Apocalypse now, and then.

Signpost for Sunday 17 Nov 2019:Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah. 12; 2 Thess 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19.

My grammar school history teacher had grey hair, glasses and immaculate handwriting. I’ve got the glasses, and I mention this because, this week’s reading from Luke looks like it’s all about the future, but in fact it’s actually a kind of history lesson.

The author of Luke is writing for people who lived about 85 AD, and who are struggling to make sense of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem that took place just fifteen years earlier in 70 AD. (They are also a harassed group of people, oppressed by mighty Rome.)

That terrible event was the culmination of the Roman-Jewish War that raged from 66-70 AD. Here’s Josephus version of what happened: The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims…one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze…With the cries on the hill were blended those of the multitude in the city below, and now many who were emaciated and tongue-tied from starvation, when they beheld the sanctuary on fire, gathered strength once more for lamentations and wailing…Yet more awful than the uproar were the sufferings.

The Roman-Jewish War started out as a rebellion spread across the country, but by 69 AD the Jewish rebels had been driven back into the fortress city of Jerusalem.

Trapped inside the city, the Jewish rebels and inhabitants argued about how they were going to get out of the mess they were in. Some of them wanted to cut a deal with the Romans, and cut their losses. The more fanatically religious Jewish rebels thought that if they could just hold on a bit longer, YHWH would intervene and zap the invaders.

Meanwhile, 69 AD wasn’t a good year for the Romans, either. Some historians call it the year of the four emperors.  After Nero committed suicide (in 68 AD), emperors Galba, Otho, and Vitellius came to power and fell again until, finally, Vespasian emerged as emperor in the same year. It was his son Titus who sacked the Temple so cruelly. Dad had enough to cope with back home so he ordered number one son to put an end to the irritating Jewish problem.

Well, that’s the history, now for the literature lesson. Whenever things got tough for the ancient Jews they told themselves stories in a genre of literature that we call apocalyptic. Basically the idea was to make everybody feel better about whatever dire situation they were in by telling or writing a fairy tale about the signs of a revenge and judgement that YHWH would wreak sometime in the future (e.g. Daniel 11:20, 25, 44; 4 Ezra 13:31; Revelation 6:12; 8:5; 11:13, 19; 16:18).

The author of Luke was obviously a pretty good apocalyptic writer, which is why it’s best not take him literally. After all, when you think about it, there is nothing original or at all specific about his predictions. Every age has its own false prophets, wars, natural catastrophes, etc. Look at what’s happening right now. I for one am very sure that the climate crisis is real, Trump is a false prophet and things look precarious, but I don’t believe that has anything to do with the second coming.

Maybe the best way to look at this week’s reading from Luke is to think about how it was originally intended to cheer people up. When things seem hopeless, use Yeshua as the model for how to behave towards others and carry on.

Paul

Heaven’s above! Well, maybe not.

Signpost for Sunday 10 Nov 2019: Hagg 1:15b–2:9; Ps 145:1-5,17-21 or Ps 98; 2 Thess 2:1-5,13-17; Luke 20:27-38.

I bet there are a whole lot of people who have lost a wife, husband or partner and married again or found someone new who would wonder how all that works out in heaven.

Perfectly natural to do so if you ask me. And yet, of course, the sadducees aren’t really wondering that at all, because they didn’t believe in any kind of after life, heaven resurrection or what have you (so Josephus tells us).

But let’s go with their question for a minute, because while the sadducees where out to trip up Yeshua, their question might lead to us being tripped up about this whole passage.

First off, no one is talking about heaven here. They are all talking about resurrection, a notion which had taken root in Jewish thinking during the time of exile around 200-300 BCE, and continued among a people who were now repressed by the Romans. Resurrection gave the Jewish people hope, it wasn’t and isn’t a Christian invention.

But let’s get back to why we might still be thinking this story does mention a kind of heaven. There it is in verse 36. Yeshua says people in the age of resurrection will be “like angels”. The King James version of our bible says such people will be “equal unto the angels”. But they are not angels. No harps or wings being handed out here. They will not die, is what Yeshua says. But they’ll have had to die first, of course, otherwise they can’t be resurrected.

Now we’re getting into another discussion completely, so I’ll stop there for now and return to this week’s reading and what I am guessing is the point that Luke and Yeshua want to make, and interestingly might make most sense for us in the 21stcentury: it’s verses 37-40.

The way I read these verses is that Yeshua is saying something like, “Listen, this whole what happens after I’m dead thing is a really a bit of a red herring. I’ve told you before, God is god of the living. (And if you don’t believe me, go back and read your Exodus.)”

I’ve been thinking about that statement all week, and it seems to be the most important point made in this passage – God is the God of the living.

