In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Translation: But in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a town of Galilee named Nazareth to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name (was) Joseph, out of the house of David. And the name of the virgin (was) Miriam. And he came to her and said, "Rejoice, graced one. The Lord is with you." But she was thoroughly confused at the word and pondered what sort this greeting might be.
And the angel said to her, "Fear not, Miriam, for you have found grace from God. And behold! You will become pregnant in womb and you will bring forth a son, and you will call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called son of the highest, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of David, his father. And he will reign upon the house of Jacob into the eternal, and his kingdom will not end."
But Miriam said to the angel, "How can this be, since I do not know a man?" The angel answered and said to her, "A holy spirit will come upon you, and the highest power will overshadow you. Therefore, the one being born will be called holy, a son of God. And behold! your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month of her, the one said to be barren. For each word from God will not be impossible." But Miriam said, "Behold a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.
Background and situation: The passage appears only in Luke. The book of Luke has just begun and we can already see brought to expression at least two major themes in Luke: his accent on the role of women, and the role of the Holy Spirit.
More than any other gospel, Luke lifts up women. For example, his annunciation story follows right after the visit of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah. True to form for Luke, the man, Zechariah, doesn't really get it, but the woman, Miriam, does.
In regard to "spirit", the child in Elizabeth will be "filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb" (1:15) and have the "spirit of Elijah" (1:17). The Holy Spirit is intimately connected with the conception of Jesus (1:35). Luke will frequently use the phrase "in the power of the Spirit" in both Luke and Acts.
The annunciation: In the late first century, it appears that the early church was beginning to deal with the question of when Jesus became "Son of God." Paul, writing in the 50's, doesn't seem particularly interested in this question, though sometimes gives the impression that Jesus became "Son of God" at the resurrection. (See Rom 1: 3-4, for example.)
The earliest gospel writer, Mark, writing around AD 70, starts his gospel with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. For Mark, it appears that this is when Jesus became God's son. If all we had was the gospel of Mark, we'd all be "adoptionists," i.e. the idea that Jesus was "adopted" by God in his baptism and that this is when he became the "Son of God."
Matthew and Luke, writing 10-15 years later than Mark, roll Jesus' divinity back to his birth. Jesus was the "Son of God" at his conception. Naturally, the birth of a divine figure would be accompanied by miraculous signs, such as the virginity of his mother, which is why the two gospels which proclaim Jesus' divinity from birth are the same two gospels which mention the virginity of Mary.
Even this, of course, was not enough for the author of the fourth gospel, writing c. AD 95. The author of the fourth gospel rolls the divinity of Jesus back before the beginning of creation. Subsequent theology has sided with the fourth gospel.
Mary--more properly, "Miriam"--was betrothed to Joseph, which meant that they were engaged to be married. Engagement in those days was tantamount to marriage. It was a binding agreement. The young woman would typically continue to live with her parents for up to a year, although it was not unknown for the couple to begin to live together right away.
Essentially, an engagement in those days amounted to the passing of control over the woman from the father to the husband. Marriages were arranged by families. The girls would usually be married right after puberty, around the ages of 12-14, the men around the ages 17-22.
Luke draws a close parallel between the birth of John and the birth of Jesus. The birth of John is announced to Zechariah and Elizabeth, in the temple. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah, who is "terrified." Gabriel tells Zechariah not to be afraid, and that "Elizabeth will bear you a son." He is to be named John, and he "will be great."
The birth of Jesus involves Miriam and Joseph (1:27), in Nazareth (1: 26). Gabriel appears to Miriam, who is "perplexed." Gabriel tells Miriam not to be afraid, and that "you...will bear a son." "You will name him Jesus," and "he will be great." (See Joseph Fitzmeyer, The Gospel according to Luke, pp. 314-315.)
The two stories are connected for an important reason. For Luke, John the Baptist is the "symbol, synthesis, conclusion and consummation of the Old Testament" (Borg and Crossan. See The First Christmas, pp. 113ff). This is why his mother is presented as aged. She is like Hannah, who gave birth to the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1: 1-19).
As the "old age" is consummated in John the Baptist, the "new age" begins with the birth of Jesus. His mother is not old, but rather a young virgin. Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist close one age. Joseph, Miriam, and Jesus inaugurate the new.
The angel Gabriel addresses Miriam three times in this text. That amounts to one speech for each use of the word "virgin." Luke probably intended this. The word "virgin" appears twice in verse 27, which is followed by two of Gabriel's speeches. Miriam uses the word herself in verse 34, whereupon Gabriel gives her his most important and final message: The child is from the "Holy Spirit" and "the highest power."
In his first speech, Gabriel greets Miriam with xaire, which literally means "grace to you." This was a common greeting in the world of that time, like "good day" or "howdy". Luke probably intends the literal meaning as well. Gabriel calls Miriam a "favored one"--or "graced one"--and says, "The Lord is with you."
In his second address, Gabriel tells Miriam not to be afraid, and that she has "found grace" with God. Her pregnancy is announced by idou--behold!--(unfortunately not translated in NRSV). Like John the Baptist, her child "will be great," but unlike John the Baptist, Jesus will be "son of the highest," and will rule on the "throne of David" over the "house of Jacob." Luke thus associates Jesus with Israel's greatest king and with Israel's primary progenitor.
In Gabriel's third speech, the angel tells Miriam that the child will be born from the Holy Spirit and the "highest power"--"Most High," in NRSV. The child will be "holy," "a son of God."
Readers will notice that Luke mentions the "highest power" twice. The "highest power" in the world of that time was Caesar Augustus--the word "augustus" means "worthy of being worshipped'--who was also called "son of God." (He was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who had been elevated to "god-hood.")
Luke is being subtly subversive. He is saying that, no, Caesar is not the "highest power." God is. And Caesar is not the true "son of God." Jesus is.
Also in Gabriel's third speech, the angel tells Miriam of Elizabeth's conception. Any first century Jewish person would have recognized the parallels between Elizabeth's condition and that of both Sarah (Gen 17: 7) and Hannah in the Old Testament. Elizabeth's conception, Mary would have understood, is through an action of God.
"For each word from God will not be impossible," then says Gabriel. Miriam is to understand that though her situation is some different from Elizabeth's, Sarah's, and Hannah's--she is not aged--nevertheless, her conception is from God and will happen.
Mary responded with her own "behold" statement: "Behold, a servant--doule, slave--of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word." "Let it be" is genoito, (aorist, middle, optative). It implies origin, either from natural causes, or through special agency. Miriam promises non-interference in what God may be doing.
