Archive for the ‘Suffering’ Tag

Mutuality in God X   1 comment

Above:  Icon of the Beatitudes

Image in the Public Domain

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According to the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship (ILCW) Lectionary (1973), as contained in the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) and Lutheran Worship (1982)

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Micah 6:1-8

Psalm 1

1 Corinthians 1:26-31

Matthew 5:1-12

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O God, you know that we cannot withstand

the dangers which surround us. 

Strengthen us in body and spirit so that, with your help,

we may be able to overcome the weakness

that our sin has brought upon us;

through Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), 16

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Almighty God,

you know that we are set among so many and great dangers

that by reason of the weakness of our fallen nature

we cannot always stand upright;

grant us your strength and protection to support us in all dangers

and carry us through all temptations;

through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Lutheran Worship (1982), 25

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Sacred ritual is part of the Law of Moses.  So are moral mandates regarding how people ought to treat each other.  A sacred ritual is not a talisman.  To treat it as such is to make a mockery of it.

“The man” of Psalm 1:1 is a student of the Torah.  He, in the original cultural setting and in the Hebrew text, is a man.  In my cultural setting, that role is no longer gender-specific, for the better.  Certain details change, according to physical and temporal setting.  Others remain constant, though, for better or worse.  For example, “the man” of Psalm 1:1 is stable.  The language of positions in Psalm 1:1 is interesting.  “The man” contrasts with the impious, who are in motion–walking, following, and standing–before finally sitting down in the seat of scoffers.  True stability exists in God alone.

The readings from the New Testament tell us that divine values differ from dominant human values.  Conventional wisdom may get some details right.  After all, a broken clock is right twice a day.  Yet conventional wisdom tends to be foolishness.  The ethics of the Beatitudes, for example, look like folly to “the world.”

Micah 6 contrasts with what God has done with what people have done, collectively.  The Bible frequently concerns itself with collective actions and inactions.  My Western culture, with its individualistic emphasis, does not know how to comprehend collective guilt, sin, and repentance.  Yet the Bible does.  Mutuality, not individualism, is a Biblical virtue.  Remember, O reader, that in three of the four readings for this Sunday, the emphasis is on “we,” not “me.”  Furthermore, “we” and “me” coexist in Psalm 1.

The emphasis on “we” terrifies me.  I may try to follow God daily, to practice the Golden Rule, et cetera.  Yet I also belong to a community, a culture, a society, a nation-state, and a species.  The sins of others may cause me to suffer because of my group memberships–community, culture, society, nation-state, and species.  Recall, O reader, that the population in Micah 6 addressed included pious people.  Remember, O reader, that not all Christians in Corinth were querulous jerks.

Ponder, O reader, how we–the “we” of wherever you live–can improve relative to Micah 6:8.  How can “we” do justice, love goodness, and walk modestly with God?

THE FEAST OF SAINTS MIROCLES OF MILAN AND EPIPHANIUS OF PAVIA, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS

THE FEAST OF SAINTS ALBAN ROE AND THOMAS REYNOLDS, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIESTS AND MARTYRS, 1642

THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN YI YON-ON, ROMAN CATHOLIC CATECHIST AND MARTYR IN KOREA, 1867

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Adapted from this post

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Repentance, Part IX   2 comments

Above: The Parable of the (Barren) Fig Tree, by Jan Luyken

Image in the Public Domain

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READING LUKE-ACTS, PART XXXIII

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Luke 13:1-9

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Some people never learn from the Book of Job.  Suffering does not necessarily result from one’s sin.  Some people sound more like Job’s alleged friends than Job himself.  Even God, in the Book of Job, criticizes the alleged friends and says they spoke inaccurately.  Yet some people never learn from the Book of Job.

Luke 13 opens with misinterpretations of the the deliberate killing of rebellious civilians (on the orders of Pontius Pilate) and the accidental deaths after the collapse of the Tower of Siloam, Jerusalem.  We read of Jesus scotching those misinterpretations.  We also read of Christ moving the metaphor from physical death to spiritual death.

The Parable of the (Barren) Fig Tree emphasizes (a) the value of each sinner, and (b) the importance of repentance.  One may wonder why the “certain man” had a fig tree planted in his vineyard.  Perhaps he liked fig trees.  Jesus is the vinedresser who urges the vineyard owner (God) to give the unproductive fig tree another chance.  But will the fig tree ever bear figs?

