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Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Christian Passover – Hopefully Something More than an Exercise in Self-Justification

I fully realize that this may be an exercise in self-justification.  I recognize that, but it’s where I’m at, at least for now. 

For several years now I have lead my congregations in a Passover dinner – connecting it to the last supper of Jesus with his disciples.  I’ve shared the Haggadah that I’ve cobbled together (and continue to tinker with).  I have even made my own matzoh a couple of times. And I have found the practice to be very rewarding, spiritually and educationally.  And my church people have appreciated it too. They have experienced new foods, new customs and new traditions that help them to better understand their own faith, and to better understand the faith of their Jewish brothers and sisters.

(And yes- I do recognize that the gospels are not clear that the Last Supper was a Passover dinner, and that the Seder traditions that exist today were developed well after the time of Jesus.  I make these caveats known to my people.)

But earlier this week Theoblogy blogger Tony Jones shared Five Reasons You Probably Shouldn't Attend a Christian Seder.  This post troubled me a great deal.  Of his five points, it was number five that nagged at me.  
5) How would you feel if a rabbi or imam performed a mock baptism? That’d be pretty weird, right? That’s pretty much how it is when Christians take a practice that is central to Judaism and attempt to recreate it with Christian meaning. Virtually every Jew I’ve ever asked about this finds the practice offensive.

Here, and here, and here, and here are a couple more articles posted on line that debate the issue back and forth. Some rabbis say “sure, it’s fine” other say “no, absolutely not” others are somewhat ambivalent.

I take seriously the concern that a Christian Seder could be understood as a form of cultural appropriation, and as offensive.  I don’t want to do that. That has never been my intent.  There has been a terrible long history of Christian offenses against our Jewish brothers and sisters.  I do not wish to continue that.   I don’t want this to be a “mock” Passover – to ridicule or denigrate the faith and customs of anyone.

However I have chosen to continue with our plans to host a Passover /last supper dinner with my congregation tonight (fully recognizing that my Jewish friends celebrated the official Passover dinner Monday night) for the following reasons:

1) I believe in a continuity between the Hebrew bible /Old Testament and the New Testament. 

 2) The earliest Christians were Jewish; they did not consider themselves converts to a new/different religion and would have continued to celebrate the Passover and would have invited their gentile brothers and sisters to join them. 

 3) Religious borrowing is not a new thing – and not exclusively a Christian thing. Psalm 29 seems to be a “Yawhistic adaption of an older Canaanite hymn to the storm-god Baal, (Dahood, 175).”[i]  And Paul (a Jew’s Jew, if there ever was one) ‘appropriated’ the statue “to an unknown god” at the Areopagus (Acts 17: 22 – 31).

 4) While recently in Israel, I was invited to pray at the western wall in Jerusalem - even if I was praying to God with an altogether different understanding, and offering my prayers in “Jesus’ name…”

So this is where I am –at least for now.  I have shredded the horseradish for the maror; I have mixed the haroset; I’ve set the tables with the nice dishes, and laid out the Haggadah books. In a few moments I’ll go back to the kitchen to finish a few more preparations before this evening’s celebration.  But my thoughts on this issue are not finished.  Whether or not I will do this again next year is not yet clear. 

Next year in Jerusalem...maybe...

[i] Dahood, Mitchell Psalms 1 – 50 Introduction, Translation, and Notes Doubleday & Company, Inc, Garden City NY, 1966.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Psalm 22 and the Death of Jesus

Psalm 22 is among my favorite psalms, and I don’t say that lightly.  I am annoyed by people who tell me that that they love to read the psalms because they’re soooo encouraging and uplifting.  I really have to wonder what collection of psalms these people are reading.  Some of the psalms in our bible – many of the psalms in our scripture are ugly, fierce, and dark.  Many of them are quite troubling.  And some of them, let’s be honest, are a bit dull.  (Psalm 119, I’m looking at you…)So when I find a psalm that I like, I really like it.  And I like Psalm 22.

It is a powerful work. From a literary viewpoint it is a marvel of poetic expression.  From an emotional viewpoint it is a perceptive and accurate expression of those emotions we usually bottle up and hide from public display.  From a religious view it is a profound expression of faith in the face of adversities of life.  Psalm 22, in my opinion is just about perfect.

It divides neatly into two parts – 1) and individual’s lament and 2) a corporate expression of praise.  Though it is described as “a psalm of David” there is nothing in it that connects specifically to any event in David’s life (at least as recorded in the scriptures…) and it isn’t necessary to posit a Davidic authorship to understand it.  (In fact it’s probably easier to understand without getting it all mixed up with David.)