This is at the heart of Luke's purpose. The important characteristic of virginity, for Luke, is that it means the child can only be met with receptivity by human beings. We humans can do nothing to bring the new age about. We can not kick it into gear, or make it happen. We may only "let it be to me."
This is indeed a great word of wisdom. "When I find myself in times of trouble / Mother Mary comes to me / Speaking words of wisdom, let it be." Letting things be is, you might say, "going with the flow."
Note also that, in Luke's other work, the book of Acts, after the resurrection of Jesus and just after his ascension, the disciples are all together and among their number are "certain women," and Miriam, "the mother of Jesus," and his brothers.
As Mary was present, obviously, at the birth of Jesus, so Mary is also present at the birth of the church. She is the human link between these two miraculous births.
Image: Annunciation, John Collier
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Translation: A man sent from God happened, his name John. He came to witness so that he might bear witness to the light so that all might faith through him. He himself was not the light, but so that he might witness to the light.
This is the witness of John when the Judeans sent priests and Levites out of Jerusalem so that they might question him, "Who are you?" He declared without any qualification, avowing, "I am not the Christ." And they questioned him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" And he said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" And he answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? so that we might give an answer for the ones who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He declared, "I am a voice crying out in the wilderness: 'Make straight the path of the Lord," just as Isaiah the prophet said.
And they had been sent from the pharisees. They asked him and said to him, "Then why are you baptizing if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them saying, "I baptize in water. Among you stands one you do not know, the one coming after me. I am surely not worthy so that I might loose the thong of a sandal."
This happened in Bethany on the other side of the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Background and situation: The themes of the four Sundays in Advent are usually second coming, two John the Baptists, and one Mary. This is the third Sunday in Advent so, therefore, we are on our second Adventian emphasis on John the Baptist, this one from the fourth gospel.
The opening verses of the text are from the famous prologue. Anything in the prologue is of great importance, and these three verses (6-8), inserted right after the spectacular opening--Word, being, life, light, all things!--accent the witness of John.
John in the fourth gospel: "Witness" is an important concept all through the fourth gospel, and that is how John is presented. He is a "witness to the light." The Greek word is martureo, from which we get our word "martyr." The connection is obvious: Witnessing can lead to martyrdom. John himself is a good example.
In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), John the Baptist is linked with repentance--"a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," says Mark. That is not so in the fourth gospel. In the fourth gospel, John's only mission is to point to Christ.
Verse six, in Greek, begins with egeneto--"it happened." The use of egeneto subtly underlines the importance of the statement. Literally speaking, John "happened," or even John "began to exist." Then, he "was sent"--apostalmenos. (The noun "apostle" never appears in the fourth gospel, but the verb form occurs many times. The author of the fourth gospel prefers active mission over sedentary titles.)
John was sent "from--para--God." Prepositions can be tricky in Greek, but of the options available to the author of the fourth gospel, it is interesting that he chose para here instead of ek or apo. Ek means "out of," apo "away from." Para, however, means "from the side of." Its use here indicates that the witness of John has its source or origin in God. John may not be the light, but his witness to the light comes from God.
John bears witness to the light so that "all might faith through him." In Greek, the word for "faith" is pisteuein, which is a verb. "Faith" used as a verb sounds funny in English so we usually translate pisteuein as "believe" instead.
This is unfortunate because the biblical concept of "faith" is not the same thing as "believe." Faith is "radical trust," an orientation of one's entire being. "Believe" usually means intellectual assent--(like putting a check mark beside every phrase of the Apostles' Creed, then faxing it to heaven so you can be "saved.") The author of the fourth gospel could care less about "intellectual assent." He's not into head games. He's after commitment.
"Jews" vs. "Judeans": Notice, too, that while John was sent by God, and his witness comes from God, the "priests and Levites" were sent from the Judeans, who came out of Jerusalem. (The NRSV translation of ioudaioi as "Jews" is mistaken. The word was not translated as "Jews" until after the Bar Kochva Revolt which began in AD 132--forty years after the writing of the fourth gospel.)
This has been a costly mistake. The overwhelming majority of uses of ioudaioi in the New Testament occur in the fourth gospel. When the word is translated as "the Jews," it sounds like the indictment of an entire people.
That is clearly not the author of the fourth gospel's intent, as anyone with any familiarity with the fourth gospel and the world of its time would surely know. It is absurd to suggest that "the Jews" as a people opposed Jesus. How, then, would you explain his overwhelming popularity with the people, nearly all of them Jews? "The Jews" loved Jesus but they hated him too? The author of the fourth gospel was not schizophrenic.
The fourth gospel is not an argument between Christians and Jews. It's an argument between Jews and Jews--specifically, "Judean" Jews and Galilean Jews. The former opposed the Jesus movement, and the latter supported it. For the author of the fourth gospel, "Judean" stands for an entire mindset and worldview. "Judeans" support heirarchy, division between "the chosen" and everyone else, the financial and religious "establishment," and collaboration with Rome.
Note well: John "was sent" from God. The "priests and Levites" "were sent" only from the Judeans. Right off the bat, the author of the fourth gospel gives us a preview of a theme that will resound all through the book. (Curious, too, that the "Judeans" were audacious enough to send representatives "across the Jordan," which was outside their territory.)
The "voice": John denies that he is the Christ. The denial is even more pronounced in Greek. The fourth gospel has many instances where Jesus says ego eimi--literally, "I am." This is the Greek equivalent of God's Holy Name in Hebrew, YHWH.
When John says he is not the Christ, the Greek construction is ego ouk eimi--I am not. Given the point of view of the whole fourth gospel, this is an emphatic denial.
Neither is John the prophet Elijah or any other prophet. The gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, says that John was Elijah. That's because Matthew's agenda was different than that of the author of the fourth gospel. For Matthew, Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. He is the culmination of the tradition.
For the author of the fourth gospel, however, Jesus needs no established authority for any kind of validation, and neither does John. Jesus the Word was "in the beginning," after all, which precedes all tradition, and John was sent by God. He is not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor a prophet, and he doesn't care. Sent by God, he does not need to present credentials. Outside the traditional channels, he is a "voice."
The pharisees enter the picture, which ratchets up the tension. Although the fourth gospel gives an impression that Jesus had at least some support among the pharisees, they would also prove to be some of his primary opponents.
This would be even more true at the time of the writing of the fourth gospel. By AD 80 or so, after the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-70, the pharisees were the only major Jewish tradition left standing. After AD 70, the pharisees, for the first time in their history, were a majority of the Sanhedrin. (Rather like the old Soviets, they re-wrote their history to say that they were really in charge all along.)
