Scripture Readings for March 2006
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These short readings from the Christian Bible are read daily at community prayer in Taizé, an ecumenical and international Christian community in France. The Bible reference indicates a slightly longer passage from scripture. You are encouraged to read the longer passage in the morning before you begin your daily activities, and then to ponder the reading, in silence and prayer, as it comes to mind during the day. For a brief explanation of how I am reading the Christian Bible, you are invited to go to Exegesis or to Witness.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus answers the tempter saying, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
The gospel of Mark tells us that after his baptism Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he remained for forty days and was tempted by Satan. The gospels of Matthew and Luke add that he fasted during his time in the wilderness and tell the story of his temptations by the devil (or the tempter). In both of these gospels the temptation to turn stones into bread is the first temptation. The next two temptations in the gospel of Luke are given in reverse order in the gospel of Matthew.
In the gospel of Luke Jesus answers the first temptation by quoting from the Jewish scriptures (Deuteronomy 8:3). The gospel of Matthew quotes the verse in full: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." (Mt. 4:4) The image of the "word of God" or the "word of the LORD" is first used in the Hebrew scriptures in Genesis15:1 to refer to the words that the LORD (YHWH in Hebrew) spoke to Abram (later given the name Abraham). The LORD promised Abram descendants as numerous as the stars, and the story tells us that Abram "put his faith in the LORD, who reckoned it to him as righteousness." (Gen. 15:6, Revised English Bible) Paul used this verse to argue that God only requires faith and not obedience to the law of Moses, as the faith of Abraham precedes the law of Moses but is "reckoned to him as righteousness." In the prophets the phrase "the word of the LORD" (YHWH in Hebrew) is used over and over again to distinguish the divine oracles they deliver on behalf of God from their own speech.
Thus, the "word of God" or the "word of the LORD" once referred only to the speech of God. In the New Testament, however, the phrase is used more generally to refer to the "good news" of the church. The author of the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles uses these phrases to refer first to the teaching of John the Baptist (Lk. 3:2), then to the teaching of Jesus (Lk. 5:1, 8:11, 8:21, 11:28, 24:19), and then to the proclamation of the early churches (Acts 4:31, 6:2, 8:14, etc.). The gospel of John uses the Greek word "logos" to refer to Jesus, and this is usually translated as the "Word" that was with God in the beginning, and was God, and was made flesh in Jesus and abides in his words. (John 1 and John 5:24, 5:38 and John 8)
"Come," my heart says, "seek God's face!" Your face, LORD, do I seek.
The psalms were collected on one of 24 separate scrolls that later would be included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. The psalms and the other "writings," as they were called, were of less importance in the religious life of the synagogues than the scrolls of the law (Torah) and the prophets. Generally, references to scripture in the New Testament are to the 5 scrolls of the law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) and the 8 scrolls of the prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the 12 "latter" prophets).
The psalms were composed for temple worship and to express the hopes and fears of the ruling elite of Israel and Judah. Psalm 27 is identified as a psalm of King David and was probably written by a temple attendant. The son of Abraham, Isaac, is the first person in the Bible to speak of the "face of God" (Gen. 32:30, but Moses is reported to have spoken to God "face to face." (Ex. 33:11) In the psalms and the prophetic writings, the image refers to the concern or presence of God.
The letter of James says: "Be patient; do not lose heart, for the Lord's coming will be soon."
This letter is attributed to James, the brother of Jesus, who led the church in Jerusalem during the time of Paul's ministry, but its excellent Greek and awareness of 1 Peter would suggest the author was a Greek-speaking Jew, who lived near the end of the first century. The letter emphasizes the ethical commandments of the law of Moses and is closest in approach to the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. It contrasts with the writings of Paul, as it teaches that faith without works is dead.
Like Paul, however, the author of the letter attributed to James looks for the coming of the day of the Lord and the judgment of the peoples' of the earth. The church in Jerusalem expected that the Jewish uprising in 66 would bring this about, but the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple did not result in the end of history. It did, however, create the conditions in which Jewish faith was organized by rabbis into Judaism and Christian faith was organized by Greek-speaking bishops into Christianity.
Christians waiting for God's promises to be fulfilled are urged by the apostles to live exemplary lives. That would seem to be good advice even today.
Paul writes: "Let us put aside the deeds of darkness. Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ."
