesus in relation to his mission. Is he a continuation of the prophetic tradition, or is he the Messiah?

Fitzmyer provides the strongest case for a prophetic anointing. Jesus, by quoting Isaiah (and later referencing Elijah and Elisha), is put in the line of prophets that Isaiah was a part of. “This passage certainly contains no reference to a Davidic dynasty or a royal function of Jesus…his anointing…is not that of the political, kingly sort.” Fitzmyer sees connections here to the prophetic tradition; the lack of overt kingly language is interpreted as intentional and meaningful.

Several others, on the other hand, believe this is a messianic anointing. Johnson sees the Greek verb used here, chrio, to hold a Messianic meaning because of its close relation to Christos, the Greek word often translated as Messiah. As a result, Johnson regards “Luke’s notion of Messiah as quite literal.” Ringe also references the use of the Greek verb as proof.

The most convincing arguments, however, are for an understanding of “anointing” as indicating both prophetic and messianic connotations. Stein frames it well: “The anointing was not just a prophetic anointing, but a messianic one as well, for Jesus was the bringer, not just the herald, of salvation.” Both strands are present in Jesus, so the understanding one can draw from Jesus’ anointing is all-encompassing.

Bock critiques Fitzmyer’s limited view of the anointing referenced in verse 18. Regarding this reading, he writes, “If one reads the passage without consideration of the larger Lucan literary context, then such a position could be defended.” He goes on: “The infancy narrative, the baptism, and the following section (4:38-41) all strongly emphasize Jesus as the anointed Son and proclaimer of the kingdom.” It is unlikely Luke would intend a limited reading of Isaiah here, when he tries throughout the Luke-Acts narrative to establish Jesus as the fulfilment of Jewish expectations of the Messiah, and of the prophetic cry for justice throughout the ages. Understanding “anointed” to hold both prophetic and messianic connotations makes the most sense in this context.

3.2 “preach good news”

After declaring himself the anointed, Jesus continues in his reading by declaring that he has come to “preach the good news.” The Greek word used her is euangelizomai. Evans points out that this verb is related to the noun euangelion, from which we derive “the Good News” or the “Gospel.” Literally, it means “to announce good tidings.”

Both Fitzmyer and Bock caution against loading the word with too much Christian subtext, however. It is used here in the Isaiah quote, and so still carries a prophetic meaning. “The prophetic function of Jesus’ mission is thus set forth in Deutero-Isaian terms…In the OT it scarcely means the preaching of Jesus or Christian preaching; when put on his lips here, it is not to be assumed that it immediately takes on the full Christian connotation.” Bock adds, “The prophetic role fits nicely with Luke’s emphasis on Jesus as prophet or teacher…(euangelizomai)…puts a note of continuity between Jesus and his forerunner (Isaiah).  

With these cautions in mind, however, based on our analysis of the nature of Jesus’ anointing, it is not outside the realm of reasonableness to acknowledge that Luke is repurposing Isaiah’s term here to add more depth of meaning. Evans points out that Luke uses the term 15 times in Luke-Acts, and has a wide spread of meanings throughout. Luke clearly shows the inclination to make the term his own, and his emphasis on Jesus as salvation certainly brings this usage into inauguratory action here.

3.3 “the poor” and others mentioned in v. 18

The Isaiah quote lists for groups of people that the anointed has come to provide some form of liberation to: the poor, captives, the blind, and the oppressed. The question here is whether these are to be understood as those who are materially poor, physically imprisoned and blind, and politically or socially oppressed, or are these spiritualized terms?

Stein and Bock, especially, propose a “spiritualist” understanding of Jesus’ proclamation. Bock refers to the Greek word for poor here – ptochoi – as a “‘soteriological generalization’ – that is, it refers to those who most often responded to Jesus…and in an invitation context it refers to those who are open to God.” While acknowledging that there are material elements to the poverty Luke references, Bock and Stein believe “the poor” primarily references spiritual deficiencies and needs.

Evans provides a strong counterargument. He first acknowledges that, in the prophets and the Psalms, the use of ptochoi also has connotations of “humble or meek.” However, this term is used often by Luke, and “in all other instances in Luke…it denotes literal poverty.”

