Thursday, May 31, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: 2 Kings 4-5 and Luke 7

2 Kings 4 – The widow of one of the company of prophets comes to Elisha and tells him that a creditor is trying to take her two children in repayment of a debt her husband owed. Elisha asks her what she has in her house of value, but all she has is a jar of oil. Elisha tells her to get as many vessels as she can lay her hands on and start pouring oil into them behind closed doors.  She does this.  As the children bring her the vessels, she keeps pouring, and the oil does not give out until all the vessels are full, enough to pay off the debt.
In Shumen, Elisha passes the home of a wealthy woman who invites him to have a meal. She wants her husband to make a small room for him up on their roof to stay in when he is there because he is a man of God.  They do it. 

Once when Elisha is there he sends his servant Gehazi to ask her what he might do for her in return.  Through Gehazi, Elisha learns that she has no son. Elisha calls her again and tells her she will have a son. The child is born and grows a little, but then he gets sick and dies.  She takes him and lays him on Elisha’s bed and closes the door.  Then she goes to get Elisha at Mount Carmel.  When Elisha sees her coming, he sends Gehazi to meet her.  She doesn’t tell him the problem but when she gets to Elisha, she “[catches] hold of his feet.  Gehazi approache[s] to push her away.  But the man of God [says], ‘Let her alone, for she is in bitter distress; the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me’” (4:27). She tells him about her son.  Elisha tries to send Gehazi with his staff—to lay it on the face of the child, but the woman will not leave without Elisha.

He goes with her. Gehazi goes ahead and lays the staff on the child’s face, but cannot awaken him.  Elisha comes then, goes in and closes the door “on the two of them, and prayed to the Lord.  Then he got up on the bed and lay upon the child, putting his mouth upon his mouth, his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands; and while he lay bent over him, the flesh of the child became warm” (4:33-34). He gets up once and then returns to the child, bending over him.  The child sneezes seven times and opens his eyes.  The woman is summoned to come and take him—she falls at his feet.
Elisha returns to Gilgal in a time of famine.  He orders his servant to make some stew for the company of prophets.  One goes out and gets wild gourds and adds them to the stew without knowing what they are.  When they try the stew it is terrible—“there is death in the pot!” (4:40). Elisha orders some flour thrown in and the stew served—it was good.
A man comes from Baal-shalishah bringing first fruits to Elisha—20 loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain.  Elisha orders it given to the people, 100 of them.  His servant thinks it is not enough, but Elisha orders it distributed. “’They shall eat and have some left’” (4:43). And so it was.  These are all-important stories for understanding the power and ministry of Jesus whose miracles parallel these so closely. They must have resonated deeply with the people who knew these stories of Elisha so well.

2 Kings 5 – The story of Naaman, the victorious and highly respected army commander of the Syrians. He also is a victim of leprosy. Through a young Israelite girl who was taken captive in a raid on Israel by Syria and given to Naaman’s wife as a servant, Naaman learns that there is a prophet in Samaria who can cure leprosy.  Naaman goes to him and is told to wash seven times in the Jordan to be cured. Samaria must be a vassal nation to Syria at this time to imagine they would be willing to help an army commander who has conquered them and taken their children captive.

At first Naaman is put off because he expects the cure to be a little flashier and more in accordance with his own pre-conceived notions of how such cures are effected.  But he is also put off by the inference that there is something better about the Jordan than about the rivers of his own country.  So he starts to leave, but his servants prevail upon him to try it and to his amazement, he is cured.  He is compelled to acknowledge that “there is no god but the God of Israel” (5:15).

He wants to give Elisha a gift, but Elisha will not accept one. Naaman says, “if you won’t accept my gift, then let me have two mule-loads of earth to take home with me, because from now on I will not offer sacrifices or burnt offerings to any god except the Lord” (5:17). According to the prevailing “henotheistic” beliefs of the day, his sacrifices to Yahweh would need to occur on Israeli soil (Isaac Asimov, 360).

Luke 7 - Jesus enters Capernaum.  A Roman centurion has a slave he values who is close to death; so he sends some Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to come and heal the slave. Jesus is on his way when the centurion sends other friends to tell him he need not actually come into his house—he knows Jesus is a pious Jew and may have scruples against entering the home of a non-Jew and especially to attend to a person who might be dying.  So he communicates these wonderful words to Jesus through his friends: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you.  But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.  For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. . .” (7:6-8).

