Saturday, October 22, 2016

Insults Galore!

John 8:31-36, the gospel lesson appointed for Reformation Sunday in the Lutheran Church, is an unusual text in that it sits amidst a dispute narrative in John's Gospel.  In the section just prior to this reading Jesus says to his listeners, "You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.  I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he." (vss. 23-24)  And just following our lesson Jesus says to these same listeners, "You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires." (vs. 44)  Clearly Jesus is pulling no punches with these folk.  Likewise, Jesus pulls no punches with us who encounter this text today.  Let the reader beware!

(The following questions come out of a methodology I have developed in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, that is Jesus, functions in a way that is clearly Law, but unique in that Jesus insults his listeners.  He tells them they are not free.  He tells them they are slaves to sin.  He also tells them that "there is no place in you for my word."  All these statements function as Law, declaring to them their lostness.  Another way this text is unusual, however, is that a word of Gospel is also present.  Jesus says, "If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."  This is pure promise.  The conditional phrase is also telling for in effect it says, "Whenver the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."  Good news indeed!

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with the ones who are being addressed by the Word, and this text is no exception.  We are the ones who chafe at the notion that we are not free.  We are the ones who declare that we are descendants of Abraham and have not been slaves to anyone.  We are the ones who need to hear the word of Gospel that Jesus sets us free.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the word functioning to show us how to respond to God's work in our life.  Sometimes we call this "the call to discipleship."  In this text, that call is not present.  We will need to look outside this text for that call.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are several couplets which jump right out when we read this text:  in bondage/free; slaves to sin/freed by the Son; slaves/sons.

5.  Exegetical work:  There are many resources for this classic text. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture offers the insights of early theologians, for example:  "Our freedom comes when we subject ourselves to the truth." (Augustine)  "The more freely people follow their perverse desires, the more closely they are in bondage to them."  (Gregory the Great)  "In whatever measure we serve God, we are free.  In whatever measure we serve the law of sin, we are still in bondage."  (Augustine) (ACCS, NT, IVa).  Martin Luther has much to say on this text in his Commentary on the Gospel of John:  "Anything that is not God's Son will not make you free."  "How, then, can I become free?  Men answer 'I will [do this]...'  But Christ says, '...No, let Him who is called the Son of God deliver you from sin; then you are free.  If you give yourself to Him and let Him set you free, all is well.'" (LW 23: 409, 413)  Kittel also offers some excellent insights into this passage in his extended article on eleutheros (freedom) in his Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  One example:  "...In the NT it is evident that freedom is not absent because there is inadequate control of existence but because there is no control at all, and therefore no self-dominion.  It realizes that existence is threatened by itself, and not by something outside; it realizes that it is itself deficient, with all that it does.  Hence to take oneself in hand is simply to grasp a deficient existence."  (TDNT II: 496)

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Jarring Turn-about

Both the teachings regarding prayer in Luke 18 include an explanation of the teaching as well as a parable illustrating it. In verses 1-8 we are given a parable about the "need to pray always and not to lose heart."  In Luke 18:9-14, the gospel lesson appointed for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, we are given a parable aimed at "some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt."  While the first parable announces the good news that God hears our prayers, the second parable is a word of law, which calls us back to reality whenever we are wont to say, "I am not like other people."  We do well to heed such a word.

(The following questions follow a method which gets at some of the issues for Law/Gospel preachers.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive.  For a detailed look at this method, please see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Luther sometimes said that the Word is like a hammer, breaking the rock in pieces.  Here we have a clear example of that. The Pharisee in the parable thanks God that he is "not like other people."  He basks in the righteousness of his own making.  He is content with a life lived entirely with "I" as the subject of every sentence.  In so doing he misses out on the righteousness which only God can grant, and the justification that God alone can give.  He misses out on the complete forgiveness and righteousness of God and trusts in himself.  The truth, which he does not see, is that he is like other people, and along with all others he needs the forgiveness that only God can bestow.  The Word in this parable, then, functions as Law, pointing us to our need for Christ.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Word functioning as Gospel is well hidden here, if not absent.  When the Word functions as Gospel it announces, "Here is Jesus, for you!"  There is no word like that here.  Having said that, we hear Jesus announcing that the tax collector who cried out, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" is justified.  This is certainly a gospel function.  This word reminds us that God does justify those who come to God humbly.  This word then encourages us to trust in this God who justifies.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Many a writer has pointed out that we who are "church folks" are more like the Pharisee in the parable than anyone else.  We who serve and give and pray and sing somehow are very prone to self-righteousness  and to a hidden pride which clings to the fallacy that we are "not like other people."  We need to pray for the miracle of repentance which comes to the tax collector, for we truly are like other people, as in bondage to sin as any.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The final verse in this text gives us some wonderful couplets:  humbled/exalted; condemned/justified; trusting self/trusting God.

