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I was late coming to Advent. The church of my childhood and youth never observed a season of preparation leading to Christmas day. We were left, then, to “get ready for Christmas” the same way secular people did: by overfilling our schedules, spending too much money, bingeing on TV Christmas specials, and eating way too many sweet treats.
Of course, a fair bit of the time, the result was that I didn’t actually prepare for Christmas at all. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the lights, the tinsel, the carols, and all the rest; I loved them—and I still do! The problem is that much of the outward trappings of Christmas don’t always draw us into the depths of its holy mystery. In fact, if we’re not careful, they can even shield us from that mystery.
That’s why I have come to appreciate the discipline of Advent. Advent taps the brakes on our culture’s frenetic Christmas “preparations.” Sometimes, it slams on those brakes with both feet. At it’s most basic, Advent insistently whispers, “Pace yourself; it’s not Christmas yet.”
And when I come more slowly into Christmas, I can better appreciate what that season really means, and how my life should be different because of that meaning.
John the Baptist is a patron saint of Advent waiting and preparation. His ministry in the wilderness got people ready for Jesus to show up. He announced the coming of the kingdom of heaven and called people to repent—just as Jesus did.
And what better way to prepare for Christmas than to get serious about what Jesus said to do?
(This blog post first appeared in an ever so slightly different form at Coracle.)
Wisdom from Damaris Zehner regarding Matthew 20:1-16:
Why is it that we identify ourselves with the hard workers and not with the latecomers? Do we really think we have achieved enough through our efforts to dictate to God how he should reward everyone? I wonder why it takes so long to occur to most of us that we are really the ones who deserve nothing and are rewarded with grace.
She then goes on to apply this same insight to a certain Disney movie.
Wednesday night Bible study tonight delved into Matthew’s version of the genealogy of Jesus. This got me thinking about a series of posts I wrote a few years back about this topic, which I thought I’d link to again for those who either missed it the first time around or wanted a refresher.
New at The Bible and Interpretation: Isaac W. Oliver, “Do Christians Have to Keep the Torah? The Cases of Matthew and Luke-Acts.”
For a long time it was not uncommon to posit that Jesus was responsible for the dispensation of such practices [as kosher rules, the Sabbath, etc.]. Jesus was the first “Christian,” who had come to announce the end of the Torah and Judaism. Draining Jesus of his Jewishness reached its unfortunate peak with the rise of Nazism when Jesus was even cast by some as an Aryan! However, ever since the end of World War II, the Jewishness of Jesus has been gradually resurfacing. “Blame” for the Christian distancing from Jewish practice has shifted instead to Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles. Traditionally, Paul has been viewed as an “apostate” from Judaism who founded a new religion, Christianity. Yet even Paul’s relationship to his Jewish heritage, including the complex question of his attitude toward the Torah, is being revisited and intensely debated among scholars of early Judaism and Christianity. It is also becoming clearer that many early Christians continued to conceive of their faith in Jewish terms and even identify themselves with the Jewish people and story for longer than previously thought. Social scientific analysis of early Christianity and Judaism further reminds us that the social reality on the ground was always more complicated than the idealist and often polemical depictions found in some of the early Christian literature that has survived history. Many of the early Christian works that have been preserved were written by Christian intellectuals—often opposed to Judaism and the observance of Jewish custom—who tried to assert their theological ideals and norms upon other Christians. The average Christian on the street, however, might have cared little about what some of these church fathers wrote or preached from the pulpit. As late as the fourth century of the Common Era, John Chrysostom, was vociferously (and in some ways helplessly) trying to convince his Christian parishioners in Antioch not to attend services at synagogues and observe Jewish festivals (see his work, Against the Jews). Certainly, the surviving literature does not tell us the whole story about the complex history of Jewish-Christian relations.
This will definitely be on my syllabus the next time I teach New Testament.
Tim Henderson relates (confesses?) that he is now only 51% convinced of the two-source hypothesis. Namely, that Matthew and Luke both used Mark and Q as sources for their Gospels. In a post at Earliest Christianity, he summarizes a portion of Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective dealing with the evidence from Papias for the early history of the Gospels.
