Sitting at Jesus’ feet: Model Discipleship in Luke. Lectionary Reflections for Proper 11, Year C.

This week’s lessons are here.

A brief story from the gospel this week but one that has carried a great deal of freight in the History of Christianity. In recent decades, it’s been a particular focus of feminist interpretation and reflection. In the tradition, Martha and Mary have stood as ideal types for the active and contemplative life, or the contrast between social activism and single-minded attention on the love of God. It’s hard for us to read or hear this passage without projecting Mary and Martha on to our own experience, and ask our selves whether we are a “Mary” or a “Martha.” If we’re a “Martha,” should we stop and try to be more like “Mary?”

I’m reading this passage in light of an earlier incident in Luke’s gospel that caught my attention. After Jesus cast the demons out of the Gerasene demoniac, the villagers found him “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” (Lk 8:35)  In this case, the healed man begged Jesus to allow him to go with him, but Jesus told him to go home and tell people what God had done for him.

Like him, Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet. Jesus commends her behavior to Martha, declaring, “she has chosen the better part.” We don’t see either Mary or Martha following Jesus but it’s important that Martha is described performing “diakonia,” service, in our translation that was the “many tasks” that distracted her. In Acts 6, a similar dynamic can be seen. The twelve complain, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2). As a result, seven deacons were appointed to distribute food to the poor and widows. Martha is the deacon, Mary the servant of the word; but in our story, Martha has a voice, Mary remains silent (like other women in Luke and Acts), while Martha is silenced by the Lord (as Paul in Acts 8 silenced the slave girl).

Luke wants female disciples to be silent and sit at Jesus’ feet. He even tries to downplay the importance of their diakonia (service) as hosts, founders, maintainers of house churches in Acts. This story may partly be a projection of that reality and the tension that surrounded it from the Early Church back on to Jesus’ own ministry.

In the Gospel of John, Mary and Martha appear as the sisters of Lazarus. They are friends of Jesus. In John, Martha is not silenced. She makes one of the great Christological statements, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Do these different stories offer insight into the way Martha and Mary were understood in the first decades of Christianity? Do they provide evidence of Martha not just as a disciple but as a deacon (a minister of hospitality and the Eucharist) but also as a preacher of the Gospel? And did Luke try to suppress that tradition?

Reading the Good Samaritan in the Context of Luke’s Gospel: Lectionary Reflection on Proper 10, Year C

This week’s readings are here.

Working through the lectionary’s gospel readings this summer, I’ve been intrigued by the ways in which Luke interweaves various themes, ideas, even vocabulary, throughout the gospel (and even Acts). The many resonances with the whole of his work create rich resonances and invite new interpretations. Looking at particular texts from the wider perspective of both Luke and Acts helps us to see new things in old and familiar stories.

I would like to highlight several elements that I’m pondering this week as I work on my sermon for Sunday. First of all, Samaritans. Luke’s gospel includes three references to Samaritans; all of them take place in the central travel section (9:51-19:27). The first we’ve already seen, the Samaritan village that refused to welcome Jesus. The third takes place near the end of the journey, when Jesus heals ten lepers (17:11-19). Only one of them turns back, praises God, and thanks Jesus. Luke adds the comment, “And he was a Samaritan.” Is Luke making a comment about the inclusion of Samaritans within this new community? In the latter two instances, the actions (and faith) of Samaritans are contrasted with those of observant Jews.

The second intriguing item is that the word “inn” appears in only two contexts in Luke’s gospel–in the nativity story and here. Should that open up the possibility of a Christological interpretation of the parable; i.e., that one way of reading it is to see Jesus as the man who fell among thieves? An interesting article by Mike Graves (available here to seminary alumni) develops the Christological themes–both Jesus and the man were beaten, stripped, abandoned.

A third bit is the reference to Jericho. Jericho appears again at the very end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, when Jesus encounters Zacchaeus. And where Jesus “goes up to Jerusalem” (a phrase repeated throughout the travel narrative), the parable begins “a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”

And finally, Jesus says the Samaritan was moved with pity when he saw the man, using the same word Luke uses of Jesus in 7:13 of the widow who is about to bury her son, and of the father in the parable when he sees the prodigal son returning.

