Category Archives: Scripture

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:15

James 3:15
This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic (NASB).

Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil (NIV).

In this verse James continues his contrast of the behaviour that stands opposed to his understanding of wisdom presented in verse thirteen. The way of jealousy, envy, and selfish ambition may have an appearance of wisdom, but it is not that wisdom which is ‘from above.’ Indeed, for James, it is not even ‘wisdom’ at all (note the scare-quotes used in the NIV). Literally James says, ‘This is not the wisdom from above…’ (ouk estin hautē hē sophia anōthen; οὐκ ἔστιν αὕτη ἡ σοφία ἄνωθεν), where the this is a demonstrative pronoun referring back to the behaviour of those he is chastising in verse fourteen. James refuses to use the term wisdom to describe this manner of life.

James describes this manner of life using three graphic adjectives, which are listed in an order of increasing alienation from God (Davids, 152; Vlachos, 123). First, it is earthly (epigeios, ἐπίγειος) as opposed to that which is ‘from above,’ heavenly, of the earth or belonging to the earth, or arising solely from human existence. Second, it is natural, the Greek word psychikē (ψυχική) referring to the life in which human feeling and human reason reign supreme (Moo, 134). It has to do with that which is governed by the senses or sensual appetites and as such, refers to life apart from the divine Spirit—‘unspiritual.’ Finally, demonic (daimoniōdēs, δαιμονιώδης) simply means that which comes from or pertains to demons.

Where jealousy, envy and selfish ambition are the order of the day, the manner of life is not that which is from above, divine in origin and nature, meek and full of good works (v. 13). Rather, it is human or even demonic in origin and character, although it seems better to assign this wisdom a human rather than demonic origin. This person might be better described as selfish, as ‘worldly-wise,’ rather than demonically inspired, although the latter is possibly the case in some circumstances. Moo’s comment, however, is insightful:

The wisdom that does not produce a good lifestyle (v. 13) is, in sum, characterized by ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil.’ In each of these ways it is the direct antithesis of ‘the wisdom that comes from above’—heavenly in nature, spiritual in essence, divine in origin (134).

James is evidently contrasting two types of teachers (3:1) or two types of leadership, and aligning them with two types of wisdom. The fulcrum between the two seems to lie in the fundamental impulse at work in each model. Is the leader’s activity, work and motive directed toward the self (self-promotion, improvement, or aggrandisement), or the kindliness of God toward others, and the promotion and benefit of their welfare? Most leaders are not under the thrall of demons, but their leadership may have characteristics that are opposed to the purposes, way and wisdom of God, and detrimental to the welfare and common good of those people for whom they are responsible. Further, while many religious teachers and leaders claim to be spiritual, if their manner of life is that described here by James, they are in fact unspiritual and devoid of the Holy Spirit. ‘“You claim,” says James, “to have the Holy Spirit. Impossible! You are inspired, all right—you are inspired by the devil!” (Davids, 153).

In the contemporary world of organisations (including churches and other Christian agencies), we have much leadership technology—technical knowledge and skill; depth of understanding with respect to the pragmatic dynamics of leadership in diverse communities, contexts, and human affairs; skill in diagnosis, management, and application; a vast range of tools, resources, and equipment to enhance our capacities. Is such technology ‘wrong,’ or something to be avoided? Perhaps not. But James focusses on the character of leadership in verse thirteen (and also verses seventeen and eighteen) contrasting it with the alternate mode in verses fourteen to sixteen. To the extent that leadership technology subverts kingdom priorities such as those enumerated in 2:5 or 1:27—personal engagement with the lowly and apparently ‘insignificant’—it is ‘earthly, natural, and demonic.’

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:14

James 3:14
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.

The juxtaposition of and sudden shift from verse 13 to verse 14 indicates that James is contrasting some others with those who are wise and understanding. In place of good conduct, and works done in the meekness of wisdom, he finds envy, bitterness, selfish rivalry, ambition and strife.

The word translated ‘jealousy’ (zēlos; ζηλος) can have either positive or negative connotations. Positively, it might refer to zeal, ardour, or enthusiasm; negatively, it might speak of indignation, envy, or jealousy. Literally, it means to have ‘ferment of spirit’ (Friberg), signifying an inner life active and generative, boiling and bubbling away; but what is being produced? James obviously uses the word in its negative sense, pairing it with another word pikros (πικρος, cf. v. 11)—bitter—which has the sense of being pointed and sharp, and used figuratively as it is here, refers to a resentful attitude that may also be harsh or cruel.

