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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog
 

Luke 1-10

We launch into Luke's gospel by encountering the "rest" of the Christmas story - all those familiar elements that have been missing so far from Matthew's birth story and Mark's lack thereof. Here we find the annunciation, the baby John the Baptist, the trip to Bethlehem, the manger, the shepherds – all the good stuff. We also find some oddities: Zechariah mute for the duration of his wife's pregnancy; Simeon and Anna, the strange old folks who hang around the temple and spontaneously prophesy about the baby Jesus; the holy family that leaves its most famous son behind in the temple as a young boy; and a narrative of John the Baptist that has him in jail by the time Luke gets around to mentioning Jesus' baptism, thus leaving it rather mysterious as to who does the actual baptizing!


The keys while reading this, however, are as follows. First, do whatever you can to render the familiar unfamiliar, so that you don't skim over the Christmas story and miss the details that may not be what you really remember them to be. Second, note that Luke offers such a wide array of reactions to Jesus' birth – amazement, terror, faith – thus asking us, his readers, to decide what our reaction is to this incarnation. Third, pay attention to the pace of Luke in contrast to Mark: while everything in the latter gospel happens "immediately," here Mary ponders things, children are left behind in conversation, John engages in lengthy dialogue with the crowds. Luke wants us to examine, consider, and then choose faith.


Once past the birth narrative, we find ourselves in what appears to be pretty familiar territory after reading two previous gospels. Luke is the last of the three known as the "Synoptic" gospels, having a shared perspective and chronology; John, we will find, is rather different. Yet Luke is different as well: details, shifts, and inclusions in these chapters point to a new and significant emphasis. While Matthew ends with The Great Commission, the resurrected Christ sending his disciples out to baptize all nations, and Mark ends with only the empty tomb (and then perhaps another story), Luke's story does not end with the resurrection but continues on. We need to remember that this gospel is only volume one of a two-volume work - the Book of Acts being volume two. Luke's story continues with the creation of the Church, and particularly with the mission of taking Christianity to the Gentiles, to non-Jews. This larger agenda informs the chapters we are reading now as well.


Notice how much emphasis there is on outsiders, particularly on Gentiles, in these chapters. This begins in chapter 4, in the story of Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue. Matthew and Mark tell the same story, but with no details at all about what Jesus has to say. Luke, however, shows Jesus not only claiming to fulfill Isaiah's prophecy - an audacious claim that arouses the congregation - but also shows Jesus referring to the times that the prophets Elijah and Elisha each healed a Gentile rather than surrounding Jews! No wonder the crowd becomes enraged - he seems to be suggesting that they are not holding up their end of their relationship with God, and that God is therefore attending to others. Notice also how often Jesus seems to deliberately provoke the Pharisees by healing someone on the sabbath, thereby suggesting to a Gentile audience that faith in Christ matters more than adherence to the commandments. In this context, the parable of the Good Samaritan takes on a very pointed implication.


Where else can we find this emphasis on inclusion, on faith over rules, on bringing all people to God, in these chapters? Does this mean that the commandments are being given short shrift by Luke, or by Jesus? Can we see in Luke's agenda a disparagement of Judaism that still rankles today? Can we also see, however, a desire on Luke's part to show Jesus as calling the whole world to himself, that all might have their lives transformed? To portray Christ promising that if no one is especially deserving then all are blessed by God's love? So much for us to consider!

Mark 9-16

My apologies for the delay in posting this introduction to the second half of Mark! Hope you're reading along anyway….


Augustine considered Mark to be a "digest" of Matthew – nowadays most scholars think of it as the skeleton on which Matthew and Luke constructed their gospels. Either way, reading it after Matthew focuses our attention on what Mark considers sufficiently important to include. The Passion story emerges as the axis around which everything else turns – even the Resurrection! Mark has an empty tomb, and then controversy about whether either of the "endings" found in some early versions should be considered to be authentic. Without the longer ending, we have no resurrection appearances at all (and we probably wouldn't have any snake-handling in some of those out-there churches either). Since no scholarly consensus exists, Bibles today include all three options: ending with the first half of 16:8; adding the shorter ending; or adding the longer ending (with or without the shorter ending, to confuse things further...). Both the shorter and longer endings sound to me like a change of tone; what do you think?


