Archive for August, 2006

Reading Ephesians

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

Anyone who knows me, knows I am not fond of military imagery in theology: “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is not my favorite hymn. Too much of the Crusades clings to that imagery. However, I had something of an insight reading about the “breastplate of righteousness” this time around, or at least raised a question I would like to chase down at some future date.

Most of the language in this paragraph in Ephesians (6:10-20) comes straight from Isaiah and the Psalms. Isaiah 59:16-17 reads, “He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was none to intervene; So his own arm brought about the victory, and his justice lent him its support. He put on justice as his breastplate, salvation as the helmet on his head; He clothed himself with garments of vengeance, wrapped himself in a mantle of zeal. He repays his enemies their deserts, and requites his foes with wrath.” Isaiah 49:2; “He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me.” Isaiah 52:7; “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the one who brings glad tidings [gospel], announcing salvation, and saying to Zion, ‘Your God is King!'”

What if the author of Ephesians is writing to a group of primarily Gentile christians after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, who nevertheless, as successors to Paul’s community have a tradition of reading and interpreting the prophets? How to make sense of this language of restoration and vengeance becomes a problem. These christians are no longer going to be very interested in the epic of Israel as an etiology for the Jerusalem Temple. All that language is going to have to be reinterpreted. So, in this author’s hands, it becomes language about a cosmic struggle in which every christian is engaged. Philo does something similar with the life of Moses, turning Moses into a good stoic.

The marriage language of Ephesians could also then be a reinterpretation of Hosea, and other passages in the prophets in which God marries Zion, adorning her and presenting himself to her as a bride. cf. Isaiah 62:1-5. Prophecies of restoration have been reinterpreted as metaphors for God’s relationship to the individual christian.

Traditions of the elders

Monday, August 28th, 2006

Deuteronomy 4:1-9

Psalm 15

Ephesians 6:10-20

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

Whenever the lectionary skips verses in a reading, my first question is, “What are we leaving out?” In this instance, we are omitting the reference to declaring whatever one would have gained from parents as dedicated to God and thereby getting oneself off the hook of caring for them (vv. 9-13), and Jesus’ scatological joke about what emerges making one unclean (we all use the latrine, therefore all are unclean).

According to Mack (Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence), chapter 7:1-23Â is one of two carefully constructed rhetorical arguments in Mark’s Gospel (chapter 4, being the other). What makes Mark so frustrating is that the arguments are not designed to persuade, but rather to draw lines. “Well did Isaiah prophecy concerning this generation” is not likely to win any of “this generation” to Mark’s cause. It is instead constructed to show those inside just how right they are, and just how wrong are those on the outside. Do we need any more religion like that?

It is interesting to me that Mark has to define his community over against “the Pharisees, and the Scribes”, in a word, “the Jews.” Mark’s community of christians couldn’t have existed and come to definition without “the Jews.” In fact, Daniel Boyarin (Border Lines) shows that this kind of line drawing defined “the Jews,” and line drawing by “the Jews” defined “the christians.” Each needed the heretic other to achieve a sense of identity.

I wonder if we haven’t created “Islamic fundamentalists” in order to define ourselves as the truly righteous. “They” couldn’t exist without “us:” “we” couldn’t exist without “them.” What if we rejected Mark’s ploy of hardening the lines, of constructing arguments only designed to make those inside feel better about themselves, and engaged in dialog with “the other.”

Sandy Tolan’s book, The Lemon Tree shows what happens when a Jew and a Palestinian confront one another across the threshold of the house they both have shared. He gives us great insight into the perspective of each, and truly, neither could exist without the other. What if we recognized that? Paul works a lot harder than Mark does at trying to imagine what a new humanity might look like that made room for both Jew and Greek. No wonder Paul was so nuts: it’s hard work, and nobody wants you doing it.

Wives, be subject. . .

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2006

I wonder how many people will hear anything beyond this line in the reading from Ephesians on Sunday morning? There were certainly christians who refused marriage, and those who promoted it in the time during which this epistle was written. There is no question which side the author of the epistle came down on. There is also precedent for what he is doing. Hosea had modeled the relationship between God and God’s people on his own marriage to a prostitute — the people were unfaithful, God was faithful. Isaiah has some beautiful passages about God adorning Zion as a bride God will marry and never again put away.

At best, we are always stumbling for metaphors to describe the divine, and our relationship to it. In the epistle’s day, marriage was a social obligation (refused, especially by women, at great peril). But in the contract, the husband was obliged to nourish, clothe and shelter his wife. What is a little bit surprising is the tenderness with which the author describes our relationship with God. Just as a man nourishes his own flesh and “warms” it (that is what the verb means, not as the NRSV has “cares for it”). Metaphorically, it can mean cherish, soften, and even inflame, as with passion. It seems God may well become passionate for us.

