Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Wisława Szymborska

This week's entry is a full-on copy, with fully bowed tipped hat, of a post by Jason Goroncy from about six weeks ago, with its original source in The New York Review of Books. Enjoy.



Vermeer
By Wisława Szymborska (translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak)

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Augustine on the Holy Spirit as "the love which is from God and is God"

"Nothing is more excellent than this gift of God. This alone is what distinguishes between the sons of the eternal kingdom and the sons of eternal perdition. Other endowments too are given through the Holy Spirit, but without charity they are of no use. Unless therefore the Holy Spirit is imparted to someone to make him a lover of God and neighbor, he cannot transfer from the left hand to the right. Why is the Spirit distinctively called gift? Only because of the love without which the man who has not got it, though he speak with the tongues of men and of angels, is booming bronze and a clashing cymbal; and if he has prophecy and knows all mysteries and all knowledge and has all faith so as to move mountains, it is nothing; and if he distributes all his substance, and if he gives over his body to burn, it does him no good. What a great good must it be then, without which such great goods cannot bring anyone to eternal life! But if a man has this love or charity (they are two names for one thing), and does not speak with tongues or have prophecy or know all mysteries and all knowledge or distribute all his property to the poor, either because he has not got any to distribute or because he is prevented by some family obligation, it brings him home to the kingdom; yes, even faith is only rendered of any use for this purpose by charity. Faith there can indeed be without charity, but it cannot be of any use. That is why even the apostle Paul says, "In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor [uncircumcision] is of any value, but faith which works through love" (Gal 5:6); in this way he distinguishes it from the faith with which even the demons believe and tremble. So the love which is from God and is God is distinctively the Holy Spirit; through him the charity of God is poured out in our hearts, and through it the whole triad dwell in us. This is the reason why it is most apposite that the Holy Spirit, while being God, should also be called the gift of God. And this gift, surely, is distinctively to be understood as being the charity which brings us through to God, without which no other gift of God at all can bring us through to God."

--Augustine, De Trinitate XV.32 (translated by Edmund Hill, OP)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel of Matthew: The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18:23-35 (With a Glance at the Shortcomings of Historical Criticism)

The parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35 is a carefully constructed literary unit whose meaning is best discovered in the broader context of its place in the narrative, as the Evangelist draws together prominent themes from the Gospel to amplify the message of the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus. I will note the major thrust of the parable as Matthew presents it, as well as its relation to the rest of the Gospel, before going on to consult a major critical commentary to learn (by comparison) what a scholarly reading of the text finds therein.

The context of the passage has multiple layers. The first is what bounds the set of stories, teachings, and healings that surround this parable. I suggest a structural bracketing beginning with 16:13, just after the second feeding of the multitude and the lessons learned from it, and ending with the final approach to Jerusalem in 21:1. This section is four and a half chapters long (consisting of 142 verses), and approximately a seventh of the size of the whole Gospel.

This section bears four primary indicators of its thematic character. The first is the cross: herein we find all three of Jesus’ predictions of his trip to Jerusalem, crucifixion, and resurrection on the third day (16:21-21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19). Moreover, the section as a whole begins with Peter’s rebuke of Jesus’ first such prediction and Jesus’ own subsequent rebuke of Peter, leading to discussion of a related subtheme, that of discipleship. Thus we find Jesus’ teaching that to follow him as a disciple is to take up one’s cross (16:24-26), to take on the status of a child (18:1-5), to forgive to the umpteenth offense (18:21-22), to forsake all for his sake (19:27-30), and to relate to one another through servanthood rather than domination (20:25-28).

Similarly related to the theme of discipleship is that of the “little ones” (18:6), seeming to include children on a literal basis (18:1-5; 19:13-15), the weakest members of the community (18:6-7), and, on the broadest level, all of Jesus’ disciples (cf. 25:31-46). And this mention of community life brings us to the final thematic subject of the section: the ekklesia. The only times the church is referenced in any of the Gospels are found here: once in 16:18, in Jesus’ blessing of Peter’s confession of faith, and twice in 18:17, all three residing in passages about “binding and loosing,” whether in the prerogative of Peter or of the entire church community.

Thus, from Peter’s pronouncement of Jesus as Messiah to the arrival at Jerusalem (16:13–20:34), Matthew weaves together scenes of action and speech concerning the character of discipleship as it relates (on the one hand) to Jesus’ approaching cross and (on the other) to the future church as an apostolic community marked by servanthood and humility.