Paul counsels the Christians in Rome that salvation is near and so they are to put off debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy, and put on "the Lord Jesus Christ." Throughout his letters, Paul refers to "the Lord Jesus Christ," but the phrase does not appear in the gospels of the New Testament. Jesus is called Christ and Lord in the gospels, although God is called Lord more often, but never the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, in the Acts of the Apostles we find several uses of this phrase. (Acts 11:17, 15:26, 20:21, and 28:31) This seems to be language of the early church, which does not go back to the time of the ministry of Jesus.
However, this affirmation of faith reflects the sense of living "in Christ" and of being "born again" as a follower of Jesus. Paul says putting on the Lord Jesus Christ is like putting on armor, because there is no greater protection against the forces of darkness. Here is a truth that can only be tested in life. Enter into this faith and see for yourself what comes.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says: "Anyone who welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me, welcomes the One who sent me."
An argument among the disciples, as to which one of them is the greatest, leads Jesus to make this statement. The same teaching appears in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, although in the gospel of Matthew the disciples are not quarreling about their own greatness but merely ask, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" This difference is consistent with the more favorable treatment the disciples receive in the gospel of Matthew in comparison with the gospels of Mark and Luke.
In all three gospels, the teaching offers God's blessing on those who do the work of the church. It is not simply being nice to children that matters, but discerning the presence of God in each one. This is what is means to follow Jesus and to serve the One who sent him.
The letter attributed to James says: "Those who listen to the word of God but do not do what it says are like people who look at their faces in a mirror and, after looking at themselves, go away and immediately forget what they look like."
In verse 22 of this chapter we read, "be doers of the word, and not hearers only." God's blessing will come, the letter says, for those who "visit orphans and widows in their affliction" and keep themselves "unstained from the world." (James 1:27) The greatest sin may be hypocrisy, because it presents as good what is not unless it is lived as well as affirmed. James the brother of Jesus, to whom this letter is attributed, was known in the early church for his righteousness. Early Christian writings refer to him as "James the Just." The church in Jerusalem was feeding the widows and caring for the orphans out of the pool of funds collected from members in Jerusalem and later from Greek-speaking congregations established by Paul.
It is so easy to speak the word of God, to listen to it, and to admire it. Yet, the Jesus of the gospel of Matthew reminds us, "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." Faith, the Bible teaches, is a way of living.
Paul writes: "For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable."
In the eleventh chapter of his letter to the church in Rome, Paul struggles to explain why the Jews have not embraced Jesus as the Messiah. He concludes that their resistance to the truth is God's way of opening the church to Gentiles. In verse 28 Paul says: "As regards the gospel they are enemies of God, for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers." Because of his faith in God, Paul believes that the promise given to Abraham, to Moses, and to their descendants will be fulfilled.
After the church in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 along with the Jewish temple during the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule, Greek-speaking Christians began to see Jews who rejected Jesus as their enemies. The gospels were written after 70 and in varying degrees blame Jews for the death of Jesus. Paul wrote his letters before the gospels were written. But Paul would have been appalled by the spiteful remarks about "the Jews" placed in the mouth of Jesus by the author of the gospel of John, or Matthew 27:25 where the Jewish crowd appeals to Pilate for the crucifixion of Jesus and says that his blood will be on them and their children.
The good news is not that Christians are saved and Jews are damned, but that God's love is saving for all those who respond in faith. Even as not all those calling themselves Christians have lived in faith, neither have all those calling themselves Jews. But if, as Paul teaches, the ways of God are inscrutable, then who among us can sort out the saved from those who are not?
In the gospel of Luke we read that Jesus took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was changed. Then a cloud enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud saying: "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
The imagery of this story reminds the reader of Moses going up the mountain to receive the commandments of the law from God. Moses went alone, but came down from the mountain with a radiant face. (Exodus 34:29) Here, Jesus has three witnesses with him, and Moses and Elijah appear to them all. Moses represents the law (Torah) and Elijah the prophets. The cloud and the voice are also manifestations of God related to Moses and the covenant with ancient Israel, for the Israelites were led through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire during the night. Moreover, the Exodus account reports that God spoke to Moses in order to give him the law.
