Jesus, The Bible, Year A, Year B

Amazed to be a Christian

At the end of Year A, I’m always a little amazed I’m still a Christian. I find Jesus becomes less and less comprehensible (and likable) as the gospel nears its end, and by that I mean the parts that lead up to the Last Supper. Once you reach that point, it’s got its eccentricities (spirits rising from tombs, earthquakes and so forth), but it’s basically similar to the others in its account of the end.

Pretty Jesus. I met him in Sunday School.

No, the difference is how Jesus goes on speaking in riddles. Think about Luke’s Jesus. He gives us stories that make sense (the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan) and a Jesus who cries in the Garden and who assures the thief on the cross that today they are going to be in paradise together. Or Mark’s Jesus, bemused, mostly, by the predicament in which he finds himself, giving it one last blast about the Temple being taken down and leaving us with arcane arguments about the “desolating sacrilege,” but I feel he’s sympathetic at the end.

[John’s Jesus, of course, is (a) already God and (b) not spread out over an entire lectionary cycle, but that’s another story.]

But Matthew gives us tough material, these hard-to-parse parables that come at the end: the wise and foolish bridesmaids, the three servants with their talents and finally the separating of the sheep and the goats. We don’t like them. They make God sound mean, and wasn’t the whole point of Jesus for God to sound less mean? More forgiving? More gracious?

Why end on a note of three stories in a row where people are being shut out of the banquet, thrown into the outer darkness, left to weep and wail and gnash their teeth?

Rob, who built Hoagie’s ramp,
 loves Buddy Jesus.

I’m reading interpretations (by smart people, scholars, even my friends) who want to say that God is not the master of the servants given the talents, God is not the bridegroom turning away the bridesmaids who forgot to bring extra oil which doesn’t seem fair since the bridegroom was late in coming, but how many of us would try to say that God is NOT the King sitting on the throne and judging between the nations as a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats?

Yeah, that.

I know what I want the kingdom of heaven to be like. I don’t know what it’s really like, but I know what I want it to be like, and I’m basing it on the words of scripture that stand out for me as most loving and challenging, not most threatening.

About to tell a scary one. See Matthew 21:33ff.

And this Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, sounds a little threatening.

So it’s not surprising that every three years I have a little crisis of faith.

I can’t explain the wise and foolish virgin bridesmaid girlies and the mean old bridegroom who keeps everyone waiting and then shuts the door. I can’t explain the guy who *killed* the people who didn’t come to the wedding banquet.

I just don’t feel like these stories are from or about Jesus. But there they are, in the red letters in some editions. I’m forced to confront them and reconsider him every Year A.

And then I read the sheep and the goats again, and I’m back on track. *That’s* the point, you see, and the message may be lost to us in the other stories because we don’t understand first century customs or we’re missing some significant current event that would shed light on the matter or the author of Matthew had his own axe to grind with someone who will remain nameless because we just don’t know who it was.

The sheep and the goats remind us that the thing we need to do most is not judge or show up at parties but to love. Love God, love each other (including those not like us) the way we love ourselves (and those most like us), and especially love the people who are in trouble of all kinds.

It’s hard to be so far away from the time and place in which the stories were written down. We know that even before they were recorded, they were told over and over and reinterpreted to suit the context and reorganized to make a point and added to from sources we suspect exist but cannot produce and given a gloss of theological flavor by each of the gospel writers.

Pretty soon we’re starting Year B. That’s my favorite. That Jesus feels less, well, varnished.

He’s Original Jesus.

(The real) Episode 1 Jesus.

I’m looking forward to visiting with him again.

Psalms, Revised Songbird Version, The Bible, Worship

Word work

For the past year, I’ve been trying to put the Psalms into words we can more easily say and understand, mostly to use as Calls to Worship. I like to use the week’s Psalm that way, but I recognize that some of the words typically and rightly used to translate them are not heard instantly as anything other than “churchy” sounding.

One great example is “ascribe.”

“Ascribe to the Lord,” says the Psalmist. Some people will certainly think of the word “scribe,” which is to say someone who writes things down, but even that is an old-fashioned word, not in common use. Imagine sitting in a pew and reading that word when you’re not a Bible student. (Honestly, isn’t that most of the people in our pews, UCC people? Other Protestants, Catholics, your mileage may vary.)

A-scribe. Unless you’re whipping out your smart phone to look it up quickly, which you’re most likely not, the word is going right by you, and it’s just one more pretty-sounding piece of church blah-blah-blah.

(Not that some of us don’t like church to be just that way, pretty-sounding blah-blah-blah. Pretty-sounding blah-blah-blah is SAFE.)