Now to the passage at hand. The parable of the unforgiving servant in 18:23-35 follows immediately from Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer regarding forgiveness in verses 21-22, thus expanding on Jesus’ response. The tale is straightforward: a king seeks to settle the astronomical debt of a servant, but has pity on him when he pleads patience; the servant goes out and seeks to settle the miniscule debt of a fellow servant, but deals with him ruthlessly when he pleads for patience. And so the king: “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleased with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (vv. 32-33). “Hand[ing] him over to be tortured” until the debt is paid, Jesus says that God will do the very same “to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (vv. 34-35).

Taken thematically and literarily, the parable is filled to the brim with Matthean topics, concerns, and language. An immediate connection is to the Sermon on the Mount. In the prayer Jesus offers his disciples as a paradigm, one of the petitions asks that God “forgive [aphes] us our debts [opheilemata], as we also have forgiven [aphekamen] our debtors [opheiletais]” (6:12), and Jesus’ only elaboration on the prayer’s meaning expands on this part: “For if you forgive [aphete] others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive [aphesei] you; but if you do not forgive [aphete] others, neither will your Father forgive [aphesei] your trespasses” (6:14-15). The parable’s language is identical: the debtor (opheiletes; v. 24) is forgiven (apheken; v. 27) his debt, yet refuses to forgive the fellow servant who owes (opheilen; v. 28) him. Furthermore, the final image of the king throwing the servant into prison until the entire debt is paid (v. 34) matches in detail Jesus’ warning in 5:23-26 of reconciling (debts!) quickly on the way to court, lest one be handed “over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and [eventually] thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

These intertextual echoes offer commentary backwards onto the Sermon—namely, that Jesus really is talking economics. To “forgive” is first of all, whatever else it means, to absolve another of the financial slavery of debt. No community can be faithful to God’s kingdom which fosters indebtedness over against one another. Moving back to the parable, however, we see that, while the call to pardon is irreducibly economic, it does also include forgiveness “from [the] heart” (v. 35), such that the community must also be one of interpersonal absolution and “letting go” of sin—just as Jesus’ immediately foregoing teachings on how the church should address sin (vv. 15-17), on binding and loosing on earth/heaven (vv. 18-20), and on forgiving “seventy times seven” (v. 22) indicate. In this way the community of discipleship will share in the character of the Father’s mercy (vv. 32-33; cf. 5:7, 43-48; 6:14-15) and exemplify the reign of heaven (v. 23).

I now turn to W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr.’s entry in the International Critical Commentary series, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (3 vols.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark Limited, 1988). Davies and Allison (hereafter “D.A.”) devote 10 pages to Matthew 18:23-35 (pp. 794-803), with two subsequent pages that offer concluding thoughts on the section as a whole (pp. 803-805).

Overall, D.A.’s analysis of the passage is textually perceptive, historically informed, and cognizant of scholarship, yet at the same time interpretatively stiff, unimaginative, and one-note.

On the one hand, it is clear just how deeply D.A. know the scholarship, historical context, and biblical intertextual connections. They engage Jeremias’ work on the parables (p. 794, 800), note multiple textual connections to contemporary Rabbinic or Jewish sources (pp. 799, 800), and attempt to fit the parable into its historical situation, both for Jesus’ original telling and for Matthew’s redaction of the tradition he received (pp. 794-796, 798-801). They conclude, among other things, that the parable is indeed original to Jesus, and that in his telling it was likely a straightforward tale about a master and his servants as an analogy to God as Father forgiving the debts of human beings, thereby calling for imitation of the Father’s action (pp. 794-795, 803-805). As redacted by Matthew, introducing the master as a king and ratcheting up the amount of the debt points up the analogy to God as the ruler of heaven and to God’s gratuity in pardoning (pp. 796, 698). All fine and helpful points for the historian and technical exegete.

However, there are other interests and other interested parties than these scholarly ones—for example, the preacher or teacher, or even the (Christian) student, regarding matters such as the rich literary substance of the text, or the image of the kingdom offered by it, or the broad theological vision of the first Evangelist. On such things this critical commentary pleads no comment. Proceeding verse by verse, the reader stumbles upon detail after innumerable intricate detail regarding idiosyncratic prepositional constructions and LXX parallels and Matthean redactional tendencies and academic disagreements about the parable’s original provenance—but little in the way of interpretive or textual or literary insight, that is, the sort of explosive and revolutionary ricochets such a story would and did and could have, both then and now.