‘Selfish ambition’ (eritheia; ἐριθεία) means just what it says, though it also carries the sense of rivalry or factionalism. Moo notes that it is a comparatively rare word:

In its only pre-New Testament occurrences (in Aristotle), the word refers to the selfish ambition, the narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians. This meaning makes excellent sense here in James (Moo, 133).

Together these terms portray individuals or even groups within the congregation at odds with one another, striving not with but against one another, seeking an advantage over the over, and jealous or resentful of any success that the other may achieve.

James sees these attitudes and attributes as lodged in the heart, at the centre of one’s personality. Vlachos (122) notes that James’ language indicates that his listeners are ‘harbouring’ these attitudes in their hearts. If this is the ‘spirit’ at work in a person’s heart, they are actually far from wise and understanding. Rather, these attitudes are evidence of an ‘arrogance’ or ‘boastfulness’ that James prohibits (mē katakauchasthe; μὴ κατακαυχᾶσθε), an expression of the belief in one’s superiority over others, and as such the very antithesis of the ‘meekness of wisdom.’ Such a person claiming to be wise and understanding is in fact ‘lying against the truth’ (pseudesthe kata tēs alētheias; ψεύδεσθε κατὰ τῆς ἀληθείας): their very attitudes and resulting actions betray them. It is not surprising, then, that James prohibits these attitudes. He is calling upon his hearers either to stop this behaviour, or more generally, to avoid becoming these kinds of persons at all (Vlachos, 122-123).

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the little word zēlos which is used by James. Zeal in itself can be a commendable quality, if one is zealous for the right things in the right way. Titus 2:14, for example, exhorts believers to be ‘zealous for good deeds.’ One can be zealous for the things of God, for his word, his truth, his justice, and his mission, in ways that are life-affirming and kingdom-oriented. But it is also possible that this commendable zeal might tip over to become the kind of harsh and bitter zeal that James condemns here.

The problem is that zeal can easily become blind fanaticism, bitter strife, or a disguised form of rivalry and thus jealousy; the person sees himself as jealous for the truth, but God and others see the bitterness, rigidity, and personal pride which are far from the truth (Davids, 151).

How does this occur, and how might it be avoided? James would teach us that if we become convinced of our own rectitude in such a way that we are now against others, if we become partisan and competitive, angry and jealous, ever more determined to press our understanding upon those with whom we disagree, we have already passed beyond the tipping point. James would call us to return to the meekness of wisdom that displays itself good works kindly intended and executed.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:13

James 3:13
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.

James 3:13 begins a new little section in this epistle, following a long teaching on the power of the tongue which seems to have been directed at those in James’ congregations who sought to be teachers (3:1). The verse starts with a rhetorical question, literally, “is anyone among you wise and understanding?” Vlachos (120), however, suggests that the question functions as a conditional clause along the lines of, “If any of you are wise and understanding…” James intends to teach his readers what true wisdom actually looks like, and in so doing, adds to his statements in 1:26-27 about the nature of ‘true religion’ or what we might call ‘authentic spirituality.’

That sophos (‘wise’) has a moral sense in James is clearly seen in the description of wisdom that follows in these verses. Wisdom is not merely intelligence or knowledge. Richard Bauckham has suggested that wisdom is “the God-given ability of the transformed heart to discern and to practice God’s will. It is the way in which Torah is internalized, so that outward obedience to Torah flows from an inner understanding and embracing of God’s will expressed in Torah” (Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, 152). God’s will as expressed in Torah is not merely known, but understood and embraced, and so brought to expression in one’s life, and in ways which go beyond a mere adherence to the letter of the law.

‘Understanding’ translates epistēmōn, which denotes the possession of expertise: “being knowledgeable in a way that makes one effectual in the exercise of such knowledge” (BDAG, 381). Together the terms portray the truly wise or spiritual person who understands both what the will of God is, and how it might be applied in the contingencies and circumstances of everyday life, and who actually applies it in this discerning way.

James’ question seems to assume that there are some among them who are actually ‘wise and understanding.’ Certainly there seem to be some in the congregation who claim to be wise, just as there are those who claim to be spiritual, to have faith, and perhaps, who boast in their riches. To those who would make a show of their wisdom, James counsels: display (deixatō, ‘show, demonstrate’ [cf. 2:18]) your wisdom by your good conduct. Make a show of your wisdom by and in your works. This verse, like James 2, contrasts words and works. True wisdom, like true faith, is revealed in works. Wisdom is displayed and recognised rather than claimed. Wisdom is revealed in the ‘beauty’ and ‘attractiveness’ of one’s life—the adjective kalos (‘good’) likely retaining here something of its classical meaning (Vlachos, 121). Just as true wisdom has its source in the good and generous God, so it shows itself in a good and generous life.

