Archive for the ‘Fifteenth Bundle’ Category

MATTHEW 27:11-54

11 Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

15 Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23 Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him,29 and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”30 They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

32 As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36 then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37 Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

38 Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” 44 The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

“Truly this man was a son of God” is the more literal translation of Matthew’s Greek text. While “God’s Son” provides a handy scriptural foothold for the later orthodox doctrine of Jesus’ exclusive identity as “God the Son,” in the mytho-religious context of Matthew’s day (circa 80-85 CE), “son of God” was a common designation for kings, saviors, saints, and wonder-workers. It was used as a way of acknowledging the special proximity to God (or the gods) that such individuals were believed to enjoy.

This declaration by the army commander is positioned in the story as an ironic counterpart to the earlier episode involving the “notorious prisoner” named Jesus Barabbas. Now the purported practice of releasing a dangerous prisoner on a festival day has no basis in actual history, but that is not where the real meaning of this episode is found anyway. We are painted the picture of two notorious troublemakers under Roman guard: Jesus Barabbas (literally Jesus son of the father) and our Jesus – the central figure of Matthew’s Gospel.

The irony, of course, is that our Jesus really is son of the father. There is interesting textual evidence to suggest that Jesus (of Nazareth) may have used the designation “father” (Abba) as a proper name in reference to God, similar to Zeus or Yahweh in that regard. His own self-understanding may have been inspired out of an experience of such intimacy that he came to see himself – and all people, for that was the scope of his vision – as directly descended from God.

This metaphorical model of family relationships – I am a son of God, you are a daughter of God; we are siblings and children of the same God – has far-reaching implications. Suddenly there are no outsiders; all are included. Jesus’ message of compassion for those who suffer, justice on behalf of the poor, and unconditional forgiveness for the enemy makes better sense when interpreted in the context of this familial model.

So there we see them, the two Jesuses, both truly sons of God (in the sense just explained) but only one – our Jesus – in trouble for living out its truth in faith and courage. The other, Barabbas, was likely a zealot or what might today be classified a militant fundamentalist.

Pilate calls out to the assembled mob, “Which one shall I release to you?”

“Barabbas!” they cry.

“And what about this other Jesus, the messiah?” Pilate inquires.

“Crucify him!” 

In a sense, the mob made the right choice. Between the one who provokes violence and the one who professes a boundless and unfailing love, the terrorist can be managed. Love – a radical love such as Jesus taught and demonstrated – changes things. It doesn’t advance by violence and murder, but transforms the heart from deep within.

If Empire can’t shut it down early, love will become an unstoppable force.

 

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Philippians 2:5-11

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

This passage is frequently used as a “proof text” for the orthodox doctrine of Jesus as God – even though the passage itself makes a very clear distinction between God (“the Father”) and Jesus (“Christ the Lord”). But isn’t being “in the form of God” equivalent to saying that Jesus was God? No, and here’s why.

We already know that New Testament authors made quick work of anchoring the identity of Jesus in a deep heritage of scriptural prophecies and mythic metaphors. The Suffering Servant, Son of Man, Son of David, Son of God, the New Moses, the Cosmic Christ, Lady Wisdom, and the Second Adam (or New Man) were titles with rich histories of their own. They covered the continuum of time from creation, through Israel’s national history, up to the Day of Judgment and beyond.

In this poem, which Paul may have taken from an existing tradition, Jesus is compared with Adam – the archetypal First Man and “son of God” (as we read in Luke 3:38). According to the Genesis myth, Adam (along with his consort, Eve) was made in the “image” of God, which is another way of saying that he was in the form of God. God placed the couple in a grove of fruit trees and flowing streams. Among the different types of trees in the garden was the Tree of Immortality (at the center) and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

According to the myth, one virtue that distinguished God from his son and daughter was his “knowledge of good and evil” – that is to say, his rightful authority to judge the difference and make the rules. God warned his children that partaking of this tree would result in their death; it was forbidden.

The children, however, were stirred in their ambition for this exceptional power by a crafty serpent, who encouraged them with the promise that its fruit would make them “equal to God” in that way. They took the fruit and ate it, whereupon they were suddenly aware of their “nakedness” (a metaphor of the self-conscious guilty conscience). Shortly thereafter the couple was evicted from the garden, and a sword-wielding angel (Death) was posted as guardian to its entrance. Without access any longer to the Tree of Immortality, the pair was condemned to live out a finite number of days “east of Eden.”

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The First Adam, then, was in the form of God but tried to make himself equal to God. As a consequence, he and his descendants (the entire human race) are subject to suffering, toil, time and mortality. Because of the First Adam’s disobedience, we all share the fate of death.

But Jesus was the Second Adam. He was in the form of God but did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. Whereas (the First) Adam was defiant, Jesus (the Second Adam) was obedient. Instead of ambition for glory, he demonstrated humility in suffering. In that way, not only was Jesus our example of faith and devotion, but in staying true to God’s will even unto death he has made salvation (immortal life) available to the rest of us. How so?