The fig tree stands for a struggling sinner.  Divine judgment and mercy exist in balance.  God is patient, but not infinitely so.  Sooner or later, the fig tree must bear figs, or else.  This is a parable about repentance, divine forbearance, and human procrastination.  So, as I like to tell people, procrastinate later.

JANUARY 8, 2022 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT THORFINN OF HAMAR, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP

THE FEAST OF A. J. MUSTE, DUTCH-AMERICAN MINISTER, LABOR ACTIVIST, AND PACIFIST

THE FEAST OF ARCANGELO CORELLI, ITALIAN ROMAN CATHOLIC MUSICIAN AND COMPOSER

THE FEAST OF NICOLAUS COPERNICUS AND GALILEO GALILEI, SCIENTISTS

THE FEAST OF HARRIET BEDELL, EPISCOPAL DEACONESS AND MISSIONARY

THE FEAST OF SAINT PEPIN OF LANDEN, SAINT ITTA OF METZ, THEIR RELATIONS, AND SAINTS AMAND, AUSTREGISILUS, AND SULPICIUS II OF BOURGES, FAITHFUL CHRISTIANS ACROSS GENERATIONAL LINES

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Judgment and Mercy, Part XXIII   1 comment

Above:  St. John the Baptist

Image in the Public Domain

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According to the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship (ILCW) Lectionary (1973), as contained in the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) and Lutheran Worship (1982)

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Isaiah 35:1-10

Psalm 146

James 5:7-10

Matthew 11:2-11

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Almighty God, you once called John the Baptist

to give witness to the coming of your Son and to prepare his way. 

Grant us, your people, the wisdom to see your purpose today

and the openness to hear your will,

that we may witness to Christ’s coming and so prepare his way;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), 13

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Almighty God, through John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ,

you once proclaimed salvation;

now grant that we may know this salvation and serve you

in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Lutheran Worship (1982), 13

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If I seem like a proverbial broken record, I am.  I am like a proverbial broken record because the Bible is one on many points.  In this case, the point is the balance of divine judgment and mercy.  Divine judgment on the Chaldean/Neo-Babylonian Empire in Isaiah 34 balances divine mercy (via a second exodus) in Isaiah 35.  Divine mercy on the faithful balances divine judgment on princes in Psalm 146.  Jesus is simultaneously the judge and the advocate in James 5:7-10.  Despite divine faithfulness to the pious, some (such as St. John the Baptist, in Matthew 11) suffer and die for their piety.  Then God judges the oppressors.

The twin stereotypes of the Hebrew Bible being about judgment and the New Testament being about grace are false.  Judgment and mercy balance each other in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

The inclusion of the fate of St. John the Baptist in Advent reminds us that he was the forerunner of Christ in more than one way.  About two weeks before December 25, one may prefer not to read or hear such a sad story.  Yet we all need to recall that Christmas commemorates the incarnation of Jesus, who suffered, died, then rose.  Advent and Christmas are bittersweet.  This is why Johann Sebastian Bach incorporated the Passion Chorale into his Christmas Oratorio.  This is why one can sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” to the same tune (EASTER HYMN).

God is active in the world.  So are evil and misguided forces, unfortunately.  Evil, in the Biblical sense, rejects dependence on God.  Evil says:

If God exists, God does not care.  Everyone is on his or her own in this world.  The ends justify the means.

Evil is amoral.  The misguided may be immoral, at best.  The results of amorality and immorality may frequently be identical.  Yet God remains constant.

That God is constant may constitute good news or bad news, depending on one’s position.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JANUARY 7, 2022 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF FRANÇOIS FÉNELON, ROMAN CATHOLIC ARCHBISHOP OF CAMBRAI

THE FEAST OF SAINT ALDRIC OF LE MANS, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP OF LE MANS

THE FEAST OF JEAN KENYON MACKENZIE, U.S. PRESBYTERIAN MISSIONARY IN WEST AFRICA

THE FEAST OF LANZA DEL VASTO, FOUNDER OF THE COMMUNITY OF THE ARK

THE FEAST OF SAINT LUCIAN OF ANTIOCH, ROMAN CATHOLIC MARTYR, 312

THE FEAST OF WILLIAM JONES, ANGLICAN PRIEST AND MUSICIAN

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Adapted from this post

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The New Heaven and the New Earth   Leave a comment

Above:  The Celestial City and the River of Bliss, by John Martin

Image in the Public Domain

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READING REVELATION, PART XV

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Revelation 21:1-22:5

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God’s creative destruction finally complete, the fully-realized Kingdom of God may arrive.  The language of the Kingdom of God in the New Testament is simultaneously present tense and future tense.  The partially-realized Kingdom of God is here and has been here for a long time.  Yet much remains to come.

