Thursday, January 18, 2018

52. Mark 13: The End

When he predicts the Temple’s destruction the disciples want to know when. This launches a famous and, in my view, widely misunderstood, discourse on this (Mk.13). Many think the disciples want to know and Jesus instructs them on what will happen at the end of history, the end of the space-time universe. This mistaken, I believe, and radically so. He is speaking about “the end of the world” to be sure. He tells them

-they must not be misled by false teachers and leaders (13:5-8),

-they must be prepared for persecution and betrayal and to persevere to the end (13:9-13),

-they must flee to the hills when they see the “desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be” (13:14-23), and

-wait for the return of the Son of Man accompanied by all manner of astral upheaval.

Thanks to the kind of theology that inspired the Left Behind franchise, called Dispensationalism, many believe Jesus is describing events at the very end of human history. Without debating the particular of this interpretation, a closer look at the details of Mk.13 will show us how far-fetched it is.[1]

In vv.5-13 Jesus warns about all the kinds of things that must precede the demise of the Temple. Wars, earthquakes, false prophets, persecutions and betrayal all come before this cataclysmic event. Jesus’ disciples are to be prepared to stand firm and resist. He is apparently not physically present with them.

With v.14, though thing change. Now, on the proper cue, they are flee the city and head to the hills for safety and protection. The moment of doom for the Temple has arrived!

And the cue they are to watch for is “the desolating sacrilege.” What does this mean?  We need to know our Old Testament to discover the answer. In Dan.11:31 and 12:31 we read of pagan hordes swarming the city, breaking off the sacrifices in the Temple and erecting “a desolating sacrilege.” Some visible pagan monument of some sort, most likely.

At this time false teachers will run riot. Indeed, Josephus tells us about just that during the Roman-Jewish War of 66-70 a.d. Rome had just gone through four emperors in 69 a.d., a year filled with civil war, violence, murder, and all kinds of skullduggery. The last of these, Vespasian, was making his way to Rome to accede the throne, when his adopted son Titus went in to Jerusalem, sacked the city, burned and razed the temple, and killed thousands of Jews by crucifixion. What other kind of language would describe this better than that of cosmic upheaval.

And this is just what language of darkening sun, a blighted moon, and falling stars describes in Israel’s prophets (see, for example, Isa.13:10; 34:4). Why, after all, would Jesus advise them to run away for safety if this was literally the end of the world. It wasn’t the end of the world in that sense. No Jew believed the world was going to end that way anyway. But it was the end of the world as the Jews had known it, their way of life and hopes for the future.

On the other hand, since Jesus had predicted this destruction of the Temple, this “end of the world” of the Jews, its occurrence would vindicate him as a true prophet and even the people’s Messiah. He lowers the boom, though, when he applies Dan.7:13 to this moment: “They will see ‘the son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.’”  This verse from Dan.7 does not refer to his returning somewhere or to some one but rather to his “coming” to YHWH after a period of suffering in vindication and triumph. This is the vindication of what he has always been about – God’s Abrahamic plan to bless the world through his people. Jesus has gathered and reconstituted that Abrahamic people in his ministry and death and resurrection.

[1] See Wright, Mark, 224-228.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

51. Mark 12:28-34: The Great Commandment

Jesus impresses a scribe during these controversies with the religious leaders and he tries to cut to the heart of the matter: “Which commandment is the first of all” (v.28). Jews of Jesus’ day believed that if they kept the Torah for one day the kingdom of God would come. So this scribe honestly presses Jesus for what finally and fully matters to God for humankind.

Jesus’ answer comes as a two-sided revelation. The first side, the Godward side, comes from Dt.6, the famous Shema: “‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This is not doctrine or philosophy, it’s life and ethics. To confess the oneness of God is not an intellectual conviction. It is a battle cry – there’s only one God, whatever any other peoples or nations may claim. This God we trust and live for!

Then, from Lev.19 Jesus spells out the humanward side of this great commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This “commandment” (singular!) is greater than all the others (v.31).

Scot McKnight has famously named this the “Jesus Creed.” Here’s what he means.

What Is the Jesus Creed?