Some have suggested that the two parts (which don’t have any real connecting material between them) were written by two different authors.  Others have suggested that they were written by the same author at different times, and, of course, some maintain that the two parts were written by the same person at the same time.  Who’s to say? 

The first part – the individual’s lament is a bit bi-polar (though I don’t mean that in a clinical way). It swings (wildly, perhaps) between expressions of utter despair and misery and desperate expressions of hope in God.  I (vs. 1 – 2) You [God] (vs. 3 – 5) I (6 – 8) You (9 – 11) I (12 – 18) You (19 – 21 or 22 depending on how one translates vs. 22) These are some serious mood swings. The psalmist is enduring the worst sort of pain (physical is indicated, but it’s mostly mental, emotional, spiritual anguish…) and he (or she) is desperate for God’s attention and for God’s redemptive strength…. But God does not appear to be listening, or if he is, he’s not answering. 

Humanity is all but lost in the pain of this psalm.  The psalmist is a worm, not a man (6).  His enemies are bulls (12), lions (13, 21) dogs (16), and wild oxen (21) (or, as in the KJV, unicorns!).   They have already encircled him, trapped him.  He’s not dead yet, but he might as well be; they’re already dividing up his possessions among themselves (18). 

And the psalmist cries out for the same sort of salvation that God has provided in the past.  He saved and rescued our ancestors in the past – and unless he saves and rescues the psalmist now, there is only death and disgrace.  Save me, he says, “that I might proclaim your name to my brethren, [and] in the midst of the congregation praise you,” – as Mitchell Dahood translates vs. 22 in the Anchor Bible [i]

The second part of the psalm moves suddenly- without transition – from an individual’s lament to a corporate, communal expression of joy and praise.  The psalmist encourages those present to worship and praise God because he does hear and does answer the prayers of the afflicted.  (Which is why I think that the two parts were written by the same person - either at different times, or at the same time but after a long period of reflection.) 

And there is an ever expanding sphere of joy and worship in this part of the psalm; it grows from the those present in the assembly, to all of Israel, to all the families of the Nations (that is the gentiles) – to even the dead who’ve gone down into the netherworld, and larger still – to those who are not yet born.

This idea that the dead will praise God is an interesting divergence from other parts of the Hebrew bible / Old Testament.  Usually it is thought that the dead do not praise God, don’t do much of anything really.  “It is not the dead who praise the LORD, those who go down to the place of silence” Psalm 115:17

There isn’t much middle ground in this psalm.  It swings from the worst possible human misery to the exalted heights of praise in one verse.  But that only heightens the contrast between the two parts. 

Psalm 22 becomes especially important for the Christian during this week – holy week – as it comes into play in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. But there are wildly divergent understandings of how psalm 22 is related to the crucifixion.

Some treat the psalm as a predictive psalm.  Ray C. Stedman’s description of this psalm is representative of the way that I have heard many other Christians talk about psalm 22. 

“In many ways the twenty-second Psalm is the most amazing of the psalms.  In it we have a picture of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, painted by David the psalmist one thousand years before Jesus Christ was born.  It constitutes one of the most amazing predictions of all time.

“At least nine specific events or aspects of the Crucifixion are described here in minute detail.  All of them were fulfilled during the six hours in which Jesus hung on the cross… Moreover, the latter part of the psalm clearly depicts the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The probability that the prediction of these nine events would be fulfilled by chance in one person, on one afternoon, is inconceivably small.  The chance that all this could occur by accident is beyond any realm of possibility our minds could imagine.  Yet it was all fulfilled as predicted in this psalm (Stedman, 65)[ii]” (emphasis added by me….)

In this view, Psalm 22 is just another part of the checklist of prophecies that Jesus had to fulfill in order to prove that he was who we claim that he is.  And I think this really diminishes both the power of the psalm and the person of Jesus.  If the psalm is predictive in this way, then Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God why have you abandoned me?” becomes less an expression of despair and more of a going through the motions.  After all, if he already knows that the psalm “clearly” predicts his resurrection, then where is the fear? Where is the overwhelming sense of abandonment?  Where is his humanity?

And, I’m not sure that I should have to say it, but I will – it is not at all “clear” that there is a resurrection in mind in psalm 22.  That is shoehorn theology.