In Revelation 21:1-22:5, finite language speaks of infinite grace and a new world order.  Death, grief, pain, chaos, and other causes of suffering are no more.  The New Jerusalem is a new, renewed creation.  It is paradise restored, after Genesis 3.  Mythological language, best suited to describe the fully-realized Kingdom of God.

Presbyterian minister Ernest Lee Stoffel, writing in The Dragon Bound:  The Revelation Speaks to Our Time (1981), proposed:

The re-creating power of Christ’s suffering love is time-less.  The reign of Christ’s suffering love is time-less.  The re-creating power of suffering love can happen “in time” and “beyond time.”

–103

He was, I suppose, channeling C. H. Dodd’s Realized Eschatology–the Kingdom of God does not come; it is.  God is time-less.  Our perspectives are time-bound, however.  Therefore, certain events make the reality of the Kingdom of God more evident than before.

I recognize much of merit in the case Dodd made.  Maybe the temporal perspective of this student of the past is too strong for Realized Eschatology to satisfy me fully.  Nevertheless, I admit that my point of view is limited.

Stoffel’s case makes much sense.  In Genesis 1:1, God began to create.  God continues to create.  God continues to re-create.

That satisfies me fully.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

OCTOBER 20, 2021 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF PHILIP SCHAFF AND JOHN WILLIAMSON NEVIN, U.S. GERMAN REFORMED HISTORIANS, THEOLOGIANS, AND LITURGISTS

THE FEAST OF FRIEDRICH FUNCKE, GERMAN LUTHERAN MINISTER, COMPOSER, AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF JAMES W. C. PENNINGTON, AFRICAN-AMERICAN CONGREGATIONALIST AND PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER, EDUCATOR, AND ABOLITIONIONIST

THE FEAST OF JOHN HARRIS BURT, EPISCOPAL BISHOP OF OHIO, AND CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST

THE FEAST OF MARY A. LATHBURY, U.S. METHODIST HYMN WRITER

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The Throne, the Sealed Book, and the Lamb   Leave a comment

Above:  The Adoration of the Lamb

Image in the Public Domain

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READING REVELATION, PART IX

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Revelation 4:1-5:14

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One of the advantages of apocalyptic literature, politically subversive and treasonous in the context of the days of the Roman Empire, was that Roman imperial censors could not understand it.  How would a censor have interpreted the beginning of Revelation 4, for example?  He may have given up quickly, in frustration.

Without getting lost in the symbolism and numerology, one can grasp that this is a scene of divine judgment.  All created things, as well as all people of faith in the Old and New Testaments, are near yet separated from the throne of God.  Mercy tempers divine judgment.  The audience praises God.

Holy, holy, holy is God the sovereign Lord of all, who was, and is, and is to come!

–Revelation 4:8b, The Revised English Bible (1989)

God was worthy to receive glory, honor, and power in 4:11.  Jesus–the lamb–was worthy to receive the scroll and break its seals in 5:9-10.

Presbyterian minister Ernest Lee Stoffel offered this analysis:

What is this really saying?  I believe it is saying that the suffering love of God is the key that will help us live with our suffering and with ourselves.  There is something in the universe that has not been defeated by pain and evil and sin.  That something is the crucified love of the Creator….

Revelation is saying that faith does have some place to go.  And God knows we need some place to go–some live option of faith….

And I think it must also be said that even those Christians of the first century did not see the heavens opened.  But they accepted this option of faith and died with it.  They believed that the love of God, not Rome, would have the victory.  The other option is to live without meaning or purpose, it seems to me.  In the meantime, it means that I may not be delivered from it, but I can be delivered through, by the suffering of him who died, but is “alive for evermore” (1:18).  

The Dragon Bound:  The Revelation Speaks to Our Time (1981), 43-45

One may lose oneself in sacred music (such as Worthy is the Lamb) based on parts of these chapters.  One should do so.  Doing so may prove easier than really believing that the love of God, not (insert the name of an oppressive earthly power here) will have the victory.  I consider myself fairly devout, and I harbor doubts sometimes.  How could I not?