I have read this many times, and it has had a great importance to me over the years; but this time reading through, it was the first time I noticed that the centurion never meets Jesus personally.  They communicate through the elders first and then through other friends.  Not only does the centurion know the extent of Jesus’ power over sin and death, but he knows it is not a power contingent upon physical presence in any way, but simply upon faith.  I first appreciated this story when I was out of communion with the church but working to restore it.  I went to Mass but was not supposed to receive communion.  I never felt that to be a problem even though I longed to be back in full communion; for the words spoken just before receiving the Eucharist were the centurion’s words of faith: “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.  I knew that I didn’t need to receive him in the bread—though I wanted the bread that was Christ.  I knew I had been feeding on his presence for years before I was formally permitted to receive him in the sacrament.  And I knew it for the same reason the centurion knew he did not need to meet the man Jesus or actually bring him under his roof—he had faith in His Spirit and was touched by him even though he never saw him.

Jesus next sees a dead man being carried out of town, the only son of a widow (7:12).  How Jesus knows this is not revealed.  But Jesus “has compassion for her” and raises her son from the dead, terrifying all who see it. This is the second miracle in a row done as a result of “intercession” of a sort.  In the one just before, the centurion asks Jesus to cure his servant.  Here Jesus is responding to the inward need of the woman.  Could this be some kind of secret reference to his own mother, who will soon lose her only son, and whose mother’s heart has been prayed to over the millennia by those who know Jesus’ soft spot for it?
Messengers come from John the Baptist asking if he is the one to come.  John is in jail.  Jesus tells the men to tell John what they have seen—the blind are given sight, the lame, their ability to walk back; the deaf, their hearing; the poor, good news of their coming reward. Jesus comes in the need we have.  He heals what keeps us from being whole.

Jesus asks the crowds what it is they seek for in John. I don’t feel like I understand this passage well at all, down through 27. John is the greatest “among those born of women,” but even the “least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (7:28). Those who have responded to John’s call for repentance and renewal (even those who were tax collectors) are in a better place to receive Jesus.  But the Pharisees and “the lawyers” who did not have “rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (7:30). People criticize whatever they see—they criticize John for his austerity; they criticize Jesus for his lack of austerity.

There follows here maybe my favorite story—the story of Jesus and the woman of ill repute.  He is in the house of a Pharisee who had asked him to eat with him.  A woman comes in bearing a jar of ointment; she stands behind him and starts to bathe his feet in her tears and drying them with her hair, kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.  The Pharisee thinks if he really is a prophet, he should be able to see what kind of woman she really is—a woman of ill repute in the city.  But Jesus tells him (using his first name, Simon) the story of the two debtors, the one who owed 50 denarii and the other who owed 500.  If they were both let off their debt, who would love the creditor more? Like the debtor with the larger debt, the woman shows more love to him because she has been forgiven more.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: 2 Kings 3 and Luke 6:27-49

2 Kings 3 – Joram [or Jehoram in some versions], Ahab’s son, becomes king in Samaria and reigns 12 years [Jerusalem Bible notes says it was really only eight years—849 to 842 BC]. He did what was evil “though not like his father and mother, for he removed the pillar of Baal that his father had made” (3:2). Still, he “clung to the sin of Jeroboam” (3:3). It doesn’t say how – golden calves? high places?  

King Mesha of Moab, a sheep breeder, used to provide Ahab with lambs and wool, but now he rebels. Jerusalem Bible notes indicates that a stele, discovered at Dibon in 1868, 12 miles east of the Dead Sea and four miles north of the Arnon River, mentions this Moabite “war of liberation” but omits this episode. Joram secures the aid of Jehoshaphat of Judah and the king of Edom in this effort to subdue the Moabites.  Jehoshaphat says to him, “I am with you, my people are your people, my horses are your horses” (3:7).

They go by way of Edom, south and east of the Dead Sea. The king of Edom is an ally. Lacking water for seven days, they fear defeat at the hand of Moab, so they consult Elisha. Elisha tries to put Joram off by saying “What have I to do with you? Go to your father’s prophets or to your mother’s” (3:13). But Elisha finally yields to him because of his respect for Jehoshaphat (3:14).

Elisha asks for a musician, and while the musician plays, “the power of the Lord came on him” (3:15). He prophesies that the wadi would be filled with water (without wind or rain) and that the Lord will hand Moab over to them.  The next morning they see water flowing from the direction of Edom until it fills the country.  The Moabites prepare to fight, but see the reflection of the water “as red as blood” (3:22). They think it is because the three kings have fought amongst themselves, and killed one another, so the Moabites go against them.  When they arrive they are attacked and defeated. 

In a desperate attempt to halt the attack, the King of Moab offers up his first-born son as a burnt offering on the wall to the god of the Moabites [Chemosh]. Interesting differences arise in the translations at this point. Some say this act brought “great wrath” down on the Israelites; others say “great terror” struck them. The result is the same. The attackers halt their invasion. “[T]hey drew back from the city and returned to their own country” (3:27).

