Saturday, September 26, 2015

Jesus on divorce: Law or Grace?

Mark 10:2-16 is a text that has bedeviled people of faith for generations.  It seems to portray Jesus as a law giver.  Is he?  Perhaps a few observations regarding the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees can give us a hint as to what is really going on here. 1) The Pharisees approach Jesus "to test him"(vs. 2).  This reveals that the question they ask Jesus they already know the answer to, and they expect Jesus to say something contrary to the law as they know it, (i.e.  they expect Jesus to say that divorce is not lawful when they believe it is); 2)  Jesus' question, "What did Moses command you?" is not the question they answered:  "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce."  (see Deut. 24:1) Jesus asked what was commanded; the Pharisees told Jesus, in effect, what they could get away with - a big difference; 3)  "Being joined" to a wife (vs. 7) means "to be faithfully devoted" to a wife, certainly a status implying care of wife as neighbor, (in faithfulness to the Great Commandment) not simply a legal arrangement.

(The following questions get at some of the issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  For a complete look at my thinking in this regard, purchase my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus, the Word, is certainly functioning, at first glance, as lawgiver.  He is telling us what we may and may not do.  He is calling us to repentance for our "hardness of heart."  He is calling into question any practice that allows a person in authority to simply dismiss or discard another because they find them "objectionable." (Deut. 24:1)  But this same word, as overheard by the wives of the Pharisees, would have been pure gospel, for it would have revealed to them, "You are beloved of God.  You may not be cast aside.  You are as treasured in God's eyes as your husbands are."  So the audience will determine the function of the Word here.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Again, it is the audience who will determine the function here.  If the audience is the Pharisees and those who identify with them, then there is no word of Gospel here, but only the call to repentance.  If the audience is understood to be the women who overheard this, then this is not a call to repentance but a word of pure Gospel.  There is no word of Law here for the vulnerable women who heard this exchange, only good news.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This text is unusual in that we could choose to identify with those who overhear the dialogue, or those involved in it.  As usual, we do well to steer clear of identifying with Jesus, so our choices are simply 1) the men (Pharisees and disciples), or 2) the women, who also could be identified as "the little ones" with whom Jesus interacts after this exchange.  It is telling that the disciples are consistent:  they understand neither Jesus' concern for vulnerable women, nor his concern for children.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The command to care for the "little ones" - any who are vulnerable - is clear here.

5.  Exegetical Work:  Several brief articles from the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible are helpful in understanding this text.  First, the article on divorce (IDB, I, 859) reveals that "something objectionable" (NRSV) in Deut. 24:1 was very loosely defined.  Indeed there were two schools of thought as to what this meant:  "The Hillel school viewed this as a general term, and the Shammai school took it to mean adultery only."  A woman's inability to bear children was a common reason for divorce.  The article on marriage is also instructive (IDB, III, 278f).  Note the following:  "The husband has the power over his wife...She has rights and freedoms only within the context of this authority...  The husband may even revoke a vow that his wife made to God, if he sees fit. (Num 30:10-13)..." Finally, the article on woman is also revealing:  "The father received a bride price for his daughter and thus engaged in a contract with the prospective husband to make her sexuality available to him.  This transaction, however, was not a transfer of chattel property.  Rather it was the surrender of authority over a woman by one man to another." (IDB, IV, 864f)   All of this reveals why Jesus viewed wives as "the little ones" (i.e. vulnerable ones needing protection).  In his law-giving, Jesus was championing the cause of women who would be living in abject poverty, without support, if dismissed by their powerful husbands.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Stumbling towards Jesus

In Mark 9:38-50 Jesus gives us three related prohibitions:  Do nothing to hinder
1) Your own faith; 2) The faith of others, or 3) Those who give faith to others.  Instead we are to do everything we can to move forward in faith, encourage others in their faith, and support those who move others forward in their faith (even if it is not the faith we embrace.)

(Following are questions which try to get at the concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For a complete understanding of my method, check out my new book available on this website.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  It is clear that Jesus, the Word, is bringing a word of Law here.  He is showing his listeners that the stumbling blocks they create in the lives of others or allow to exist in their own lives are capable of leading them into lostness.  This is serious business.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of Gospel here, no word which presents Christ or his mercy.  There is a hint of God's generosity in mention of the reward for those who give a cup of water to the little ones, but otherwise the Gospel word is absent.  The preacher might do well to remind listeners that God's grace comes to all, for all stumble.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text? We have a number of choices:  Perhaps we are one of the little ones who has stumbled in faith, because of something another person has done or said.  If so, we are called to faith, knowing Christ does not wish us to be lost. Or maybe we are one who has caused the stumbling of others, and we are called to repentance.  Or perhaps we are one who is struggling with a hand, foot, or eye that needs to be cut off, so that we might enter life. Or we may even be a person who is struggling to believe that another kind of believer is being used by God to bring faith to others.  Many choices today.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience - the call to live in response to God's mercy - is explicit in the call to give a cup of water to drink to those who bear the name of Christ.  Because God has ministered to us, so we must minister to others.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  All of the choices of persons mentioned in the text give us couplets to consider:  stumbling in faith/finding faith; hindering faith/encouraging faith; lost/found.

