Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Genuine Article [Luke 8.22-25] (6 November 2011)

I teach Mathematics to students aspiring to succeed at the Joint Entrance Examination conducted each year for admission to the Indian Institutes of Technology. The examination is easily one of the toughest at the pre-university level in the entire world and students begin preparing as early as the 9th Standard. The questions are much more difficult than those encountered elsewhere. And I have found a very disturbing trend, even among very bright students. When they see a question, they immediately plunge into attempting to solve it. And when they do, sooner or later, if they have not thought things through, they find themselves at a dead end, unable to finish what they had started.

Jesus speaks of a similar thing in Luke 14.28-30. [Read here] Or in the case of our stuck student, “This student began to solve the problem but was not able to finish.”

I do not wish to re-narrate the episode or to give a blow by blow account of what happened. That could be done in another message. But not today. 

Neither do I wish to focus on the parallels between this episode and the episode where Jonah was asleep in a ship while a storm raged all around. There are some remarkable parallels that could be dealt with in a bible study perhaps.

And I certainly do not wish to debate whether miracles are possible or not. As Jesus said elsewhere, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” In other words, we all cling to what we believe even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Events can be explained away as miracles or as coincidences depending on your point of view.

What I would like to do is focus on what we learn about Jesus in this passage and what he is teaching us though it. So we will focus on the words spoken by Jesus. In the short passage that is the scripture text for today’s message, Jesus speaks twice. Before we deal with the first occasion, let us consider the second. 

Jesus asks his disciples, “Where is your faith?” A simple question, with absolutely no difficult grammatical issues. But we must ask ourselves, “What does this word ‘faith’ refer to here?”

Is Jesus asking them to have faith that they too could have commanded the wind and the water and brought the calm they desired? At another point in his ministry, Jesus tells his disciples that they would do greater works than the ones he had done. Surely this interpretation does not violate Jesus words! Moreover, later in Jesus’ ministry and in the Acts of the Apostles we see the apostles perform all sorts of wondrous deeds – healing sick people, raising people from the dead, etc. Indeed in Acts, we do not have a single instance of a follower of Jesus failing in a miracle he intended to perform.

From these episodes in the Gospels and Acts, a whole school of thought within Christian circles has developed that upholds the notion of ‘name it and claim it’. The idea is that if we only had faith – or enough faith as the case may be – we would simply be able to make things happen by saying them out. 

After all, did Jesus not say, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son”? So is Jesus asking, “Why do you not simply believe that you have authority over the elements?”

Or is Jesus telling the disciples that they should have faith that he would protect them? The first three Gospels, also known as the Synoptic Gospels, record this incident. But each tells it in a wonderfully different way. In fact, a whole series of studies could be done simply on the different foci these three authors have when narrating this one episode. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of that much time.

So let us focus on a single word. When the disciples address Jesus, Matthew places the word κύριος, meaning lord, on their lips. In Mark, the word is διδάσκαλος, meaning teacher. 

Luke uses a very interesting and rare word here, used only by him in the New Testament and in less than five percent of the places where he could have used it. In Luke the word is ἐπιστάτης meaning protector. And only Luke has the word repeated. If they believed that Jesus was their protector, surely Jesus could not have meant that they lacked faith that he would protect them! 

Moreover, if we actually read the Gospels carefully, we would be hard pressed to find Jesus stating anywhere that he protects us. When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the Good Shepherd will be there with us. But there is no guarantee that we will emerge from that valley alive. The idea that Jesus is someone who protects us from harm is a sentimental view not really found in the scriptures. Rather, the guarantee he gives us is this: In this world you will have tribulation.

So we can conclude that the fact that Jesus asks them, “Where is your faith?” indicates that whatever faith they had in calling him ‘protector’ was not the faith that Jesus was referring to.

While it is perhaps quite evident, I think we should eliminate the idea that Jesus was referring to faith that he is the Son of God or the Messiah or the Second Person of the Trinity. Those questions arose only much later and were not something that the disciples were even thinking of. Neither had Jesus yet mentioned that he would be dying on the cross and would be raised from the dead. So even belief about what happened on Good Friday and Easter would not be what Jesus is talking about.

