Sunday, September 21, 2014
Esther 3:1-4:3; Psalms 93; James 1:19-27; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Time has passed and Queen Esther is firmly established. In that time, King Ahasuerus has promoted Haman the Agagite, descendent of King Agag of the Amalekites--the historic enemies of the Jews whose hatred goes back centuries (Exodus 17:8-16; Numbers 24:20 and 1 Samuel 15:8-33). Haman has become the king’s Chief Operations Officer, and, as such, is senior to all else. As Haman passes the king’s gate, all of the kings servants are to bow down to him. All do, but Mordecai. Why? It is not a religious prohibition, and, certainly, as one of Ahasuerus’ officials, he had to bow to the king. It seems rather to be the ancient ethnic hostility at work, since, when asked why he does not bow, he simply explains that he is a Jew. When this continues day after day, the others tell Haman, who though enraged at the insult decides it is beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone; rather, he will wipe out all of Mordecai’s people in Ahasuerus’ kingdom. He goes to the king with information mixed with half-truths and downright lies about the Jews: they are scattered all over the kings’ lands, their laws are different and they do not obey the king’s laws. It is true that they have their own laws—the Torah—but it is not true that they did not keep the laws of the land; they did. But, for the king it seems a minor irritation or distraction. He trusts Haman, and consents to his plan. He even signs a formal declaration that not even he, as king, can revoke. The amount of money in the bribe from Haman to the king’s treasury (note, it is not offered directly to the king), is huge—10,000 talents is 375 tons of silver—remember this is a novel! Letters are sent throughout the provinces. And so, the entire bureaucratic apparatus of the Empire is put into motion to carry out Haman’s murderous scheme to be rid of the Jews—every man, woman and child, old and young, in one day will be destroyed—the day that emerges through the casting of the “pur”—the lots. Haman sits down in great personal satisfaction to drink while the city of Susa is thrown into confusion. When word reaches Mordecai, he responds with traditional Jewish acts of repentance, tearing his clothes and donning sackcloth and ashes. He goes through the city wailing a bitter cry. He goes to the entrance of the king’s gate, but no further, for no one can cross it clothed as he is. Mordecai’s behavior is replicated in every city where the king’s edict is read, and the people fast as well.
Psalm 93, probably used during the annual enthronement of Israel’s king, has been appropriated by the church for Easter because, in his resurrection, Jesus has become King of kings and Lord of lords. The psalmist praises the majesty, strength and holiness of the Lord—Israel’s true king—and recalls how all creation has been fixed by God and shall not be moved. So, too, is God’s throne firmly fixed from of old and is “until everlasting.” Even the floods join their voices in praising God’s majesty. God’s reign is eternal, God’s decrees are sure, and only holiness is suitable for God’s house. In the enthronement, this psalm reminds Israel’s king of who it is who truly reigns in Israel, and to whom he is accountable—the Lord.
Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and even slower to anger for none of this produces righteousness of God. Put it all away, along with other acts of filthiness and remnants of wickedness, and, in humility, receive the word implanted in us that can save. Here, James may be referring to a special word spoken to new converts at their baptism, or the charge that is given in baptism. The point is, we are to be doers of that word and not merely hearers who delude ourselves into thinking that hearing and agreeing is enough. The image of looking at ourselves in a mirror is employed for those who hear but do not do. It is like seeing ourselves there in the mirror, then walking away and forgetting what we look like. What we see there, after all, is not truly real, but an image, itself a distortion (this was especially true of the polished bronze mirrors of the day). The Law, on the other hand, is perfect. Those who look on it—the Law of liberty as the rabbis spoke of it—and persevere will be blessed in their doing. Those who think themselves religious, but do not bridle their tongues, only deceive themselves; such religious behavior is worthless. True religion is then defined: it cares for the poor—widows, orphans and the homeless—and it separates itself from the false values of the world.
Much the same theme is picked up in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Piety is a good thing, but beware of the dangers of practicing it in public—note he said, “Beware” not “don’t”—for it has the capacity to cause us to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Piety practiced in public for the right reason can be a very good thing. But, if you are doing it to be noticed by others, you have already received your reward. Rather, when you give to the poor, do so secretly, and don’t trumpet it about, as the two-faced hypocrites do (that is what the word hypocrite means—two-faced), in order to be seen by others. Do your giving in secret, not letting your left hand know what your right is doing, and the Heavenly Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. The same is true for fasting. When you do it, do not walk around with a miserable look on your face, uttering complaints about how hungry you are because you are fasting. That is simply drawing attention to yourself for your own sake. Rather, wash your face, anoint your head, and move through the crowd as though you know nothing of hunger, and your Heavenly Father will fill your own hunger with abundance.