The Creed of Judaism

. . . the creed of Judaism is this: Love God by living the Torah. So where does Jesus stand in a world of Judaism that affirms a Shema of loving God by living the Torah?

The Jesus Creed As the First Amendment

As a good Jew, Jesus devotionally recites the Shema daily. Later in his life, he encounters an expert in the law who asks him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" For a Jew this man's question is the ultimate question about spiritual formation. He is asking for the spiritual center of Judaism. He thinks Jesus might know. He does.

Jesus answers the man by reciting the Shema but adds to it, and in so doing, transforms a creed so he can shape the spiritual center of his followers. I call it the Jesus Creed.

The Jesus Creed

"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength." [So far, so good;
this is Deuteronomy. 6:4-5.1]
[And now Jesus adds a verse from Leviticus. 19:18.]The second is this: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
There is no commandment greater than these.

Right here we discover the Jesus Creed for spiritual formation. As Thomas a Kempis puts it, in the Jesus Creed Jesus has "put a whole dictionary into just one dictum:" Everything about spiritual formation for Jesus is shaped by his version of the Shema. For Jesus, love of God and love of others is the core. Love, a term almost indefinable, is unconditional regard for a person that prompts and shapes behaviors in order to help that person to become what God desires. Love, when working properly, is both emotion and will, affection and action.

We cannot overemphasize the importance of the Shema for Jewish spiritual formation. So when Jesus amended the Shema, we need to take note. To be sure, Jesus accepted the Shema, but he also added to it. The question we then ask is this: Is Jesus suggesting only a subtle amendment? No. It takes real pluck (or chutzpah) to add to the sacred Shema, but this addition reveals the heart of the Jesus Creed. . .

Instead of a Love-God Shema, it is a Love-God-and-Others Shema. What Jesus adds is not unknown to Judaism, and he is not criticizing Judaism. Jesus is setting up his very own shop within Judaism. Loving others is central to Judaism, but it is not central to the creed of Judaism, to the Shema. So, what Jesus says is Jewish. But the emphasis on loving others is not found in Judaism's creed the way it is found in the Jesus Creed. Making the love of others part of his own version of the Shema shows that he sees love of others as central to spiritual formation.

It is not enough just to observe that Jesus amends the Shema of Judaism. There is more here than first meets the eye. When the Shema becomes the Jesus Creed, it becomes personal. To see this we need to look at the Gospel of Luke to see how Jesus explains what it means to love God, because for Jesus loving God now means following him.

The Shema Gets Personal in the Jesus Creed

Jesus regularly invites others to join his small band of disciples. When one man hears about this, he volunteers to join and, in so doing, he thinks he will love God more deeply. The man comes to Jesus with a simple request, "Lord," I want to love God and follow you, but "first let me go and bury my father." Jesus abruptly states: "Let the dead bury their own dead." Ouch! All this man is asking for is an opportunity, with perhaps a little delay, but still an opportunity to love God with all his heart. Jesus, however, is redefining what it means to love God.

Surely, it is a stretch to understand Jesus' telling a man not to attend his father's funeral. So important is it in Judaism to bury one's father, an exception is made: "One whose dead is lying before him [awaiting burial] is exempt from the recitation of the Shema" Even the sacred Shema is suspended to bury one's father. Still, how could Jesus ask a man to skip his father's funeral? A little understanding of burial customs sheds light on how the Jesus Creed worked itself out in real life. These customs show how loving God becomes personal for Jesus.

At the time of Jesus, burials took place in two stages. First, immediately after the death of a father, the family (led by the oldest son) placed the body in a casket and then into a tomb so the body could decompose. The family sat shiva* (mourned) for seven days. The body decayed for approximately one year in the tomb. Then, second, the bones were removed from the tomb and casket, placed in an ossuary (a box for bones), and then reburied, this time for good. This is how good Jews showed respect for a father, how they applied the commandment to honor one's parents, how they loved God by following the Torah.

Many today think the proper context of Jesus' encounter with this man is between the first burial and the second burial. To begin with, it is unlikely that a family member sitting shiva (after first burial) would be out and about anyway, and it is hard to imagine Jesus' refusing this most sacred obligation. If the encounter with Jesus occurs between the first and second burial, then as much as a year's lag could occur before he would begin to follow Jesus.