Though regrettable, these consequences in the commentary are not an accident, but methodologically consistent with the approach laid out in D.A.’s 148-page introduction. As they say early on, “In this commentary, although it is informed by . . . a ‘principled eclecticism’, the more traditional historical-critical approach will be dominant” (p. 3). This is not merely due to the authors lack of expertise in the literary fields necessary to take another approach; rather, it “is due to our understanding of the central demands which the text itself makes upon the reader.” Because “a text is its history,” that history must be plunged into and plundered for the “knowledge . . . necessary for its understanding,” thereby “call[ing] for attention to source, form, and redaction criticism.” Other forms of criticism may have their place, but D.A. “cannot concede . . . that the text can be adequately dealt with in isolation from its historical character in the sense indicated” (pp. 3-4).

Most important of all, this hermeneutic approach is grounded in the fact that the “text always presupposes an historical figure, Jesus, as its raison d’être” (p. 4). Getting through the indirectness of the text to the historicity of this singular figure is therefore paramount. The authors’ “task, then, is to examine the text of Matthew so as to understand what it says,” that is, to “seek what has been called the ‘plain sense’ of the text” (p. 5).

The introduction goes on to deal extensively with critical issues of authorship (pp. 7-58), structure (pp. 58-72), literary characteristics (pp. 72-96), sources (pp. 97-127) compositional date (pp. 127-138), and local origin (138-147). However, I hope to have given a sufficiently clear account of the commentary’s methodology, of the authors’ stated reasons for employing it, and of the consequences for a close reading of a particular passage like Matthew 18:23-35, especially as set in contrast to my own brief encounter with the text above. Critical scholarship is a great gift to any reading of Christian canonical texts, and undeniably a boon to the church’s reading above all. Unfortunately, Davies and Allison seem resolutely committed to hemming in their exegesis by making what they “cannot concede”—that the text has a history, which it surely does—the sole focus of their labors, and thereby excluding all other concerns from their purview.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel of Matthew: The Call to Messianic Discipleship and Jesus' Unique Sonship in Matthew 11:25-30

The famous but obscure passage found in Matthew 11:25-30, in which Jesus seems to begin praying at random and then to call an anonymous audience to come to him for rest, comes out of nowhere and at first glance strikes the reader as misplaced, or at least as arbitrarily inserted into the narrative. However, upon further inspection the passage is not only thoughtfully and intentionally placed where it is, it contains a kind of magnetic force, situated as it is near to the middle of the Gospel, drawing together crucial Matthean themes in concentrated form. As a whole, they coalesce into a summary call to messianic discipleship, grounded in the unique and revelatory relationship between Jesus and Israel’s Lord—here named as personal Father—out of which flows the free (and exclusive) call to the peculiar way and knowledge of the Son.

One of the chief rhetorical ways in which the passage communicates its theme of discipleship is by its use of vocabulary introduced or used in the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5–7. Nearly a dozen words in this short pericope refer back to language used in the Sermon. For example, four of the total six times epiginosko (“to know”) appears in the Gospel are found in this passage and in the Sermon: in the latter, regarding knowledge of the Son and of the Father (11:27); in the former, regarding how to discern real disciples from imitators (“by their fruits”; 7:16, 20). As well, the only two times the verb kopiao (“to toil”) appears in Matthew are in 11:28, in which Jesus offers rest to those laboring wearily, and in 6:28, in which Jesus calls his disciples to “[c]onsider the lilies of the field” as a positive example of that which does not labor but is provided for sufficiently by God.

An obvious case is the use of praüs (“meek, humble”) in 11:29, which Jesus claims for his own character (literally “in heart,” thus already echoing 5:8, the “pure in heart”), thereby recalling the blessing of the meek in 5:5, as well as prefiguring Matthew’s sole other use of the word in his later quotation of Zechariah: “Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey” (21:5). To take only one more example, the rest Jesus promises to the weary proves to be a double echo. On the one hand, having before been told that if one seeks one will “find” (heuresete; 7:7; heuriskei, 7:8), that promise is now fulfilled in a further promise, namely that those who take on Jesus’ yoke “will find [heuresete] rest for [their] souls” (11:29). On the other hand, the rest offered to persons’ “souls” (psuchais) is precisely the antithesis of a life spent “worry[ing] about [one’s] life (psuche)” (6:25), closing the referential loop by calling to mind once again the sort of rest that marks the non-laboring “lilies of the field” (6:28).

These resonances with the Sermon on the Mount might be taken to be illusory if not for the other flashing signals in the passage that clearly point to the theme of discipleship.