Nevertheless, in the words of Soorp Soorp, from the liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Church:

Holy, Lord of hosts.

Heaven and Earth are full of Thy glory.

Blessing in the highest.

Blessed art Thou that didst come and art to come in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest.

Amen.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

OCTOBER 14, 2021 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINTS CALLIXTUS I, ANTERUS, AND PONTIAN, BISHOPS OF ROME; AND SAINT HIPPOLYTUS, ANTIPOPE

THE FEAST OF JEAN-BAPTISTE LAMY, ROMAN CATHOLIC ARCHBISHOP OF SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO

THE FEAST OF SAINT ROMAN LYSKO, UKRAINIAN GREEK CATHOLIC PRIEST AND MARTYR, 1949

THE FEAST OF SAMUEL ISAAC JOSEPH SCHERESCHEWSKY, EPISCOPAL BISHOP OF SHANGHAI, AND BIBLICAL TRANSLATOR

THE FEAST OF THOMAS HANSEN KINGO, DANISH LUTHERAN BISHOP, HYMN WRITER, AND “POET OF EASTERTIDE”

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Good Religion and Bad Religion, Part II   Leave a comment

READING THE GENERAL EPISTLES, PART II

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James 1:1-27

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This is pure religion, and undefiled before our God and Father, to look after orphans and widows in their affliction, and ever to keep oneself unspotted from the world.

–James 1:27, Helen Barrett Montgomery, Centenary Translation of the New Testament (1924)

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That verse concludes the first chapter and sets up the second chapter.  Textual context is crucial.  I will work my way through the first chapter.

  1. Verse 1 names the author as “James,” presumably St. James of Jerusalem (d. 62 C.E.).  This is a pseudonymonous ascription, a common practice in Biblical times.
  2. There is wordplay in the original Greek text in verses 1 and 2.  Verse 1 reads, in part, “Greetings,” literally, “Be joyful,” or “Rejoice.”  Verse 2 reads, in part, “Regard it as a complete joy.”
  3. Verse 1 identifies the audience as Jewish diaspora Christians.
  4. Rejoicing in “various trials” (verses 2-12) requires grace, which suffices.
  5. The theme of attitudes toward wealth and status debuts in verse 9.  It recurs later in the first chapter and the book.
  6. During trials, remain anchored in God (verse 6) for stability.
  7. God does not tempt us (verses 13-18).  Times of trial, therefore, are not temptations God has sent.
  8. Unrighteous anger (as opposed to righteous anger) is dangerous to oneself and others.  It also belies true religion.  The Law of Love works against unrighteous anger.  Grace liberates us to be our best possible selves in God (verses 19-25).
  9. The use of speech and writing manifests both positive and negative tendencies.  Taming one’s words, whether spoken or written, is essential (verse 26).  Ergo, true religion is to care for the vulnerable and to reject secular standards of success and status, grounded in power and wealth.

More about language and the control of it will ensue in a subsequent chapter.

Impious deeds must not belie pious words.  In Jewish terms, God is like what one has done and does.  Likewise, we mere mortals are like what we have done to the extent that we continue to commit those deeds.

I, as a student of history, understand that I cannot always determine the motivation of a group or an individual.  I can, however, point to what a group or an individual did, said, did not say, and did not do.  That information frequently leads to a moral evaluation, and renders the lack of information about motivation irrelevant.

Political-social context is crucial.  Commentaries inform me that the Epistle of James targeted religious prophets of doom–political agitators who imagined they could hasten God’s righteous judgment.  One may understand why such people were perilous when the Church was young and small, albeit growing.  One may grasp that such agitators attracted unwelcome imperial attention.  The Epistle of James favors constructive, counter-cultural morality (as in the Beatitudes), not agitation that threatened to bring the imperium down upon the Church.

I, as a student of history, know that religious communities who have practiced James 1:27 have frequently incurred the wrath of governments and the scorn of societies, however.  I think immediately of the Quakers, the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Hutterites, for example.  Governments often react badly when they go to war, and when pacifistic dissenters refuse to cooperate.

James 1:27 also cautions against becoming enmeshed in unholy intrigues.  This theme unfolds in subsequent chapters, too.

How do you, O reader, think of “the world”?  Do you identify it as Satan’s domain?  Or do you think of it as your neighborhood, for which you are partially responsible?  God–in both the Old and New Testaments–mandates that the people of God transform the world, not give up on it and seek to flee from it.  The people of God have divine marching orders to be a light to the nations and to function as salt.  Confronting evil is part of that mandate.  Telling the truth is essential.  Consult the record of the prophets and Jesus, O reader.