The Jerusalem Bible notes that some interpreters think that there is reference here to the fury of Chemosh, god of the Moabites; but that is problematic.  It is basically accepting that the Moabite god responded to the sacrifice of the king’s son by helping them fend off the Israelites. Isaac Asimov (359) indicates that most cultures at this time were “henotheistic,” that is they believed in the idea that each territory had its own powerful god to protect it; so that even if Israelites were not worshippers of Chemosh, they might have believed that the sacrifice to him in his own territory would likely bring that god into the fray in a powerful way. But you would think this an unlikely passage in the Old Testament – unless the firm monotheism of later generations of Jewish chroniclers was not yet firmly in place.

There are a multitude of complicated historical and theological questions related to this event, which you may read about in the following article posted on the internet:

Luke 6:27-49 - The teaching goes on to speak of loving our enemies (6:27); blessing those who curse you (6:28) and praying for those who mistreat you.

Jesus speaks of those who hear his words and build on them as people who set their lives on a foundation of rock—when floods arise, the rivers will burst against them, but they will not be shaken (6:48). None of these teachings are in Mark.

The rewards promised to those who would be children of the Most High are not the rewards the world has to give like power, wealth, praise, status, but the rewards only God can give like deep joy, integrity, dignity, peace of mind and heart.

Jesus tells the people that now they must learn to see the splinters in their own eyes before they can see to correct the defects in others’ eyes.  There is an implied promise that when they are “trained” they will be able to see in a discerning way.  One knows what a person is by the “fruit” each produces.  We are to be doers of the word, not sayers only.  “The one who listens and does not act is like a person who built a house on the ground without a foundation.  When the river burst against it, it collapsed at once and was completely destroyed” (6:49). 

It is interesting in Luke that he focuses so intently on how important “the fruits” are in a person’s life—what it is they DO.  In Mark there is so little emphasis on this; it is remarkable.  Maybe this is one of the things Luke felt was missing from Mark.  Again Mark is really more Pauline in focusing on the ”gnosis” the gospel gives us and on the inner transformation it involves—Paul also talks about fruits, about behavior; but I think his emphasis is on the change in “being” that occurs in the person of faith, not primarily on the change in behavior.

Reflection:  For Luke, Jesus holds out for us a new way of life, a way of life built on sincerity of faith and obedience to God.  These are not just idealistic precepts or a way of life impossible for us to reach.  But we must learn to see in the way God meant for us to see and overcome the impediments to faithful action.  It is not what we feel or think that mark us as children of the Most High, but real differences in our lives.  The fruit, whether of deeds or words or work must grow from the tree of life Christ brings to fruition in us.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: 2 Kings 2 and Luke 6:1-26

2 Kings 2 – The Lord is “about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind” (2:1). They are on their way from Gilgal. Elijah tells Elisha to wait for him, that he has been told to go to Bethel, but Elisha refuses to leave him.  In Bethel, a group of prophets comes out and tells Elisha that Elijah will be taken up.  Elisha says he knows, that they should keep silent.


They go on in the same pattern to Jericho and there they again meet prophets who say the same thing.  Then they go on to the Jordan.  There Elijah strikes the water and it parts so they can walk through.  On the other side, Elijah asks Elisha what he can do for him before he is taken up.  Elisha asks for a “double share of your spirit” (2:9). Elijah tells him that if he sees him (Elijah) taken up, his request will be granted, but if not, it will not (2:10).


As they walk along, “a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven” (2:11). Elisha watches the whole time, and when he can no longer see Elijah, he tears his clothes. He picks up Elijah’s mantel and strikes the water with it, and again it parts the waters so he can pass through.

A company of prophets in Jericho see him and greet him. They volunteer to look for Elijah, but Elisha says no.  They urge him “until he was ashamed” (2:17), and he finally agrees to let them try.  But they search for three days and do not find him.
Elisha makes the water of Jericho wholesome (2:22). In Bethel, boys make fun of his bald head, and he curses them in the Lord’s name.  He has a weak side – I think he’s a little insecure in his status. Two she-bears come out and maul 42 of the boys.  He returns by Mt. Carmel to Samaria.

Luke 6:1-26 - Here we see and hear Jesus trying to clarify the Sabbath obligation.  He and his disciples pick and eat corn from a field and incur the displeasure of the Pharisees who claim this is a violation of the Sabbath.  He angers them even more by claiming that the “Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (6:5) and presumably can rule upon how it should be observed.