Such wisdom is also meek (en prautēti sophias). Wisdom does not parade itself with ostentatious boasting, or merely with words. It does not boast great things for itself, but quietly and consistently works. Many English translations speak of the gentleness of wisdom. Since it is likely that the phrase is qualifying the works which express wisdom, it indicates that these works are gentle, kindly intended and executed, and good.

There is a possibility that this verse is referring back to the first verse of the chapter, and thus to James’ warning about teachers. The role of teaching in the early Christian community provided an opportunity to display one’s wisdom in the performance of the rhetorical art. If we accept this interpretation (see Davids; cf. Moo), it has the advantage of holding the whole chapter together, and of elevating the significance of the teaching role either for good or for ill.

But the teacher’s wisdom is demonstrated and displayed, not in their rhetorical performance, nor in their mastery of the content, but in their character and relationships – do they bless or curse those made in the image of God (v. 9)? Is their tongue a fountain of goodness, justice and righteousness, or does it set the world aflame with the fires of Gehenna (v. 6)? Is their wisdom that which is revealed in humble and gentle service and the generous use of riches? James’ words provide a means of assessing whether or not those spiritual leaders and teachers in our midst are truly wise.

We can ask similar questions of our own lives and our own practice of Christian spirituality. Are we genuinely wise and understanding, in the sense set forth by James? Is our spirituality characterised by an active life of good works undertaken in gentleness and humility?

 

Scripture on Sunday – Luke 24:44-46

There is much in Luke 24 that we could speak about: Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the discovery of the empty tomb by the women, the failure of the disciples to believe the women, the revelation of Jesus to the disciples at Emmaus, and so on. What I want to focus on particularly, however, is a hermeneutical move made by Jesus toward the end of the chapter.

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

This text is an expansion of an earlier text in the chapter, where, with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus Jesus says:

And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures (vv. 25-27).

In the earlier passage Jesus instructs the disciples ‘beginning with Moses and with all the prophets.’ In the later text he adds the Psalms to the Law of Moses and the Prophets. By adding the Psalms to this list, it is possible that Jesus is referring in an abbreviated way to the three major divisions of the Hebrew Bible: the law, the prophets, and the ‘writings,’ of which the Psalms were a major part. In other words, Jesus seems to be saying that the whole Old Testament had been written about him.

In these passages Luke, through words attributed to Jesus himself, is giving his readers a christological hermeneutic. This hermeneutic works in two ways. First, the life and ministry of Jesus is to be understood and interpreted in accordance with Old Testament categories; it is the framework by which we seek understanding of his life. This is important for it is not unusual for scholars to seek the understanding of Jesus in accordance with the milieu of the early church, or according to Greco-Roman categories, or even philosophical ideas and contexts from the modern era which may or may not have any real connection to first century Palestinian Judaism, and the biblical traditions that shaped and informed it.

Second, it has implications for how we read and understand the Old Testament itself. Luke (Jesus) suggests that the Old Testament serves as a witness to the divine activity that finds its telos and therefore its ultimate meaning in Jesus Christ. If this is the case, Old Testament interpretation cannot be content merely with a reading that seeks a historical reconstruction of the text, and its plausible meaning in its original context. Nor again with a reading which to a greater or lesser extent is unconcerned with the ancient historical and literary context, preferring a construction of meaning in accordance with the concerns and context of the modern reader.

The Old Testament is not merely a document in itself (and, of course, not merely “a document” but a collection of many and diverse documents), but a part of a movement toward a climax and a goal. This movement is not, of course, merely a literary movement, but a movement of faith grounded in the historical existence of a people of faith who regarded these particular writings as sacred, as “Scripture.” Jesus, too, regards them as Scripture, as prophetic, and as finding their telos and fulfilment in him.

Many other passages in Luke’s gospel indicates that Luke clearly read and understood the Old Testament in this way—and are suggestive that Jesus himself lay at the root of this practice: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). And the same approach to the Old Testament is found in Matthew, John, and Paul.