Watson is the latest big name to argue in favor of the alternative Farrer hypothesis: Matthew used Mark as a source, Luke used both Mark and Matthew, and there was no Q.
At one point in his argument, Watson turns to the evidence from Papias and suggests that it may, in fact, point toward something like the “Farrer” theory. I will summarize his points briefly, hopefully not doing them a disservice in the process.
Luke implies in his prologue that previous gospels were not properly ordered, or at least that his gospel is more properly ordered than those of his predecessors.
Papias explicitly states that one of the inadequacies of Mark’s gospel is that it was not written “in order,” and that it is not “an ordered account.” Therefore, both Luke and Papias share the view that Mark’s account is not as orderly as it could have been.
It appears that Papias discusses Mark first, followed immediately by Matthew, since this is the order in which Eusebius mentions things.
When the topic shifts from Mark to Matthew, Papias introduces his commentary with the word “So” (Greek οὖν): “So Matthew set the sayings in order in the Hebrew language, and each person translated them as far as he was able.” This further suggests that, in Papias’ understanding, Matthew wrote after Mark.
Papias states that, in contrast to Mark’s disordered account, Matthew has written an orderly account and apparently improved upon Mark’s work.
Papias’ statement claims that other gospel writers used Matthew’s gospel as a source, translating (“interpreting”?) Matthew’s gospel for their own new gospels.
What if the only thing Papias gets wrong is the “Hebrew” language of Matthew? Watson suggests that this detail is apologetically motivated – it emphasizes the authenticity of Matthew’s version, since it preserves Jesus’ words in their original language. But once Matthew’s gospel is written in Hebrew, it would need to be translated into Greek by later gospel writers who used it as a source. If Watson is correct on this point, I think his reading of Papias is quite compelling in many ways.
The Gospel of Mark was the first draft of a doctoral candidate’s dissertation. He submitted it to his advisor who suggested the need for more background information about Jesus’ birth, maybe some more teaching material, and a stronger ending. The student rewrote his dissertation and submitted the Gospel of Matthew.
His advisor thought the revision was much stronger but felt that the teaching material should be better integrated into the narrative, thought a story about Jesus’ youth might be helpful, and suggested that the genealogy could be expanded back to Adam, etc. The PhD candidate did another major revision and produced the Gospel of Luke.
Once again the advisor was critical and asked for major revisions. Frustrated, the student took drugs and wrote the Gospel of John. – Jordan R. Scharf
(H/T: James McGrath)
John Calvin? You mean THE John Calvin? Well, never mind then.
But whatever you do, don’t tell Al Mohler.
(H/T: Peter Enns)
I have to say that there are two approaches to the Gospels which I ardently despise. First, some über-secularists want to read the Bible as nothing more than a deposit of silly ancient magic, mischievous myths, whacky rituals, and surreal superstitions. They engage in endless comparisons of the Bible with other mythic religions to flatten out the distinctive elements of the story. Added to that is advocacy of countless conspiracy theories to explain away any historical elements in the text. This approach is coupled with an inherent distaste for anything supernatural, pre-modern, and wreaking of religion. Such skeptics become positively evangelical in their zealous fervor to prove that nothing in the Bible actually happened. Second, then there are those equally ardent Bible-believers who want to treat the Bible as if it fell down from heaven in 1611, written in ye auld English, bound in pristine leather, words of Jesus in red, complete with Scofield footnotes, and charts about the end-times. Such persons regard exploring topics like Johannine chronology just as religiously affronting as worshipping a life size golden statue of Barack Obama. Now I have to say that both approaches bore the proverbial pants off me. They are equally dogmatic as they are dull. They are uninformed as they are unimaginative. There is another way!
I think I already knew this, but I’m glad Scot McKnight expressed it so well:
Here Jesus rises to the mountain — surely an echo of Moses giving the Torah from Mt Sinai — to reveal God’s will for God’s people of the new creation. The first thing that strikes the reader of this Sermon is its profound christology: the Sermon is Christology on Steroids. The reader (or listener) comes away thinking, “Do I want to give myself to this Jesus?”