The account here differs from Mark only by leaving out the principle enunciated there, that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  When he also heals a man on the Sabbath, the Pharisees again are upset to the point where they continue to plot against Jesus. Again, just to point out the subtle differences between this account and Mark’s, here the allusion to Jesus’ “anger” (Mark 3:5) is omitted - the “fury” here (6:11) is attributed to the Pharisees and scribes, not to Jesus.
Following this Jesus goes to a quiet place to pray and prays all night.  When he returns, he picks the twelve who will be his apostles: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James (son of Alphaeus), Simon Zealot, Judas (son of James) and Judas Iscariot. 

There follows Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, here called sermon on the plain.  He comes down from the mountain and “[stands] on a level place” with a great crowd that has come from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon to hear him and be healed

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on 
     account of the Son of Man. 
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their
     ancestors did to the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false 
    prophets (6:20-26).

Those who lack now will receive a reward in heaven, but the rich have their reward now. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: 2 Kings 1 and Luke 5

Introduction to 2 Kings: The original scrolls of what we call 1 and 2 Kings did not make any division. Together, they tell the story of the kingdom’s division after Solomon’s death, around 931 BC, and the series of kings who ruled over the northern kingdom (Israel) and the southern kingdom (Judah). 2 Kings picks up the story around 853 BC with the rule of Ahaziah in the north and the continued rule of Jehoshaphat in the south. It will take us to the final conquest of Judah by the Neo-Babylonians (or Chaldeans) in 586 BC.

2 Kings 1 – Moab rebels against the northern kingdom of Israel. Moab was directly east of the Dead Sea in what is now Jordan. The people of Moab were polytheistic, and Chemosh was their main god. Apparently Solomon [builder of the Jerusalem Temple and gifted with great wisdom] had constructed a “high place” near Jerusalem in honor of Chemosh – probably to satisfy one of his many [estimate 700] wives. Associated with Chemosh was the consort goddess Ashtar. Human sacrifice was part of the religion.


Ahab’s son Ahaziah is now king of the northern kingdom. He is injured in a fall from the balcony of his palace’s roof, and he wants his men to consult Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, a Philistine town just west of Jerusalem, if he will recover or not.


An angel comes to Elijah and tells him he should go and meet the men and ask them “Is there no God is Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub. . .?” (1:3) and to tell Ahaziah that he will NOT recover.  They go back and tell him. Ahaziah knows it’s Elijah when they describe him.  He sends men out to talk to him, but the first two contingents end up consumed by fire called down on them.  The third contingent of fifty begs for Elijah’s favor and Elijah finally goes back with them to see the king.  He tells him he will not recover and he dies.  Ahaziah’s brother Joram [also called Jehoram] succeeds as king because Ahaziah has no son.

Luke 5 - Simon, James and John (the sons of Zebedee) are cleaning their nets after having been out fishing most of the night.  It has been a poor outing and they have little to show for their work.  But Jesus tells them to put out again and go to a certain place.  There they find the fish and haul in several loads, almost enough to swamp their boats.  Jesus does this as a way of demonstrating to them that he will make the harvest of men plentiful.  He asks them to follow him and become fishers of men and they go without looking back. 

This account expands somewhat what Mark tells us in 1:16 of his gospel. Jesus demonstrates here with fish what he knows will happen when he sends his disciples out to catch people in the net of faith.  Another difference is that before Peter follows him here, we hear him confess his unworthiness in the manner of Isaiah.

Jesus continues his ministry to the unclean and the sick by his cleansing of the leper. This too is taken from Mark (1:40). In both accounts the healed man is told not to tell, but here it is not recounted that he disobeys.

In Luke’s account of the man brought down through the roof, Luke makes sure to place Pharisees and teachers in the house where Jesus is; they just appear in Mark. They have come from everywhere.  The entire story is repeated here much as it is in Mark. The interesting thing to me is the fact that Jesus seems to equate the healing of disease with the forgiveness of sins.  We are kept in our blindness and our deafness and lameness by our sins.  This is the ultimate disability Jesus came to deal with.

Then comes the call of Levi, the tax collector, and the banquet in Levi’s home where Jesus mixes with the crowd of tax collectors, those in need of the physician God has sent, and the comment on fasting—that the guests will not fast until the bridegroom is taken away from them. Then follows the parable of the new wine in old wineskins, just as in Mark.

What is happening with Jesus’ ministry is a new thing.  It cannot be made to fit the old “pair of pants” or the “old wine.”  The creation of something new requires the introduction of things, which are totally new to contain them.  

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: 1 Kings 22 and Luke 4:31-44

1 Kings 22 - Israel and Syria (Aram) continue at war. Jehoshaphat of Judah, Asa’s son and another good king, comes to confer with Ahab; he wants their help in reclaiming Ramoth-gilead from the Syrians. JB note says this town was captured by the Syrians (same as Aramaeans) during or before the reign of David and had not been handed back in the Treaty of Aphek (chapter 20).