First is the use of the imperative deute (“Come!”; 11:28), which, of its total 13 appearances in the New Testament, is found in the Gospel of Matthew a full six times. Jesus employs the word ironically in successive parables (21:38, the wicket tenants; 22:4, the wedding banquet), but the three primary times involve Jesus’ calling persons to come after/to/with him: from nets to discipleship (4:19), for soul-wearied rest (11:28), into the inheritance of the kingdom (25:34). Its last appearance is, fittingly enough, found in the angel’s reassurance to the women at the tomb: “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come (deute), see the place where he lay” (28:6). When Jesus therefore calls the weary to “come” to him for rest (11:28), this call is not merely one of benefits, but first and foremost marked by the sort of costly discipleship spoken of in the rest of the Gospel (4:19) and thus bound up with the unjust suffering of the both the son (21:38) and his servants (22:4), ultimately serving as a call to see the empty tomb of victory (28:6) and so to share in the kingdom of that victory (25:34).

The second clear indication of discipleship is Matthew’s use of airo in 11:29. This word has a number of possible definitions, and indeed is used throughout the Gospel and the rest of the New Testament to indicate multiple things: to pick something up, to bear something away, to take something away, and so on. But when in this passage Jesus says, “Take (arate) my yoke upon you,” he is using the exact same word we find later in 16:24: “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up (arato) their cross and follow me.’ ” This idiosyncratic use is fulfilled with dreadful irony on the way to Golgotha, in the word’s final appearance in the Gospel: “As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry (are) [Jesus’] cross” (27:32). Thus, the call to the weary to take Jesus’ “easy” and “light” yoke upon them is not a relinquishment from the demands of discipleship—it is itself the call to discipleship, only here formulated as a call to the life of discipleship as the one true and therefore good life. However laborious following Jesus may look like to a violent and persecuting world, it is in fact the only true path to rest.

Third, these linguistic gestures are confirmed in a cluster of words that gather meaning from elsewhere in the Gospel. The first of these is nepios, the “babes” or “infants” to whom the Father has revealed that which is hidden, found also in 21:16 in a quotation of Psalm 8: “Out of the mouths of infants [nepion] and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself.” These recall also the “little ones” of Matthew’s Gospel (see 18:1-7), all of which together suggest that the image of the young child or vulnerable one is meant to evoke the disciple of Jesus. Insofar as a disciple is a learner (mathetes), then, Jesus’ call is to “learn” (mathete) from him (11:29).

And what is to be learned from Jesus? “To be gentle and humble [tapeinos] in heart” (11:29). Matthew has Jesus make two remarkable statements later in the Gospel using the verb form of this adjective. In 18:4-5, he says: “Whoever becomes humble [tapeinosei] like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” He then goes on to say in 23:11-12, right before he begins pronouncing his woes on the Pharisees, that “[t]he greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled [tapeinothesetai], and all who humble [tapeinosei] themselves will be exalted.” Such humility is indeed the heart of the call to discipleship—and so of the gospel! No wonder that, for the sake of the “heavy burdened” (pephortismenoi; 11:28), the “burden” (phortion) of the Messiah is “light” (elaphron; 11:30), in contradistinction to the “heavy burdens” (phortia barea) which the scribes and the Pharisees “tie up . . . and lay . . . on the shoulders of others,” though “they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (23:4).

On the basis of these textual indicators, then—though there are others also—we may conclude that verses 28-30 of Matthew 11 are a call to nothing less than the radically humbling way of following Jesus to the cross, a path in actuality not wearying or burdensome but free, light, easy, and full of the rest only the Messiah can give.

But on what grounds can the Messiah make such a promise? How can Jesus make such an outlandish claim? Verses 25-27 answer: on the mysterious but rock solid ground of the singular and intimate relationship between Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, and his Father, Israel’s Lord.

The first indication that this is the case is in the use of eudokia in 11:26: “for so it was well-pleasing in your sight” (NRSV alt. trans.). The verb form of this word (itself used only once) is found in three other places in Matthew’s Gospel, each at a crucial point in the narrative. The first is Jesus’ baptism, where the text reads that “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased (en ho eudokesa)” (3:17). The second is Matthew’s fulfillment quotation of Isaiah in 12:18: “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased [eis hon eudakesen he psuche mou]. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.” And the third place is the transfiguration, which reads that “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased [en ho eudokesa]; listen to him!’ ” (17:5). Thus when Jesus praises the Father’s decision to hide “these things from the wise and the intelligent” and to reveal “them to infants” (11:25) as befitting the Father’s “well-pleasing-ness” (11:26), we know that this is no disinterested decision but a christological one; for the One in whom the Father is repeatedly “well pleased” is none other than the Son, the prophesied Messiah (3:17; 12:18; 17:5)—and so Jesus moves on to this very relationship in verse 27.