John responds to the interrogations of the pharisees by telling them they do not "know" the one coming after. The fourth gospel will consistently portray the enemies of Jesus as not "knowing." This is not surprising since "the world" did not "know" Jesus either (1:10). That said, the author of the fourth gospel felt it necessary to assert, at the first mention of the word "pharisee," that they do not "know."
John then asserts his own unworthiness in relationship to the one "coming after." All four gospels are careful to put the Baptist in an inferior position to Jesus.
John was baptizing in water. Water is one of the richest symbols in humanity. Virtually every culture and religion in the world has a primal water rite of some kind. Symbolically, water is feminine. (There's a reason women are more comfortable with bodily fluids than are men.)
Water is powerful. Water can sweep over the land and wash it away. Set something in water long enough, and the water will break it down. Water is a dissolving element. (There's a reason we refer to baptism as a death.)
While John baptizes in water, Jesus "will baptize with the holy spirit. (1:33)" Water brings death, spirit brings new life. Both are essential aspects of re-birth. "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit," said Jesus (3:5).
Image: St. John the Baptist, Donatello
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you withwater; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
Translation: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God. Just as it was written in Isaiah the prophet, "Behold, I am sending my messenger to your face who will prepare your way, a sound crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths." John, the one baptizing, happened in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the release of sins." And all of the region of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. And the John was clothed in camel hair, and leaven leather around his hip and eating locusts and wild honey. And he proclaimed saying, 'The one mightier than me is coming after me. I am surely not fit to stoop down and loose the strap of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you in a holy spirit.'"
Background and situation: The first statement of the book of Mark--"the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God"--should be taken as the title of the entire work. The book of Mark--the entire book--is the "beginning."
That's why Mark ends as it does. The women are at the tomb of the resurrected Jesus. They are told to follow his brothers into Galilee, but the women were afraid and didn't tell anybody anything (16:8). The book even ends with a preposition! It ends so abruptly that some have supposed that the real ending was lost. In the second century, at least two additional endings were added to try to make Mark come out better.
Mark knew exactly what he was doing and the ending he gave us is the ending he intended. The book ends up in the air because this whole dramatic story is only the "beginning." The rest of the Christian story is being written in the lives of those who "follow the way."
Put another way: The written book is the "beginning," the overture, the prelude. The on-going story is lived in the New Community.
In the world of the first century, "gospel" was generally understood to be an oral proclamation. In fact, before Jesus, the most common use of the word "gospel" was to announce Roman military victories: "Good news! Caesar is victorious in Gaul!"
Mark's use of "gospel" is the first known use of the word "gospel" as a title for a written composition. New thoughts and a new way of life call for a new literary genre! Note as well that the content of this "gospel" is not sayings or philosophy, but rather the story of a person.
Mark's opening statement: Mark introduces Jesus as "Christ, son of God." That sets the stage for a story in which the title of "son of God" will not be used again, without qualification or controversy, until chapter 15. Only at the death of Jesus on the cross is the statement of the centurion--"Truly, this man was God's son" (15:39)--allowed to stand as stated.
The reason is because, in Mark's theology, the Son of God paradoxically reigns from the cross. Only until we see and experience the death of Jesus on the cross are we able to call Jesus "son of God". For Mark, we cannot use that title until we know fully and precisely what it means.
With that brief but potent introduction, Mark moves immediately to Isaiah the prophet. In doing so, he links his new "beginning" with the ancient scriptural tradition. The quotation itself, though attributed only to Isaiah, is really a conflation of Exodus 23: 20, Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3.
In addition to linking Jesus with the scriptural tradition, and especially the prophetic tradition, Isaiah's language about a messenger is also a means of introducing a major character--John the baptizer, the "messenger"--and the concept of "the way."
"Behold, I am sending my messenger to your face who will prepare your way, a sound crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths."
Note that "the way" is mentioned twice. First, the messenger will prepare our way which is an exhortation to prepare the Lord's way. "The way," as we shall see as we move through Mark's gospel, means following Jesus, which means acting like Jesus.
Mark changes a word. In the Septuagint, neither Isaiah nor Malachi use the word kataskeuasei, though Mark does. It means "prepare fully" or "make ready" or "construct." The word includes the concept of equipping with everything necessary. As Ched Myers notes, this is the first indication that "the way" is "no mere path; a new way of life is being built in the shell of the old world." (p. 124)
John the Baptist "happened" in the wilderness. The word is egeneto, which means "came into existence." (NRSV has "appeared.")
Mark describes John's appearance in words reminiscent of the prophet Elijah (2 Kgs 1:8). The next to last verse of the Old Testament (Mal 4:5) enjoins readers to look for the prophet Elijah before the day of the Lord comes. That he eats locusts and wild honey is to say that he eats food without preparation. His food is supplied directly by God.
Not only does John look like Elijah, he agitated like Elijah. Prophets--the true ones--generally were a pain-in-the-neck to the political powers. Elijah had urged rebellion against the house of Ahab. Like Elijah, John the Baptist was regarded as a subversive threat by the government of Herod Antipas.
"All" of Judea and "all" of Jerusalem went out to John in the wilderness. Right off the bat in Mark's gospel, we see a massive rejection of the Temple. The people did not go to the Temple--the center of Judaism--which was right in their own city. No, they went out to the wilderness to hear the agitator John. The Temple had its own mechanisms for dealing with sin, but people preferred to go to John and his "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."
John and Jesus were both alike and different. They both were preachers, both had an association with the wilderness, both advocated repentance, both forgave sins, both died a violent death.
The differences, however, are more striking. John was an ascetic, Jesus was not. John observed meal rituals, Jesus did not. John worked in Judea, Jesus mainly in Galilee. People came to John, Jesus came to people.
As in all the gospels, John is presented as an important figure, but a subordinate one to Jesus. The "one mightier" will follow John. Where John baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize "in a holy spirit." As we proceed through Mark's gospel, it will become clear that baptism "in a holy spirit" means confrontation with the political powers.
Image: St. Mark, contemporary
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Translation: "But in those days, with that distress, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be agitated.
And then they will be seeing the son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send the angels, and he will gather together his elect out of four winds from the uttermost parts of earth just as the uttermost parts of heaven.