Green provides a strong “middle way” between primarily spiritual and primarily material arguments that is quite convincing. “It is thus evident that Jesus mission is directed to the poor-defined not merely in subjective, spiritual or personal economic terms, but in the holistic sense of those who are for any of a number of reasons relegated to positions outside the boundaries of God’s people.” Green spreads this understanding to all four terms here. A holistic understanding of these four terms in reference to the hearers of the Good News allows them to retain a material power, while also bringing in those who may not be materially deficient, but who are spiritually impoverished by their oppression of others.

3.4 the meaning of vv 18–19 as a whole in their context

The use of this Isaiah passage as a whole has strong undertones of the Jewish legal idea of a “Jubilee” year. Bock describes the Jubilee as “interpreted in Judaism as a reference to the dawn of God’s new age.”

It is unlikely that Jesus, in making this reference, was demanding a literal Jubilee year, as laid out in the Law of Moses. Rather, Jubilee likely had a salvific connotation. Gonzalez writes, “There is some debate as to the degree, manner and frequency with which Israel observed the Year of the Jubilee; but there is no doubt that by the first century it had come to be interpreted as an eschatological promise. It is in this sense that we should interpret Jesus’ use of the passage: in him, the fulfillment of the ancient promises has come.” Understanding Jubilee in this way helps explain Jesus’ subsequent claim that “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21, NRSV). If Jesus is the initiator and agent of God’s Kingdom, then the eschatological hope the Jewish people had for God’s great Jubilee is present in him.

  1. The response of the people and Jesus’ interaction with them

Up to this point, we have explored the details of Luke’s use of Isaiah to understand what Jesus was saying about himself at the outset of his evangelizing mission. First, Jesus is the Anointed one, in both a prophetic sense and a messianic sense; he is both the herald and moment of salvation. Next, he is announcing good tidings, not just prophetically, but soteriologically. His Good News is liberation, for all people, both oppressed and oppressor. In this Good News is the fulfilment of the eschatological hope of his hearers, their desire for God’s liberating action in the world. So how does this understanding explain the dual reactions of the congregation to Jesus, first in amazement and then in murderous rage?

It is important to remember that this passage is likely a conflation of several sources, and the two fundamentally different reactions by the crowd here may reflect that. If this is the case, then as Fitzmyer notes, “the climactic buildup of reactions to Jesus reveals a certain artistry in the Lucan story.” As he and several others note, however, literary seams are evident throughout the rest of the passage. This appears to be a case of Luke “making lemonade from lemons,” in that he had lots of material he thought important to use in making his point, and the stitching together was a difficult but necessary process.

Initially, the crowd reacts positively to “the message’s rhetorical power and hopeful character.” They also ask questions of his lineage, aware that he is purportedly the son of Joseph, the local carpenter. How could the son of a lowly artisan be the fulfillment of Jewish prophetic and eschatological hope? Notice that the crowd is not angered by any blasphemy at this point; the words of Jesus may be ponderous, but no one is overly concerned by them.

Jesus then goes into a short parable, about prophets being rejected in their own homes. He ties this to stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, who performed great works not for their own Jewish brothers and sisters, but instead for Gentiles. Stein points out, “For Luke these examples showed that the Jewish people had no exclusivistic claims on Jesus.” This is where the problem arises. The universal nature of Jesus’ mission is not accepted by those who feel they are in the “in crowd.” Their acknowledgment of him being a local boy by noting who is father is probably carries some connotation of favor on their part. Their anger, then, becomes understandable. “The ensuing wrath of the townspeople is thus a fulfillment of the warning that God’s faithfulness always includes God’s freedom to make good on God’s promises in unexpected – even unwanted – ways.” Yet, their wrath is their own downfall. Green writes, “…their inhibiting vision of who he is and what he is to accomplish – stands as a primary obstacle to their receiving through him God’s favor.”

  1. The relation of the story to the concept of the kingdom of God message in Luke

This story is important in the cycle of Luke-Acts. It stands not just as the initiation of Jesus’ mission, but of the mission of the church carried on by the disciples and apostles. As such, it conveys three of Luke’s most important themes: (1) the universality of Jesus’ salvific effect beyond just Jewish people, (2) a concern for social injustice and the Good News’ breaking into the world in the here and now to address them, and (3) Jesus’ rejection by his own people, culminating in Crucixion. As Bock summarizes so well, “In one pericope Jesus’ ministry is outlined.”