Jehoshaphat agrees, but wants Ahab first to consult the Lord.  Ahab gathers 400 of the Lord’s prophets together and asks them what the Lord thinks. They all tell him to go ahead and attack.  Jehoshaphat, wanting to be very sure it is God’s will, asks if there is not yet another prophet in Israel they should consult. Ahab says there is - there is Micaiah, son of Imlah – but he adds, “but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster” (22:8). They call on him anyway.
Everyone gets together at the threshing floor at the entrance gate to Samaria, and the prophets there are all doing their thing.  Another false prophet, Zedekiah, assures Ahab and Jehoshaphat that they will certainly destroy the Arameans.

The men who get Micaiah – the only prophet who really knows God’s truth - tell him that everyone is predicting success and that he should too; Micaiah says he will rely on the Lord alone.  At first he does tell the king the thing he knows the king wants to hear; but Ahab knows him too well. He says to him, “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?” (22:16) Another instance where Ahab kind of surprises me. He’s a king who may not always DO what is right, but he has a complex mind. He wants to KNOW what the Lord really thinks. Ahab has a frustrating mix of insight and passiveness when it comes to leading his people. So Micaiah lays it on him: “I can see the army of Israel scattered over the hills like sheep without a shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These men have no leader; let them go home in peace’” (22:17). When he hears this, Ahab turns to Jehoshaphat and says that this is more like the Micaiah he knows.

Micaiah elaborates: “I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him. . .And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’” (22:20) The angels of the heavenly court argue back and forth until a spirit appears who says he will make Ahab go forth to the battle by putting lying words into the mouths of his prophets. Zedekiah slaps Micaiah for saying this and says, “Since when did the Lord’s spirit leave me and speak to you?” (22:25) Micaiah tells him he will find out one day when he goes into a back room to hide. 

Ahab orders Micaiah taken away and thrown into a prison until he [Ahab] returns safely. Micaiah says to him that if he [Ahab] returns safely from this campaign, then the Lord was indeed NOT speaking through him. The truth is NO ONE knows the true will of God until the fruits of our actions can be seen over time.
They go into battle. Ahab—believing the words of the prophet Micaiah even though they have not pleased him and trying to escape the predicted fate—gives Jehoshaphat his kingly robes and disguises himself so the enemy will kill Jehoshaphat instead of him.  When the enemy sees that the man in the robes is not Ahab, though, they stopped their assault on him. Ahab, on the other hand, despite his disguise is hit by accident and dies. He is returned to Samaria where the dogs do in fact lick his blood from the chariot he was in. This story is in 2 Chronicles 18 too.
As for Jehoshaphat, he reigns over Judah for 25 years. He does what is right except not removing the high places. He makes peace with the king of Israel, Ahaziah, and has ships made to engage in trade, but they are wrecked at Ezion-geber before they can be used. In Israel, Ahaziah, Ahab’s son, succeeds and reigns for two years; but he too does what is evil just as his parents did.

Luke 4:31-44 - Jesus encounters a “demoniac” in Capernaum (also told of in Mark 1:21-26).  As in Mark, we must wonder why it is that demons and evil spirits Jesus encounters are able to recognize Jesus even before the people generally recognize his identity.  In Luke, the spirit says, “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (4:34). The same exact words are used in Mark. Jesus rebukes these evil spirits, and people are “amazed” at the power of Jesus’ command, his voice or word.

The different translations of the peoples’ response to what they see here are interesting:
·          The NRSV has them asking “What kind of utterance is this?”
·          The NAB has the fascinating and rich “What is there about his word?”
·          JB has “’What teaching!’”
·          The German has “’Was ist das fur ein Ding?’”
·          The King James also has “word” in the clause. 

Of all these, I like the NAB best. What an interesting question it becomes!  Something in Jesus’ voice demonstrates power.  Not only his voice, but his presence and his touch bring healing, first of all to the man with the unclean spirit and Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, but also to others. Luke has Jesus curing Simon’s mother-in-law before we see Simon’s call to discipleship—the order is better in Matthew.