From the fig tree learn the parable: When now its branch becomes tender and produces leaves, you know that summer is near. And in this manner, you, when you see these things happening, you know that he is near at the door. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things come into existence. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
But about that day and hour no one knows, not the angels in heaven nor the son, only the father. Discern! Keep awake! For you do not know when the time is. Just as a man is sent away from his house and gives his slaves liberty, each his work, and he commands the doorkeeper to keep alert. Therefore, keep awake! for you do not know when the lord of the house will come, either evening, or midnight, or cock-crow, or morning, or he may find you sleeping. Not coming suddenly, he may find you sleeping. But what I say to you, I say to all, keep awake!"
Background and situation: Most biblical scholars take the view that Mark was composed either during the Roman-Jewish War (AD 66-70), probably toward the end of that period, or shortly thereafter.
In the early part of the war, AD 66-67, the Jews had had some success. By AD 68, however, 60,000 Roman soldiers had crushed the revolt on the coast and in the north. The population of Jerusalem swelled as refugees flooded into the city.
These refugees were joined by other rebels and religious fanatics who saw the coming battle of Jerusalem in apocalyptic terms. God would not let Jerusalem be conquered! The Messiah would appear to save the city, the Temple, and the people! The atmosphere of Jerusalem was rife with religious fanaticism.
By AD 69, the Jewish rebels had withdrawn to the city of Jerusalem and were preparing to defend it against the coming Roman seige. First, however, they fought with their fellow Jews. The zealots and sicarii (the "knife men"), after some brutal infighting, took control of the city. They assassinated anyone who advocated surrender. They burned some of their own food supplies as further inducement to fight on instead of negotiating peace.
Our reading is a portion of the "little apocalypse" in Mark 13. The entire speech begins in verse 5 and extends to verse 37. Our reading begins at verse 24. This is the hopeful part! The lection begins with the cosmos in disorder (24-27), followed by a fig tree parable (28-33), followed by a "lord" parable (33-37).
An accurate description of reality: The powers of the cosmos are shaken. Stars fall out of heaven. The universe is in turmoil, discombobulated, turned upside down. This is an apt description of life in revolutionary times. The world is in crisis.
That being the case, the stage is set for the appearance of the "son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory." This recalls Daniel--"As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven" (7: 13).
The first thing the son of man does is to send his angels to gather up everything "from the uttermost parts of earth just as the uttermost parts of heaven." This is reminiscent of the anacephelaiososthai ta panta--the "gathering up of all things into the head"--spoken of by Iraneus, c. AD 160. The powers having fallen, the new age begins with complete heavenly and earthly renewal.
Parable of the fig tree: Jesus tells his listeners to "learn" the parable (parabole) of the fig tree. (This is the only use of mathete--"learn/follow"--in Mark's gospel.)
The parable suggests that one can gauge aspects of earthly time simply through observing nature. Leaves appearing on trees means that summer is near. Similarly, Mark understands the signs produced in revolutionary times to be indications of the Lord's coming. The tumult of the cosmos is a sign that he is near.
The fig tree is a symbol of the Temple throughout Mark. That the fig tree "produces leaves" is said by some to mean that the Temple is capable of renewal. This falters, however, when one remembers that the fig tree that Jesus had already cursed in 11:13 was "nothing but leaves."
More likely: Even when the Temple appears to be blossoming, such as, for example, during a time of nationalistic and religious fervor, it is still corrupt and incapable of renewal--perhaps especially then. It is at just such a time, the flowering of religious power that precedes its collapse, that the son of man is "near at the door."
What is revealed: What will soon be revealed is the way of the cross as opposed to the way of military and religious triumphalism. In other words, the messiah appears all right, but the messiah is a "crucified God" who, paradoxically, reigns from the cross. "This generation will not pass away" until it has seen this "crucified God" manifest. Quite true. In fact, it will happen in just a few days when Jesus is crucified.
This has nothing to do with chronological time. It is not about days and hours. "You do not know when the time is"--kairos in Greek, which means the "time of God." God's time is not necessarily at the end of the age. That is mere chronological time. God's time can be, and is, every moment of every hour.
The parable of the householder opens in a typical way. The householder is "sent away". In his absence, he gives his slaves "authority"--exousian, power, ability, liberty. They each have their own task, including especially the doorkeeper who watches for one who is "near at the door."
Suddenly, the "lord of the house" returns. He left a "man"--anthropon--and returns a "lord"--kyrie. The lord may come "either evening, or midnight, or cock-crow, or morning." These four designations of time are also known as the four watches of the Roman guard.
Each one of those watches points to a significant moment in the coming passion of Jesus. Evening is the time of the last supper (14:17). Midnight is the general time of Peter's denial (14:30). Cock-crow is the specific time of his denial (14:30, 72). The following morning, Jesus was handed over to the Romans (15:1). Mark's message is that the lord is near and will be made manifest in the cross.
Discern!: The last four verses of the lection exhort the followers of Jesus to "keep awake" and "watch." The first exhortation, however, is not gregoreite--"keep awake"--but blepete, which the NRSV translates as "beware," but which I think should be translated "discern." Blepete means "to see" or "to perceive." Jesus is exhorting his listeners to discern what is going on. Read the times!
The ensuing call to "keep alert" is in contrast to sleep. The struggle between staying awake and falling asleep will mark the disciples in the following story of Gethsemene. There, despite Jesus' explicit instruction, the disciples will fall asleep. For Mark, this is yet another failure of the disciples. Moreover, at each "watch," the disciples will fail again.
The exhortation to "keep alert" and "watch" is not unique to Mark, of course. In fact, it is one of the most common exhortations throughout the New Testament. It has nothing to do with reading tea leaves in an attempt to figure out "the day and hour." It has everything to do with discernment, to see the crucified God in his paradoxical triumph, and to wait and watch with expectation for the revealing of the Lord's presence here and now.
Image: Apocalypse again, Jan Richardson
On November 29, 1864, a contingent of Colorado Cavalry volunteers, under the command of Major John Chivington (a Methodist minister), attacked an encampment of Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians at Sand Creek in eastern Colorado near Eads.
The Cavalry destroyed the village, and murdered about 200 people, most of whom were women and children. The tribes had been promised the location was safe. (Click here for more information about the 150th anniversary of this event.)
In light of Major Chivington's clergy credentials, the anniversary is especially poignant for United Methodists who have, of course, utterly rejected the actions of Chivington, and, in light of the upcoming 150th anniversary of this horrible episode, have actively encouraged dialog and reconciliation is active ways.
This year’s United Methodist Rocky Mountain Annual (regional) Conference gathering became a two-day teach-in on the Sand Creek Massacre. It was a Methodist clergyman-turned-soldier, Col. John Chivington, who on Nov. 29, 1864 ordered the cavalry charge that slaughtered an unsuspecting, peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians.