5.  Exegetical work:  There are several telling details in this parable: 1)  The Pharisee's prayer is 33 words long; the prayer of the tax collector is 7 words long.  2)  The subject of the Pharisee's prayer is "I" four times; the subject of the tax collector's prayer is God.  3)  The Pharisee stands "by himself" indicating that he "trusts in himself"; the tax collector stands "far off" indicating his sense of unworthiness.  Another thing to be aware of is that these two characters are stock characters in Jesus' day; that is to say, they have expected characteristics.  In our day, a joke might begin, "A priest, a rabbi, and a lumberjack entered a bar."  Each one of those characters is a stock character with which we associate certain attributes.  So with Pharisees and tax collectors in Jesus' day.  What's most interesting is that the Pharisee was assumed to be righteous and the tax collector was assumed to be a scoundrel.  The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible gives this description of Pharisees:  "law-abiding, righteous, pious, religious folk." (III, 774)  Tax-collectors, on the other hand, are given these characteristics: "traitorous, base, despicable, greedy, 'robbers', excluded by common consent." (IV, 522).  This is interesting because for Jesus' listeners, the turn-around in this story would have been jarring.  The unrighteous one is the one who goes"down to his home justified", while the pious Pharisee does not.  We do well to attempt to enter into this jarring experience by substituting modern stock characters who might fit these molds.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Weary Faith

The parable of the indifferent judge and the persistent widow from Luke 18:1-8, the gospel lesson appointed for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, has much in common with the parable of the persistent friend and the annoyed neighbor in Luke 11:5-8.  In both parables the one to whom the request is made seems deaf to the needy one's concerns, and yet, because they are so annoyingly persistent, their requests are granted.  Similarly, Jesus' conclusion is, in the latter parable, "Ask, (and keep asking) and it will be given you," and in the former parable, "God [will] grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night."  It seems that both parables are teachings in persistence, with the assurance that God will grant us justice.  Take heart!

(The following questions attempt to get at some of the key issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive.  For a more complete look at this genre of preaching, and what its concerns are, see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from and amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions to encourage faltering faith, therefore it is a gospel function.  Jesus says, in effect, "Don't lose heart.  If even unjust judges finally grant justice to some, will not the God of all justice grant you mercy?"

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A word of Law is not present here.  When a word of Law is present its effect is to say, "You need Jesus."  There is none of that here.  The effect is much the opposite:  "God is for you. Who can be against you?"

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  The widow who cries out for justice, as well as all those whom Jesus speaks to "about their need to pray always and not to lose heart" are those with whom we identify in this text.  We all have times in our lives when prayer seems to go unanswered.  Jesus says here, "God hears.  God will grant you justice."

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The Word functions as a call to obedience when it shows us how to live in response to the gospel.  It could perhaps be said that this is exactly what this text is:  Because God is just, because God hears our prayers, keep praying. Do not "grow weary in well-doing," as St. Paul says.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The context of the parable gives us a few ideas for couplets:  discouraged/encouraged; faith flagging/faith rewarded.

6.   Exegetical work:  I like what Amy-Jill Levine points out about the common translation of what constitutes the judge's motivation for justice.  She writes:  "The NRSV's mild suggestion that the widow will 'wear out' the judge is another taming of the widow.  The Greek uses a boxing term:  the judge is concerned that the widow will give him a black eye." (Short Stories by Jesus, p. 225)  Another way this term could be translated suggests that the judge is concerned that unless he does what the widow requires she will slander him or besmirch his name.  It reminds me of Moses' argument before God in Exodus 32:  "But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ..."Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'?..."And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people." (vs. 11-14)  In that story, Moses has to remind God of the possible 'black eye' God will receive if mercy is not extended to the idolatrous Israelites.  Similarly here, the indifferent judge thinks to himself that he may receive a 'black eye' in the community if he does not heed the widow's cry.  Clearly the judge is the distinct opposite of God. The argument is as Luise Schottroff suggests, an "minore ad maius:  If even an unjust judge does justice, how much more will God." (The Parables of Jesus, p. 193)

Blessings on your proclamation!