Now, however, God names a Son to represent him. This story in the first three gospels presents Jesus as the new law and the fulfillment of the prophets. Listen to him, the church preaches, and you will hear the word of God. The law and the prophets are now to be interpreted through him, through Paul's writings that are inspired by the call of Christ Jesus, and through the gospels that present the churches' understanding of the word of God revealed through Jesus.
Deliver the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor and you will be like a child of the Most High who will love you more than your own mother does.
Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, was originally written in Hebrew in the early part of the second century BCE. About 132 BCE, the prologue tells us, it was translated into Greek. The Greek text was included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, and thus was among the writings that Paul and the early Greek-speaking churches read as "scripture" and was included in the Greek and Latin Bibles of the church. Sirach was not, however, included in the Hebrew Bible after the end of the first century CE, when the rabbis closed the Hebrew canon. Therefore, the Protestant reformers did not include it in the Old Testament they translated into their own languages, because they used the canonized Hebrew Bible as the basis for their translations. This is why Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) does not appear in Protestant Bibles today, but is included in Roman Catholic Bibles.
Sirach stresses our moral obligations. The image used in this passage compares the love of God to that of a mother for her child, but we are also told the love of God is conditional. This "if-then" pattern is fundamental to Jewish scripture. If we would know the love of God, we must help the poor and oppressed obtain justice.
Speaking for the LORD, the prophet says: "Why do you complain, my people, saying, 'My way is hidden from the LORD, my cause is disregarded by God?' Do you not know? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the world, who does not tire or grow weary."
The author of Isaiah 40-55 is writing to the leaders of Judah who have been resettled to Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem in 576 BCE. But the Persians under Cyrus are about to conquer the Babylonians, and that will make it possible to restore Jerusalem and the temple. The prophet tells the people to trust in the God even though they do not understand why they have had to suffer so bitterly. No wonder then that Cyrus is praised in scripture as the "shepherd" of God. (Isaiah 44:28)
The author of Isaiah 40-55 refers to the creation of the world by God more often than any other writer included in the Old Testament. When history is inexplicable as it was in the time of Isaiah, one answer is to fall back on the power of God revealed by creation. Perhaps this is how we will understand God in the 21st century.
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus says to his disciples: "You know that in the world rulers lord it over their subjects and make their power felt. This is not to happen among you. No, anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant."
In the gospel of Mark the sons of Zebedee, James and John, have asked Jesus to sit at his right and left hand, when he comes in glory. This prompts Jesus to give his teaching about being a servant. The gospel of Luke does not mention the request by James and John, but merely prefaces the teaching with a comment that a dispute had arisen among the disciples as to who was the greatest. (Luke 22:24-27) The gospel of Matthew reports that the mother of James and John asked Jesus to favor her two sons. (Mt. 20:20-21) Consistently, the gospel of Matthew presents the disciples of Jesus in a more favorable light, because it concludes with the great commission that the risen Christi gives to the disciples to found the church. The earliest manuscripts of the gospel of Mark do not record any resurrection appearances, which suggests that the author thought Paul rather than the former disciples of Jesus (later apostles headquartered in Jerusalem) was the one chosen by God to lead the church.
Paul travels, risks his life, collects funds for the church in Jerusalem, and organizes churches in "the world" (the Roman Empire). The gospel of Mark implicitly supports his ministry and reminds the members of the Greek-speaking churches Paul founded that they are to serve rather than compete for privilege. What better way to do that than to tell a story about the ministry of Jesus in order to make the point. Did Jesus actually say what the three gospels report? He, or any reforming rabbi, might well have. The call to service rather than privilege is surely what the God of the Bible wants.
Paul, or one of his colleagues, writes to Timothy: "You have in you a spiritual gift, which was given to you. Do not neglect it."
Chapter four of this letter is concerned with false teachers, who forbid marriage and urge abstinence from foods that are not kosher under Jewish law. Paul teaches that all food may be eaten, if it is blessed by prayer and thanks is given to God. This letter cautions Timothy not to be misled by false myths, but to concentrate on the public reading of scripture, preaching and teaching.
What was "scripture" for Paul? The Bible as we know it did not yet exist. The gospels had not been written, and there was no "Old Testament." In the New Testament the word "scripture" refers to the readings from scrolls used in the synagogues, and among Greek-speaking Jews these readings were from the Septuagint—an interpretative translation into Greek of the Hebrew Torah, prophets and writings. The Septuagint was probably completed in Alexandria, Egypt around 200 BCE. The early churches organized by Paul adapted the forms of the synagogue to Christian ministry and worship.