Mountain Sky Area Bishop Elaine Stanovsky’s push for a major effort at understanding and healing climaxed on Friday, June 20. That’s when 13 buses carried some 650 Rocky Mountain Conference members and guests, including descendants of the massacre’s survivors, three hours into eastern Colorado, to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.
“Today is a little bit beyond belief for me,” Stanovsky said to the group at a conference dinner that night, back in Pueblo, Co. “I knew I had to bring you to the site. But I didn’t know if you’d come. And you came!”
Indeed, the throng nearly outnumbered Chivington’s cavalry and constituted the largest single day of visitation at the Sand Creek site — one of the newest and most out-of-the way in the National Park Service — since its 2007 dedication.
Al Addison, an Arapaho whose great-great grandfather survived the massacre, has visited the site more than 60 times, but doing so in a crowd of United Methodists touched him.
“I can tell the church has compassion,” he said.
Our bishop, Jim Gonia, reflects on the Sand Creek Massacre in a recent blogpost. He said:
As people of faith, it is a moment for us to stop and reflect not only on the implications of this particular event for the witness of the Christian church but also on the broader story of the displacement of the Native peoples of this continent by white settlers. While Col. Chivington’s particular actions were condemned as early as 1865 by the United States federal government, the psychological and spiritual wounds of the massacre persist to this day, especially for Native peoples.
In the church we talk about kairos moments, Spirit-led moments when circumstances come together in such a way that we can hear God speak anew and live with fresh commitment to the way of Jesus in the world. It is my hope and prayer that our holy attention to the Sand Creek Massacre may become for us such a kairos moment, leading us to renewed relationship with all our Native sisters and brothers.
Image: Sand Creek massacre, Howling Wolf
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
Translation: But when the son of man may come in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered together in front of him, and he will separate them from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep out of his right hand, and the goats out of his left. Then, the king will say to those out of his right hand, "Come, the ones being praised by my father. Inherit the kingdom made ready for you from the throwing down of the universe, for I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was suffering thirst and you gave me drink, a stranger to you and you gathered me in, without clothing and you clothed me, without strength and you looked after me, in prison and you came to me."
Then the just will answer him, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed (you), or suffering from thirst and gave you drink? When did we see you a stranger and gathered you in, unclad and we clothed you? And when did we see you without strength or in prison and we came to you? And the king will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, just as you did to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."
Then he will say to those out of his left hand, "You cursed ones, go away from me into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you did not give me to eat, I was suffering from thirst and you did not give me to drink, I was a stranger and you did not gather me together, unclad and you did not throw clothing around me, without strength and in prison and you did not look after me."
Then, they will answer him, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or unclad, or weak, or in prison, and did not serve you?" Then he will answer them saying, "Truly, I say to you, just as you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the just into eternal life."
Background and situation: This parable is the climax of Jesus' teaching ministry in Matthew's gospel. It is the end-piece, and a fitting one, of a teaching which began with the beatitudes in chapter 5. There, Jesus began by pronouncing blessing on the despised and bereft, and now closes by announcing his presence in them. Matthew's passion account begins immediately following this text.
Matthew has been dealing with the problem of delay at least since 24:36, and, arguably, even before that. In the parable of the wise and foolish slave (24:45-51), the foolish slave uses the delay of the master to take advantage by abusing others and getting drunk. In the parable of the ten virgins (25:1-13), the foolish virgins are foolish because they didn't prepare for the delay of the bridegroom. In the parable of the talents (25:14-30), the story begins with "as a man went away."
In the parable of the sheep and goats, the king still has not yet arrived, but we are nonetheless given something of a vision of what will happen when he does. He will arrive accompanied by angels, and will be seen "in his glory" and "on the throne of his glory." These are strong eschatological images.
"Son of humanity": The opening of the story proclaims the coming of "the son of man." The use of the title "son of man" is a connection to the vision of Daniel 7:13: "As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being ('son of man') coming with the clouds of heaven." (The Greek uios tou anthropou should be translated as "son of humanity.")
This "one like a human being" will arrive in full authority: "To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed." (Dan 7:14)
In Daniel, the "son of humanity" reigns over "all nations, peoples, and languages." In Matthew, "all the nations are gathered together in front of him." Matthew's formulation is just as broad as Daniel's, but presents the "son of humanity" less as a traditional monarch and more as a unitive force. In Matthew, all these nations are "gathered together" in his presence.
Parable of the sheep and the goats: This is what Fr. Robert Capon calls a "parable of judgment." Notice that this judgment has nothing to do with "proper thoughts." (The judgment is not made on the basis of theological views.) Nor is it anything to do with "accepting Jesus as my personal savior," an expression found nowhere in the Bible. Nor is it anything related to personal piety, which is curiously prone to idolatry.
The judgment is solely on "the way" (hodos) of discipleship articulated throughout Matthew's gospel, a way marked by the equality of all, open table fellowship, and non-heirarchical living, which is, in turn, a way of living which quite naturally will result in treating all people with dignity, especially the poor.
The one who is great in the kingdom is the servant of all, said Jesus (20: 26-28). Jesus himself leads the way as a servant of the poor. By chapter 25, his identification with the poor is so complete that he is now one of them.
This is why both the sheep and goats say that they were unaware of Jesus' presence in the bereft. The sheep are unaware because, following the way of Jesus, they were not interested in getting something for themselves. They helped the poor for no other reason than to help.
The goats are unaware because they were not educated in "the way." They would happily have helped the poor if they had known Jesus was with them, which they would have known if they'd been paying attention to all the things Jesus has already said and done.
If one is interested in the question of when Jesus is coming, the answer is that Jesus never left, has been here all along, and is present right now in the little, the least, the lone, and the lost.
In liberation theology circles, this is called the "preferential option for the poor," which is supposed to be controversial, but, for the life of me, I can't figure out why. All four gospels state very clearly, in many different ways, that Christ is a friend of the poor, identifies with them, is found with them. It's not for nothing that Jesus was born to a poverty-stricken Jewish family from a hick little town.
We are all goats. We have all been judged and found wanting. Yes, we're all saved by grace, but before we jump too quickly to salvation, we must pass through judgment. Nobody gets off the hook. All of us have participated in the culture and system that walks all over those at the bottom. We are all guilty, and we are all judged.
The one who judges us, however, is also the one who loves us the most, and his judgment is not for the purpose of getting even with us, but is, rather, a judgment in the service of life. All our failures--our "goatness"--will be stripped away. We will truly, and at last, be the people Christ has made us.