Ascribe to the Lord means Give God the credit for whatever the thing is. Or, you know, impute, because that would be more easily understood by the general population. It means “attribute or think of as belonging, as a quality or characteristic.”

“Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.” (Psalm 96:7, New Revised Standard Version)

So give credit to God for having glory and strength.

This week I looked at the Common English Bible, which I mostly love, and I used it as a model for our Call to Worship (granted, I eliminated male pronouns, which required some other adjustments, too), but I’m not satisfied with the closing line and wish I had done something different.

One: Give to the LORD, all families of the nations—give to the LORD glory and power!
All: Give to the LORD the glory due to God’s name!

I added the “to” in the last line for clarity, even though I don’t like the meter, and as I say, I’m not satisfied. But at least that rendering of verse 8 in the response line makes the point that we’re giving God God’s due.

Anyway, next week, I hope I have time to lean less heavily on the CEB and work up a Revised Songbird Version instead, even though I mostly love it.

1 Kings 3:16-28, Church Life, Lent, The Bible

Two Mothers, a Baby, a King and a Sword

At our Lenten study of Carol Howard Merritt’s book, Reframing Hope, we talked tonight about retelling the message, and the initial discussion topic was remembering a Bible story we learned early that remained important or vivid for us.

Mine is the one about the two mothers, the one baby, the wise Solomon and the sword. It’s the first Bible story I remember knowing, except for maybe baby Jesus in the manger. I remember asking my mother, “How did the mother kill her baby?” I remember trying to understand what my mother loved about the story, the way the real mother wanted the baby to live more than she wanted to have the baby herself.

I didn’t remember that the women were prostitutes. Someone left out that detail.
I did remember that Solomon was wise.
I didn’t remember any description of the real mother’s feelings, but here they are in the key verse, 1 Kings 3:26, rendered variously:

Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it. (KJV)

But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—“Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!” The other said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.” (NRSV)

The woman whose son was alive was deeply moved out of love for her son and said to the king, “Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don’t kill him!”
   But the other said, “Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!” (NIV 2011)

The real mother of the living baby was overcome with emotion for her son and said, “Oh no, master! Give her the whole baby alive; don’t kill him!”
    But the other one said, “If I can’t have him, you can’t have him—cut away!” (The Message, and Eugene Peterson, “cut away,” seriously?)

So we get the point, the one who is willing to see the baby subdivided is clearly not the real mother. The one who is willing to lose in order to save him is.

Raphael 1518-1519

I recognize that I have internalized this story as a way to move through the world. I’m not sure if that’s how my mother meant me to understand it. (I’m not sure why anyone was telling a very little child this story, either, though it’s featured on this church’s website under Children’s Corner.) But the point of the story is not how to be a better mother. The point of the story is that Solomon was smart enough to tell the difference between the real mother and the false one, and confident enough to render his judgment with authority. Oh, he is wise! He is wise. They could all see it, blessed by God with extraordinary wisdom.

I read the story to LP tonight, and she was horrified, though possibly amused by the yearning bowels of the King James Version. I didn’t feed her this story when she was young, just like I didn’t feed her beef tongue (a favorite of my mother’s) and my mother didn’t feed me beef liver (a favorite of *her* mother’s!). I asked her what story she remembers knowing for a long time, and she said Noah’s Ark, which of course is also horrifying in its own way. Just ask #1 Son, traumatized by the animals left behind to drown in Peter Spier’s picture book version. LP thought it was very mean of God to drown all those people. She remembers discussing it with me in my office at Small Church, years ago, telling me she thought it didn’t make sense.

I talked tonight at church about the way people make stories. Think of ancient people, people who knew death more matter-of-factly than we do. They hear of a flood, longer ago, and they hear it was massive, catastrophic, so overwhelming that it’s hard to imagine how anyone or anything could have survived, but here they are, alive, so someone must have. And it’s a simple explanation, really, to think that God was on the team of the ones who made it, since God has all the power and the knowledge aforethought. And from these slender reeds, a story can be woven, complete with two of every creeping thing and the things with wings, and never mind the rest who drowned, the point is some survived!

We of the 21st Century live in expectation of survival, and find the deaths distressing, more distressing than the survival is satisfying.

Stories like Noah’s Ark don’t help us much, when we want to convince people our church, our faith, is worth trying, do they? They need so much explaining, even explaining away. If we’re going to retell the message, we need to figure out what really matters to us, which of our stories express something we actually want to share.

(By the way, there is some super-creepy artwork out there if you search Google images for “Solomon mothers.”)