The letter to Timothy says that Timothy's gift comes with the "laying on" of hands by the elders of the church. The Spirit is understood as a power that resides physically in the body and may be transferred and received. This act continues to be used within the life of the church today to confer leadership responsibility upon its leaders (priests, pastors, and elders), although it may be that many who now receive the "laying on" of hands do not conceive of the Spirit as literally being transferred from one person to another.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: "Anyone who leaves everything for my sake will receive much more and will inherit eternal life."
The gospel reports that Jesus told his disciples, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Mt. 19:24, Mk. 10:25, Lk. 18:25) The first three gospels all put this strange teaching on the lips of Jesus, and very likely this saying was remembered as part of the oral tradition of the early churches. If the statement first was recorded in the gospel of Mark, the other two gospels kept it unchanged in their editions of the good news. The gospel of Matthew even kept the phrase "kingdom of God" rather than using the phrase, "kingdom of heaven," that it otherwise uses.
The saying follows the story of a rich man who asks Jesus what to do to achieve eternal life. The man says he has kept the Ten Commandments (of the Jewish law), but Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. When the disciples ask with astonishment who can be saved, Jesus tells them anyone who leaves everything behind for his sake will be rewarded. The story promises all those who serve the church that they will find their reward in life eternal with God, if not in this life. It also urges those who are rich to give their wealth to the church, so it can help the poor.
May God fulfill every good purpose of yours by his power and complete all that you have been doing by faith.
Paul opens this letter with the words, "grace and peace," that he uses so often in his writings. Grace is a Greek word (charis) used in salutations, but peace is the familiar greeting in Hebrew (shalom). We can assume, therefore, that Paul is writing for a Greek-speaking congregation with Jewish members.
Paul speaks with such vehemence at the beginning of this letter of the judgment that will come on those who oppose the church at Thessalonica, that we must suppose these opponents were putting considerable pressure on the congregation. We read in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 17:1-9) that Paul's teaching in Thessalonica was received by God-fearing Gentiles, who attended the synagogue, as well as by some Jews. Acts relates that the leaders of the synagogue resented this divisive intrusion, and probably it is the synagogue in Thessalonica that is making things difficult for the Christians there.
The text for today affirms the hope that God will enable those with faith to complete the good work of the church. This should be the heart of every prayer.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance."
In the time of Jesus, Jews who collected taxes for the Romans were sinners. Their sin was doing the "dirty" work of the Gentile oppressors. Righteous Jews did not associate with tax collectors and other sinners, because they wanted to avoid being "polluted" by them. Moreover, Jews who wanted to remain pure did not eat with Gentiles or other sinners, such as tax collectors, because they believed this would defile them. The kinds of foods Jews ate and the way these foods had to be prepared kept Jews separate from non-Jews, and this was the way that most Jewish leaders wanted it.
The gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke all relate that Jesus called a tax collector to be one of his disciples, and that he ate with tax collectors and other sinners. In the gospels of Mark and Luke, the tax collector who becomes a disciple of Jesus is named Levi, but later in these gospels he is called Matthew. In the gospel of Matthew, the tax collector called to discipleship is already named Matthew. The point of these stories is clear. The ministry of Jesus concerns repentance. Therefore, Jesus reaches out to those who know they are not righteous. Jesus calls sinners to repent and seek the forgiveness of God.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: "Do to others as you would like them to do to you."
The gospel of Luke contains this same teaching (Lk. 6:31), but in the gospel of Matthew Jesus adds, "for this is the law and the prophets." Both Jews and Christians in the first century referred to "the law and the prophets" as "scripture." The letters of Paul and the gospels written after them did not become "scripture" for all Christians until the 4th century, when they were included in the canon of the Christian Bible. The gospel of Matthew emphasizes that the teachings of Jesus sum up the scriptures, because this gospel was written for a primarily Jewish church. The gospel of Luke does not identify the Golden Rule with the scripture of Israel, because it was written for a largely Gentile church.