The man is caught in the dilemma that the Jesus Creed creates: Should he follow Jesus or should he follow (how he understands) the Torah? Jesus calls the man to follow him and, in so doing, equates loving God to having a personal relationship with Jesus. To use other terms, the Shema of Judaism becomes the Jesus Creed: One loves God by following Jesus. This is a revolutionary understanding of the Shema, and it is what the spiritual life is all about for Jesus.

Let's put this all together now: As a normal Jew, spiritual formation for Jesus begins with the Shema of Judaism. But Jesus revises the Shema in two ways: loving others is added to loving God, and loving God is understood as following Jesus.

This is the Jesus Creed, and it is the foundation of everything Jesus teaches about spiritual formation. Jesus, too, knows what life is all about, and that life is about love--for God and for others. As Rick Warren states, "Life minus love equals zero." And: "The best use of life is love. The best expression of love is time. The best time to love is now."

It is also time to put that love into practice by learning the Jesus Creed.
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Our scribe acknowledges the wisdom of Jesus here. Even though such acknowledgment means acknowledging Jesus as a reliable teacher of the Jews! Further, the scribe rightly perceives that this Jesus Creed is the new true temple for God’s people. No wonder Jesus declares this fellow “not far from the kingdom of God” (v.34).

Saturday, January 6, 2018

50. Mark 12:18-27: Scripture and the Resurrection

The Sadducees are up next to challenge Jesus. They don’t believe in the resurrection. They were conservative both religiously and politically not liberals as we might imagine their disbelief in the resurrection would make them.

-Moses didn’t teach it and Sadducees regard the five books of Moses the most authoritative  part of the Bible.

-It was politically risky, as N.T. Wright explains.

“It had become popular particularly during the revolutionary movements of the second century BC, as a way of affirming that the martyrs had a glorious future awaiting them, not immediately after death, but in the eventual resurrection when they would be given new bodies. This belief was based on the fundamental idea of God as the maker, and therefore the remaker, of the world. People who believe that God is going to recreate the whole world, including Israel, and even including their own dead bodies, are much more likely to do daring and risky things. Wealthy ruling classes prefer people not to think thoughts like that.(Wright, Mark, 207)

-Plus, the Pharisees, enemies of the Sadducees, most likely believed in the resurrection. Did Jesus too?

The Sadducees try a reductio ad absurdum on Jesus. All these brothers marrying their brothers widow in order to bear a son to carry on his line. Seven brothers married her after each previous husband died but without an heir. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection (12:8-23)? What foolishness this resurrection business is!

But Jesus declares them “quite wrong” (v.27). And that in two ways.

-His first response, that there will be no marrying or giving in marriage in the life to come reflects a debate among Jews of the time as to whether resurrected life was a renewal of earthly life and its relationships or whether it was a new quality of life altogether, still bodily but different (see Hurtado, Mark, 292). Jesus holds the second view whereas the Sadducees hoped he held the first and they could trap him in a logical conundrum. But he doesn’t and thus demonstrates their scriptural misunderstanding.

-Jesus’ second response, that the Sadducees do not know the power of God, derives from Exodus 3, a part of the scripture the Sadducees most valued. If one does not believe in resurrection, and that ancient worthies like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob simply died into oblivion, then there is no hope in God’s power to save his people in spite of his covenant promises to them, indeed, there is doubt about his power to save at all!

Another disappointed and defeated interlocutor slinks away from a confrontation with Jesus. Stay tuned. More challenges to come!

Friday, January 5, 2018

49. Mark 12:1-12: Parable of the Tenants

This parable Jesus tells against the religious leaders who have just questioned his authority (11:27ff.) and will immediately after this try to delegitimize him and his movement again (12:13-18). When they realize this they want to arrest him. Only the goodwill of the people toward him keeps him free (v.12).

Jesus sets this up in the form of a well-known parable about Israel. In Isa.5:1-7 we read about God’s planting Israel as a vineyard. God did everything that could be done in preparing and provisioning the vineyard for the successful production of grapes. However, the vines only yielded wild grapes, good for nothing. God decided to judge it for this failure, their failure to produce the justice God expected and prepared them for.