The resurrection--the king in "all his glory"--is the culmination of the life and ministry of Jesus. It is God's "yes" to the way of Jesus. The "way" articulated in the sermon on the mount and through all the parables and stories of Jesus, including this final one, is, in the resurrection of Jesus, given the stamp of approval by God. The resurrection means that God vindicates the way of Jesus. This, says God, is what I had in mind all along.
Image: Christ the Pantokrator, Assumption Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Denver, Colorado.
‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents,to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Translation: For just as a man went away, he called his slaves and he delivered over to them his possessions. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, each according to his own power (ability), and he went away immediately. The one who received five talents took and traded with them and he gained another five. Likewise, the one with two gained another two. But the one receiving one talent took and dug ground and hid the money of his lord.
But after a long time, the lord of those slaves came and brought together a word with them, and, drawing near, the one receiving five talents brought five talents more, saying, "Lord, you delivered over to me five talents. Behold, another five talents gained." His lord made known his thoughts to him, "Good, excellent and faithful slave, you were faithful over a little, I will place you over much. Enter into the joy of your lord."
And the one having two talents said, "Lord, you have delivered over to me two talents. Behold, another two gained." His lord made known his thoughts to him, "Good, excellent and faithful slave, you have been faithful over a little, I will place you over much. Enter into the joy of your lord."
And coming forward, the one who had received one talent, taking hold, said, "Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering together where you did not scatter, and I was afraid, taking and hiding your talent in the ground. Behold, you have what is yours."
But his lord answered to him, saying, "You wicked and lazy slave. You knew that I harvest where I did not sow, and gather together where I did not scatter, it is necessary for you, therefore, to throw my money to the moneychanger, and coming, I am taking back mine with interest. Therefore, take away the talent from him and give to the one having ten talents. For to the ones having, more will be given, and they will have abundantly. But from him who does not have, what that one has will be lifted away from him. And throw out the useless slave into the outer darkness. There, there will be weaping and gnashing of teeth."
Background and situation: The parable of the talents begins with the words "for just as a man went away." Notice it does not begin with "the kingdom of heaven is like." This is not a "kingdom of heaven" parable, in other words, and appears instead to be a continuation or commentary on the preceding parable of the ten virgins, the main theme of which was to address the problem of the delay of the bridegroom. Here, the main problem is similar: "...a man went away..."
Matthew has several stories and parables that relate to the problem of absence. We can gather that the Matthean community, c. AD 80, was trying to come to grips with the problem of the delay of the coming of the Lord and his apparent "absence" from the world.
The lection appears to be mostly Q. The parallel in Luke is 19:11-27. (Luke states the problem straight out: "...because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately...")
The parable of the talents: The man called his slaves and "delivered over"--paradidomai--his possessions. This is the same word that will later describe the "delivering over" of Jesus to the authorities. The man is giving everything, as Jesus would soon give everything.
To make the point further, the man gave all "his possessions." The word is huperxonta, which carries the sense of possessions, yes, and also one's entire substance and even life. As soon as the man "delivers over" everything that is his, he leaves "immediately", (unfortunately not translated in NRSV). He gives, and is gone.
The man is hugely rich. Eight talents was several million dollars. He gives money to each slave according to each slave's dunamis, the slave's "power" or "ability." The first two slaves doubled the money. The third slave "hid the money of his lord" in the ground.
The next part of the story is introduced with the words "after a long time." In Greek, the phrase is meta polun xronon. The word xronon is one of two Greek words for time. Xronon means "regular time." It's where we get our word "chronological." According to "regular time," the man has been absent. In "regular time," the disciples must wait patiently for the return of the Lord.
Incidentally, all of the financial machinations in the early part of the story take part in xronon, regular time. The wheelings and dealings of the marketplace, with its varying rewards and punishments, is the normal and regular way of life.
After xronon, "the lord came" and "took up a word together with them"--sunairei logon meta autone. When the lord appears, breaking in to regular time, he takes up "a word" with his slaves. Anytime anyone in the early church would have heard the word logon, they would have thought of Christ the Word and the gospel. The first thing the Lord does when "he came" is to bring together his slaves around "a word," the gospel.
This is, keep in mind, not the arrival of the kingdom--this parable is not a "kingdom of heaven" parable, and the gospel is not synonymous with end times. Rather, it's about the gospel present to inspire and encourage even in xronon time.
Xronon time is a reward and punishment time. That's how the world--"regular time"--works. The two who made money get rewarded--obviously--and the one who merely preserved the capital winds up in "outer darkness."
This is the one who apparently didn't have all that much ability--or power--in the first place, as the lord had known when he assigned him one talent. Now, this slave perceives that the lord is a "hard man"--harvesting where he did now sow, and "gathering together" where he did not scatter.
What does that mean exactly? Harvesting where someone else has sown? Isn't that called stealing?
Yes, and that sounds just like Jesus, who has indeed harvested where he did not sow. The savior of the world "harvests" outside Israel and also outside of Christianity. He has indeed "gathered together" where he did not scatter.
Jesus did do some "scattering" of his own, though. He broke up, or attempted to break up, the corrupt power structure of the time. In the end, though, the trump card of Jesus is his "harvesting where he did not sow" and "gathering together" of all people at the foot of the cross.
This new reign of God made the third slave "afraid" and he played it safe, trying to protect himself from the "hard man." That is a very xronon thing to do, and certainly not called for by the situation as it is described--the man giving away talents has done nothing to indicate that he is a "hard" man. Quite the contrary. He has been trusting and generous.
Note the precise accusation: The lord calls the slave "wicked" and "lazy." The laziness charge certainly sticks. This slave not only took the easy route of following the conventional rules--people often buried money in those days--but was also lazy about discerning the new world of God.
"Gathering together where one has not scattered" is actually a good thing, but the unimaginative slave, in thrall to business as usual (xronon), could only be frightened by it.
Image: Parable of the talents, Annette Fortt
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.”But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Translation: Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps (and) went out to meet the bridegroom, but five of them were foolish and five wise. For the foolish took their lamps not taking olive oil with them, but the wise took olive oil in the vessels with their lamps. And the bridegroom was delayed (and) they all slumbered and slept. But midnight happened a cry: "Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him." Then all those virgins were raised and made ready their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, "Give to us out of your olive oil, for our lamps are extinguished." But the wise answered, saying, "No, there may not be enough for us and you. Go soon to the sellers and buy for yourselves." As they were going out to buy, the bridegroom came, and the ones who were ready went in with him into the marriage feast, and the door was shut. But afterward, the other virgins came, saying, "Lord, Lord, open to us." But he answered, saying, "Truly I say to you, I do not know you." Watch therefore, for you do not know the day nor the hour.