In 40-10 BCE Hillel was the leader of the dominant school of Pharisees in Palestine. Once a Gentile came and said to Hillel, "I will convert, if you can teach me Judaism while standing on one foot." Hillel replied, rephrasing Leviticus 19:18, "What is hateful to you do not do to anyone else." When this same man went to Shammai, the leader of a school of Pharisees that interpreted the Jewish law more strictly, the man was physical pushed away. The conflict among Pharisees, between the followers of Hillel and the followers of Shannai, is reflected in the gospels of the New Testament. The sayings of Jesus are often consistent with what was taught by Pharisees who followed the teachings of Hillel, and thus would have been opposed by Pharisees who followed the teachings of Shammai.
When Elijah was discouraged, an angel of God touched him and said, "Get up and eat, or the journey will be too long for you." So he got up and ate and drank, and, strengthened by that food, he walked until he reached the mountain of God."
Elijah has won the battle with the priests of Baal on Mr. Carmel and had them killed. This infuriates Jezebel, the non-Israelite wife of king Ahab, and she vows to have Elijah killed. It is strange that the God who lights a fire on Mr. Carmel for Elijah now seems to allow Jezebel to pursue the prophet, and so it is not surprising that Elijah is discouraged. In the wilderness, however, an angel takes care of Elijah and leads him on a journey over forty days that brings him to Mt. Horeb, the mountain that the people of the northern kingdom of Israel revered as the place where Moses had received the law from God.
The journey of forty days through the wilderness led by an angel reminds us of the trek of the Israelites through the wilderness for forty years and also the forty days that Jesus spends in the wilderness before beginning his ministry in Galilee. Early Christians saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets, such as Elijah. The story of Jesus follows the pattern of these two Hebrew heroes. As God has blessed and guided Moses and Elijah, the church affirms, God also has blessed and guided Jesus.
Paul writes: "God is faithful and will not allow you to be tempted beyond your strength. But when you are tempted, God will give you the means to stand up to it and will show you a way forward."
Paul tells the Christians at Corinth that the Israelites tested God in the wilderness but failed the test given them by God, because they worshipped idols and indulged in immorality. We have to learn from their experience, Paul tells the Corinthians, as we face the tests of the end of the age. Paul teaches that the temptations of God are common to all people, but that God will be faithful to those who turn to him. We are not alone in our suffering and fear, the apostle says, for God is with us.
The good news of the gospel is not that we are free of temptation and suffering, but that we are not alone. The God who accepts death on the cross, as the Christ, is always with us. If we have faith, we will find that God is faithful. If we have love for one another and for our enemies, then we will know God's love.
In the gospel of Matthew, an angel says to Joseph: "Mary will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
In the gospel of Matthew Joseph, who is betrothed to Mary but has not yet married her, is told by an angel in a dream to accept Mary and her son, who has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. The gospel quotes a prophecy from Isaiah that "a virgin shall conceive and bear a son" whose name is to be Emmanuel (God with us). The gospel is quoting from the Greek translation of Isaiah (the Septuagint), because it uses the Greek word for virgin (which is used in the Greek text) rather than the word for young woman (which is in the original Hebrew text).
This difference shows up in Protestant Bibles, because the Old Testament is translated from the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah 7:14 in the Hebrew Bible refers to a "young woman" giving birth, but the quote in Matthew 1:23 uses the Greek text from the Septuagint where the word means "virgin." A miraculous birth was an important part of the story of a savior for the Greeks, and the gospel of Matthew was written in Greek for Jewish Christians, who were at home in Greek culture but also looking for the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy.
Jesus is the Greek (and Latin) name for the Hebrew name, Joshua, which means "savior" or "he will save." Among the Jews of Galilee and Jerusalem, Jesus in his own time would have been known by his Jewish name, Joshua (or Yeshua). In the gospel stories Jesus is the new Joshua, who will lead the people into the kingdom of heaven (kingdom of God in the gospels of Mark and Luke) like Joshua led the people of Israel from the wilderness into the promised land.
In the gospel of John, Jesus says: "Whoever listens to my words and believes in the One who sent me has passed from death to life."
In John 5 Jesus heals a lame man on the sabbath. The author explains that this is "why the Jews persecuted Jesus, because he did this on the sabbath." (John 5:16) When Jesus justifies his actions by asserting he is merely working on the sabbath as his Father is also working, the author of the gospel says: "This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God." (Jn. 5:18) The language in these verses is dangerous, because it pits Jesus against "the Jews" who oppose him and seek to kill him. It is as though Jesus isn't Jewish, and as though his followers aren't Jews. In fact, they are all Jews, so it isn't a matter of Jews scheming against Christians. This is about a conflict between Jews, who differ in their understanding of scripture.