On the road to Emmaus the two disciples failed to recognise Jesus; indeed, their eyes ‘were prevented’ from recognising him (v.16). Later, after Jesus revealed himself to them at the table, their eyes were ‘opened’ and they recognised him. And they recalled how their hearts ‘burned within them’ as Jesus explained the Scriptures to them. The eleven disciples, too, needed their minds to be ‘opened’ to understand the Scriptures (v. 45). Their hearts, their eyes, their minds: all needed to be opened to hear, to see, to understand the centre, the meaning, the truth of the Scriptures—Jesus Christ himself, crucified and risen.

We—modern readers and especially scholars—are sometimes critical of those who in previous eras “misread” the Scriptures, introducing “theology” into the text, and thereby doing injustice to its original authors, provenance, context, and audience, etc. (Though we are often prepared to do just that in the interest of modern idiosyncratic or ideological readings of the text!)

Luke, however, cites Jesus as reading in just this way. I suggest that following Jesus includes also following the manner in which he was devoted to Scripture, submitted to Scripture as an authority to which God’s people are subject, and also interpreted it as we see him do so here in Luke 24. We often applaud his interpretations: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” “The weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, faithfulness.” “Can you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes through the stomach and is discharged into the sewer?” But Jesus also says some things that we are not quite so sure about.

We might not read the text just as Jesus did—would that even be possible? But perhaps there is more here for us to learn, if we would be disciples of Jesus.

Scripture on Sunday – Luke 13:22-27

Only one thing is needed.
Mary has chosen what is better (Luke 10:41-42)

Of the many good things that one can do, only one is necessary; only one is better. Mary received this commendation from Jesus because she had sat at his feet and listened to his word. Thus, we have a major problem when we fail to take the opportunity to do just this.

But we have a different kind of problem when we do listen, to some degree at least, to Jesus’ word, but then for one reason or another, fail to take him seriously. We are adept at side-stepping his words, choosing only those words which agree with our own perspective, explaining away the words if their challenge is too direct, and so on. To truly listen to his word requires not merely the act of hearing, but reflection on those words so that they might become part of our thought and decision-making processes, and so issue in life-action on the basis of those words. To truly listen to his word is to become a “doer of the word and not a hearer only” (James 1:22). Jesus declares those blessed who “hear the Word of God and do it” (Luke 11:28).

Last week I gave an example of how an Evangelical Christian might be tempted to explain-away the teaching of Jesus, because it seems to contradict their doctrinal conviction. In the interests of fair play, today I consider another saying of Jesus which a more progressive Christian might want to sidestep or explain away. In answer to the question, “Lord, are there just a few who are being saved,” Jesus responds:

Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open up to us!’ then He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’; and He will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you are from; depart from Me, all you evildoers.’ 

It is likely that these words are addressed to Jesus’ contemporaries to warn them that genuine repentance is required if devastating judgement on Jerusalem and the Jewish nation generally is to be avoided. This is a theme of Luke’s gospel, and is found earlier in this same chapter (cf. Luke 13:1-9).

In this chapter we are face-to-face with a stern Jesus, a no-nonsense Saviour. There is no universalism here, no salvation-lite, no complacency, no easy approach to sacraments or a take-it-or-leave-it approach to Jesus’ teachings. Here Jesus warns of exclusion and judgement; here he calls for a genuine repentance from our sinfulness; here he declares that we either come to him on his own terms or we do not come at all. These terms include what we read last week: do this and you shall live! They also include the stern words of Luke 14:25-27, 33:

Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. … So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.

Those who would follow Jesus must ‘hate’ all other relational claims on their lives, and even their own life as well. We cannot cling to our ‘loves’ if we would follow Jesus. Rather, we are called to take up the cross daily—die!—and follow Jesus. There is a cost to discipleship which will cut to the very core of our existence, including the giving up of all that does not belong in his kingdom, and of all that challenges our sole allegiance to him, whether our ‘possessions’—literally and figuratively—our loves, or our relationships.

If it comes down to a choice between Jesus’ words and a response whereby we ask, “Yes, but what about…?”, go with Jesus every time.

Scripture on Sunday: Luke 10:28

At the end of Luke 10, the evangelist records Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary’s house in which Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and ‘listened to his Word’ (NASB). Jesus commended Mary saying that “only one thing is necessary” and that “Mary had chosen the good part.” The most important thing for any disciple is to do what Mary did: to hear—and then do—Jesus’ word. This is the foundation of Christian life and mission.

Many and perhaps even most Christians would agree with this sentiment. In practice, however, it is possible that our theological convictions might make this harder than we initially imagine. This may be the case especially for Protestants, and specifically for those evangelical Christians who, like myself, consider careful doctrine an essential aspect of Christian faith and life.