Since Mark only has four parables in all, and only one in this latter half, it seems incumbent upon us to pay particular attention to the one he has chosen to accompany his focus on the Passion. The parable of the wicked tenants (12:1-12) provokes the Jewish leadership to desire to arrest Jesus. Jesus has by now predicted his suffering and death both obliquely and directly; speaking this parable to that leadership makes the prediction even more powerful. (Remember that any reference to vines, vineyards, grapes, and wine is a reference to the people of Israel.) As we finish Mark, then, we should be asking ourselves: what does the death of Jesus Christ signify to the people of his time and to us? How does the cross, the instrument of that death, become such a symbol of hope for us? Reminding ourselves of the fundamental importance of believing that Jesus is God incarnate, suffering as we suffer and dying as we die to promise us God's love, seems a good way to conclude our reading of the second gospel.

Mark 1-8

Mark, what's your hurry? Where's the fire? That's always my first reaction to the second gospel, in which the word "immediately" occurs 28 times in 16 brief chapters – twenty of those occurrences in the first eight chapters alone! This semantic peculiarity echoes the overall narrative drive of the gospel: Mark is more focused on plot than character, at least until the Passion. He starts fast, with no kings, no angels and shepherds, no manger in Bethlehem, no story of Jesus' birth at all. Instead, we plunge right in with the baptism, the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, and we're quickly barrelling through an array of healings, disciple-calling, and miracles. There are only three parables in this first half (and one more in the second), an indication of Mark's greater emphasis on what Jesus did than what he said. This will shift some in the second half. But don't miss the quick summary of the good news Mark offers in that first chapter: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." Might this summary provide us with an interpretive angle on the rest of the gospel? 


Comparing Mark with our reading of Matthew, we see general agreement about chronology and major events – hence the majority of scholars see Mark as the frame on which Matthew then hung further information, particularly in the area of teaching. How, then, does this gospel's narrative drive strike you? If Mark is not really in a hurry (and I don't actually think he is), what message do we get from this emphasis on events? And what, really, is the implication of all those things happening "immediately"? Do we feel urgency sometimes in our own faith? Are there times when you've felt the call of God in Christ and felt the desire to respond immediately, yet some hesitation prevented you? Perhaps Mark's examples of immediacy are meant to encourage us to act?

Matthew 26-28

Please note that the November and December meetings will happen on the first Wednesday of the month, due to a scheduling conflict. Join us in the Parish Hall on November 6 and December 4 at 7:00pm.

 

We undertake this week our first read-through of the Passion (the suffering), Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is so much in these three chapters that is so very familiar – the Easter story, Pontius Pilate, the arrest in the garden, the Last Supper – that I urge you to take it slow, to attend to the details, to not let the versions of these stories already in your head dictate how you read them. Matthew has his own particular take on all of this, including a focus (again!) on the fulfilling of scriptural prophecies, a minimal number of resurrection appearances (though the last to a large crowd), and the inclusion of Judas's regret and the guarding of the tomb, all of which serve as goads to his intended audience, the Jewish people of his time.


Most intriguing, however, is the movement from the steady abandonment of Jesus in chapter 26 – the crowd of disciples at the house in Bethany where a woman anoints him, the disciples who have the Last Supper with him, the betrayal by Judas, Peter's denials predicted, the failure of the disciples to stay awake, their flight after his arrest – to his isolation in chapter 27 – which is intensified by those who mock him, and alleviated only by the faithful response of the centurion and the patient presence of the women –  to finally Jesus reconnecting in the resurrection events of chapter 28: first to the women, then to the crowd, and at last to the whole world.


Might this overall movement, which is not unique to Matthew but seems to be emphasized by him more than the other gospel writers, also serve as a mirroring of the relationship of God to the ancient and first-century people of Israel? in that the people abandon God but God keeps pursuing them? Are there times in our lives when we've felt as if we've abandoned our God, abandoned our faith, only to find God pursuing us, inserting awareness of his presence into our lives, renewing our faith, and calling us back again into the community of believers?