So for me, it’s less important to think about what happens when we die, or whether there’s any kind of future life or not. I reckon the God of the living wants us to think more about how each one of us lives our life on this planet, at this time in history, today and tomorrow.

Paul

A bit of a Greek tragedy?

Signpost for Sunday 3 Nov 2019:Hab 1:1-4;2:1-4; Ps 119:137-144; 2 Thess 1:1-4,11-12; Luke 19:1-10

I think I’ve said before that I don’t like reading translations of novels and poetry because, something is always lost in translation. It can be subtle allusions or musical cadence. At worst it’s the meaning itself.

Since hardly any one these days speaks or reads classical Greek or Latin, the whole of the Bible comes to us in versions that may lose things in translation. We also have the luxury of choosing which translation we prefer.

For the sheer poetry of the scripture, I’m a big fan of the King James Version. It’s what I grew up with of course. A lot of people like The Message. My wife prefers the Good News Bible.

So does it matter which any of us prefer? Not really I suppose, but it can make a difference to how we understand what the authors of the Bible’s various books wrote.

Luke 19:1-10 is a perfect example. I have spent years reading and hearing this story written by the author of Luke. I’ve always thought that Zacchaeus is so surprised that Yeshua would ask to come to dinner with a tax collector it’s that fact that tips the balance, and leads to Yeshua declaring, “Today salvation has come to this house”(verse 9).

And that’s likely to be what lots of people think if they only read or hear this story in the NIV translation. Look at the NIV’s verse 8: But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

To me that reads like a miracle conversion story. But I don’t think it is. Because look at verse 8 in the King James version or the Jubilee Bible (2000) version:

“Then Zacchaeus stood and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.”

In the NIV version, Zacchaeus says he will do the right thing from now on. In the other versions, it seems to me that Zacchaeus is already doing the right thing. He’s already not the man people expect a tax collector to be.

And did we miss another thing because we only know an English version of this story? A joke even? Apparently the name Zacchaeusmeans righteous. Was Luke aiming to get a chuckle out of his audience by naming his tax collector Zacchaeus, or was he having the last laugh himself when it turns out that Zac is the best guy in town after all.

Paul

 

Honestly, now.

Signpost for Sunday 27 Oct 2019: Joel 2:23-32; Ps 65; 2 Tim 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14.

Here’s another story that only the author of Luke writes down. Two fellas turn up at the Temple and one goes straight in and worships. The other is afraid that he’s not the kind of person who is welcome in church.

I’m most interested in the tax collector straight away, aren’t you? That’s good writing for you.

Then look at what the Pharisee prays, or rather, who he lumps the tax collector in with. Maybe he’s a kind of thief. Maybe he’s a bit of a rogue, but who says he’s an adulterer (verse 11).? The tax collector certainly isn’t all of those things.

Some scholars suggest that the prayer that Yeshua says the Pharisee prays was actually a common prayer of thanksgiving at that time. I find that very sad.

But what is Yeshua getting at? Is it that the Pharisee is not praying as Yeshua taught his followers to pray (Luke 11:2-4)? I don’t know.

I think this story might be about how hard it is to be honest with ourselves. How it’s always tempting to justify how we live and behave. But if we pray at all, we don’t get marks for just praying. In fact, I don’t think we get marks for anything we do.

But I do think that when we find times to admit our own shortcomings, and admit our mistakes, that gives us a better perspective on who we are and how we should try to live.

And I think that’s what Yeshua spent time trying very hard to make people do: think about how they should try to live.

Paul

 

All stand for the judge.

Signpost for Sunday 20 Oct 2019: Jer 31:27-34; Ps 119:97-104; 2 Tim 3:14–4:5; Luke 18:1-8.

Here are some of my favourite TV programmes, past and present: The Good Wife, LA Law, Perry Mason, Silk, Judge John Deed, Rumpole of The Bailey, Kavanagh, QC. I’m a sucker for a courtroom drama. But I’m not sure I know what’s going on in the parable of the unjust judge.

It’s an unusual story that only the author of Luke writes. I suppose what struck me when I read it yet again this week is that it starts with Yeshua saying it’s about praying and not giving up on prayer because you don’t get an answer straight away (Luke 18:1). Then at the end of the parable Yeshua is talking about justice, and then he finishes off talking about faith (Luke 18:8).

I discovered that the widow wasn’t just annoying, the judge might well have been worried that if he didn’t make a judgement on her case, she might have ended up biffing him one.

John Petty says this: “The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates hupopiaze as “wear me out.”  This seems weak.  The word comes from the world of boxing and refers to striking someone under the eye.  ‘Give me a black eye’ is not only faithful to the Greek, but paints a rather startling and humorous picture of the poor widow battering the powerful judge.”