A case in point is found right here in Luke 10. Immediately preceding the story of Martha and Mary is the story of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus tells in response to a question posed by a ‘lawyer’—an expert in the Mosaic Law:

And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” 28 And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”

The lawyer’s question is focussed on the issue of obtaining eternal life, and Jesus directs him back to Scripture, and appropriately in the time and context, to the Law. When the lawyer answers, Jesus commends him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” The lawyer then takes it further, asking, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, elaborating on what it means to love one’s neighbour. The Samaritan stops, sees, serves, and sacrifices; he gets involved personally and acts, even to one who typically would despise him. This is an active, practical love that ‘costs’ the Samaritan in terms of time and money—though the ‘cost’ of such love is not even raised in the parable. And Jesus instructs the lawyer to “go and do likewise,” for this is the way to eternal life.

Do this and you will live!

The difficulty for Protestants and many evangelicals in particular, is that we have such an investment in a Pauline-Reformational doctrine of justification by faith, that Jesus’ words sound like a form of ‘works-righteousness,’ and as such, stand in tension with a doctrine of salvation in which we are ‘saved by faith and not by works.’ The great temptation, then, is perhaps to overlook Jesus’ words, to bypass them, explain them away, harmonise them to Paul’s teaching, or in some other fashion, to side-step and avoid them—precisely the opposite of what we hear in the Martha and Mary story.

This we must not do! The one essential thing is to hear Jesus’ words, let them stand, let them be heard, let them challenge us, let the tension remain unresolved if necessary, even if Jesus’ words and teaching challenge our most cherished doctrines.

(I note here I. Howard Marshall’s judgement that “There is all the difference in the world between the loving service of God commended here and the salvation by works of the law which Paul condemned”—The Gospel of Luke [NIGTC], 440).

Do this and you will live!

Here, in shortest possible compass, we have an instance of Jesus’ doctrine of salvation: love God and love your neighbour—and to do so in the most concrete, personal, and engaged sense imaginable. Certainly a systematic theology may legitimately seek to understand the relation between Jesus’ words and Paul’s, but never at the expense of setting either aside, or diminishing the force and impact of Jesus’ teaching. Certainly we might argue that Jesus’ command here presupposes faith in God, even if it is a faith before the cross and resurrection. But if it comes down to a choice between Jesus’ words and our doctrine, go with Jesus every time.

Scripture on Sunday – Luke 10:38-42

The story of Martha and Mary is well known. Jesus visits their village and Martha welcomes him into her home. With Jesus, of course, comes his whole entourage: disciples and other followers. Martha gets busy making preparations for meals and other hospitality. Mary, on the other hand, sits down at Jesus’ feet to listen to his teaching. Martha is more than a little put out:

But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (v. 40).

She was probably not merely distracted, but pressured and stressed. She could have approached Mary directly and asked her help, but instead approaches Jesus, asking him to address Mary on her behalf. I wonder if things might have gone differently if Martha had quietly addressed Mary directly. Instead she questions Jesus—with a question that has a hint of accusation; “don’t you care?” Martha’s annoyance was not without cause: there was much to be done, and it is likely that Mary would usually participate in all the work of preparation. Showing hospitality to guests was a crucial cultural requirement in ancient Israel, and Martha was doing what she and Mary could be expected to do. We need also remember that Martha was doing good, working hard to serve others, to serve the Lord.

Jesus answers Martha, but not as she might have hoped. He ignores her request, refusing to act as a go-between between Martha and her sister. It suggests that perhaps she should have been more direct. (Note to self! How often do I pray that God might do something because I am hesitant to address a situation that I am, in fact, responsible for?) But nor does he take her implicit criticism personally. He does gently correct her, however, his “Martha, Martha” naming, acknowledging, and recognising her.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (vv. 41-42).

Somehow Jesus perceives that Martha’s upset in this instance is characteristic of her life in many things. Nevertheless, only one thing is needed—“man does not live on bread alone” (Luke 4:4)—and this, Mary has chosen. Jesus’ words here are revolutionary in at least two ways. First is his insistence that only one thing is needed; the one necessary thing, the one crucial element without which we cannot go on, the one essential of all discipleship and ministry—to sit in Jesus’ presence and hear his teaching, his word of instruction, command, and promise. Second, Mary has chosen this. A woman might normally be expected to be working behind the scenes, involved in the preparations, doing that traditionally assigned as women’s roles. But Mary has chosen something different “and it will not be taken away from her.” “No,” Jesus is saying, “I will not tell your sister to help you. What you are doing is good and important, valued and required. What Mary has chosen is better.” A woman might choose a different path to traditional expectation, and Jesus will commend rather than rebuke her, if that path is to sit at his feet as a disciple, and to hear his word.