The prophets have been sent and re-sent and rejected again and again with increasing ferocity by the leaders. Finally, one final prophet comes, this one, however, is more than a prophet. He is the owner’s “beloved son,” the heir apparent. Surely the tenants will not mistreat him!

That “beloved son” now stands before those greedy and rebellious tenants. A violent takeover of Israel is underway and it has Jesus in its cross-hairs. If they carry it out to the end and do away with the son, what will the owner do?

Well, judgment, of course. “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others” (v.9). But what will that judgment look like? In Jesus’ perspective this judgment is surely the coming desolation at the hands of the Romans in 70 a.d. The Jews as a people will be “destroyed” and God’s mission in the world will be given to the Abrahamic people Jesus has gathered and trained during his ministry. As the scripture itself promised;

‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
11 this was the Lord’s doing,
    and it is amazing in our eyes’?”                                            (Psa.118:22)

This scripture is essentially Jesus’ answer to the question of authority posed in the previous story: whence your authority? It comes from the role he plays in the working out of God’s great purpose. It also lays the foundation for his response to the tax question. A great division is coming for Israel, a division parsed as Caesar or God. It presses on them now, now that Jesus is here in Jerusalem.

As Sherlock Holmes might say, “Come, Watson, the games afoot!”

Thursday, January 4, 2018

48. Mark 12:13-17: Taxes

Mark12:13-17 bookends the Parable of the Vineyard with 11:27:33 and the Questioning of Jesus’ authority. We’ll treat it here before turning to the parable. Authority is the issue here as well.[1]

This story is infamous in all the varied and conflicting ways it has been used. Most think in terms of “Two Kingdoms” – God’s and Caesar’s. We are to divvy up our loyalties and stuff between the two and live according to the rules of each in their proper spheres. But . . .

Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus to catch him up in the “question of the day” that divided loyal Judeans from Roman collaborators: “Should we pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

Jesus reveals the hypocrisy of his interlocutors by unveiling their allegiance by requiring them to produce a coin, one with Caesar’s visage on it. A loyal Judean would not have one. The “August and Divine Son” inscribed on it could only remind of them of the one to whom that title truly belonged (1:1). This is a story not of divided loyalties but of choosing between rival loyalties: “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

Just as Jesus forced the “chief priests, scribes, and elders” to choose between John the Baptist and their own interests, so here he forces the “Pharisees and some Herodians” to declare their loyalties. That these “hypocrites” were amazed at Jesus’ answer is clear evidence that he did not offer them an innocuous “two kingdom” kind of answer. If he had, they would have rejoiced because they would have sunk him as a “people’s” Messiah. Leading a “No King But God” movement (which is what Jesus’ kingdom movement was all about) and suggesting that their hated pagan overlord had any claim on their loyalty and stuff would have done him in with the people. His movement would be dead in the water.

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” means “Choose who you stand with!”

“Jesus’ pedagogical strategy is to break the spell of credulity that the social order casts over its subjects and so force a crisis of faith. He engages the disciple-reader with disturbing and disrupting quandaries that animate toward change, rather than with logically satisfying answers that pacify.”[2]  

Just so!

[1] On this story see Myers, Say to This Mountain, 154-156.
[2] Myers, Say to This Mountain, 155-156.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Wokeness and Myth on Campus

Crying “free exchange of ideas!” misses the cultural meaning of protest in a society coming apart.