Ephesians sets out a hierarchical relationship between God and the community. John’s Gospel sets out a relationship of near-equality, with the divine and human natures interpenetrating to the point of confusion (the Father is in me, and I in you and the Father in you and the Spirit in everything and so on). Perhaps we need both aspects of that relationship with God. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians used a handy metaphor, without thereby fixing forever the nature of the marriage relationship. Our task is to find similar metaphors for God’s intimacy with us, care for us and relationship to us.

Spirit and flesh

Monday, August 21st, 2006

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-25

Psalm 34:15-22

Ephesians 5:21-33

John 6:60-69

We are nearing in the end of the long summer of bread. This week’s reading from John is the last of the series. Here, we see the split that occurred in the Johannine community between the “sacrifice” and “non-sacrifice” partisans. One group is saying that the Johannine meal must be seen as sacrifice: eating flesh and drinking blood (it is interesting to note that the word for eating implies chewing, and the word for flesh implies raw meat — I wonder if the Johannine community tended toward the dionysan — compare to the miracle of water to wine). Another group says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” A split occurs.

I’m sure that is why we have the reading from Joshua: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” You had better be ready to go the distance, seems to be the message of the designers of the lectionary.

But I’m a lot more interested in the passage from Ephesians. This is one that gets people up in arms: “Wives, be subject to your husbands.” Again, I think this represents a point of real contention in the early church. Many early christians eschewed marriage completely. The various acts of the named apostles all deal with an apostle preaching and convincing the engaged to forgo their marriages. The apostle would then celebrate a eucharist, almost always in the order of cup and then bread. I believe these were the water and bread Christians (see McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists). Marriage and sacrifice were deeply intertwined and implicated in the cultural background of the time: marriage produced progeny and sacrifice guaranteed descent from father to son. If you wanted to be counter-cultural, you could refuse marriage and sacrifice both. Thecla, in the Acts of Paul, gets herself martyred for her refusal to marry. Many christians got themselves martyred for refusal to sacrifice (and plenty of others got themselves killed for sacrificing to Christ, rather than Caesar).

So the Letter to the Ephesians represents a step along the way of accommodating the christian message to the cultural background, making it possible for people to live in both worlds. The section that this pericope begins lays out a handbook for household organization. There is nothing particularly shocking here. Any good Roman could agree. Our christianity today isn’t very shocking. Any good American can agree.

What would it be like to be a christian of the other variety, one who opts out of the cultural background? Sacrifice is not the organizing principle of our society, the way it was of Greco-Roman society. The money economy is. What would it be like to opt out of that background? What would it be like to engage in it, but directed to a different emperor, the way the sacrificing christians directed their sacrifice to Christ, not the emperor? How would we organize our households?

Marriage in the Greco-Roman world was part of one’s responsibility of citizenship. Now, marriage is about love, not duty to a larger community. How would we go about opting out of a hyper-individualistic (romantic) understanding of marriage and fulfillment? Somehow, we would have to find a way to consecrate the fruits of our labors and of our households to an intentional community, not identical to America.

Eating flesh.

Tuesday, August 15th, 2006

Proverbs 9:1-6

Psalm 34:9-16

Ephesians 5:15-20

John 6:53-59

There has long been an argument about whether John’s Gospel is anti-sacramental or sacramental. On the anti-sacramental side is John’s reticence to narrate Jesus actions instituting the “last supper” as do the other Gospels. On the sacramental side are these passages from John’s sixth chapter concerning eating the flesh of the son of man and drinking his blood. But even in this sixth chapter, some author or editor goes on to say, “The flesh counts for nothing, only the spirit.”

 I’m not sure the debate would have made sense to John’s author(s). The debate that would have made sense would have been between a sacrificial perspective and an anti-sacrificial perspective. The banquet would have been the background against which all meals would have been seen, and a banquet was always a sacrificial affair. (more…)

Bread from heaven

Monday, August 7th, 2006

Deuteronomy 8:1-10

Psalm 34:1-8

Ephesians 4:25 — 5:2

John 6:37-51

Year B — the summer of bread. It seems like we read the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel for months in the summer of Year B. To me, the sixth chapter of John reads like the minutes taken during a bitter debate: Only those who eat my flesh have life; the flesh counts for nothing, only the Spirit matters. Back and forth it goes.

It is striking about this week’s readings, from both Deuteronomy and John, that the food comes to us without human involvement. All the regulations about food, about sacrifice and offering and eating, in Deuteronomy, Leviticus and elsewhere, recognize the human factor. The first of the produce of your fields, bring to the holy place and set it before God and then have a good time. (more…)

More Transfiguration

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006

I had never noticed before now that the account of the Transfiguration in the Second Letter of Peter does not mention Moses and Elijah. Did the Transfiguration exist independently before Mark got ahold of it? And if so, what purpose did it serve.

2 Peter is addressed to those who have lost confidence in the imminent parousia of Jesus (following Duane Watson in the NIB). Epicureans believed that God was so perfect as to be absolutely unmoved by this world: God’s providence and judgment of this world were unthinkable. They considered the Stoics’ ideas of providence and the dissolution of the world in fire to be “cleverly devised myths.” (more…)