And so, the shape of God’s Kingdom that Luke imagines is outlined as well. It is a universal kingdom, not a Jewish one, concerned with a salvation predicated not just on saving souls, but breaking down oppression, and it is not a popular Kingdom, but a subversive one, destined to be misunderstood and misidentified by those who consider themselves to be in the best position to recognize it. Luke deftly weaves together several traditions here in a powerful and memorable way that sets a tone for the remainder of the Luke-Acts cycle.

 

Bibliography

Bock, Darrell L. Luke, Volume 1: 1:1-9:50. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 3A. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.

Bovon, Francois. Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50. Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Translated by Christine M. Thomas. Edited by Helmut Koester. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.

Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 6th Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Evans, C.F. Saint Luke. 2nd Ed. London: SCM Press, 2008.

Fitzmyer, Jospeh A, S.J. The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX). The Anchor Bible 28. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc, 1981.

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the New Testament. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Gospel of Luke. Sacra Pagina Series 3. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

Nolland, John. Luke 1-9:20. World Biblical Commentary 35A. Dallas: Word Books, 1989.

Ringe, Sharon H. Luke. Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.

Stein, Robert H. Luke. The New American Commentary 24. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1992.

My Favorite Bible Stories, Part 3: The Social Justice Heritage of the Jewish People

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does YHWH require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” -Micah 6:8

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” -Amos 6:24

I don’t know a progressive Christian who doesn’t love these two verses. (Or one who passes up a chance to write them on a protest poster or quote them in a meeting of community organizers.)

I’m no different. These verses played a big role in my return to the Christian faith after my early-20s disillusionment. To discover that there was a social justice strain in Christianity, and that it could be found explicitly in the Bible – in the Hebrew Scriptures, no less! – was huge for me.

img_4572But I don’t want to just talk about them like they are the opening lines of some kind of Social Justice Handbook for Christian Activists©. Instead, to reflect on the role they play as favorites of mine, I want them to inspire gratitude in Christians, directed towards the Jewish prophetic tradition in which Jesus existed, and out of which our own faith tradition grew.

Here’s what I mean: we Christians didn’t invent religious social justice awareness. In fact, we haven’t even been the ones who perfected it, or practiced it in its “best” form. That distinction goes to the Jewish tradition, the progenitors of the prophetic critique and social justice-minded faith.

The words of the Jewish prophets, which we are so used to reading today that seem rather typical, were radically new at the time of their writing. No other religious system of the ancient world had used faith as a critique of power. In fact, religions had long been used as props to the governing elites, confirming them in their exercise of power and rule over the vast majority of people. But the prophets of ancient Israel were a new force. They disrupted the power structures by declaring that God was not merely a rubber stamp for the ruling elite, but instead, had great requirements and expectations, rooted in justice for the people and mercy for the oppressed.

Thomas Cahill highlights this in The Gifts of the Jews, speaking of the Law that the the prophets defended and called the kings of Israel and Judah back to:

“…in the prescriptions of Jewish law we cannot but note a presumption that all people. even slaves, are human and that all human lives are sacred. The constant bias is in favor not of the powerful and their possessions but of the powerless and their poverty; and there is even a frequent enjoinder to sympathy…The bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole of human history of law. However faint our sense of justice may be, insofar as it operates at all it is still a Jewish sense of justice.”

Thus, these words of the prophets have context. They aren’t just something lefty Christians can appropriate in making the case for our preferred political candidate or policy. Instead, we must remember: these are words about God, and God’s grand design for Creation. They are words that aren’t just about holding the correct political positions; they are words about the very nature of the Universe, about how things should be. They are, in short, holy, inspired words, not to be used and discarded, but internalized and held as holy. For they reveal to us the nature of God.

So yes, these words can inspire us to action, to become followers of Christ in deed, and not just word. They can provide the moral underpinnings of our convictions about the work we feel called to do in the world. But, when we invoke them, we should always do so with a sense of reverence, and an attitude of gratitude, for the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people, who have birth to the notion of a socially-conscious faith, and who shared that notion that comes down to us today.

My Favorite Bible Stories: Series Introduction

Part 1

Part 2