The recent wave of protests at American colleges — in which students express their anger at the presence on their campuses of ideas and speakers that they believe to lie outside the boundaries of acceptable discourse — has elicited endless commentary, but little of that commentary has been helpful. To some observers, the students are admirably alert to institutional racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, and are courageous in resisting those forces. To others, the students’ responses merely mark them as “special snowflakes” unable to cope with real-world diversity of opinions. These opposed interpretations of the protests are themselves laid out, fortified, and held with commendable firmness or lamentable rigidity, depending on your point of view. In any case, they lead nowhere and leave no minds changed.
The problem lies in a failure to grasp the true nature of the students’ position. If we are going to understand that position, we will need to draw on intellectual sources quite other than those typically invoked. What is required of us is the study of myth — and not in any pejorative or dismissive sense, but in the sense of an ineradicable element of human consciousness.
The Technological Core and the Mythical Core
In his book The Presence of Myth, first published in English translation in 1989, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski divides our civilization into two “cores.” This is his term for two cognitive, social, and ethical networks, “two different sources of energy active in man’s conscious relation to the world.” One of these cores is “technological,” the other “mythical.”
The term “technological core” is potentially misleading. Kołakowski is speaking of something broader than what we usually mean by “technological,” something influenced by Martin Heidegger’s understanding. To Heidegger, and therefore I think to Kołakowski, technology is not the product of science; rather, science is the product of a “technological enframing.” Technology, on this view, is not a set of methods or inventions but a stance toward the world that is instrumental and manipulative, in relatively neutral senses of those words. The technological core is analytical, sequential, and empirical. Another way to put this is to say that what belongs to the technological core is what we find to hand: whatever occupies the lifeworld we share, and is therefore subject to our manipulation and control, and to debates about what it is and what might be done with it. To this core belong instrumental and discursive reason, including all the sciences and most forms of philosophy — everything that reckons with the possible uses of human power to shape ourselves and our environment. The technological core undergirds and produces the phenomena we typically refer to as technological.
The “mythical core” of civilization, by contrast, describes that aspect of our experience “not revealed by scientific questions and beliefs.” It encompasses the “nonempirical unconditioned reality” of our experience, that which is not amenable to confirmation or disconfirmation. As will become clearer below, the mythical core describes our most fundamental relation to the world. It is our metaphysical background, the elements prior to our manipulation and control. For Kołakowski, the failure to distinguish between the mythical and technological cores leads to a failure to understand many social trends and events.
Kołakowski brackets the question of whether “nonempirical unconditioned reality” actually exists — that is, of whether metaphysics is fictional. He is interested, rather, in the impulse toward connecting with such a reality, which he says is persistent in human civilization, though it takes many forms.
He also wants to understand this mythical core on its own terms. But this understanding can be difficult, for our society “wishes to include myth in the technological order, that is ... it seeks justification for myth.” And the only way to seek justification for myth is to analyze it into components and reassemble them in a logical sequence. That is to say, myth can only be justified by ceasing to be myth:
The Gospel phrase, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” appears to an eye accustomed to rudimentary logical distinctions a jumble of words justified at best as metaphor translatable into several distinct utterances: “I am offering you proper directives,” “I proclaim the truth,” and “If you obey me I guarantee that you shall have eternal life,” and so on. In fact, these sorts of conjectured metaphors are literal, do not demand to be understood and to be translated into the separate languages of values and information. One can participate in mythical experience only with the fullness of one’s personality, in which the acquisition of information and the absorption of directives are inseparable. All names which participators in myths have given to their participation — “illumination” or “awakening” or such like — refer to the complete acts of entry into the mythical order; all distinctions of desire, understanding, and will in relation to these global acts is a derivative intellectual reconstruction.
This description is deeply insightful, useful to reflection on many cultural phenomena. But here we need only observe that it helps to explain a great deal of what’s happening on certain American college campuses these days.
Wokeness as Myth . . .


Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Christmas Reflection

Posted by: vinoth-ifes on: December 24, 2017

Christmas is about human exclusion as much as divine solidarity. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11)

A couple excluded from the hotels and guest-houses of their home town, and later forced to flee as refugees from state persecution. A child who is excluded from his community and eventually from life itself, dying in solidarity with all who suffered the shame of crucifixion.
The best way to celebrate Christmas, therefore, is to reflect on- and repent of – the way we exclude other people and other voices from intruding on our comfortable existence.

I think today, Christmas Eve, especially of my Palestinian Christian brethren. They are caught in a vulnerable position between, on the one hand, an aggressive Israeli settler movement and an equally aggressive Islamist militancy, on the other. Rarely, if ever, are their voices heard in mainstream secular news media.

The only exposure to Palestinians on “Christian” news channels is of stone-throwing children or the remains of suicide-bombers. How humiliated Palestinian Christians must feel by constant references on the part of Western Christians to “the Holy Land” (a sentimental phrase that is not found in the Bible) combined with a wilful ignorance of history and a fundamentalist abuse of “biblical prophecy”. The global Church needs to listen to their voice.