At the other extreme end of the spectrum are people like John Dominic Crossan who argues in his book, Who Killed Jesus: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trial, abuse, crucifixion, and resurrection were not actual historical events that have been colored in the gospel accounts by reflection on Old Testament texts, but rather exegetical fabrications created whole-cloth from those OT texts.  In his words, “The passion narratives are not history remembered but prophecy historicized.”[iii]

While I understand (somewhat) how he gets to that conclusion, I don’t accept it.  I remain in the middle somewhere, believing that Jesus was crucified and buried and resurrected, but also that the gospel writers were not eye witnesses to the events.  And may not have had access to precise courtroom style transcripts of what occurred.  Instead they told the story of his death and resurrection as a theological story – using the scriptures as their template.  This allowed to be sparse and laconic in their description of the event – but to cram huge amounts of context and meaning into the few details they described.  Did Jesus scream out “My God, why have you abandoned me?”  Did the soldiers gamble for his clothes?  Maybe not – but in describing it this way, Jesus’ death is connected back to psalm 22 and there to a powerful expression of faith in the face of the worst of human misery.

Without having to spell it out explicitly – his death is linked to the ever expanding joy of the disciples taking the good news from the assembly, to all of Israel, and to the nations at the ends of the earth.

[i] Dahood, Mitchell, Psalms 1 – 50: Introduction, Translation and Notes, Doubleday & Company, Inc, Garden City, NY, 1966.
[ii] Stedman, Ray C. Folk Psalms of Faith, G/L Regal Books, Glendale, CA, 1973.
[iii] Crossan, John Dominic, Who Killed Jesus: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of
Jesus, Harper, San Francisco CA,  1995.

Biblical Limericks: A Votive for Judas

I know it’s just not done, but what if
for old Judas, we lit a votive?
Yes, he betrayed Jesus,
and that rightly grieves us,
but we don’t know Judas’ motive.

Mark 14: 10

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Biblical Limericks: Dressed Better than Solomon

Jesus said ‘don’t worry what to wear;
just look at the lilies growing there -
they neither work nor spin
but see how God clothes them;
Father God will not let you go bare.'

Luke 12: 22 - 28

Faith in the Face of Empire – Where Are You, God?

I have been reading and blogging my way through Mitri Raheb’s book Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes[i].   In the previous chapter Raheb asked four questions that help shape his hermeneutic – one of which was “Where are you, God?”

It is a question found repeated in various ways throughout the scriptures – in both the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament and the Christian New Testament as well.  From the cries of the descendents of Abraham as they suffered under the slavery of Pharaoh in Egypt to Jesus’ cry of despair on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  The question is a central question to faith in Palestine.

This is not to say that the questioner believes God to be non-existent or absent.  The question, instead invites the hidden God to intervene.

Raheb contrasts the God of Palestine to the gods of Empire. The gods of empire are showy, loud, and visible in the shrines built by conquering armies in every new territory.   The expanding reach of empire is a sign of their claim to omnipresence.  Their victorious armies are a symbol of their omnipotence.  But the God of Palestine is different.  He was not found in huge expansive empires, but in a narrow tract of land with few natural resources.  He was not loud and showy demanding shrines and temples in far flung corners – in fact he was somewhat resistant to having a temple built for him at all.  The strength of the God of Palestine was not seen in conquering armies. 

In fact, time and again, the people of this God were defeated and captured, and taken away into slavery and exile, where their captors asked the question again:

As with a deadly wound in my body,
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”
Psalm 42: 10 (NRSV)

What is uniquely revealed of the God of Palestine is that he is always there – even in defeat and despair and exile.  He has not fled.  He has not abandoned his people.  He maintains solidarity with them.  Raheb finds this most fully demonstrated in the crucifixion of Jesus – the God/Man  - the high priest who is not unable to sympathize with our weaknesses and struggles for he has endured them with us (Hebrews 4: 15) (Raheb, 87).

Those who have this God with them are able to rebuild and restart again and again.  Defeat at the hands of Empire is not an ultimate defeat. 

For Raheb, there is no critique of Empire without God.  No other state, power, organization, or people group can help. Politicians bicker and argue, but only God comes to the help of his people.  “Seeing God on the other side of the empire queries and challenges the morality of the empire, which is a key link in weakening it (Raheb, 85).”

Previous Chapters:
Chapter 1 – Longview of History 
Chapter 4 – Omphaloskepsis  
Chapter 6 – Four Questions

[i] Raheb, Mitri, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2014.


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