I can picture a very frustrated woman thumping the judge, but I can’t really believe the Roman judge wouldn’t have been surrounded by soldiers who’d have dragged her off pretty quickly.

But here’s the question Yeshua leaves everyone with: will God find faith on earth? I discovered Meda Stamper, a minister in the Presbyterian Church,  wondering if the real question is, where is faith to be found on earth?

She notes this list of the people Yeshua commends for having faith:

  • the centurion who believes Jesus will heal his slave
  • the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet
  • the friends of the paralytic who dug through the roof
  • the bleeding woman who touches Jesus’ clothes in the crowd and is healed;
  • the Samaritan leper, whose gratitude turns him back to Jesus where he falls at his feet in thanksgiving
  • the blind beggar later in Luke 18

She also notes that none of these people are church leaders or people certain of their own righteousness. They are outsiders, the unlovely, the unclean, the ones certain they’re not perfect.

Paul

 

Ps and Qs.

Signpost for Sunday 13 Oct 2019: Jer 29:1,4-7; Ps 66:1-12; 2 Tim 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19.

Ta. Cheers. Merci. Danke. Tak. Gracias. Shakar. Spasibo. Obrigado. Arigatō. Mihi. Efharisto. Xièxiè. Wherever you are, thanks for reading this week.

I don’t often say that, and really I should say it every week. But I know you’re there and you know I’m here. We are a bit like the nine lepers in this week’s story told by Luke. I am presuming they were all first century Jews, and let’s be honest Yeshua was very special but he wasn’t the only travelling healer around.

So the only person who was absolutely gobsmacked when he was healed was the tenth guy,  the Samaritan. And why would that be? Not because he was necessarily brought up better than the others and taught to writer his thank-you notes after his birthday presents arrived.

No, he was stunned that Yeshua, a Jew, went anywhere near him, leprosy or not. Most Jews at the time were racially prejudiced against Samaritans. They thought Samaritans were a bunch of half-breeds, because they’d intermarried with Assyrians among others. And they weren’t just half-breeds, they were and heretics, because they did not kow tow to the toffs in the Temple in Jerusalem.  In fact, the average Jew traveling from Galilee to Judea (Luke 17:11) would almost certainly have gone miles out of their way to make sure they didn’t even have to set foot in Samaria.

All of which slots nicely into place for the author of Luke to hammer home once more the point to Theophilus and his gentile members of the Way that Yeshua was no average Jew, and that those haughty Jews who had wanted to circumcise them were wrong.

But I think there might be something else to think about in this passage too. The thank-yous I started off with. I’ve often wondered if the sacrifice of thanksgiving that most Anglican and Episcopal churches refer to in the service every week is really much of a sacrifice. Especially when you hear the way a lot of congregations go about singing hymns.

Paul

P.S. By the way, it’s worth knowing that the original word used in this story that’s usually translated as leper is ‘tzaraath’, and it was used to describe all sorts of skin conditions – everything from pimples to psoriasis.

 

Not so pearly gates.

Signpost for Sunday 22 Sept 2019: Jer 32:1-3a,6-15; Ps 91:1-6,14-16; 1 Tim 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31.

Since it’s been a very long time since most people had any idea what it is, let alone when it takes place, I am assuming Michaelmas isn’t happening in most churches (at least not till Monday).

Having said that, is it just coincidence that Luke talks about angels this week (verse 22)? Not sure, but it’s certainly quite strange, because there’s no other mention in any other Jewish literature of angels transporting any body anywhere until the second century AD.

All of which may give us a clue that we shouldn’t assume Yeshua (or the author of Luke) is talking about heaven and hell in this story of Lazarus, the poor man whose wounds the dogs licked, and the rich man, who might well have stepped over Lazarus every time he went out of his front gate.

These days we often mistakenly think Hades is hell, when in fact it wasn’t even a place to begin with. Hades was the god of the underworld, and only over time did the name come eventually to be used to describe the home of the dead as well. At which time it was the home of all the dead.

So when Lazarus is taken to the bosom of Abraham, Luke’s pointing out to his gentile converts the difference between Greek culture and the new Way.

The rich dude in this story must have been particularly callous in life. Not only did he ignore Lazarus weeping sores all over his front path, but he appears to have known exactly who he was, therefore not just some deadbeat of a beggar at the gate. No, this member of the one percent implores Abraham to send Lazarus by name to cool his tongue with water.

It’s the rich man’s third and final request that Abraham send Lazarus to his father’s house as a warning, though that got me thinking. What about those five siblings? Are they already condemned just for being brothers and sisters of this rich, unpleasant dude? Or are they just you and me, who have the chance to decide who Yeshua was and how we deal with our decision?

Paul