Offering a positive alternative is also crucial.

Mutuality informed the Law of Moses, the examples of the Hebrew prophets, the lived and uttered teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and the culturally-specific writings of the New Testament.  These sages knew what many moderns never learned or have forgotten–that whatever one does to others, one does to oneself.  They grasped that human beings are responsible to and for each other, under God.  These sages understood the importance of orthopraxy, grounded in an inseparable from orthodoxy.

Reading these ancient texts in historical, cultural, and political contexts tells us what they originally meant.  Then we can properly apply these texts to our contemporary situations.

I write these words during the COVID-19 pandemic.  I witness the economic disparities the pandemic has made worse.  I see needless suffering.  I notice that many people have fallen though the cracks in the social safety net.  I witness cynical, opportunistic, fearful, and selfish people refusing to do what is necessary and proper to take care of each other, especially those too young to get vaccinated.  I also notice much shameful behavior (such as I have described in this paragraph) coming from self-identified Christians.

Lord Jesus, save me from your followers!

Timeless principles may seem vague.  This is why the Bible includes many culturally-specific examples of them.  In that spirit, I offer a new, updated version of James 1:27, just for these times:

Pure, undefiled religion, in the eyes of God our Father, during this pandemic, is this:  getting vaccinated when eligible (unless one has a legitimate medical reason not to do so), wearing masks, practicing social distancing, coming to the help of the elderly, the young, and those with compromised immune systems.  It is living in accordance with the Golden Rule and the Lukan Beatitudes.

How is that for a sound and a radical standard?

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

SEPTEMBER 20, 2021 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF HENRI NOUWEN, DUTCH ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST AND SPIRITUAL WRITER

THE FEAST OF ELIZABETH KENNY, AUSTRALIAN NURSE AND MEDICAL PIONEER

THE FEAST OF JOHN COLERIDGE PATTESON, ANGLICAN BISHOP OF MELANESIA, AND HIS COMPANIONS, MARTYRS, 1871

THE FEAST OF SAINT MARIE THERESE OF SAINT JOSEPH, FOUNDER OF THE CONGREGATION OF THE CARMELITE SISTERS OF THE DIVINE HEART OF JESUS

THE FEAST OF NELSON TROUT, FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN LUTHERAN BISHOP

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The First Oracle of Haggai   Leave a comment

Above:  Icon of Haggai

Image in the Public Domain

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READING HAGGAI-FIRST ZECHARIAH, PART II

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Haggai 1:1-15

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King Cyrus II of the Persians and the Medes (r. 559-530 B.C.E.) conquered the Chaldean/Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 B.C.E.  The following year, he issued a decree permitting Jewish exiles to return to their ancestral homeland (Ezra 1:1-4).  The first wave of exiles to return to the ruined homeland (Ezra 1:5-2:70; 1 Esdras 2:8-30; 1 Esdras 5:1-73).  The old, prophetic predictions of the homeland being a verdant paradise of piety and prosperity did not match reality on the ground.  Grief and disappointment ensued.  The land was not as fertile as in the germane prophecies, and the economy was bad.

As of 520 B.C.E., proper worship, as had occurred before the Fall of Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.), had not resumed.  People had set up an altar–most likely in 520 B.C.E. (as 1 Esdras 5:47-55 indicates, not in 538 B.C.E. (as Ezra 3:1-8 indicates).

Construction of the Second Temple began (Ezra 3:10-13; 1 Esdras 5:56-65a).  Yet opposition to that effort caused a pause in construction (Ezra 4:1-23; 1 Esdras 5:65b-73).

Haggai 1:1-15 establishes two dates and three names:

  1. The first date (1:1), converted to the Gregorian Calendar, is August 9, 520 B.C.E.
  2. The first name is Haggai, who prophesied from August 9 to December 18, 520 B.C.E.
  3. The second name is Joshua ben Zehozadak, the chief priest.
  4. The final name is Zerubbabel ben Shealtiel (of the House of David), the satrap (governor).   Notice the lack of the Davidic monarchy, O reader.
  5. The final date (1:15) is September 21, 520 B.C.E.