6.  Exegetical work:  On occasion Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is very helpful in unpacking the meaning of a text because of its attention to certain terms in the NT.  This week is a prime example.  In his extended discussion of the word "skandalizo" Kittel shows why Jesus is so vehement in his prohibition of stumbling blocks.  "In the New Testament, as in the Old Testament, what is at issue in 'skandalizo' is their relation to God... The 'skandalizo' is an obstacle in coming to faith and a cause of going astray in it... It is a cause of both transgression and distraction." (TDNT, VII, 344)  "[Jesus] realizes that a 'skandalon', a cause of unbelief, attaches to His words and deeds, and that this cannot be avoided...  The primary meaning is 'deep religious offence' at the preaching of Jesus, and this both causes and includes denial and rejection of Jesus... "Skandalizo means to cause loss of faith, to rob of eternal salvation." (p. 350-351)

7.  Insights from the pioneers of the New Homiletic?   Lowry's injunction to move our listeners from disequilibrium to equilibrium is appropos here since we are called from being causes of stumbling to recognizing our own need of grace to giving the little ones a cup of water.  The whole story is here: law leading to repentance, gospel leading to faith, mercy leading to obedience.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Loving Tempters

Peter's rebuke of Jesus, and Jesus' subsequent rebuke of Peter in Mark 8:27-38, the Gospel appointed for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, is certainly one of the most well-known scenes in the New Testament.  After all, what more memorable encounter is there than one in which Jesus calls one of his closest disciples "Satan"?  What is often overlooked, yet likely true, is that what Peter did, he did out of concern for Jesus.  He did not even imagine that the only begotten Son of God would have to endure the Cross.  We continue to struggle with this today.

(The following sample questions were developed as a way of trying to get at some of the central questions Law and Gospel preachers must consider.  For a more complete look at this method, check out my book, available on this website.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, Jesus, is questioning, rebuking, and exhorting.  All of these are different functions.  The summary rebuke is a strong word of Law: "You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things."  This shows clearly the sinner's need of repentance.  This Word, as Luther would say, "breaks the rock in pieces."  It exposes are unwillingness to go the way of the Cross, and our desire to have a discipleship that involves little sacrifice and little denial, yet a full measure of Christ's glory.

2. How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no gospel word here.  There is no word of comfort, forgiveness, or promise.  This word is all rebuke and exhortation.  As the preacher works with this text, a clear word of gospel will need to be given, but it will come from outside this text.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Clearly our place is with Peter, the crowd, and the disciples.  We are those who do not want to believe that the way of the Cross is the way of life.  We continually reject this way, and try to figure out ways to make the way of Glory the way to life.  We are those who want to save our lives now and in the age to come.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The denial of self, taking up of our cross, and following, are all response to God's work.  They are not prerequisite to God's work, but a faithful response to God's work.  We only dare take up our cross once faith in God's power and love has been firmly planted in our heart.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplets are suggested by this text?  The text itself provides us with a number of couplets that work well:  setting one's mind on human things/setting one's mind on divine things; losing life/saving life; refusing the cross/ taking up the cross.

6.  Exegetical work:  If we compare the Synoptic accounts of this scene we note that only Mark includes the comment in vs. 32, "He said all this quite openly."  Of course, this is in stark contrast to Mark's comment following Peter's Messianic confession:  "And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him."  Mark wants to make it clear that, while Jesus was not keen on people hearing about his Messiahship, he was very interested in them understanding that "the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again."  Eugene Boring, in his commentary (The NT Library series), suggests that Isaiah 55:8-9 may be in the background here:  "God's 'thoughts,' God's 'way of thinking' is different from human thinking." (242)  Lamar Williamson, in his commentary (Interpretation) suggests that this scene is the "theological fulcrum" of Mark's gospel:  "The question of Jesus' identity is here answered by Peter's confession that he is the Christ (v.29), and immediately the theological focus shifts to what it means for Jesus to be Christ (v. 31) and for his followers to be Christians (v. 34), themes which will dominate the remainder of the Gospel." (150)  It is also interesting to note what Kittel brings up in his discussion of the word 'rebuke'.  He notes that according to Midrash on Gen 22:7 Satan rebukes Abraham and argues that he should spare Isaac, his only Son. (TDNT, II, 625)  Interesting.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Cathy Lessmann, in her work on this text, archived under Gospel B 2012 for Pentecost 16, presents an interesting model.  She highlights Peter's mistaken notion of Jesus' role in the world, as a bringer of peace and justice, and notes how this also leads us away from God's peace and justice. She suggests that we could also substitute "a bringer of morality" as a mistaken notion of Jesus' role and be led astray as well.  All this can be found at study.

Blessings on your proclamation!