Sunday, 30 October 2016

Undermining the patriarchy

Three of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) record Jesus' witty phrase that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. In each case the listeners are amazed but Jesus refuses to water it down. One can surmise that the hearers assumed that the rich and powerful always get priority. But are they amazed that Jesus turns the priorities upside down? Or amazed that he would speak so subversively in public?

Who knows?

But whatever the reason, Peter recognises the great reversal implied by Jesus and says to him "We have left everything to follow you!"

Now the next bit is a fascinating example of the importance of what is not said. Jesus' reply to Peter is recounted in most detail by Mark, who writes:
‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – along with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)

The core message here is that throwing your lot in with Jesus will disrupt the normal family alliances, but will replace them with a new community in which there is abundant safety and resources, and above all, company. Oh, and hardships.

But Gerhard Lohfink highlights something I have never seen before. Of all the things you might leave behind there is one missing from the list of things you might gain. There are no fathers in the new community! The patriarchy is left behind!

It is a subtle reminder of the Jesus' earlier observation about rich people: don’t assume that if you are rich, powerful and male then there will be a seat of honour for you in God's kingdom. You might not get in at all. If you do get in there will be no place for your male, controlling, dominating, privileged status.

Of course, I'm not like that … well, not much :(

At the risk of watering this point down, but in order to be thorough, there is something else to add about fathers. The omission of fathers from the new community of course does not mean that fathers are excluded, just that they will need to leave their fatherhood at the door. Jesus says that more explicitly elsewhere: "Do not call anyone on earth 'father', for you have one Father, and he is in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). That must never be assumed to mean that there is one dominate alpha male father in heaven and as a consequence no-one else should dare compete for the role of "father". As I have written elsewhere, Jesus has a very different idea of how the title "father" should be applied to God.

(This post is inspired by Gerhard Lohfink's observation in Jesus of Nazareth, p. 237.)

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Grace to your enemies

I've been reading Gerhard Lohfink's book Jesus of Nazareth: what he wanted, who he was and although I don’t find his depiction of Jesus very stimulating, there are certainly some gems of insight here and there.

A section considering Jesus' command to love our enemies is one such gem. He comments on this speech by Jesus, as recorded by Luke:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. (Luke 6:32-35, NIV)
… and starts by saying that the translation of "credit" is not very helpful. Other English versions use reward, thanks, praise, benefit and blessing, which perhaps are no better. But the Greek word, charis, has the primary meaning of loveliness, agreeableness … even charm or beauty. The majority of times charis is used in the New Testament it is translated as grace.

I'm nowhere near a level of understanding of Greek to question what the majority of translators have done in Luke 6. Nevertheless, with Lohfink, I like the idea of inserting grace into these verses. It appears in four places – three times in the positive, and once as the negative acharistous. What that reveals is something more like this:
If you love only within tribal or family boundaries, where is the grace in that? If you only do good to people who do good to you, where is the grace in that? If you only loan money when you're sure you'll get it back, where is the grace in that? But if you love and do good and lend to anyone – even your enemies – wow, that is a beautiful thing! That kind of charming, lovely grace is reward in itself. Those acts would show who your God really is! The God I know is kind even to those with no grace!