So what is Jesus referring to? And now we get to the first time Jesus speaks in this passage. In v. 22 he tells his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” Once again, a very simple sentence, with no difficult grammatical issues. And because it is simple in almost every language, the tendency is to just skip over it as though it were just an empty statement. 

But the sentence is far from empty! It contains the interpretive clue to the question, “Where is your faith?” What could this interpretive clue be? Hold on to your horses! Before we are ready to have that unveiled, we must ask ourselves why we do not see something that stares us in the face.

If you go to any bank or any ATM, you will notice posters placed there that remind us of the various security measures that are involved in the printing of the Indian currency. With counterfeiting becoming a precise science, all countries follow suit. The United States has a whole section of their Secret Services website devoted to training the public to detect counterfeits.

But all these measures have one thing in common. They tell the reader what the genuine article looks like. They focus on visual cues such as holograms and aspects of various marking. They focus on the texture of the currency such as the kind of paper or embossed regions. They focus on various elements like magnetic inks or inserted threads. 

The simple reason is this: There are many ways of doing something wrong, as the majority of Math students realize, but only one way of doing it right!

But if you deal with only ways of getting things wrong, you will never be able to appreciate the genuine item. A person who always buys fake designer wear will not have the skill to distinguish the real item.

And this is what has happened to us. We have gotten so used to the fakes, that we do not appreciate what is genuine. We have been told time and again that inflation will be brought down. But it keeps going up. We have heard many election promises, only to realize that none of these elected persons actually intend to fulfil their promises. We were told that security to the country has been tightened only to have our cities terrorized time and again. We have been told that we will not negotiate with terrorists only to hear later of underhanded dealings. 

We have been told and we have been told. But we have allowed ourselves to be duped into not realizing that we have not been told, but have been told off! We have been shown so many varieties of fakes that we do not recognize the genuine article.

But here in our passage is the genuine article. Jesus says, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” It is a clear declaration of intent and promise. Jesus is telling his disciples, “Now we will get into a boat and we will get to the other side of the lake.”

But in the face of the storm, the disciples say, “We are perishing” or “we are dying” or “we are going to drown”. I don’t know about you, but if one of them drowned, that person could not have reached across the lake. Perhaps his body would have reached across, but he would not have. In other words, the disciples are saying, “We are not going to reach the other side of the lake.”

And that is when Jesus asks them, “Where is your trust?” You see, the Greek word πίστις could mean ‘faith’, ‘faithfulness’ or ‘trust’. Given what we have seen today, it is most likely Jesus is asking them, “I told you we would cross the lake. How is it that you do not trust my word?”

But like us, the disciples immediately lost what Jesus was saying. They focused on the miraculous aspects of what had happened. “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” If there had been no storm, as perhaps had happened many times given that Jesus ministered in the entire region of Galilee, they would not have remembered it! They remembered this even because of the miracle, while Jesus was trying to tell them that the event was memorable because unlike all the fakes we encounter on a daily basis, he is the genuine article, who lives up to his word.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Bridging the Gap [Luke 7.11-17] (18 September 2011)

We humans have the tendency of painting things either black or white without seeing any nuances, any greys. Recently, the popularity of Anna Hazare led to the views among many of his supporters that, if you are not on their bandwagon, you are implicitly supporting corruption. It takes only a little thought to realize that this is not a logical conclusion.

In a similar manner, we who have multiple copies of the bible – probably in different languages and versions – perhaps shudder when we think of those dark days before Johannes Gutenberg introduced the idea of movable type and printed the Gutenberg bible. Those were the days when scripture was not readily accessible by people – by even literate people. “How could a person of faith survive?” we might ask ourselves. What would happen to our daily devotions? And because of this, we perhaps think that the invention of movable type was and is the best invention ever. Many people have indeed made just this claim.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not wish to return to the days when books were not readily available. I am glad to have bibles in a number of languages and versions. But there is a downside to this. As printing became easier, printers took it upon themselves to do something that the last book of the bible warns us not to do. They added to scripture.