The language of “Father” (pater) and “Son” (huios) is rampant throughout Matthew, but there is an important nuance here: the Son is not of anything or anyone, but merely “the Son” (not unlike in the Gospel of John). There are only four such times the Son is linguistically “naked” in this way, rather than named as the Son “of David . . . of Abraham” (1:1), “of God” (e.g., 4:3), or “of Man” (e.g., 8:20). The first is in this passage. The second is in the parable of the wicked tenants (showing up again, in the same verse as one of the uses of deute!): “But when the tenants saw the son [they decided to kill him]” (21:38). The third is in the apocalypse of Jesus’ final discourse: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (24:36). And finally, the second to last verse of the entire Gospel: “. . . baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .” (28:19). In each case it is Jesus—prayerful, parabolic, tarrying, or triadically deified—identifying himself as not simply “a” son of God, nor even one of an exemplary sort, but somehow without need of a modifier, and so ontologically, “the” Son. One need not ask “of” what, for it is clear: of the Father.

On what basis, then, is Jesus’ revelatory call to discipleship made? On his matchless and unapproachably distinct relationship to the Father, as the one and only Son of God (11:27).

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: At the Lamb's High Feast

A hymn for today. This is a Christus Victor song if there ever was one, soaked in biblical allusions to Passover, Passion, and Eucharist. The second verse is especially powerful in its interwoven themes of Exodus and crucifixion. Enjoy.

- - - - - - -

At the Lamb's High Feast

Anonymous, 6th century (translated by Robert Campbell)

At the Lamb’s high feast we sing,
Praise to our victorious King,
Who hath washed us in the tide
Flowing from his pierced side;
Praise we Him, whose love divine
Gives His sacred blood for wine,
Gives His body for the feast,
Christ the Victim, Christ the Priest.

Where the Paschal blood is poured,
Death’s dark angel sheathes his sword;
Israel’s hosts triumphant go
Through the wave that drowns the foe.
Praise we Christ, whose blood was shed,
Paschal Victim, paschal Bread;
With sincerity and love
Eat we Manna from above.

Mighty Victim from the sky,
Hell’s fierce powers beneath Thee lie;
Thou hast conquered in the fight,
Thou hast brought us life and light;
Now no more can death appall,
Now no more the grave enthrall;
Thou hast opened Paradise,
And in Thee Thy saints shall rise.

Paschal triumph, Easter joy,
Only sin can this destroy;
From sin’s death do Thou set free
Souls reborn, O Lord, in Thee.
Hymns of glory and of praise,
Father, to Thee we raise;
Risen Lord, all praise to Thee,
Ever with the Spirit be.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Stone-Campbell Journal Conference

Tomorrow I'm heading to Lincoln Christian University in Lincoln, Illinois, to participate in the annual Stone-Campbell Journal Conference. I'll be presenting as a part of the Ecclesiology and Social Ethics study group moderated by John Nugent, reading a paper titled "Disciples of a State Criminal: How the Mission of the Church Relates to the U.S. Imprisonment Crisis." The various sessions are online here.

The particular theme of this year's conference is: "What We Learned: Editors Reflect on A Global History of the Stone-Campbell Movement." Presentations include:
  • Paul Blowers (Emmanuel Christian Seminary), "What I Learned About Historiography"
  • Douglas Foster (Abilene Christian University), "What I Learned About African-Americans"
  • Newell Williams (Brite Divinity School), "What I Learned About Christian Churches (Independent)"
  • Loretta Hunicutt (Pepperdine University), "What I Learned About Women"
I'm looking forward to meeting up with some old friends as well as meeting a whole lot of fellow theological scholars within the Restoration heritage. Leave a comment or email me if you want to meet up while there.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel of Matthew: The Temptation Scene in Matthew 4:1-11

The temptation scene as portrayed in Matthew 4:1-11 serves, like its Synoptic parallels, as a bridge between Jesus’ acclamation as God’s beloved Son at baptism and the beginning of his ministry. Particular to the purpose of the Gospel of Matthew, the passage echoes and prefigures important themes displayed in the rest of the book, and contains within it at least three identifiable theological emphases reflective of Matthew’s aims: (1) faithfulness to God over against visible or worldly results or rewards; (2) faithfulness to God and God’s consequent reward taking the path and the form of self-denying servanthood; and (3) a general downplaying of anti-God power and heightening of divine power. Below I will note general characteristics that set Matthew apart, point out parts of the temptation account that connect to other parts of the Gospel, and conclude by exploring the three theological emphases identified above.