Reflection:  All of us whom Jesus encounters are blind or ailing in one way or another.  These healings were not isolated instances but the general work he came to do.  Let us see how we are blind or deaf or filled with the evil spirits of this world who, though they can recognize Jesus, cannot be banished entirely from the world.  Help move away every impediment that the world gives to Christ’s work in us or that we bring to our encounter with the living Word.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: 1 Kings 21 and Luke 4:1-30

1 Kings 21 -    Naboth the Jezreelite has a vineyard next to Ahab’s palace.  Ahab wants it for a vegetable garden and tells Naboth he will pay for it; but Naboth does not want to sell it.  It is his family’s ancestral home.  Ahab becomes “resentful and sullen” again over this and will not eat (21:4). Jezebel can’t understand why he doesn’t just take the land. “Do you now govern Israel?” (21:7) So she decides she will handle the matter.  She plans to have Naboth falsely accused of some crime by the city’s elders and nobles—like cursing the king or something.  A Jerusalem Bible note says that the property of traitors reverted automatically to the king. They do it, and in the end Naboth is taken out and stoned – no legal process, simply accusation and death. Jezebel tells Ahab he may now go and take possession of the vineyard.
But “then the Lord said to Elijah, . . . ‘Go to King Ahab of Samaria [and] tell him that I, the Lord, say to him, ‘After murdering the man, are you taking over his property as well?’ Tell him that this is what I [the Lord] say: ‘In the very place that the dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, they will lick up you blood!’” (21:19). He also foresees a terrible end for Jezebel: “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel” (21:23). Ahab tears his garments and fasts when he hears this, so the Lord relents somewhat, telling Elijah “Since he [Ahab] has done this, I will not bring disaster on him during his lifetime; it will be during his son’s lifetime that I will bring disaster on Ahab’s family” (21:29). Yet another difficult moral framework for modern readers to accept – that somehow God finds an equal justice in punishing the offspring of the real perpetrators.

Luke 4:1-30 - Having had it revealed to Jesus in his baptism that he is God’s “beloved Son” Jesus goes out into the wilderness and is tested.  Of interest in comparing this to Mark’s version, here it says, “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” – all very public.  In Mark it says, “as he was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (1:10).  The idea of it being a personal opening to Jesus is more likely in the Mark version.  Here there is an attempt to make it look like the vision was there for all to see. 

He goes out into the desert for 40 days, eating nothing.  The devil comes to him and tempts him three times: once suggesting he should command the stones to becomes loaves of bread since he is so hungry; once offering him the glory and authority bestowed on rulers over all the kingdoms of the world; and finally tempting him to put God to the test by hurling himself off the Temple to see if God will protect him as is promised in scripture.  Jesus refuses all of these.

The Spirit of God is with him but he eats nothing for forty days, fasting to attain clarity and self-discipline to discern what it means that he is God’s “beloved Son.”  Does it mean that he will be given miraculous powers to feed the masses and thus win favor by satisfying the material needs of man? Does it mean that he is to have power over all the earthly kingdoms of this world? Does it mean that whatever he wants and needs, he will be able to attain from God because of God’s special love for him.  He learns in turning his back on all these temptations that the true path of the Son of God is not any of these.  It is not clear that the reality of what it does import appeared to Jesus at this time, but there were clearly a number of possibilities that “tempted Jesus” when he considered how he might use his powers.  It is these that he turns his back on.  He meets temptation with obedience and lowliness.  The scriptures he cites show that even for Jesus the ancient Hebrew scriptures were a source of guidance and inspiration, but we must be careful here for the devil too quotes scripture to Jesus.  It is not the words found in scripture but the spirit of discernment applied to them that provides the wisdom.

After concluding his time in the desert, Jesus goes to his own town, Nazareth, and begins to preach in the synagogue. At first people admire him for his “gracious words” (4:22), but they soon turn on him when he compares them with some of the stubborn Jews of old and praises the outsiders in Israel’s past who were more open to God than the people (the Phoenician widow in Elijah’s story, Naaman the Syrian). Jesus adds to the Naaman story a detail that is not obvious from the scriptures – that the prophet Elisha was unable to cure anyone of leprosy in his own land.

I like it here that Jesus is using the book of Kings to teach the people – we need to remember that when we have the urge to throw out or denigrate the sometimes messy stories that come to us in Kings. What Kings teaches here is that often “the stranger,” “the foreigner,” is more open to the healing touch of the prophet than the people God called to him through Abraham and Moses.  Jesus uses this to reproach the people of Nazareth and they “get it” in no uncertain terms.  They are offended by his criticism of their complaisance or their unwillingness to believe in a “prophet” [Jesus] who is altogether too familiar to them to really “see.”  They are like the dutiful son in the prodigal son story.  They cannot see into their father’s depths because they are too used to seeing him with eyes of flesh.  The “living God” is different from the notion of God we create in learning about him as a child.  This is a lesson we too must learn.  We will never see God or hear His voice in us if we cling too tenaciously to the notions we learn of Him before we have experienced Him.  We somehow must be brought to see the great gulf that lies between Him and the familiar comfortable concepts we have of him – in a sense we must all come to him as foreigners, strangers, sinners, outsiders. 