Haggai offered a simple explanation of why the drought was severe and the economy was poor.  He blamed everything on the lack of a completed Temple in Jerusalem.  The prophet argued that such disrespect for God was the culprit, and that the poverty and drought were punishment.  Work on the construction of the Second Temple resumed.  Surely resuming construction of the Second Temple ended the drought and revived the economy, right?  No, actually, hence Haggai 2:10-10.

Haggai’s heart was in the right place, but he missed an important truth that predated Jesus:

[God] makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”

–Matthew 5:45b, The New American Bible–Revised Edition (2011)

Haggai could have recalled certain laments from Hebrew literature.  He could have remembered Psalm 73, for example.  Why did the wicked flourish and the righteous falter?  Haggai could have recalled the Book of Job, in which the innocent, titular character suffered.

I make no pretense of being a spiritual giant and a great spring of wisdom, O reader.  However, I offer you a principle to consider:  God is not a vending machine.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JULY 11, 2021 COMMON ERA

PROPER 10:  THE SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, YEAR B

THE FEAST OF NATHAN SODERBLOM, SWEDISH ECUMENIST AND ARCHBISHOP OF UPPSULA

THE FEAST OF SAINT DAVID GONSON, ENGLISH ROMAN CATHOLIC MARTYR, 1541

THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN GUALBERT, FOUNDER OF THE VALLOMBROSAN BENEDICTINES

THE FEAST OF SAINTS THOMAS SPROTT AND THOMAS HUNT, ENGLISH ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIESTS AND MARTYRS, 1600

THE FEAST OF SAINT VALERIU TRAIAN FRENTIU, ROMANIAN ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP AND MARTYR, 1952

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The Fourth Servant Song   Leave a comment

Above:  Icon of the Crucifixion

Image in the Public Domain

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READING SECOND ISAIAH, PART IX

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Isaiah 52:13-53:12

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The Book of Common Prayer (1979) lists the Fourth Servant Song as one of three options for the reading from the Old Testament on Good Friday.  Another option is Genesis 22:1-18.  My thoughts on Abraham nearly killing his son, Isaac, are on record at this weblog.  The other option is the Wisdom of Solomon 2:1, 12-24, in which the wicked reject justice.  That reading fits Good Friday perfectly, for, as the Gospel of Luke emphasizes, the crucifixion of Jesus was a perversion of justice.  One may recall that, in the Gospel of Luke, for example, the centurion at the foot of the cross declares Jesus innocent (23:47), not the Son of God (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39).  As I will demonstrate in this post, the applicability of the Fourth Servant Song to Good Friday works thematically, too, but interpretive issues that have nothing to do with Jesus also interest me.

In the original context, the servant in Isaiah 53:13-53:12 is the covenant people during the Babylonian Exile.  The dominant theology in Second Isaiah (chapters 34-35, 40-55) is that the Babylonian Exile was justified yet excessive (40:2; 47:6)–that people had earned that exile.  The theology of Second Isaiah also argues that this suffering was vicarious, on behalf of Gentile nations in the (known) world.  In other words:

Yet the Israelites are still the focus in that these verses offer them a revolutionary theology that explains the hardships of exile:  The people had to endure the exile and the suffering it engendered because that suffering was done in service to God so that God, through their atoning sacrifice, could redeem the nations.

–Susan Ackerman, in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (2003), 1031

Much of the Hebrew Bible, in its final, postexilic form, holds that the Babylonian Exile was divine punishment for persistent, collective, and unrepentant disregard for the moral mandates in the Law of Moses.  This attitude is ubiquitous in the Hebrew prophetic tradition.  I know, for I am working on a project of reading the Hebrew prophetic books, roughly in historical order (with some exceptions), starting with the Book of Hosea.

Yet Isaiah 53:7-9 contradicts that interpretation.  It rejects even 40:1-3 and 47:6, from within Second Isaiah.  Isaiah 53:7-9, not about Jesus, argues that the Babylonian Exile and its accompanying suffering was unjust and the people were innocent.  The thematic link to the atoning suffering of sinless Jesus is plain to see.

Let us not neglect the theme of the vicarious suffering of the Hebrews in the Babylonian Exile, though.  I can read; the text says that, through the suffering of these exiles, Gentile nations would receive divine forgiveness and the Hebrews would receive a reward–renewal.  I try to wrap my mind around this theology, yet do not know what to make of it.  I wrestle with this theology.

Atonement via vicarious suffering is a topic about which I have written at this weblog.  Reading in the history of Christian theology tells me that three theories of the atonement exist in the writings of Church Fathers.  These theories are, in no particular order:

  1. Penal Substitutionary Atonement,
  2. The Incarnation, and
  3. The Conquest of Satan (the Classic Theory, or Christus Victor).