Background and situation: The story appears only in Matthew. Matthew has already been discussing the problem of absence. In the parable of the King's Son's wedding (22: 1-14), the King doesn't show up until the wedding hall was already filled with guests. In the parable of the faithful servant and the unfaithful servant (24: 45-51), which directly precedes our lection, the whole problem revolves around the "delay" of the master.
The master, or bridegroom, is delayed, yet, when he does appear, he does so suddenly and his appearance is surprising. The exhortation to "keep awake" occurs twice (24:42, 25:13).
One notes also that the parable of the faithful servant and unfaithful servant features men while the parable of the ten virgins makes a similar point but features women. Also, in the former, the unfaithful servant realizes the master is delayed and takes advantage. In the latter, none of the virgins expect a delay, but half of them are prepared should it happen.
Parable of the ten virgins: First century marriage customs would suggest that the bridegroom and his entourage would go to the home of the bride. As they were approaching, they would be met by the bride's attendants, with lighted lamps, who would escort the male party to the home of the bride's parents. Then, they would escort both bride and groom to the house where the marriage and banquet would take place.
In the parable of the ten virgins, the central problem is, again, the delay of the bridegroom. Ten virgins go out to meet the bridegroom, "but the bridegroom was delayed." The word translated as "delayed" is chronizontos. In addition to delay, it also has the sense of lingering or tarrying. It indicates that the bridegroom was not being forceably delayed, but rather is delayed of his own volition.
The word is based on chronos, one of two Greek words for "time." Chronos refers to regular, every day time--chronological time, we call it. Kairos, on the other hand, means "special" time, or even "God's time," and kairos is often used to indicate an inbreaking of God.
According to chronos--according to business as usual, according to the status quo--the bridegroom is delayed. The ten virgins fall asleep.
"But midnight a cry happened!" The Greek contains the word gegonen, which comes from ginomai, and which means "it came into existence," i.e. "it happened." The word is often used to underline the significance of the event. In the middle of the night of chronological time comes an inbreaking--"a cry"--and an announcement: "Behold! the bridegroom!"
Five of the virgins had brought extra olive oil for their lamps, but five did not--five wise (phronimoi) and five foolish (morai). Robert Capons argues--as usual, persausively--that the five foolish represent the "wisdom of this world--the live-by-what-you-see wisdom" that God has turned upside down. The five wise virgins represent the "wisdom of faith," the wisdom of trusting in God's crazy redemption of the world.
As a sign of how the five foolish virgins live by the ways of this world, they handle their problem in the most conventional of ways: they go to the store. They wind up going to the marketplace to try to buy some more oil. While they were participating in the established market system, the bridegroom interrupted chronological business-as-usual time by breaking in and making a dramatic arrival.
Faith is not about believing correct thoughts. Faith is about trusting in Jesus, which, in turn, means living in the new reality he teaches--not status quo, business-as-usual living, but rather living in "the way" of Jesus, in anticipation of God's kingdom, by affirming the absolute equality and dignity of all people, and hanging in there with it even when it appears that God is far away, or that the bridegroom has been delayed.
Note that all of the ten virgins fell asleep. What distinguishes the wise ones from the foolish is that the five virgins who brought oil for their lamps were prepared not merely for the arrival of the bridegroom, but also for the delay of the bridegroom. They were prepared if he didn't show up at the hour they expected. Their preparation is rewarded. They are called "those who were ready" (25:10), and they are admitted to the wedding banquet.
After hanging around at the marketplace for awhile, the foolish virgins manage to make it back to the wedding celebration only to find the door to the wedding feast shut in their face. They holler, "Lord, Lord," a direct allusion to 7: 21 where Jesus had said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven."
In 7:21, Jesus was concluding the Sermon on the Mount. The "will" of Jesus' father in 7: 21 had just been expressed at some length ever since the beatitudes in chapter 5. The ways of this world are radically up-ended. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for justice!" God's will is clear!
In the signature statement of Jesus' teaching in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount, the way of Jesus is defined as equality, dignity, compassion, non-violence, and trust in God. All this is what Matthew means when he speaks of faith and following Jesus.
The exhortation to "watch therefore, for you do not know the day nor the hour" is an encouragement to hang in there and trust in God in spite of God's apparent "absence." In chronological time only is the Lord delayed. In reality, any time is his, even and especially the present moment.
Image: The ten virgins, William Blake
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Translation: Seeing the crowds, he went up into the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And opening his mouth, he taught them, saying, "Blessed (are) the poor of spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed (are) those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed (are) the gentle of spirit, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed (are) the ones who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled. Blessed (are) the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed (are) the pure of heart, for they will see God. Blessed (are) the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed (are) the ones being persecuted for the cause of justice, for of them is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed (are) you when they revile you and persecute you and say every evil toward you falsely on account of me. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad for your reward is great in the heavens, for in this manner they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Background and situation: The core of this passage is Q--the parallel is Luke 6: 20-26--to which Matthew has made some significant additions, additions so impressive and memorable that relatively few people are even aware of a similar passage in Luke. For most people, these beatitudes are The Beatitudes.
The beatitudes introduce the Sermon on the Mount, which is the first major speech by Jesus in Matthew's gospel. (Jesus gives five major speeches in Matthew, a parallel to the five books of Moses. Matthew presents Jesus as one like Moses who is even greater than Moses.)
Our text follows immediately upon a summary statement of Jesus' ministry in chapter 4:
"And (Jesus) was going about in all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, healing all disease and all sickness in the people." (4:23)
The Beatitudes are not, themselves, the gospel. In Lutheran terms, they are "law." They tell us what we ought to do. Matthew intends this sequence: The gospel is announced, and its effects demonstrated (4:23). Then, Jesus instructs his followers, or would-be followers, on how to live in its light. The gospel comes first. All of the Sermon on the Mount is response.
Jesus then sat down. Today, speakers stand up when they have something to say. In the time of Jesus, they sat down. Then, his disciples "came to him," says Matthew. Imagine this as theater. Jesus went up to the place of special revelation. He sat down. His disciples "came to him" and arrayed themselves around him. There is a tableau of formality to this description. The table has been set for special proclamation.
To whom was Jesus making this special proclamation? In 5: 1, we are told that Jesus saw the crowds. At the close of the sermon on the mount, which the Beatitudes introduce, "the crowds were astonished at his teaching" (7: 28). On the other hand, when the disciples "came to him," Jesus "opened his mouth and taught them." It appears, therefore, that Jesus was primarily instructing the disciples, but doing so within ear-shot of the crowds.