They run him out of town. He goes to Capernaum

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: 1 Kings 20 and Luke 3

1 Kings 20 – It is around 868 BC. Ben-hadad II, is king of Syria (Aram). He gathers 32 kings [Jerusalem Bible note says they were princely vassals] to march against the kingdom of Israel under king Ahab’s rule.

He sends a message to Ahab saying, “Your silver and gold are mine; you may keep your wives and children.” This is the Jerusalem Bible translation. The NRSV version is, “Your silver and gold are mine; your fairest wives and children also are mine” (20:3). This makes no sense in the context of the story, so I assume the Jerusalem Bible translation is to be preferred here. He agrees to this message, but whatever the words actually said, the meaning of his reply is that, Ben-hadad, may have all his treasure, but his wives and children are not to be touched. 

Ben-hadad sends back a message, this time saying that everything he and his men want they will take, so Ahab goes to the elders and confers with them. They will resist. Both sides get ready for a fight.

At this point a prophet comes to Ahab and a rather complex interaction takes place between the “secular” and religious principles of the time. The unnamed prophet says that the Lord will give Ben-hadad’s men into their hands (20:13). They do beat them. The king of Syria interprets this as a victory brought about by the Israelite god whom he believes is a “god of the mountains.” But he thinks if they were to fight on the plains, they (the Syrians) would win.

In the spring, when the Syrians challenge them again, they go to the plains, near Aphek.  The prophets see this as an opportunity to proclaim that their god is the ONE GOD, the God of mountains, valleys and plains. They tell Ahab, “Because the Syrians have said, ‘The Lord is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,’ therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord’” (20:28). Needless to say, they win again. 

The surviving princes of the Syrian forces flee into Aphek and appeal to Ahab for mercy. Ahab perhaps sees this as an opportunity to make peace with his war-hungry neighbors and says something conciliatory, referring to Ben-hadad as his “brother.” To us modern Christian readers, this seems like it should be a good thing; but it isn’t in the context of the times and the author’s understanding of what God wanted Ahab to do. The prophets have said that God wants them defeated and killed. It is not for Ahab to do this HIS WAY.
The narrative shifts to a short parable, similar to the parable Nathan uses in 2 Samuel 12 with David to help him SEE the terrible thing he has done in seducing Bathsheba. Here, we are told that the Lord tells one of a community of prophets (prophet A) to order another prophet (prophet B) to strike him (prophet A). If the Lord orders it the other prophet should DO it even though he (prophet B) may rationally see the order as stupid, something that should NOT be done. When the prophet B refuses to strike prophet A, prophet A says, “Because you have not obeyed the voice of the Lord, as soon as you leave me, a lion will kill you,” (20:36) and so it happens.  Then prophet A goes to another (prophet C) and tells him to strike him, and this prophet (C) does as he is told – he hits and wounds him. 

OK, now the parable shifts back to the “worldly” setting of kings and military officers. Prophet A leaves and hides himself along the road, now posing as a soldier (soldier A) who’s been wounded. When the king passes and asks what has happened to him, he tells the king he was injured when a fellow soldier, the soldier’s officer, gave a prisoner into his keeping and ordered him to guard the man or die for failing to do so. When the prisoner escapes on the soldier’s watch, the king responds by saying that he must die –the penalty was set by the officer in charge. 

The prophet tells Ahab this story to show him he was wrong in letting the Syrian king go. When a SUPERIOR decides something, you can’t make changes in what that authority has determined. God wanted the Syrians to die and you (Ahab) screwed up when you decided to show mercy. This very convoluted story basically means that God is not happy that Ahab comes to terms with the enemy God for him to defeat.  Ahab let his captives go just as the man in the parable did. A Jerusalem Bible note says, “all who disobey the word of God or of a man of God, even for good motives, will be punished. This idea is not perfect and is not that of the great prophets, but it reflects the mentality of the ancient prophetic communities” (449).

King Ahab returns to Samaria “resentful and sullen” (20:43).

Luke 3 – In the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign (Pilate is governor of Judea, Herod of Galilee and his brother Philip of Ituraea and Trachonitis), when Annas and Caiaphas are high priests, John begins his ministry in the Jordan region. He proclaims “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3), in accordance with the words of Isaiah:

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (3:4-6).

John’s message to his people is that they are all caught up in the outward show of religion. Faith in God isn’t about being descendants of Abraham in the flesh. “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (3:8). The people ask him what they need to DO. They must bear “good fruit” in their lives (3:9). They must share their excess with those who have nothing. 

Tax collectors want to know what they should DO, and John tells them to be honest in their work, collecting only what they are authorized to collect. 