Living among the tombs: Lectionary Reflections for Proper 7, Year C

This week’s readings are here. My sermon from 2010 is here.

Late last night, a homeless man sleeping on Capitol Square was severely beaten. According to news reports, he suffered life-threatening injuries. I learned about this while I was studying and reflecting on the gospel story for Sunday–Jesus’ exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac. He too was homeless, without a house. In the ancient world that meant he was without family or property, a given identity, and a place from which to exercise his personal and communal rights and responsibilities, his moral obligations.

The possessed man is described in pitiable detail–he wore no clothes; he didn’t live in a house but in the tombs. He was kept under guard, bound with chains and shackles but when the demon overcame him, he would break his bonds and run into the wilderness. To twenty-first century readers, this description sounds like mental illness.

On one level, the story of this exorcism is very alien to us. Most of us don’t think we inhabit a world in which demons possess people or could be driven out and forced to possess a herd of pigs. But at the same time, this man’s description is not all that strange. We are accustomed to see people dressed in rags and tatters on the streets of our city. Sometimes they have mental illness that creates awkward moments for us when they begin speaking to us as we pass by. We would prefer that they be anywhere except on the busy sidewalks of downtown Madison.

There’s more to the story I heard today that I’m sure we will learn in the days to come–who the victim was, perhaps who attacked him and why. And I don’t want to imply in any way that the victim could be compared to the possessed man in the gospel story, except in this way: both were homeless and outcast from society.

Jesus does much more in this story than cast out a demon. He restores the man to society to his family. He is healed, saved, made whole. The text describes him clothed, of sound mind, and sitting at Jesus’ feet. The latter tells us he has become a disciple. He wants to follow Jesus but Jesus tells him that he has a different mission–to return to his home and declare what God has done for him.

Today, as I was thinking of homeless men and possessed men, and about living in tombs, I was reminded of another reference to tombs in the gospel–not the burial place of Jesus, but rather Mt. 23:27

For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth

In this verse and the discourse from which it comes Jesus is contrasting the outward appearance of righteousness with internal hypocrisy. My question this afternoon is: Who is living in the tombs? Is  it the homeless man, the demoniac, or is it us?

Bad Girls of the Bible–Well, No! Lectionary Reflections on Proper 6, Year C

This week’s readings are here. My sermon from 2010 on these texts is here.

In our readings this week, we encounter three women. One, Jezebel, is clearly understood to be evil. She has already encouraged her husband, King Ahab of Israel, to worship and promote Baal. Now she subverts justice and orchestrates the murder of  the owner of a vineyard simply because Ahab covets the property.

In the alternative reading from the Hebrew Bible, from the track we will be following this summer and fall, we hear the end of the story of David’s rape of Bathsheba and his murder of her husband and of Nathan’s prophetic judgment against David and his house.

And the gospel story is Luke’s account of Jesus’ anointing. An unnamed woman, a sinner, interrupts the dinner at Simon’s house, anoints Jesus’ feet with oil, and wipes them with her hair. After Jesus’ host Simon questions her actions, Jesus tells a parable that sheds light on what she has done. He concludes by saying, “Her sins are forgiven,” and tells her, “Go, your faith has saved you.”

The lectionary’s coupling of the David/Bathsheba story with the anointing presupposes us to imagine that the woman’s sin was sexual. That inclination is strengthened by the highly sexualized act of wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair. The tradition has named this woman Mary Magdalene (although Luke makes no such connection) and has also generally understood her to be a prostitute. But leaping to that conclusion is going much further than the text permits. There are lots of sins that aren’t sexual and we ought to remember that in 1st century Judaism, “sin” meant breaking Torah, which could have been any of the 613 commandments listed by the later rabbis.

There’s something even more curious in the text. The way the gospel writer describes her suggests that something else might be going on. As one commentator translates it, “a certain woman was in the city a sinner.” The word order seems to imply that she was regarded in the city as a sinner. That is to say, we cannot be certain that she is a sinner. All we know is that the city thinks she’s a sinner. This might help to explain Simon’s internal response to the woman’s actions. He wonders why Jesus doesn’t know that she’s a sinner. Her sins are or were not obvious. And the verb tenses suggest that whatever her sins might have been, she is no longer sinning; she has been forgiven already. Her actions in anointing Jesus are expressive of the her love and gratitude at having been forgiven of her sins.