They added cross references to make bible study easier, when the study of scripture is nowhere said to be something that should be easy! They added red lettering to tell us which words were spoken by Jesus, as though the words not spoken by him were less authoritative. And worst of all, they added breaks by dividing scripture into subsections and gave us nice neat headings so we don’t really need to pay much attention to what we’re reading. “Jesus raises a widows son” Ah! Easy-peasy lemon squeezy! I know what this is about. What’s next? Jesus and John the Baptizer? Too confusing! I’ll just skip that.

And so today I find myself becoming a victim of this division. Does this incident have nothing to do with what came before it – the healing of the centurion’s slave? Does it not relate to what comes after it – the discussion about John the Baptizer? Is it even possible to make sense of these seven verses without the entire Gospel according to Luke? And even then perhaps we are restricting ourselves.

Repeated subjugation by powerful empires such as Assyrian, the Babylonian, the Macedonian and the Roman resulted in the situation where most Jews did not understand Hebrew, the language of their scriptures. So powerful was the thrust of Alexander the Great to make everyone speak Greek that even under the Roman rule, the language most commonly spoken in the Roman empire was Greek.

To address this situation, the Jews decided to translate their scriptures. And between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD they completed what is known as the Septuagint – a translation of the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, into Greek.

As you all know the New Testament was written in Greek. And so linguistic comparison between the Old and New Testaments is best done with the Septuagint at the ready because that lets us know how the Jewish translators around the time of the New Testament understood their scriptures. But why even bother? Why with this seemingly easy passage should we bother about all this boring language based nitty-gritty?

Well, for the simple reason that in next week’s text we have John the Baptizer, the one who formally announced Jesus to the world, wondering if he had made a mistake. And then in the text for October 2nd, Jesus quotes from Malachi 3:1 to explain the ministry of John the Baptizer, and through that his own ministry.

What was it that Jesus was doing that made John uncertain? Last week we saw that Jesus healed the slave of a centurion. He had extended his ministry to the Gentiles – indeed to the Roman oppressors! To John the Baptizer, this was confusing. Why would Israel’s Messiah deal kindly with the oppressors of Israel? It just did not make sense. More to the point, as we will see, Jesus is doing something that points in a direction different and unsettling from what John the Baptizer had expected.

And so now, after Jesus has helped a Gentile, we find him at the gate of Nain. I do not wish to focus on the healing. We have read the text. Jesus restores to life the only son of a woman.

There are two occasions in the Old Testament where an only son, who had died, is restored to life. The first is in 1 Kings 17, where Elijah does this at Zarephath in Phoenicia, in Gentile territory. The second is in 2 Kings 4, where Elisha does this at Shulem which was south and slightly east of Nazareth, well within the kingdom of Israel. And here we encounter a problem.

Elijah ministered to a poor widow, while Elisha ministered to a rich barren woman. Elijah ministered to a Gentile, while Elisha ministered to an Israelite. Elijah ministered outside the territory of Israel, while Elisha ministered inside Israel. Different situations for both of them. 

When we consider Jesus at Nain, we get contradictory cues. Jesus ministered to a poor widow. But she was Jewish and lived barely two kilometres from Shulem. Most of the parallels seem to indicate that Jesus was functioning like a new Elisha. And that would be in accord with John himself being the new Elijah.

But Jesus had ministered to a Gentile before this. Did that mean Jesus was the new Elijah? And that there was someone else after him? You see? John’s confusion stems from the strange fluidity of Jesus’ ministry. 

But more than the Elijah-Elisha confusion is the fact that once we settle that confusion, we realize, as John did, that Jesus’ ministry was progressing in a direction hitherto unexpected, certainly unforeseen, and perhaps even sacrilegious to Jewish minds.