A prominent feature of Luke’s gospel is his frequent—and surely deliberate—use of women as models of discipleship. The contrast between Martha and Mary is that between good and better, and Mary serves as an example of the ‘better’ that every disciple might emulate. At the beginning of another year which will likely be just as busy, just as difficult and pressured and demanding and work-filled and distraction-filled and stressed as the last year was, it is imperative that we pause to remember the one thing needed: to sit in Jesus’ presence and listen to his teaching, allowing him to address us, hearing his word, and of course, doing it (Luke 11:28).

Matthew and Paul on “Righteousness”

This morning I preached an overview message on Jesus’ Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel. In my preparation for the sermon I came across the following comparison in F. Dale Bruner’s wonderful commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:

I suggest that in this use here [i.e. Matt 5:6] of the word “righteousness,” the key word also in Paul’s anti-Judaistic letters (Romans and Galatians), Matthew and Paul shake hands. It is true that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, “righteousness” is primarily a moral term; this meaning is present in Paul, too, but it is secondary. Paul’s “righteousness” is supremely the righteousness of God given to believers in Jesus Christ. Matthew’s “righteousness” is predominantly a moral righteousness in disciples (and the plural “disciples” here and the plural nouns and verbs in all the Beatitudes are important and social). …

Any righteousness claimed before God that did not show itself in human righteousness or social justice toward people brought down prophetic wrath (see especially Amos). Matthew’s Jesus will unforgettably hammer away at this prophetic requirement of personal and social righteousness in text after text. In Matthew’s Gospel only the truly godly and humane get into the kingdom. But in Paul’s gospel, God “justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5).

It is just here, however, in his different understanding of righteousness that I think Matthew’s Jesus most closely approaches Paul. For as we have seen in all the Poor Beatitudes, particularly in Matthew’s moral construal (“poor in spirit,” “hungering and thirsting for righteousness”), it is the consciously unright or unrighted who are righted, it is the out who are brought in, and now it is those who want a righteousness they do not have who are promised they will have it. To say this is not to Paulinize Matthew; it is to see Paul and Matthew meeting at center: God is the giver of the kingdom and of the kingdom’s righteousness as well. This kingdom is still largely future, but, as we have seen, the future kingdom that Jesus preaches is already breaking in. All four Need Beatitudes say this; all four Beatitudes—and now I audaciously Paulinize—preach justification by faith; all four give God to those who are unable to get God by themselves.

But it would be fair to Matthew to stress that the righteousness longed for in his Gospel is not only heaven-sent (Paul’s great contribution) but also and distinctively earth-centered (Matthew’s great contribution). Paul colors righteousness sky blue, dignifying its source; Matthew colors it earth brown, honouring its goal. Paul the doctor of divine grace and Matthew the doctor of human mercy meet at center: in their deep appreciation for the gift of God. But one teaches in an unparalleled way that gifts’ source (who is God), the other that gift’s aim (which is people); both are needed, both canonical, both Christian (Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary Volume 1: The Christbook, 170-171).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 10:1-10

It is clear, from chapter nine, that God has chosen Saul to be king, in response to the people’s request or demand in chapter eight. He has identified Saul to Samuel, saying, “You shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me” (9:16). The biblical text uses the word nāgîd (“leader”) rather than melek which is the usual word for “king.” Nāgîd has military connotations and could have been applied to any of the earlier judges (see Evans, 66), although Murphy suggests that the distinction between the two terms conveys the difference between one who has been appointed to a role but who has not yet entered into active service in that role; she likens nāgîd to the contemporary idea of “president-elect” (Murphy, 80). It is evident, however, that the military leadership noted by Evans is intended: Saul will bring Israel deliverance from the Philistines.

At the end of the chapter Samuel takes Saul aside in private in order to tell him what God has said, and it is with this that the tenth chapter begins. A question regarding the text itself arises in verse one. The NRSV translates the verse,

Samuel took a phial of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him; he said, ‘The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around. Now this shall be the sign to you that the Lord has anointed you ruler over his heritage (cf. also ESV; CEB; GNT)

while the NASB has more simply,

Then Samuel took the flask of oil, poured it on his head, kissed him and said, “Has not the Lord anointed you a ruler over His inheritance? (Cf. NIV; HCSB)

The difference is easily explained: the longer version reflects the reading in the Septuagint while the shorter reading derives from the Hebrew text. The Septuagint appears to reiterate 9:16. In both cases the word for ruler is, once more, nāgîd which fits the private nature of Samuel’s anointing; Saul’s public investiture will come later.