Jesus said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” Simon saw a sinner; Jesus saw a forgiven and loving woman, a disciple. Is that what we see, a woman who, like the women Luke mentions in the first verses of chapter 8, women who followed Jesus alongside the twelve and the other disciples, women who ministered to him and the others out of their resources?


Seeing and hearing the Spirit: Lectionary Reflections for the Feast of Pentecost, 2013

This week’s readings are here.

On the Feast of Pentecost, our attention turns to the Holy Spirit, whose coming to the disciples we remember this day. Each of the three readings offers its own distinctive perspective on the Holy Spirit. With our focus on the drama of tongues of fire and the miraculous speaking in tongues, we tend to overlook the readings from Paul and John.

While Luke and John offer significantly different understandings of the Holy Spirit, there is one way in which they converge. In today’s gospel reading, we hear “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (Jn 14:25). Later Jesus will say, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (Jn 16:26).

We see that very thing happening in the Book of Acts, as the Holy Spirit repeatedly leads the disciples to make new discoveries about the Spirit’s power and about the meaning and extent of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. There are moments when we see the radical action of the Spirit, when Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch; when Peter baptizes Cornelius and his family, and in Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. We see the Spirit working both on a cosmic scale and on a personal level, as with Paul’s conversion. But we also see the Spirit working as Luke writes. When Peter quotes from the prophet Joel in today’s reading, there are two significant alterations from the original text, which reads:

Then afterwards
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Peter (or Luke) changes the introducton from “then afterwards” to “In the last days” providing an urgency, an eschatalogical focus to the events of the day. Second, where the verses in Joel end with “I will pour out my spirit;” Peter (or Luke) adds “and they shall prophesy.”

There is a significant interpretation and adaptation of the passage from Joel to fit this new context. It’s evidence of early Christians re-reading and appropriating for new uses the familiar texts of the Hebrew Bible. It’s also evidence of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to, as Jesus puts it in John, “guide you into all truth.”

There’s a danger here, of course. There’s a tendency among many (progressive) Christians to appeal to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit (“The Spirit is doing a new thing”) whenever they seek to introduce innovation in doctrine or practice. The lesson in Acts (and John) is that the Holy Spirit can’t be controlled: “The Spirit blows where it wills” (Jn 3:8). The Holy Spirit may certainly be doing a new thing, but that new thing may not be something we are comfortable with, just as many of the disciples weren’t comfortable with Peter’s actions regarding Cornelius. I’ve often thought that it’s best to declare the Holy Spirit’s working only from the benefit of hindsight, when we can look back on events in which participants couldn’t necessarily see clearly, but were certain they were heeding the Spirit’s call.

Paul offers us a glimpse of an appropriate caution. In Romans 8, there’s a sense that the Spirit sometimes speaks on our behalf, or speaks with us; and that when it does so, we are incorporated in Christ (a spirit of adoption making us children of God and joint heirs with Christ). At first glance that might seem to lead to an even more self-interested understanding of the Holy Spirit. But Paul adds, ‘if in fact we suffer with him.” So he brings it back to the cross, to power made perfect in weakness.



The New Jerusalem: Lectionary reflections for 5 Easter, Year C.

We’ve been reading from the Book of Revelation during this season of Easter. This is the only sustained engagement of the lectionary with the last book in the New Testament. That’s a shame, I suppose, because the richness of the other readings and the difficulties inherent in interpreting and preaching Revelation divert our attention. Looking back through my sermon files, it’s hardly a coincidence that my sermons in the Easter season rarely deal substantively with Revelation before the Fifth Sunday of Easter. There’s another reason for the sudden appearance of Revelation in my preaching in the Fifth and Sixth Sundays of Easter. It’s because, the lectionary readings for those weeks introduce John’s vision of the New Jerusalem.

As a reminder, on earlier Sundays we heard from the very beginning of the book (Rev. 1:4-8) and two different visions of heavenly worship: Rev. 5:11-14 and Rev. 7:9-17. Taken together, these readings along with those for the sixth and seventh Sundays of Easter do little to provide a full introduction to this complex, important, and enigmatic work. And I can’t do that in a blog post, either. Barbara Rossing’s commentaries on Working Preacher offer some introduction and her books also provide understandings of Revelation that go beyond the sensationalistic end-time prophecies of Hal Lindsey and Left Behind.