The gospel of John presents the argument of a group of Greek-speaking Jewish Christians for their understanding of Jesus as the Messiah. The gospel was not only written to proclaim this faith, but also to condemn the synagogue that had expelled these Greek-speaking Jewish followers of Jesus. In the life of the church these passages from the gospel of John have often been read to justify anger and violence against the Jewish people. This anti-Jewish understanding of the gospel message is a great sin, which requires the repentance of every Christian.
In the gospel of John, Jesus says: "I am, the resurrection. Whoever believes in me shall live, even though they die. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die."
This statement appears in the middle of the story of the death and raising of Lazarus, a story that is only in the gospel of John. If Jesus had raised Lazarus from the tomb, surely the other three gospels would have reported the miracle. They do not, however, nor do they contain the statement by Jesus that he is the resurrection. These words attributed to Jesus come from the early church, but are presented by the gospel of John in a story about the ministry and teaching of Jesus. Through the gospel the church confesses that faith in Jesus leads to eternal life, because the resurrection of Jesus demonstrates his power over death.
The church today continues to proclaim eternal life through faith in Christ, but faith means more than affirming certain beliefs about Jesus. To "believe in" Jesus Christ means to trust in the God we know in Jesus. Faith is not merely assent to the beliefs of the church about Jesus. Trusting in God is a way of living, not merely a way of thinking. That is why the witness of the church is that "whoever lives and believes" in Jesus "shall never die." The New Testament proclaims that the kingdom of God transcends life and death. The Jesus of the gospels calls us to enter that kingdom by following his way of living faithfully.
Coming to his senses, the prodigal son said: "I will leave this place and go to my Father and say, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.'" But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.
The story of a son who leaves home and squanders his inheritance tears at our hearts, because every parent fears that a child may turn away and fall into a self-destructive cycle of behavior. Yet, the story of the prodigal son is not really about a father and his son, but about God and us. We are the children who have wandered off and squandered our inheritance. Look at how we treat one another and the earth! We are the prodigal children of God.
The New Testament proclaims that despite our sin God loves us, but we must turn to God to discover that love. We must realize that we have sinned and wasted our inheritance, if we are to open ourselves to the Source of love that can renew our lives. It is never too late, the story tells us, for Jesus Christ is the sign of God's forgiveness. God continues to love us, but we must awaken to our pride and self-righteousness if we are to discover that love. We must choose to go home to God.
The Lord says to his servant: "I have called you in righteousness. I will take you by the hand and shape you. I will make you a light to the nations."
The prophet writing these words near the end of the Babylonian captivity in the middle of the sixth century BCE is giving voice to an audacious faith. He affirms that God will restore Israel so that it might, through its justice, be an example to the other nations. The author of the gospel of Luke and the church he represents understand these words as referring to Jesus. Thus the gospel of Luke has Simeon, who like Isaiah is filled with the Spirit of God, proclaim that the child of Mary is the promised "light for revelation to the Gentiles." (Luke 2:32) In the life of this early Christian community "the nations" of Isaiah's prophecy are understood as "the Gentiles" of the Roman Empire. And Jesus is seen as the fulfillment of God's promise to send a righteous servant to release the oppressed from their suffering. (Luke 4:18-19 quoting Isaiah 61:1-2)
The gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles tell the story of the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy. The covenant of God with the people of Israel is being fulfilled through the church, as it spreads among Gentiles in the Roman Empire after being founded by Jewish followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. This unlikely twist in a story of astounding faith is the good news that Christians have to share.
See, your king is approaching, humble and riding on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.
In the gospels of Mark, Luke and John, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt of an ass, but in the gospel of Matthew he is seated on an ass and its colt. All four gospels take the image from Zechariah 9:9, but the gospel of Matthew wants to show that Jesus literally is the fulfillment of prophecy. And Zechariah 9:9 describes a king riding into Jerusalem "on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass." The second part of the phrase is not actually identifying a second animal, but is merely a poetic repetition. However, the author of the gospel of Matthew reads the text literally.
The differences in the way the New Testament authors present this reference to Zechariah 9:9 reveal that these authors interpreted scripture in the way that made sense to them. A literal interpretation of a text, of course, is also an interpretation. In this instance three of the four New Testament gospels reject a literal interpretation of Zechariah 9:9.