I come closest to accepting the Classic Theory.  It has the virtue of emphasizing that the resurrection completed the atonement.  In other words, dead Jesus cannot atone for anything; do not stop at Good Friday.  I like the Eastern Orthodox tradition of telling jokes on Easter because the resurrection of Jesus was the best joke God ever pulled on Satan.  The second option strikes me as being part of the atonement, and the first option is barbaric.  I stand with those Christian theologians who favor a generalized atonement.

Whether the question is about the atoning, vicarious suffering of Jewish exiles or about the atoning, vicarious suffering of Jesus, perhaps the best strategy is to accept it, thank God, and live faithfully.  The Eastern Orthodox are correct; we Western Christians frequently try to explain too much we cannot understand.  Atonement is a mystery; we may understand it partially, at best.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JULY 10, 2021 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF MYLES HORTON, “FATHER OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT”

THE FEAST OF SAINTS EUMENIOUS AND PARTHENIOS OF KOUDOUMAS, MONKS AND FOUNDERS OF KOUDOMAS MONASTERY, CRETE

THE FEAST OF SAINT JOSEPH OF DAMASCUS, SYRIAN ORTHODOX PRIEST AND MARTYR, 1860

THE FEAST OF SAINT NICHOLAS SPIRA, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOT

THE FEAST OF RUED LANGGAARD, DANISH COMPOSER

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The Punishment of Zion   Leave a comment

Above:  Lamentations

Image in the Public Domain

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READING LAMENTATIONS, PART V

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Lamentation 4:1-22

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The main bright ray of hope in the Book of Lamentations is in Chapter 3.  Theological whiplash continues as the readings revert to…lamentations.  Chapter 4 describes the siege of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.. as well as the suffering and degradation of the city’s residents at the time.

Some points require explanation:

  1. In verse 1, gems and gold represent people.  They are precious yet discarded.
  2. Jackals (verse 3) had a reputation as despicable scavengers.
  3. Ostriches (verse 3) were supposedly cruel and neglectful parents (Job 39:13-18).
  4. Starving children were too weak to cry in verse 4.  (Ezekiel 3:16; Psalm 137:6; Job 29:10)
  5. The inhabitants of Sodom died quickly (Genesis 19:24-25), but the inhabitants of Jerusalem suffered a long agony.
  6. Coral and sapphire were colors associated with vigor in verses 7-8.  Those colors have disappeared.
  7. Fire represented divine wrath (Lamentations 2:3 and 4:11; Deuteronomy 32:22; Isaiah 10:17; Jeremiah 17:27).  There was also the literal fire that destroyed Jerusalem, of course.
  8. Contrary to popular belief (Psalms 46 and 48), Mount Zion was not inviolable.  The belief that God would not let Mount Zion fall came from foreigners (Lamentations 4:12).
  9. Shedding blood (verses 13 and 14), in this case, referred to committing idolatry (Ezekiel 22:1-5; Psalm 106:37-40).  The people most closely associated with purity were the most impure.  Those once among the most respected in society had become as impure as lepers (verse 15).
  10. The Poet spoke in verses 1-16 and 21-22.  The Community spoke in verses 17-20.
  11. The tone in verse 21 is ironic.  Edom comes in for condemnation here and in Amos 1:11-12; Isaiah 21:11-12; Obadiah; Jeremiah 49:7-22; Ezekiel 25:12-14; and Ezekiel 35:1-15.
  12. Verse 22 offers a glimmer of hope.  The Babylonian Exile will end, we read.  Justice will prevail because punishes sins, we read.

I ponder the idea of a world in which justice prevails because God punishes sins.  I think about the world as it is and perceive that it bears little resemblance to God’s ideal world.  The disparity between reality and the ideal is discouraging.  Were I more poetic, and if I had the desire to compose a set of lamentations for the world and United States of America in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, I would do so.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 19, 2021 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF JOHN DALBERG ACTON, ENGLISH ROMAN CATHOLIC HISTORIAN, PHILOSOPHER, AND SOCIAL CRITIC