Samuel’s anointing has a sacramental character. He anoints Saul with oil, pouring it over his head—similar to the practice of anointing the high priest (see Exodus 29:7; cf. Psalm 133:1)—before advising Saul of several signs which will immediately follow. The oil itself has no spiritual or supernatural powers but is symbolic of the Spirit’s coming upon Saul which Samuel announces in verse six and which occurs in accordance with Samuel’s prophecy, in verse ten. Samuel anointed with oil but it is the Spirit’s presence and empowering which is crucial.

The coming of the Spirit is accompanied by a manifestation of prophecy—inspired speech, something not uncommon in the Old Testament (cf. Numbers 11:24-26; 24:2-3; 2 Chronicles 20:14-17). The analogy with the passage in Numbers 11 is particularly instructive: the coming of the Spirit is accompanied with prophecy but the Spirit’s coming is not, as it were, to make the recipients of his presence prophets; rather, the gift of the Spirit is given to equip the recipients for their administrative and leadership responsibilities, as is the case here. Nevertheless the prophesying does serve the purpose of identifying and encouraging those who have received the gift of the Spirit. Their experience confirms the divine call: Saul has been brought within the sphere of the divine call, assignment and work. His life has been incorporated into the divine activity and purposes.

The Spirit of the Lord will “rush upon” Saul (ESV) and so “possess” him (NRSV), with the result of the Spirit’s coming being that Saul will not only prophesy, but more importantly, “will be turned into another man” (v. 6). Later, in verse nine, it is said that God gave Saul “another heart.” These phrases indicate the transformational intent of the Spirit’s coming and presence. The Spirit comes to us as we are but intends change and transformation.

It is note-worthy that this is God’s work: God gave Saul another heart; Saul will be turned into another man. Nevertheless God’s initiative calls for human responsiveness and obedience—something we will learn later that Saul lacks, and with tragic consequences. Evans’ pastoral insight is, therefore, worth repeating:

Profound spiritual experiences can have profound effects on our lives, but do not change everything about us. We may be transformed, but we remain ourselves; conversion does not normally result in a changed body or temperament. … Sometimes we put heavy burdens on ourselves or on others by expecting the effects of spiritual transformation to be greater than they are (Evans, 71).

We are reminded here of Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 2:12-13 where he encourages the congregation to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling…for God is at work within [them].” Spiritual experience is not an end in itself, nor a goal to be pursued as the aim of life with God. Spiritual experiences cannot be scheduled or demanded, but if they occur, may be received with awe and gratitude. However, they are meant as catalysts of a deeper obedience, and as doorways to new possibilities of service. Again, they intend to bring us into the sphere of the God’s activity. Rather than cul-de-sacs, they are the entry ramps to the highway of holiness and the service of God and his purposes. A whole life of salvation and service beckons and we dare not camp at the point of encounter. After the transfiguration Peter wanted to set up booths and remain at the point of revelation, but Jesus refused, and led him back down the mountain into the sea of human suffering and need (see Mark 9:2-29).

And so, too, with Saul. The Holy Spirit will “rush” upon him and he will be caught up in an ecstatic communal experience of the Spirit’s presence, his heart will be changed and he will be turned into another man. Nevertheless the end toward which all this leads is action: “Now when these signs meet you, do what your hand finds to do, for God is with you” (v. 7). Mystic experiences draw us into the divine presence that we might be sent forth to participate in the divine work.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 9

Read 1 Samuel 9

Chapter nine is a curious chapter, its portrayal of Saul, who is introduced here, open to various interpretations. Some scholars argue that the chapter, and indeed the Saul narrative as a whole, is a composite of different sources and traditions, some pro-Saul, and some anti. Others read the narrative positively, identifying those characteristics in the story which suggest that Saul has the right attributes to be king. Evans, for example, provides a psychological account in which she suggests that Saul may have harboured secret ambitions to be a leader, that he may, in fact, have had his own sense of calling to leadership which is now confirmed by Samuel (66-67). She further finds evidence for his suitability in the very ordinariness of his circumstances —obeying his father and searching for donkeys, and listening to the advice of his servant. Certainly Saul looks like king-material; he is tall and handsome and from a wealthy and influential family, despite his modesty in verse 21. Others, however, remain unconvinced and so find a very unflattering portrayal of Saul in the chapter. He is never defined as a man of God or as walking in his ways. He appears indecisive and lacks initiative, relying on his servant’s advice and even his money. When he meets Samuel he does not recognise him as the seer that he is seeking.