In this Sermon, Jesus who reverses all expectations of who is “in” and who is “out,” because Jesus points to people groups who are marginalized and says “The King’s kingdom includes these people.” Jesus says, “No, your way of classifying people is wrong. There’s a new way in my kingdom.” It’s very gospel like for Jesus to assume the posture of the New Moses and to begin classifying people all over again. Then Jesus, in essence, issues his mission: my followers, he says, are to be light and salt, one to the Gentiles and one to the Jews (?) (5:13-16).
Then Jesus utters what has to be one of the most gospel-ish statements in the whole Bible. I quote the words.
Matt. 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.a 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Now if the gospel is what Paul says it is in 1 Cor 15:3-5, then the gospel is a message about Jesus, a message that claims Jesus fulfills Israel’s hopes (and the divine plans for the cosmos) …. and that is exactly what Jesus does here: Jesus claims in public that he is is the fulfillment of Israel’s Torah and Prophets. That’s gospeling. We have too many diminishing Christ in order to make this stuff Law, or too many who diminish Christ to make this a global vision for global justice. First comes christology, everything else follows. If we get christology right, we get everything else right. Get it wrong, and the whole thing falls apart.
The entirety of Matthew 5:21-48 illustrates that very claim by Jesus: those snippets on vows and lust and divorce and loving your enemies are not morals but Messianic claims on messianic people. Jesus is King and this is how the King’s people live in the King’s kingdom. We dare not delete the king and grab his morals; this only works when we attach ourselves to the King and let the King shape how we live.
I could go on, but will leave that to you. The Sermon on the Mount, folks, is pure gospel because it proclaims Jesus (not just morals and Torah). This is why the Sermon ends with an invitation: take up my yoke, it is saying, and follow me. Jesus sketches his vision for his people and invites us to turn from our current way of life and give ourselves to him and to his kingship.
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” (Mt 21:31-32)
Elder Pophyrios spoke of the following experience:
In the old days, during the feast of the Theophany, we used to sanctify homes. One year I also went to sanctify. I would knock on the doors of the apartments, they would open for me, and I walked in singing “In Jordan, You were baptized O Lord….”
As I went along the road called Maizonos, I saw an iron door. I opened it, walked into the courtyard which was full of tangerine, orange and lemon trees, and proceeded to the stairs. It was an outdoor staircase that went up, and down was the basement. I climbed the stairs, knocked on the door, and a lady appeared. Since she opened I began my common practice singing, “In Jordan, You were baptized O Lord….” She stopped me abruptly. Meanwhile, girls began to emerge from their rooms after hearing me from the left and right of the hallway. “I see that I fell into a brothel,” I said to myself. The woman walked in front of me to stop.
“Leave”, she told me. “It is not right for them to kiss the Cross. I will kiss the Cross and then you should leave, please.”
I took seriously her disapproving attitude and said: “I cannot leave! I am a priest, I cannot go! I came here to sanctify.”
“Yes, but it is not right for them to kiss the Cross.”
“But we don’t know if it is right for them or you to kiss the Cross. Because if God asks me for whom it is more right to kiss the Cross, the girls or you, I probably would say: ‘It is right for the girls to kiss and not you. Their souls are much better than yours.'”
With that she became a bit red in the face, so I said: “Leave the girls to come kiss the Cross.” I signalled for them to come forward. I began to chant more melodically than before: “In Jordan, You were baptized O Lord…” because I had such joy within me, that God had ordained things so that I may also come to these souls.
They all kissed the Cross. They were all made-up, with colorful skirts, etc. I told them: “My children, many years! God loves us all. He is very good and ‘allows the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matt. 5:45). He is the Father of everyone and God cares for everyone. Let us make sure to come to know Him and for us to also love Him and to become good. May you love Him, and then you will see how happy you will be.”
They looked at me, wondering. Something took a hold of their tired souls.
Lastly I told them: “I rejoice that God has made me worthy to come here today to sanctify you. Many years!”
“Many years!” they also said, and I left.