As a reward for his humble obedience, God granted Jesus entrance to Eden and access once again to the Tree of Immortality. Thus we have here a mythic representation of the central metaphor of early Christianity, resurrection. Now, with the Second Adam alive and inside of paradise, we who commit our lives to him and follow his example can look forward to our own future resurrection and safe transit to life everlasting.

So through this archetypal comparison of the Two Adams, Paul is making the point that egoism, the unbridled ambition for glory, is what excludes the individual – every last one of us – from sharing in the higher life of God. The more tightly we twist our desires around “me” and “mine,” the deeper we sink into mortality and its complications: attachment and loss, pain and suffering, futility and despair. The ego’s arrogant presumption to decide between good and evil is what spins us out and away from God’s will for our lives.

Salvation, then, involves “putting on the mind of Christ Jesus” instead, living for God and giving our lives for his sake.

PSALM 31:9-16

9 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
    my eye wastes away from grief,
    my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
    and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
    and my bones waste away.

11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
    a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
    those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
    I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many—
    terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
    as they plot to take my life.

14 But I trust in you, O Lord;
    I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand;
    deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
    save me in your steadfast love.

Along the course of spiritual development a neophyte becomes a “true believer,” where the questions of faith are gradually resolved and replaced with the answers of doctrine. The searching question of God gives way to orthodox theories about God. An open and curious mind gradually closes down on certainties.

When you are taught that God loves you, watches out for you, and will intervene on your behalf in times of trouble, the naive expectation is that God will come through. But what happens when he doesn’t? Is it that God doesn’t see your suffering? Is he watching but just doesn’t care? Could it be that God is aware of your suffering and desperately wants to help you, but is limited in his power to do so? Such are the new questions that stretch and threaten the definitions of orthodoxy.

One way of “saving God” – or saving your concept of God – is to take responsibility for his silence or absence. Perhaps you don’t deserve God’s help. Maybe you’ve done something to disqualify yourself from divine favor. What if God is punishing you with this ordeal, for a sin you have conveniently forgotten? Or it might be that your faith is not what it needs to be and God is actually subjecting you to this pain or loss in order to make you stronger.

And so on.

But the evolutionary arc leading from neophyte to true believer doesn’t end there, without a significant amount of what might be called spiritual frustration where the soul’s journey to fulfillment is stymied and cut short of its intended goal. Beyond the “true believer” stance of religious commitment and doctrinal certainty is the mystical experience. In that place, on the other side of truth as it were, there is no theological possessive such as might prompt the soul to say, “You are my God.”

In the experience of divine presence, this moment is enough. There is nothing else.

ISAIAH 50:4-9a

4 The Lord God has given me
    the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
    the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
    wakens my ear
    to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
    and I was not rebellious,
    I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
    and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
    from insult and spitting.

7 The Lord God helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8     he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
    Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
    Let them confront me.
9 It is the Lord God who helps me;
    who will declare me guilty?

Chapters 40-55 are believed by scholars to have been written during the Babylonian Exile (587-538 BCE), after the southern kingdom of Judah was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar’s army and a significant population of its capital city of Jerusalem were taken in chains to Babylon.

As the siege was about to befall Jerusalem, there had been a few prophets who assured the people that God would protect the holy city and its sacred temple. So when it actually came to pass, and now in the distant land of their captors, not a few were ready to assign blame – not to God for failing his people, but to the exiles themselves for sinning against God. Some even suggested that the catastrophe was God’s retribution on the sinful nation.

But others didn’t buy it. Jeremiah and Ezekiel did their best not to place blame, but instead looked to a future of resurrection (Ezek 37), return and restoration (Jer 31). For his part, the “Second Isaiah” (as this author is known) chose not to look outside the suffering of his generation for its possible meaning or purpose. Rather than interpret it as punishment for sin, however, he reframed the experience as redemptive in its own right.

                                                                                          

Every so often, a system in dynamic balance will begin to experience feedback in the form of “vibration,” “heat,” “wobble” or “noise.” At such times the system needs to be reset in order to recover its center and balance. If the feedback is allowed to persist unchecked, it can amplify to the point where the system cracks up and breaks down.

Second Isaiah didn’t dispute the theory that Jerusalem had fallen because the people had lost their center. The devastation and exile indeed represented a major breakdown of the system, precipitated by the amplifying feedback of false hope, lost focus, and moral indifference. Not this generation, born in exile, but those before it had allowed things to fall off course. 

His creative contribution was to see the generation in exile as bearing the consequence, absorbing the shock of the tragedy, and symbolically taking the nation’s guilt on its shoulders. His generation’s suffering was redemptive in the way it removed this guilt and recalibrated the system. Second Isaiah and his fellow captives were not suffering to pay for sin, but to restore righteousness (balance and wholeness). They were not the shame of their nation, but its hope!

Much later on, some followers of Jesus would use this metaphor of vicarious suffering through the bearing of a burden to understand his death as a turning-point in redemption history.