THE FEAST OF ADELAIDE TEAGUE CASE, EPISCOPAL PROFESSOR OF CHRISTIAN EDUCATION, AND ADVOCATE FOR PEACE

THE FEAST OF MICHEL-RICHARD DELALANDE, FRENCH ROMAN CATHOLIC COMPOSER

THE FEAST OF VERNARD ELLER, U.S. CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN MINISTER AND THEOLOGIAN

THE FEAST OF WILLIAM PIERSON MERRILL, U.S. PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER, SOCIAL REFORMER, AND HYMN WRITER

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A Collage of Laments   Leave a comment

Above:  Lamentations 3:10

Image in the Public Domain

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READING LAMENTATIONS, PART IV

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Lamentation 3:1-66

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Different voices fill Lamentations 3.  A new voice–that of Israel personified as the Man–speaks in verses 1-24, and perhaps through verse 39, as well.  An alternative view holds that the Poet speaks in verses 25-39.  Another new voice–that of the Community–speaks in verses 48-51.  Either Fair Zion or the Man speaks in verses 52-66.

Verses 1-20 depict deportation into exile.  They also depict God as a bad shepherd, in contrast to Psalm 23, Psalm 78, and Ezekiel 34.  Yet, starting with verse 25, we read an expression of hope in God.  Divine loyalty has not ended and divine mercies are not spent, we read.

For the Lord does not

Reject forever,

But first afflicts, then pardons

In His abundant kindness.

–Lamentations 3:31-32, TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures (1985)

Comparing translations reveals shades of meaning in the original Hebrew text.  The Revised English Bible (1989) reads:

For rejection by the Lord

does not last forever.

He may punish, yet he will have compassion

in the fullness of his unfailing love….

When we turn to The New American Bible–Revised Edition (2011), we read:

For the Lord does not reject forever;

Though he brings grief, he takes pity,

according to the abundance of his mercy….

Much of the material in verses 25-39 sounds like speeches by Job’s alleged friends (Job 4, 8, 11, 15, 18, 20, 22, 25, 32-37):  Suffering is divine punishment for sin, and people should accept this punishment.  In the context of the Book of Job, this is a misplaced theology, not applicable to the titular character’s situation (Job 1:1-2:10; 42:7-9).  Also, the speeches of Job’s alleged friends read like the useless yet conventionally pious babblings they are, in narrative context.

The rest of the Book of Lamentations confesses sins, repents of those sins, begs for divine deliverance, expresses hope in God, and prays for divine judgment on the wicked nations.

I get theological whiplash from Lamentations 3.  The contrast between Lamentations 3 and the rage against God in Lamentations 2 is stark.  And who says that God does not willingly bring grief or affliction?  I recall many passages from Hebrew prophetic books in which God speaks and claims credit for causing grief and affliction.  I do not recall anyone forcing God to do that.  In some passages, however, God speaks of these divine actions as the consequences of human sins.

I approach theodicy cautiously.  I am also an intellectually honest monotheist.  I have no evil god to blame for anything, thereby letting the good god off the hook.  There is simply and solely God, who is ever in the dock, so to speak.   The major problem with human theodicy is that it easily degenerates into idiocy at best and heresy at worst.

Whenever someone professes not to believe in God, one way to handle the situation is to ask that individual to describe the God in whom he or she does not believe.  One may also want to ask how the other person defines belief in God.  In the creedal sense, to believe in God is to trust in God.  Yet many–or most–people probably understand belief in God to mean affirmation of the existence of God.

Idiotic theodicy produces a range of God-concepts abhorrent to me.  I suspect that many–or most–of those professed agnostics and atheists reject at least one of these God-concepts, too.  Many professed agnostics and atheists–a host of them refugees from conventional piety and abusive faith–may be closer to a healthy relationship with the God of the Universe than many conventionally devout Jews and Christians.  This matter lies far outside my purview; it resides in the purview of God.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 19, 2021 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF JOHN DALBERG ACTON, ENGLISH ROMAN CATHOLIC HISTORIAN, PHILOSOPHER, AND SOCIAL CRITIC

THE FEAST OF ADELAIDE TEAGUE CASE, EPISCOPAL PROFESSOR OF CHRISTIAN EDUCATION, AND ADVOCATE FOR PEACE

THE FEAST OF MICHEL-RICHARD DELALANDE, FRENCH ROMAN CATHOLIC COMPOSER

THE FEAST OF VERNARD ELLER, U.S. CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN MINISTER AND THEOLOGIAN

THE FEAST OF WILLIAM PIERSON MERRILL, U.S. PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER, SOCIAL REFORMER, AND HYMN WRITER

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