Matthew 17-25

There are two main issues informing these middle chapters of Matthew that contribute to a picture of our Lord and Savior as not always the obvious incarnation of God's love but sometimes as exasperated, angry, and even petulant (pity the poor fig tree!). First, Jesus turns in these chapters toward Jerusalem and a difficult future that he articulates ever more clearly: persecution, suffering, and death – and a resurrection. Thus his message and its delivery take on greater urgency in these chapters, as he tries to prepare people to grasp that future's meaning once it occurs. Second, Jesus is frustrated by the inability of his people – and especially their leaders – to understand that their perception of their relationship with God is backwards.


I believe that Jesus is quite consistently arguing - especially in these chapters - that we are first meant to believe that God loves us as the sinners that we are, and then to work to respond to that love by caring for those around us. We, and the leaders and people of Israel in Jesus' time, too easily fall into the trap of trying to earn God's love by making our behavior fit into categories of righteousness, and Jesus here has just about had it with that misinterpretation. Hence his frustration with the Pharisees and their constant efforts to test whether his behaviors fit the letter of the commandments; hence his parables that attack the Jewish leaders for failing to understand and follow the teachings of the prophets (e.g., the Wicked Tenants, 21:33ff.); hence his sad response to the rich young man (19:16ff.) who thinks there is a checklist of righteous acts that will guarantee his entrance into a kingdom to which Jesus is promising he already belongs.


The Parable of the Lost Sheep (18:10-14) promises us that God will go after every one of us, that none will be lost from the loving care of the Shepherd. How, then, might we read the image of the separation of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46) that seems very clearly to judge us by our behaviors? I would assert that no one in the history of humanity has ever been completely caring or completely uncaring - even the most selfish or evil person we know has occasionally done something nice for someone - and that the image therefore is less about how we will be judged than about how we can best respond to God's love. God, Jesus is saying, cares for all of us and when we care for each other we are aligning our lives with God, we are responding best to that love - we are in heaven; when we fail to care for each other we are aligned only with ourselves and are thus separate from God in our own perceptions - and that is its own hell. We judge ourselves and each other accordingly - how about if we let the judging go and instead act in love toward one another?


Much to chew on this week!

Matthew 8-16

This central section of Matthew's gospel includes the full array of episodic elements that typify gospel writing: miracle stories, teachings and parables, general statements indicating growing resentment, questions of identity and meaning. Here we see most starkly the gap between us, the readers who know that the resurrection will be the end of the story, and the characters in the story (primarily disciples) who do not yet know that ending. Our call as readers, then, is to question that gap, to explore what it shows us about what Jesus is trying to tell us (and them) about himself, about the resurrection, and about God's kingdom. How do we hear his message, with its implicit (and occasionally explicit) promise of the resurrection, differently from those who do not yet know to what he is referring? Don't the Jonah references, for example, sound rather different to us than to them?


Our reading concludes with what is known as "the confession of Peter" – his assertion that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah – and Jesus' most explicit reference to the cross. Can we as readers see the cross somewhere in every story of healing, in every parable, in every teaching? Can we see the resurrected Christ in every story of healing, in every parable, in every teaching?


One further suggestion: Jesus calls the attention of his disciples to the places where the seed lands in the Parable of the Sower – what if we focus our attention on the Sower himself instead; how does that change things?

Special Announcement

Please note that the November and December meetings will happen on the first Wednesday of the month, due to a scheduling conflict. Join us in the Parish Hall on November 6 and December 4 at 7:00pm.