All the gospels see the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem as the beginning of a passion drama revealing Jesus as the true king of the Jews, and so they bring him into the city as a king would enter. It is impossible to say whether or not Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on the colt of an ass, and Paul says nothing about the life of Jesus that would confirm this story. But the account of Jesus riding into Jerusalem is clearly an essential part of the passion story told by the church in the New Testament gospels.
In the gospel of Luke, an angel says to Mary: "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus."
This wonderful story of Mary does not appear in any other gospel. The gospels of Mark and John do not contain birth stories, and the gospel of Matthew tells of an angel appearing to Joseph to explain the birth of Jesus to his betrothed. The two-part account, which the New Testament calls the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, identifies a number of women who follow Jesus during his ministry and also women who are leaders of the churches that Paul helps to organize. The Christian community that the author was addressing must have included women in leadership positions, and surely the beginning of the gospel of Luke has inspired many women to service in the church.
All life in the womb is miraculous, of course, and we should not take it for granted. The God who is said to create this special child is the source of our lives, and we, too, are special. The story of an extraordinary gift, in the birth of Jesus, is also a story implying that every birth is an extraordinary gift. All life that comes from the womb is a gift from God. To understand birth as simply the result of a sex act between a man and a woman is to misunderstand. We are the gift of God to the world, as Jesus was the gift of God to Mary.
Jeremiah said: "The word of the LORD has brought insult and derision upon me. And so I said to myself, 'I shall not think about God, I shall no longer speak in God's name.' But there seemed to be a burning fire in my heart, which I could not contain."
Jeremiah was a descendant of the priest Abiathar, who Solomon had banished from the temple. The prophecies of Jeremiah begin in 627 BCE and end sometime after 580 BCE. It is thought that Jeremiah was among the exiles of Jerusalem who were taken into Egypt after the Babylonians conquered the city in 586 BCE. The 20th chapter was dictated by Jeremiah to Baruch, his scribe, during the reign of Josiah, after Jeremiah had been beaten and imprisoned for prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem because of the idolatry of the Israelites. The Hebrew text of Jeremiah, from which the English version in the Protestant Bible is taken, differs from the Greek text (the Septuagint) both in content and order. Even more surprising, different editions of Jeremiah were discovered among the "Dead Sea Scrolls" at Qumran. This suggests that at least some of the scrolls of the Old Testament were read in alternative forms as late as the time of Jesus.
Jeremiah would like to forget about God, but his heart will not let him. The image of the presence of God as a burning fire is ancient, and we see it not only in the burning bush that Moses confronts but also in the tongues of fire that come upon the followers of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost. Anyone who has sat outside before a fire on a dark night will understand this image, and many who have prayed to God out of the desolation of sorrow or despair attest to experiencing the fire of God in their hearts.
Paul writes: "We should not try to please ourselves, but consider what is good for our neighbors and so build up community."
The community of the church is divided by conflict concerning the law of Moses and whether or how it should be enforced within the church. Paul argues that the law of Moses does not apply to the church, but in chapters 9-11 of this letter he asserts that God has not abandoned the Jews who have refused to accept Jesus as the Christ. Paul urges the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome to be considerate of one another. He says that Christ became a Jew to confirm to the Gentiles the promise in the psalms and prophetic writings of scripture. Paul sees the Roman Empire as part of God's divine plan, for it is Roman rule that has allowed him to move freely from city to city preaching the good news about Jesus Christ.
Paul prays that the church in Rome may "abound in hope." He sees in the conflicts within the church the possibility of a greater community of Jews and Gentiles through the love of God in Christ. But it depends on the members of the church to bring about this reconciliation and to create this redeemed community. Paul's encouragement is as relevant today as it was almost two millennia ago. Can we look out for our neighbors in order to build up the church? Can we put the good of the community above our own selfish desires?
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus prays: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Yet not as I will, but as you will."
The story of the disciples falling asleep in the garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus prays before he is arrested, is very familiar. The account in the gospel of Matthew follows closely the gospel of Mark, but changes "Abba, Father" to "My Father." Perhaps the author of the gospel of Matthew felt the Aramaic word "Abba," which we might today translate as "Daddy" or "Papa," was too familiar to be acceptable to his readers. In the account in the gospel of Luke, Jesus leaves his disciples only once to pray, not three times. Moreover, the gospel of Luke adds to the story that an angel appears to him, and that his sweat "became like great drops of blood." (Lk. 22:44) The gospel of John does not report this scene at all, but instead has Jesus instructing his disciples and praying confidently to God prior to his arrest.