First, the general characteristics of Matthew’s text. Mark’s temptation account is a scant two verses, straightforwardly recounting the Spirit’s driving Jesus into the wilderness (with the wild beasts who live there) for a forty day period of temptation by Satan, after which angels wait on him (Mark 1:12-13; bare parenthetical citations are from Matthew, otherwise I will give the name of the cited biblical book). Matthew and Luke locate their own temptation accounts in the same chronological position, immediately following Jesus’ baptism, but have substantially more than Mark’s mere 11 verses setting it up. Matthew’s context consists of an opening genealogy (1:1-17), the stories of Jesus’ peculiar conception (from the perspective of Joseph; 1:18-25) and of his dangerous Moses-like birth and journey to and from Egypt (2:1-23), the introduction of John the Baptist (3:1-12), and, finally, the lead-in to the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus’ baptism by John (3:13-17). Even in these somewhat limited narrative beginnings, we have been introduced to or set up for what comes next. One example is Matthew’ use of and facility with explicit biblical quotations (e.g., 1:22-23; 2:15, 17-18, 23), which, unlike Luke’s more allusive style, are not unlike Jesus’ responses to the devil’s temptations, and so prove a hospitable textual context for them. Another “introduction,” though those of us familiar with the text might not immediately recognize it, is to the characters of the temptation narrative: God, God’s Spirit, and God’s Son, Jesus. The Spirit is active in both Jesus’ conception (1:18-21) and in his baptism (3:16), and now acts to lead Jesus into the wilderness (4:1). God the Lord sends an angel to Joseph three times (1:20; 2:13, 19), proclaims himself publicly as the Father of Jesus at the latter’s baptism (3:17), and is the subject of much of the wilderness dialogue.

As regards Jesus as a narrative character, it is interesting that, apart from his single corrective statement to John—certainly authoritative, but not hostile (3:15)—Jesus’ responses to the devil serve as his first real appearance in the story as Teacher and as Polemicist. In these roles he offers truthful instruction, both to the devil and to the hearer/reader, as well as much-needed rebuke to a threatening and misleading opponent.

Because the bulk of the temptation account itself is not found in Mark, and Matthew and Luke share a substantial amount of it between them, it is fair to assume that it is taken from Q or, at least, that Matthew and Luke are appropriating the same source for their own ends. How does Matthew use it for his purposes in the broader scope of the Gospel?

The primary answer is that he uses it as a kind of microcosm of what is to come, echoing and prefiguring themes and events which occur elsewhere in the text. The clearest example of this approach is the insertion of the phrase “Away with you, Satan!” (hypage satana) in Jesus’ third and final answer (4:10), which is not found in the Lukan parallel. This reply foreshadows Jesus’ later rebuke of Peter when he says, “Get behind me, Satan!” (hypage opiso mou satana; 16:23). In a similarly linguistic example, the devil’s first temptation asks Jesus to “command these stones [lithoi houtoi] to become loaves of bread” (4:3), which—since Luke has the singular “this stone . . . a loaf of bread” (Luke 4:3)—may echo John the Baptist’s earlier mention of “these stones” (lithon touton; 3:9), from which God is able miraculously to bring forth children of Abraham. And, if only as reflective of consistency of style, instead of Luke’s “Jerusalem” (Luke 4:9), Matthew’s inclination to Jewish distancing euphemism translates “the holy city” (4:5).

On a more thematic level, while Luke limits Jesus’ first quotation (from Deuteronomy 8:3) to what it says negatively about not living by bread alone (Luke 4:4), Matthew goes on to include the affirmative continuation: “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (4:4). This inclusion alludes to Jesus’ role as teacher and explicator of Scripture in the rest of the Gospel. Furthermore, the final place to which the devil takes Jesus is “a very high mountain [oros]” on which the devil asks Jesus to worship (peson proskuneses) him (4:8-9), which clearly prefigures the Gospel’s final image of the disciples meeting Jesus on a mountain (oros; 28:16) and worshiping (prosekunesan) him (28:17). Tellingly, Matthew omits a crucial Lukan phrase, the devil’s claim that he will give Jesus the worldly kingdoms’ “glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me [ten exousian tauten hapasan . . . hoti emoi paradedotai]” (Luke 4:6), and seems instead to place it in the mouth of the risen Jesus, standing on the mountain: “All authority . . . has been given to me [edothe moi pasa exousia]” (28:19). All authority has not been given to the devil, but rather belongs to the faithful Master risen glorious from the dead.