I spent a good bit of time during my academic career both as a scholar and a teacher, thinking about apocalyptic literature and the apocalyptic worldview. As a preacher and pastor, I have been especially interested in the contrasting images of human community and urban life presented in Revelation. There are two cities described in the book. One is the city John sees coming down from heaven, the New Jerusalem. We only catch a glimpse of it in this week’s reading but God, speaking for the first time in the book since its opening verses, has this to say:

“See, the home of God is with mortals.

He will dwell with them as their God;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

He will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

A fuller description of the New Jerusalem is provided in later in chapter 21 in 22 (excerpts from which are the reading for next Sunday). The key feature highlighted by the lectionary is the absence of a space set apart for God: “I saw no temple in the city; for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb.”

The New Jerusalem is the second of two cities in Revelation. The other is Rome. We see its fullest description in Rev. 17 when John sees a vision of a whore clothed in purple and scarlet, with the inscription “Babylon the Great, Mother of whores.” She is seated on seven mountains, a clear reference to the seven hills of Rome. Revelation is a text that seeks to instruct its readers in the evils of Rome and in its eternal and totalistic enmity toward the Christian faith. John’s readers were meant to receive assurance that their suffering would be rewarded and that at the end God would prevail.

The vision of a city filled with the divine presence and filled as well with people from all the nations of the world joined in their worship of God redeems the overwhelming biblical understanding of the city as evil, from Genesis, where it is said that Cain founded the first city although through to Revelation itself. The New Jerusalem though is a redeemed and re-created city, inhabited by God and mortals, a community where there is no religious, social, or ethnic difference.

We have all sorts of ideas about ideal human community. In the twenty-first century, we might think of the nuclear family as the model for human community and many of us think of the church as “family” as well. I would guess that few of us would imagine a city as an ideal human community. Cities are dirty, noisy, full of crime. But cities are also redemptive and places where God’s grace is present. They might also be places where God is present everywhere and not just within the boundaries of the buildings or boxes within which we try to confine God.

Blinded by the Light: Lectionary Reflections for 3 Easter, Year C

This week’s reading from Acts is the story of Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-6). It’s a story that has come to define Christian experience especially in Evangelical Christianity. It’s not just the importance of conversion but the importance of a dramatic conversion, a complete reversal. John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” describes it in one way, “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” In Evangelicalism, even that can’t describe how dramatic conversion is expected to be, a turnaround from a dissipate life to a life in Christ.

Luke describes Paul’s experience in these terms. There are two versions in Acts, the one in chapter 9 and also a version put in Paul’s mouth in Acts 22:3-16. It is from the former account that the interesting details come: the road to Damascus, the blindness.

Interestingly, Paul also gives accounts of his story. One of the most important is in Galatians 1. There, Paul offers a different account of what happens after the encounter than that given by Luke. More importantly perhaps, he also uses different imagery to understand his experience. For Paul, it’s not a conversion but a call:

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles (Galatians 1:15-16)

Paul uses language that draws on call narratives of Hebrew prophets. Compare Jeremiah 1:5:

‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;

Paul’s experience as constructed by Luke has shaped Christianity as well as popular culture. Christians have sought to understand and construct their experience to conform to the model of a dramatic conversion and if they’ve never experienced Christ in that way, they wonder whether their faith is truly authentic. And if they’ve never lived a dissolute life, if they’ve been raised in Christianity and consistently attended services, it’s pretty hard to have an evil past from which to convert.

Conversion is real for many people, but it’s not the only, nor even the normative category for thinking about the Christian life. If Paul understood what happened to him as God calling him in a new direction, so can we. There are times when Paul looks back on his past and sees evil but he can also boast about who he was:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil 3:4-6)

This week’s reading, and Paul’s experience, invite us to think about how we understand our own lives in Christ and to explore imagery that helps us name that experience and invites us into deeper relationship with the One who knows us and calls us by name.

(I’ve previously reflected on Paul’s conversion here).