Seeing these differences in the passion story reminds us that the authors are making choices, as they write, as to how they present the gospel story to their intended readers. They were not writing for us, but for different first century Christian communities. However, all the gospels present Jesus as submitting to the will of God. Like Jesus, we are called to pray in faith, "My Father, may your will be done."
The gospel of Matthew reports that upon the cross, Jesus cried out in a loud voice: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
The gospels of Mark and Matthew report that on the cross Jesus cried out the first words of Psalm 22. In the gospel of Luke the dying Jesus says, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" (Lk. 23:46, quoting Psalm 31:6). In the gospel of John the last words of Jesus are, "It is finished." Clearly, these are not different memories of the same event, but different conclusions to these four versions of the passion story. The words in the gospels of Mark and Matthew may seem despairing, until one reads the entire psalm from which they are taken, for it ends with an affirmation of faith. The last words of Jesus in these first two gospels may thus be understood as a continuation on the cross of the prayer of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.
The gospel of Luke edits these words out of the story's ending and adds a conversation between Jesus and one of the men condemned with him. The focus at the end is on the spirit of Jesus, a theme through the gospel of Luke. The Jesus of the gospel of John triumphantly submits to arrest and on the cross simply completes his work on earth, seemingly without any of the agony that afflicts the Jesus of the gospels of Mark and Matthew.
Because we do not know the Psalms well, the cry of anguish in the first two gospels does not remind us of the proclamation of faith at the end of Psalm 22. Therefore, we are more likely in telling the story of the crucifixion to recall the more confident language in the gospels of Luke and John.
The criminal crucified next to Jesus, said to him, "remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus answered him, "In truth I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise."
This conversation is only reported in the gospel of Luke. It is, however, the kind of comforting assurance that we want to hear. As we face death, we want to be told that we will immediately be with Jesus in paradise. Yet, it is only the gospel of Luke that offers this blessed assurance. If these were the actual words of Jesus, how could the other gospels have omitted them? Surely, this is the faith of the church, and what a powerful faith it is! The good news of the gospel of Luke is that God will not abandon us when we face death.
The criminal who is told that he will find himself in paradise after death with Jesus admits to having sinned, but he turns to Jesus and asks for forgiveness. This act reminds us of the story of the prodigal son in the gospel of Luke. The God of this gospel story always has compassion for those who repent.
The gospel of Matthew reports that at the grave, an angel said to the women: "Do not be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said he would."
In the gospel of Matthew, an angel tells Mary of Magdala (generally known as Mary Magdalene) and "the other Mary" who have come to the grave that Jesus has gone to Galilee and will meet them there. In the gospel of Mark, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, and Salome hear the same message from a young man in a white robe. (Mk. 16:1-8) The resurrection story is rarely read from the earliest version of the gospel of Mark, because in this account the women run away saying "nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." Moreover, the earliest manuscripts of the gospel of Mark do not record any resurrection appearances.
In the gospel of Luke, two men in dazzling clothes tell Maryof Magdala and Mary, the mother of James, and Joanna that Jesus has been raised. In this account, however, Jesus meets his disciples in Jerusalem and not in Galilee, as is promised in the gospel of Mark and recorded in the gospel of Matthew. (Lk. 24:36-49) In the gospel of John, Mary Magdalene comes alone to the tomb and finds the stone rolled away. She does not see an angel, a young man, or two men, but she does meet Jesus in a nearby garden. Later Jesus appears in Jerusalem to his disciples, rather than in Galilee. (Jn. 20:19-23)
Given these differences, it is obvious that the early church did not understand these four accounts as historical reports. Otherwise, when the church decided on the composition of the New Testament these four reports would have been reconciled into a single account of the facts. Each gospel ends with astory of the resurrection that affirms the faith of the Christian community for which it was written.
The gospel faith is that death is not the final word of life. Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus not to remember a miracle long ago, but to witness to their faith that not even death "can separate us from the love of God." (Rm. 8:39)
1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study † Copyright © 2000 by Robert Traer