Soldiers ask what they should DO, and they are told likewise to be honest and satisfied with the wages they get (3:14). This emphasis is different from in Mark, where what one is to do barely registers on the screen.  There, the emphasis is on people believing the “good news” and coming into relationship with Jesus, coming to know him—who he is. It is also interesting to me that the ones with the jobs people thought unworthy are not told to leave those jobs but simply to bring a sense of integrity to them.  People in military service are not told it is wrong to engage in war.  They are simply told to not oppress and be happy with the wages they have.
As in Mark, the people who flock to John are “filled with expectation” and all wondering if he (John) might be the Messiah (3:15). John lets them know he is only preparing the way for the one who will baptize them “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:16). He will come with a winnowing fork to gather the wheat and throw the chaff into the fire (3:17). Herod, upset at John’s rebuke of him for having married his brother’s wife, has him thrown into jail.
Here after all the people had been baptized and Jesus as well, the Holy Spirit descends on him “in bodily form like a dove” and a voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (3:22). Jesus was about thirty.  People take him to be the son of Joseph (and Joseph’s lineage is traced back to Adam through 75 generations (David is 41st back in the line; Abraham 55th and Adam 75th). It is interesting to me that Adam is called the “son of God” (3:38).

There are a few other things I would like to point out about Luke’s gospel and how it different in focus from the other gospels. He continues in this chapter to show his commitment to linking Jesus in very concrete ways to historical time – placing the beginning of his ministry in the context of all the local and regional authorities as well as the Roman Emperor of the time. He is equally meticulous in reciting Jesus ancestral line, name by name from Joseph all the way back to Adam. Matthew will recite the lineage as well but only back to Abraham and with a few other changes as well. Clearly, Luke is set upon placing Jesus in all of “human history” while Matthew is more interested in locating him in “Jewish history.”

The tone of the gospel also has an “edge” I find missing from the other gospels. I will point the instances where this tone is most prominent. For this chapter I see it in John’s message that “the ax is lying at the root of the trees” – you had better bear fruit (3:9), and John’s reference to the one who will come after him, baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire, coming with a “winnowing fork” to separate the wheat from the chaff. The “chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:17).

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: 1 Kings 19 and Luke 2:21-52

1 Kings 19 – When Ahab tells Jezebel what Elijah did to all the prophets of Baal, she sends a threatening note to Elijah, and he becomes afraid.  He flees to Beersheba, goes past there and into the wilderness. He asks God to let him die: “O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” (19:4). An angel appears and encourages him to eat—leaves him a cake and some water.  A second time the angel comes and tells him to eat again “otherwise the journey will be too much for you” (19:7).

He does and travels to Mt. Horeb [likely another name for Mt. Sinai] to a cave there. He is in the wilderness 40 days and nights. “Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (19:9) He answers, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed our prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away” (19:10).
The Lord sends Elijah up to the top of the mountain to “stand before[the Lord]”: “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.  Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (19:11-13)

Elijah tells the soundless voice, “Lord God Almighty, I have always served you – you alone. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed all your prophets. I am the only one left – and they are trying to kill me” (19:14). The Lord tells him to return and anoint Hazael king over Aram; Jehu, king over Israel and Elisha as prophet in his place. “Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill” (19:17). He will leave 7,000 in Israel that have not “bowed to Baal” (19:18). Elijah does what he is supposed to do.  When he meets Elisha and throws his mantel over him, Elisha asks to be able to kiss his father and mother before he follows Elijah.  Elijah says, “’Go back again; for what have I done to you?’” (19:20) He goes back and offers sacrifice, shares it with the people and then leaves to follow Elijah.

Luke 2:21-52 - Jesus is circumcised at eight days old and named Jesus. When the time of purification arrives, they take Jesus up to Jerusalem “to present him to the Lord” as “first fruits” of their marriage and they offer a sacrifice.

Simeon, a “righteous and devout” man, experiences the Holy Spirit as well and recognizes in Jesus the “Lord’s Messiah” (2:26). My “eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:30-32).  Mary and Joseph are “amazed” and Mary learns the “child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (2:34-35). In addition to Simeon, the prophetess Anna (of Asher) who stayed at the temple also “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38).

In a sense these people also fulfill the prophecy of Joel—about men and women prophesying at the messiah’s coming. But the thing most noticeably different here from Mark is the public and early revelation of Jesus’ identity and mission.
The child grows and is “filled with wisdom” (2:40).  When he is twelve, he is left accidentally behind when his parents leave for home after coming to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  They seek him for three days and find him “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (2:46). When his mother expresses anxiety over what he has put them through, he asks “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (2:49)

At the end it says of Mary, “His mother treasured all these things in her heart” (2:51). A similar passage follows his birth at 2:19.