Matthew 4-7

Having launched Jesus' ministry with his baptism by John in chapter 3, Matthew moves very quickly into three events that shape that ministry: first, the temptation in the wilderness (source of our season of Lent); then the calling of the first disciples; and then the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7). These are all important and relatively well-known elements of the gospel story: the temptation provides a way of thinking about the choices Jesus faces about what sort of power he might have and how he might use it; the calling of disciples points to the choices he can make about what sort of leadership he wants to offer his people; and the Sermon on the Mount lays out the foundation of his world-upending teaching. All deserve careful reading. One way of thinking about the Sermon is to see how Jesus extends and intensifies what God expects of us to such an extent that it is clearly impossible for us to live up to that expectation - which means that we are all sinners. In Jesus' time, the Pharisees (the group responsible for analyzing the legal code of the Torah and updating it for contemporary times) felt they had worked out how to fulfill the law and therefore how to see oneself as righteous (and, of course, see others as sinners). Jesus wants to demonstrate the error of this position - but his point, it seems to me, is not just to convict us all of failing God, but rather to get us to see how God loves us even in our sinfulness. This is a truly radical idea. See whether that interpretation makes any sense to you!


And do not neglect the short passage of Matthew 4:12-17. While Matthew here again sets the stage by quoting Isaiah and suggesting that Jesus represents the fulfillment of ancient Israel's hopes, the last verse is perhaps the most important. It is the summary of Jesus' teaching, a teaching that is expanded powerfully in the Sermon on the Mount but that here receives its pithiest expression: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." All of the gospel, all of all four Gospels, is really explication of what that sentence means. Remember that "repent" does not mean that we should feel bad about ourselves, but rather it literally means a "change of mind," a turning from a self-centered perspective to a God-centered perspective. Does that change how you hear the Sermon? 


Some more questions for consideration while reading:

 

  • What kind of power do each of the temptations represent? How do we face those same temptations to use what power we have in similar ways?
  • How does the parable of the wise man and the foolish man that ends the Sermon on the Mount draw together the many disparate elements of the Sermon? What are we to do when we fail to live up to the standards Jesus seems to be establishing - are we just the foolish man, watching our house be swept away?

Special announcement

Please note that the November and December meetings will happen on the first Wednesday of the month, due to a scheduling conflict. Join us in the Parish Hall on November 6 and December 4 at 7:00pm.

Matthew 1-3

The New Testament, here we go! And we are immediately drawn into the complications of ancient writing. Matthew opens his gospel with Jesus' family tree, which he traces from Abraham. Luke has a genealogy as well (3:23-28), which begins with Adam and therefore is significantly longer. Two unsettling complications: first, from David to Joseph, the two genealogies have almost no names in common - so who are these people? Second, Matthew is bent on a neat numerical scheme, setting up 14 generations each from Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian Exile, and from the exile to Jesus - except that there are only 13 generations in the last group, so what does he mean? There's no solution to either of these problems. In any case, why should we care? Because establishing a "royal lineage" is seen by both writers as highly important to supporting their essential claim, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. So take a fast look - don't worry about all the unknown names, but note the stories we read last year that are contained in the women Matthew includes in this list: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba. Cool. Then walk around the church looking at our windows under the balconies, and see the whole thing - known as a "Jesse tree" as the family tree of Jesse, father of David - with the names as they were spelled in the King James Bible. Cool!


Next we get Matthew's "birth narrative," the term used for the stories he and Luke tell about Jesus' birth. It's worth looking at Luke's version, in his first two chapters, at this point. We'll come back to it, of course, and explore it in detail then - for now, just note which elements of the "Christmas story" as we think of it are in which gospel. Note too the contradictory explanations about why/how Jesus is born in Bethlehem but grows up in Nazareth. And hark back to Isaiah 60 to see why Matthew is so excited about the "wise men," and why they become "kings" in the popular conception: "Nations shall come to your light,/ and kings to the brightness of your dawning;" (60:3) and, "They shall bring gold and frankincense,/ and proclaim the praise of the Lord." (60:6) Fulfilling prophecies is very much on Matthew's mind.


Finally, the baptism of Jesus in chapter three. This is the beginning of Jesus' "public ministry," and serves as the actual beginning event in the gospels of Mark and John. Note the quotation Matthew uses about John the Baptist - again from Isaiah, this time 40:3. Comparing Matthew's to the original, we can see that the punctuation has been changed, so that instead of the road being in the wilderness (Isaiah), the voice is in the wilderness (Matthew). Remember, then, that ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts had no punctuation at all, and enjoy the handiwork of the evangelist as interpreted by generations of readers!