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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog
 

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!

The New Testament - An Invitation

We get started this Thursday, two days away, in the Parish Hall at 7:00pm. There is no reading scheduled beforehand - the reading schedule starts right afterward. But come for an overview of the New Testament - its constituent parts, its highlights, its strangeness. Bring your Bible, bring your questions, bring yourselves! See you there.

The New Testament is coming!

Hi all - We'll get started on October 3rd, and there will be more information here before then - but in the meantime, this is just to let you know that blog posts will be up each week to introduce the reading listed on the schedule. I hope you'll join us.

 

Note - I'm keeping all of last year's blog intros on here, just for fun. 

The Minor Prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi

This is it, folks, the Big Finish! Part one of The Book of Books Book Club comes to a close with the reading of the Minor Prophets (meaning short in length, not low in importance) – and thus we finish the Old Testament/the Hebrew Bible. In whatever capacity you've participated, whether reading it all or reading portions when you could, thanks for joining me and being companions in Bible reading.

 

Remember that we will hold our final meeting, 7:00-8:30pm, on Thursday, May 2, in Room 105 of the Rubin Building of Saint Ann's School - enter at 124 Pierrepont Street. 


Some quick thoughts:


Hosea is famous for his opening chapters, in which the image of Israel as having prostituted itself with other gods is given a painful personal parallel as Hosea himself marries a prostitute. The facts of Hosea's life are actually largely unknown, so the particulars of this marriage cannot be made certain; it is hard to tell whether it is real or whether he is blurring the distinction between his life and Israel's as a whole for poetic purposes. The image was one of great shame and condemnation when used by Ezekiel; here, I find those elements undercut by a sense of overwhelming pain: God loves his people and is hurt by their abandonment just as Hosea loves his wife and is hurt by her promiscuity.


Amos' calls for justice and economic equality are stirring and certainly thought-provoking in our own time. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., frequently quoted the final verse of the great passage, 5:21-24, in which Amos proclaims that religious ritual is meaningless without right behavior in daily life: "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."


As to Jonah: most of us know the story of the whale, but the rest of the tale, with Jonah relenting and going to Nineveh as God asks, is less well known. I find the faith of the other figures in the story – the sailors, the king and people of Nineveh – to be touching and significant, as it contrasts with God's calling the less-than-faithful Jonah to be his prophet. There is much humor and irony in this small but important work.


[If you have time and interest, I recommend you take a look at the sermon found in chapter 9 of Moby Dick – truly one of the great sermons in all of fiction, and a marvelous look at the story of Jonah! You don't have to read the whole novel to enjoy the sermon…]


Micah rewards careful reading, with his condemnations of bribery, corruption, and general oppression of the poor by Israel's own leaders – a condemnation, however, that also leads to extraordinary passages of hope and faith. Don't miss chapter 4′s vision of the Lord's house to which nations shall stream (and beat swords into plowshares) – an echo of Isaiah 2, and scholars are uncertain about which prophet the passage really belongs to. Note also the reference to the "one who is to rule in Israel" coming from "little" Bethlehem in chapter 5. But above all, 6:1-8 is one of the most powerful statements of the basic truth of our faith: that God does not "require" anything of us but "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." Simple yet exceedingly difficult challenges for us all.


The other prophets deserve moments of looking for such nuggets of hope and faith amidst the otherwise rather repetitive condemnations of Israel's bad behavior and the aggressiveness of other nations. Treat yourself to some greatest hits in Joel 2:1-17; Obadiah 18-21; Nahum 1:12-15; Habakkuk 3; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Haggai 2:20-23; Zechariah 9:9-17; and Malachi 3:1-4.

Ezekiel, Daniel

Ezekiel is another prophet shaped by the Babylonian Exile, as he accompanied the exiles to Babylon in 587 BCE. As we saw with Jeremiah, much of Ezekiel's writings are concerned with articulating the enormous sense of devastation the people of ancient Israel felt at the destruction of the Temple, the razing of Jerusalem, and the forced exile of so many of the leaders and people – articulating their sorrow and grief, and also attempting to explain these events as caused by the sins of the people. I highly recommend skimming most of the middle section of the book, therefore, to get a feel for these prophecies and yet to not get too caught up in their somewhat repetitive nature and expressions of anger. Do attend, however, to the first chapter, with its extraordinarily detailed and rather wild imagery of the throne of God; here Ezekiel is attempting to express the inexpressible, and the vividness and strangeness of the picture is fabulous. The other focus in this book is chapter 37, one of my favorite Bible passages, the image of the valley of dry bones. After all his anger, Ezekiel offers this wonderful picture of the restoration of Israel to a new life with God; note how it parallels the creation of Adam in Genesis.


Daniel is an odd book that appears to have two different parts: the first six chapters are wonderful tales of his miraculous doings as an Israelite living in Babylon, while the last six chapters survey the history of a much later period using imagery of an apocalyptic battle between forces of good and evil. The stories of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and Daniel in the lion's den, are classic folktales; the latter chapters provide the imagery that we will explore more thoroughly next year in the apocalyptic (end-of-the-world) passages found to some extent in the gospels and more fully in the Book of Revelation.


The Book of Daniel has some peculiarities that bear on what little we know about the formation of the canon, or official list of the books of the Bible - in this case, of the Hebrew Bible or our Old Testament. We have evidence of one specific rabbinical ruling, regarding the Book of Ecclesiasticus (note - not Ecclesiastes!), in which they decided that it did not belong in the canon as it was known to have been written around 180 BCE, much later than the sixth through fourth centuries BCE, when it was widely believed the other books of the Bible had been written. Thus it is generally accepted that the canon was "closed," that no other books were added to it, after the middle of the second century BCE. The entire second half of Daniel, however, was written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, and refers quite specifically to certain historic events, so Biblical scholars are quite certain that it was written about 165 BCE - too late to be included in the canon. The first part, with the famous folktales, was written in Hebrew and much earlier, but still only around the late fourth or early third centuries. The book slipped in, however, because of its attribution to Daniel, a figure claimed to be part of the Babylonian exile, which thus would have put it in the collection of putative sixth century writings. Odd doings, indeed.

April 4 Meeting Reminder

Hi all - Just a reminder that our meeting Thursday evening, April 4th, will be held in Room 105 of the Saint Ann's School building at 124 Pierrepont Street - across the street from the main building. Come up the front stoop, and let the security person at the desk know you're headed to 105, which is to the right. If the stairs pose a problem, you can enter under the stoop (two steps down) to get an elevator up. Don't be surprised to see other folks entering the building, there are other adult education classes meeting at the same time.

 

We meet from 7:00pm to 8:30pm, as usual.