This brings us to Matthew’s theological emphases, beginning with faithfulness to God over against visible or worldly results or rewards. The next big “event” after the temptation account in Matthew’s Gospel is the Sermon on the Mount (5–7). Here Jesus repeatedly insists on finding or waiting or working for one’s “reward from your Father in heaven” (6:1) or “treasures in heaven” (6:20), instead of imitating those who have already received their reward on earth, for “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (6:4). In the same way, the entire series of temptations function as an anticipatory ruse to deter Jesus from the path of living faithfully before God by offering visible results and immediate rewards for obedience to the devil. These comport with particular political strategies, as many modern commentators have pointed out.

First, turning stone into bread (4:3-4) represents an “economic option,” that is, providing materially for all the people so that they will follow Jesus and acclaim him as king—which, in turn, becomes actualized as a real situation later in the Gospel (14:13-21; cf. John 6:1-15). Second, Jesus’ displaying his power at the temple (4:5-7) represents a “cultic” or “religious option,” that is, manifesting his identity through a wonderworking sign that would thereby “prove” himself to the people—a situation not dissimilar to what comes later when, instead of a miraculous performance in the temple, he clears it out in an angry prophetic display (21:12-17). Third, accepting kingly power and authority from the devil (4:8-10) represents a “political option,” which requires little explanation because it is so straightforward.

This final option brings us to the next theological emphasis: faithfulness to God and God’s consequent reward taking the path and the form of self-denying servanthood. The reason that Jesus cannot take political power from the devil is not only because it would require worshiping the devil instead of God (though note, per the discussion above, that Jesus says “the Lord your God” is alone to be worshiped, and Matthew uses the same word in the final scene of the Gospel when the disciples “worship” Jesus on the mountain). It is also because the devil’s way of taking, having, and using political power is fundamentally different from that required by the right worship of the true God—namely, the oppression of the pagans and the violence of the Zealots, in contradistinction to suffering servanthood, the denial of self, and Golgotha (16:21-28; 20:20-28). Matthew emphasizes this by his ordering of the temptations, because while Luke’s sequence ends “on the pinnacle of the temple” (Luke 4:9), Matthew’s Jesus concludes at the mountaintop, overlooking “all the kingdoms of the world [pasas tas basileias tou kosmou] and their splendor” (4:8). Through this ordering, we are told: the devil’s politics means worldly power, but Jesus’ politics is determined by the power of the basileia ton ouranon (4:17).

Put differently, Jesus truly is God’s Son and Israel’s Messiah, and so will indeed inherit all the kingdoms of the earth, will in fact receive all authority in heaven and on earth, will even himself be glorious and so an object of worship—but all this by and through the cross. Here the prefiguring of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter finds its meaning: Peter diabolically presumes to tell Jesus the form of his Messianic calling, which of course entails avoidance of suffering. The cross, however, is the means, the path, the very content of the kingdom; no other way will suffice.

Finally, in the temptation account we find a general downplaying of anti-God power and heightening of divine power. The simplest example of this is Matthew’s removal of the devil’s claim to have authority (found in Luke 4:6), suggesting by implication that the devil is actually devoid of any authority or power whatsoever. Sustained by “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (4:4) and therefore armed with scriptural power—having been led there in the first place by the Spirit (4:1) of the One who publicly claimed him as Son (3:17)—Jesus is never finally in danger from this pretender and liar. Having been allowed to come (4:3) and tempt the Son of God, the devil leaves (4:11) without success, and “suddenly” angels come in the devil’s stead to wait on Jesus (4:11). Filial brackets guard the boundaries of this encounter on both sides, through the leading of the indwelling Spirit and immediate angelic ministry, divine protection thus ensuring that God’s Son is cared for at this crucial beginning of the gospel story.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: R.S. Thomas (Easter Sunday)

It is a difficult thing to choose the best or most powerful resurrection prayer-poem from R.S. Thomas's corpus. The one below, though, taken from Laboratories of the Spirit, will do the trick.