Luke helps us with the Elijah-Elisha confusion. What John found confusing, we need not find confusing because Luke tells us how to interpret Jesus. And this is where the Septuagint is immensely helpful. Given three stories, two in the Septuagint and one in Luke, with very similar plots, we would still expect the wording of the stories to differ considerably – especially when you reach the resolution of the story. You would like the resolution to be different, right? Who would remember your story otherwise?

But here Luke does something out of the ordinary. At the point of resolution, after the boy has been raised, Luke tells us, “And he gave him back to his mother.” Six words in Greek. And the identical six words from one of the accounts in the Septuagint. 

This striking parallelism at the moment of resolution tells us which one – Elijah or Elisha – is the one, in light of which we should view the incident at Nain.

Luke resolves his account in exactly the same manner as the account about Elijah. So what Luke is telling us is that this is not just restoring a young man to life. Nor is it just that a woman who had lost her only son has been comforted because he has been brought back to life. No! 

So how are we to view this event? Here the Greek language itself helps us. The word for ‘widow’ is derived from the word for ‘chasm’. In those days, to be a ‘widow’ was to have a big, yawning chasm in one’s life. It was a state that left a woman utterly devoid of the protection she would otherwise have received from her husband. It left her open to all sorts of abuse at the hands of individuals and society. It was a state of total powerlessness, where one knew that the reality one was experiencing was not the reality one had experienced. 

Something had been lost. There was a big gap in one’s life – a gaping hole, a chasm, a grand canyon.

And so, when Luke tells us, “And he gave him back to him mother” we are to view this as Jesus’ giving this widow back the means by which she could bridge the chasm in her life, as though in some highly symbolic way, the revived son was now stretched across the chasm in his mother’s life so that she would be able to enjoy the life she was supposed to enjoy.

But by interpreting Jesus as taking on one of Elijah’s acts, Luke is telling us that we should view this event not as just another miracle. When Jesus draws from an act of Elijah – the person whom John the Baptizer was most associated with – it is something out of the ordinary. He is making an exception. And so this act of Jesus should be seen as a prophetic sign act, something quite different, like Ezekiel lying on his side or Jeremiah breaking the clay jar or Isaiah walking around naked. 

In other words, this event at Nain is not just a miracle for Luke. It is filled with soteriological meaning, that is, meaning related to the method of salvation. But we must be careful not to view a prophetic sign act as an analogy. In an analogy there is a one-to-one correspondence between elements in reality and elements in the sign act. But in a prophetic sign act, the elements of reality are there, but we have to put them in order correctly so that they make sense.

In this incident, as in our lives, there are three critical elements. A parent who had lost a child to death; a person facing a huge gap between reality and destiny; and a person who bridges that gap.

Jesus, in line with the Old Testament prophets, was doing something that pointed to something greater. And here it is the fact that the Father had lost each one of us to death on account of our sin. Also, each one of us faced a huge wide chasm between the life we experience and the life we were supposed to enjoy. 

Like the unnamed widow, we were destitute, powerless, consigned to being preyed upon by the forces of evil. And we needed someone to come and step in and bridge that gap so that we might enjoy the life we were created to enjoy. And Luke is telling us here, “Someone did. Read on!” 

Today, as we participate in Holy Communion, we do so because Jesus did step into the gap. And so as we prepare for it, let us spend a moment in silence, considering what our state would have been had Jesus not stepped into the gap.

Heavenly Father, through my sinfulness I had reached a state in which there was a chasm fixed between you and me. This separation from you made me easy prey to the forces of evil. And through sins of both omission and commission, I made it all the more impossible to experience your love – the love I your created me to experience. Yet you, through in your wisdom and mercy sent your only Son, my Lord Jesus, to die for my sins. Lord Jesus, you placed yourself as the bridge between me and the Father. As a result I can now experience that love I was created to experience. Yet I still stumble and sin. But by your mercy I do not fall. Forgive all my sins since the last time I asked for forgiveness. And as I approach your table, enable me to know how wonderful your forgiveness and love are. Let my participation at your table be a reminder always to me that you did what I could never do – you stepped in the gap. In your name I pray. Amen.