From one perspective, the disciples are the in-crowd. They get the front row seats while everyone else is on the outside looking in.
Another way to look at it is this: The crowd hears the same teaching the disciples do and are in a good position to hold the disciples accountable for it. From the first perspective, the disciples could say, "You hear that? You'd better get on board!" To which the crowd could respond: "If you followers of his would get with the program, maybe we would."
The reign of God: Jesus is teaching about the "reign of God," which is not, incidentally, solely about life in heaven. The "reign of God" is meant for the here-and-now as well as in heaven. This is what we pray for in the Lord's Prayer: "...thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven...."
My seminary advisor used to say, "The Beatitudes are there for the purpose of being done." (Luther said the Beatitudes were there to remind us of our hopelessness of fulfilling the law and its impossible demands, which is true enough, but Luther tended to say that about everything.)
Beatitudes were not a new thing in the world of Jesus. Usually, they were common sense sayings that expressed what everyone already knew. They were short sayings that expressed the conventional wisdom. "Blessed are those on a low-fat diet, for they will have healthy arteries"--that sort of thing.
Jesus turns all this upside down. Nobody would have associated blessings with being poor or in grief. In the reign of God, however, God's favor is upon those who have been left behind--the little, the lone, the least, and the lost. These marginalized ones--the poor, lost, and bereft--constituted the major constituency of Jesus. They found his message of God's favor to be empowering and uplifting.
The Greek word we translate as "blessed" is makarioi. Makarioi refers to God's favor. It could also be translated as "honored." "Happy," as some translations have it, doesn't work. The original French translation of the Jerusalem Bible had debonair, which, while it does have a certain appeal, doesn't really work either. Debonair are the poor in spirit?
There are nine beatitudes in Matthew--two groups of four, followed by a final one. The first four beatitudes speak to the victims of injustice, those in poverty, grief, the meek, and those with a deep desire for justice.
Greek has two words for "poor"--penes and ptochos. Penes means "working poor." (Penes would be contrasted with plousios, people with land who don't work.) Ptochos, on the other hand, means being destitute. To put it another way: Penes means having to work. Ptochos means having to beg.
The Q parallel in Luke has "Blessed are you poor." Matthew makes this "poor in spirit," which, unfortunately, tends to spiritualize the text for modern readers and takes the accent off ptochos. Who isn't "poor in spirit" at least some of the time? That might preach, and not inappropriately so, but Matthew's emphasis seems more to be on those who understand themselves as being in solidarity with the ptochos. Such people would likely have constituted an overwhelming majority of the listening crowds.
People in the time of Jesus were regularly forced off their land, and many--perhaps 15-20% of the population--would have been destitute. Moreover, another 60-70% of the people stood in real danger of being forced to join that already large core of the homeless and dirt poor.
The second "makarism"--"blessed are those who mourn"--dove-tails with and follows from the first. One way to become destitute in the first century was to lose one's place in their family. Family identity was exceptionally important in the ancient world. People were known as the "son of" or "daughter of" their father and mother.
One could be reduced to ptochos--begging--through loss of land or loss of family. Family could be lost through the death of one's parents--hence, "blessed are those who mourn"--or through being cast out of the family. (This would be especially applicable to early Christians, c. AD 80, who had been tossed out of their family because they were followers of Jesus.)
Loss of land and loss of family would make a person "meek." Either one represented loss of status. This was especially important in a society where status revolved around honor and shame. Loss of land and/or family could move a person from an honored place in society to a shameful one--from high social standing within the context of one's village to social ostracism.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn and those who are meek. Blessed are those, in other words, who are down-and-out, rejected, destitute, without a home. They have honor with God. They are not despised and rejected. They are lifted up, held in high esteem, blessed by God. This is called "preferential option for the poor."
These first three "makarisms" are underlined by the fourth: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice"--dikaiosunane. Matthew chose the words "hunger" and "thirst" with a purpose--they recall those who genuinely did hunger and thirst. He then turned these words in the direction not only of food and drink, but also justice. Blessed are those who yearn--who hunger--for a world where all are honored and none are shamed.
If the first four "makarisms" are for those who lack justice, the next four "makarisms" are for those who work for justice. They promise reward at the end of time for those who live into the reign of God now--the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and (again) the persecuted.
Mercy has a wide range of meaning, everything from forgiving sins to healing the sick. "Active compassion" would be another way to put it. The merciful are not only sorry at the suffering of others, but actively try to alleviate it.
The followers of Jesus are able to show mercy not because of their inherent goodness, but rather because they have been shown mercy. Mercy is an attitude of God, which God's people reflect into the world.
"Pure in heart" is about the center of a person being "cleansed" from the old way of living. Katharoi is where we get our modern-day psychiatric term "catharsis." Catharsis is about purging the old to make way for the new. The "pure in heart" are "cleaned up," in other words, from heirarchy and support of what Walter Wink calls "the domination system." Their paradigm gets shifted, their worldview reset.
The "peacemakers" are those who bring God's shalom into expression in the world. This is in marked contrast to the supposed "peacemakers" of the day, the Roman Army. As J.D. Crossan has argued, Rome believed in "peace through victory." Rome brought peace to the world by defeating her enemies. When Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, he ended the Roman Civil War and was acclaimed a "peacemaker."
The early Christians, however, believed in "peace through justice"--peace through righting wrongs and treating all people, particularly the bereft, with dignity.
The eighth beatitude closes this second pair of four with the same promise extended to the "poor in spirit" in the first beatitude. Those who are persecuted for the cause of justice, like the "poor in spirit," receive the kingdom of heaven. The verb is a perfect participle which indicates a past action with ongoing effects in the present. The cause of justice has been and is going on.
This eighth beatitude, with its theme of persecution, transitions to the ninth. Here, though, Jesus shifts from the third person to the second person--not "blessed are they" this time, but "blessed are you." This word is at least partly for the people of Matthew's church who had, indeed, suffered at least some persecution for following Jesus. (Luke has persecuted "on account of the son of man." Matthew changes this to persecuted "on my account," thus underlining the close link between Jesus and the disciple.)
Those who suffer for the cause of Jesus are to "rejoice and be exceedingly glad" for their reward is great in heaven. They are the unfortunate victims of persecution, yes, but they are in a line with the great prophets of the past as well as John the Baptist and Jesus himself.
Image: Wassily Kandinsky, All Saints 1911