More importantly: He is risen, friends. It is Sunday morning and he is alive. Praise God for the good news.

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Suddenly

By R.S. Thomas

As I had always known
he would come, unannounced,
remarkable merely for the absence
of clamour. So truth must appear
to the thinker; so, at a stage
of the experiment, the answer
must quietly emerge. I looked
at him, not with the eye
only, but with the whole
of my being, overflowing with
him as a chalice would
with the sea. Yet was he
no more there than before,
his area occupied
by the unhaloed presences.
You could put your hand
in him without consciousness
of his wounds. The gamblers
at the foot of the unnoticed
cross went on with
their dicing; yet the invisible
garment for which they played
was no longer at stake, but worn
by him in this risen existence.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Praying Psalm 22: A Collect for Good Friday

O God of hiddenness and shadows,
You who hold life and death in your hands
You who see night as if it is day;
O God absconding from our grasp,
You who slip around the corner,
You who elude our glances and sighs;
O God of godforsaken places:

In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

And it was you who took us from the womb;
you who kept us safe at our mother’s breast.
Upon you we were cast from birth,
since our mothers bore us you have been our God.

You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

Do not therefore be far from us, O Lord,
for trouble is near and there is no one,
no one to help.
We cry by day, O God, but you do not answer;
by night, but we find no rest.
Why have you forsaken us, O God?
Why are you so far from helping us,
so far from the words of our groaning?

Deliver us, O God,
and do not shift like so many shadows;
do not leave us barren and bleeding,
bones numbered and lips dry,
gloated over by rabid bulls and ravenous lions.

Deliver us and do not forsake us,
and we will not cease to tell
of your faithfulness to the weary and afflicted.
We will not cease to tell and proclaim such news
even to a people yet unborn,
a people gathered by your Holy Spirit,

by whose power we now pray,
through your servant, the anointed of Israel. Amen.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Marilynne Robinson on the Difference Between Theism and New Atheist Science

"If a positive test were brought to bear on this idea, the multiverse, it would be discarded as meaningless because it can never be falsified. But in fact the idea is interesting and relevant for just this reason. Given what we think we know about the origins of the universe, there is nothing implausible in the idea that like phenomena of creation might have occurred any number of times. Biblical and traditional conceptions of God have enough of grandeur in them to accommodate the theory without difficulty, so there are no religious grounds for rejecting it. Its importance to the new atheist argument lies precisely in the fact that, true or not, falsifiable or not, it amounts to a statement of the fact that our experience of being is special and parochial, no basis for grand extrapolations from the structure of the carbon atom or the fortunate placement of our planet relative to its star. An even grander extrapolation, of course, is the one that proceeds from the observed importance of genes in transacting the business of organic life on this odd little planet to the insistence that, QED, there is no God. The being, or reality, that expresses itself in everything we know and are able to know may well find an infinitude of other expressions, unlike the reality of our experience in ways we cannot begin to conceive. Fine. But what is being described here, inconceivable and unknowable as it may be, is nevertheless the reality of which we are a part. If we do not know the character of being itself -- I have never seen anyone suggest that we do know it -- then there is an inevitable superficiality in any claim to an exhaustive description of anything that participates in being. And the assertion of the existence, or the nonexistence, of God is the ultimate exhaustive description. The difference between theism and new atheist science is the difference between mystery and certainty. Certainty is a relic, an atavism, a husk we ought to have outgrown. Mystery is openness to possibility, even at the scale now implied by physics and cosmology. The primordial human tropism toward mystery may well have provided the impetus for all that we have learned."

--Marilynne Robinson, "Cosmology," When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 196-197

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Theodulph of Orleans (Palm Sunday)

For Palm Sunday, a fitting hymn. With palms waving we sang it together this morning -- a song whose words are almost 1,200 years old. Blessings friends.

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All Glory, Laud, and Honor

By Theodulph of Orleans (translated by John Mason Neale)

All glory, laud, and honor,
to thee, Redeemer, King,
to whom the lips of children
made sweet hosannas ring.

Thou art the King of Israel,
thou David's royal Son,
who in the Lord's name comest,
the King and Blessed One.

The company of angels
are praising thee on high,
and we with all creation
in chorus make reply.

The people of the Hebrews
with psalms before thee went;
our prayer and praise and anthems
before thee we present.

To thee, before thy passion,
they sang their hymns of praise;
to thee, now high exalted,
our melody we raise.

Thou didst accept their praises;
accept the prayers we bring,
who in all good delightest,
thou good and gracious King.