Despite this ambiguity, however, one thing is clear: God has chosen Saul. The whole story unfolds in an atmosphere of chance and coincidence—read: providence. Donkeys go missing; Saul arrives at Zuph just as Samuel does; this unknown man is “discovered,” pointed out by God to Samuel. The text is explicit:

Verse 16       
Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.

Then, when Saul arrives, the Lord speaks again to Samuel, saying to him, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you” (v. 17). Evans is correct: “What is very clear in this instance is that the choice of Saul was entirely God’s. … There is no room here for misunderstanding. Saul was God’s appointed man” (65). This is no doubt the reason for Evans’ attempt to show that Saul was, in fact, an ideal choice to be king, or at least, a suitable choice.

This lack of ambiguity with respect to the divine choice, when viewed alongside the evident ambiguity of Saul’s character leads to further questions. Did God choose Saul knowing that Saul would prove to be a disastrous king, and so deeming this a somewhat disastrous choice? Did God choose Saul in this way to underline his displeasure in Israel seeking a king in the first place? Did God know whom he was choosing?

Those who recognise the work of divine providence in the story must find some way of answering these questions without compromising the divine foreknowledge and goodness. Open Theists, of course, are under no such constraint, being able to argue that God does not, in fact, know the future and watches it unfold as we do, in response to the freely chosen decisions and actions of the human actors involved. Ultimately, however, a view of providence in which God controls every action and outcome is as unsatisfactory as the idea that limits the wisdom and sovereignty of God as the Open Theist does. In the story of Saul, then, the mystery of divine providence and of the divine-human relation and interaction, comes into prominent focus.

God’s will in his choice of Saul is clear: you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines (v. 16). In language that echoes the Exodus and the call of Moses, God has “heard the cry” of his people, the voice of their suffering and oppression, and has raised up a leader for their deliverance. Ultimately, however, for those who know how this story proceeds, this saving will was frustrated.

Once more, Murphy’s reading of the text provides the benefits of wisdom and insight. Murphy rejects source-critical approaches, preferring a narrative reading to make sense of the text’s difficulties. She acknowledges the portrayal of Saul as indecisive and passive, but suggests that “the story is saying in the most emphatic way that Saul did not put himself forward, but was chosen by Yahweh” (74). The ambiguity of his character reflects the fact that he is “an unpainted canvas,” an unformed character: “what will he make of his beauty and strength when he becomes king?” (75). Neither overtly wicked nor overtly pious, the question arises concerning what kind of man and what kind of king Saul will become.

By presenting him as neither overtly wicked nor some pious Nazirite type, the author creates in Saul a figure who can make of the role of first king in Israel whatever he freely wills. … The question is what use he makes of his freedom. Our human freedom is intertwined in its choices with God’s free gifts of opportunities to act (75, 76).

God freely elects Saul with his people’s well-being at heart. Saul’s ignorance and lack of initiative in the selection signals Yahweh’s omnipotence at work. On the other hand, the blank and open portrayal of Saul’s character indicates that he himself is a free man, as yet indifferent with respect to the determination of his will. He has yet to make his choice between good and evil. … From here on, Saul has entered the arena where he will have to make free choices, and these choices will count (77).

I suspect that Karl Barth would provide a slightly different reading of the text. God calls Saul in sovereign freedom, not dependent upon Saul’s suitability or otherwise for this calling. But this call also takes the form of a command: Saul is commissioned as God’s leader, as the one through whom God will save his people. God does not leave Saul alone at a crossroads free to go this way or that. Rather, God has commanded that he should go in a particular way, taking a specific path and road; he is to go this way and not that. Saul’s choices, decisions and actions are still crucial and still “count,” as Murphy has noted. However, his failure is not merely a tragedy of poor choices or human inability, but of disobedience; that is, he has turned from the way in which he was directed, and pursued his own path, with terrible consequences. The rest of the story will be an opportunity to test this thesis. In the meantime, however, we note that divine providence is always at work, that the divine call involves a command and a direction, and that the divine-human relation is an encounter of the free God and the free human in which our choices, decisions and actions really do matter with respect to the historical unfolding of the divine will.