Saturday, September 20, 2014
Esther 2:5-8, 15-23; Psalm 75; Acts 17:16-34; John 12:44-50
With Queen Vashti vanquished, it is time for another queen. Word is sent out through the provinces to gather every beautiful female virgin to Susa, there to enter into the king’s haram and be prepared to be presented to him, a process that takes a year. The one who comes to him and pleases him will become the new queen. Within the citadel of Susa is a Jew named Mordecai who had come in the initial exile from Jerusalem in 587. With him had come his ward, a younger cousin, an orphan named Hadassah (the name for the Jewish women’s’ organization within modern Jewry), whose Persian name is Esther, which means “star.” When the gathering of virgins takes place, Esther is among those who are taken into the king’s haram, something considered a high honor. As she goes, Mordecai tells her not to reveal her true identity as a Jew, and she complies. In the Haram, she quickly gains the favor of Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the Haram, and successfully settles into life there, gaining the friendship and respect of all. In the meantime, the cosmetic and other forms of instruction take place as she along with all the other young women are prepared for the night they are invited into the King Ahasuerus’ bed. Each of the women is given one night with the king to prove her ability to please and satisfy him sexually. Thereafter, neither she nor any of the other women will be able to return to the king unless he calls for one of them by name. When Esther’s time comes, armed with advice from Hegai, whose favor and friendship Esther had earned, she goes to the king. The result is he loves her more than all the others and places the royal crown upon her head and holds a celebratory banquet. The text now does a flashback to Mordecai, whose courtly responsibility enables him to sit at the king’s gate. During the time of Esther’s preparation, Mordecai discovers a plot against the king’s life by two of the eunuchs who guard the Haram threshold. After she becomes Queen, Mordecai tells Esther about the conspiracy and she tells it to the king in the name of Mordecai. After investigation, the two eunuchs are found guilty and are therefore hanged. However, Mordecai goes unrewarded for his act of loyalty.
Psalm 75 is a prayer of praise and thanksgiving for God’s justice, especially in dealing with the wicked. It begins as a communal thanksgiving, which is interrupted by an oracle from God. God promises at the appointed time to establish justice and preserve a tottering earth and its inhabitants. God will rebuke the boastful for their boasting and command the wicked to abandon their ways (“lift up their horn” means to exert their strength) and insolent speech. This is followed by a commentary on God’s justice: the cup of foaming wine is here a cup of God’s wrath poured out on the wicked. This is followed by the psalmist’s individual vow of trust that is followed by a final oracle from God: “All the horns of the wicked I will cut off.” “Horn,” in the Ancient Near East could be a musical instrument, a vessel holding oil for anointing, or, as it is in this context, a symbol for human power. The strength (horn) of the wicked shall be cut off, while the strength (horn) of the righteous will be exalted.
As Paul waits in Athens for Silas and Timothy, he becomes agitated by all of the temples and statues depicting the Greek Gods. He goes to the synagogue and engages the Jews and the Greek God-fearers in argument, as well as those he meets in the market place. There, Stoic and Epicurean philosophers encounter and engage him in conversation. Some think him an “idle babbler,” dropping bits and pieces of information here and there, while others think him proclaiming a new god, misunderstanding the Greek word for resurrection as a feminine goddess or consort of Jesus. At any rate, eager to engage in philosophic talk, they take Paul up to the Areopagus—the hill overlooking the market place where the city council met, and there they ask to know more about this new teaching. We are told that the Athenians and foreigners living there spent their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new; they, like philosophers today, loved to talk about ideas. With that invitation, Paul launches into what is, for him, an extremely unusual sermon. Rather than a straight-forward proclamation of the gospel, because these philosophers have no Jewish background or context, he builds the sermon on the basis of a statue he has seen in his wanderings through the city, dedicated to “an unknown god.” From there he announces that what they worship as unknown, he will now proclaim to them as known. Adopting the rhetoric of an Athenian orator, Paul goes on to quote some of their philosophers in support of his own argument that God does not need shrines or temples or things made of human hands, since everything already belongs to God, and it is God alone who gives life and breath and all things. From one ancestor, God created the nations and allotted times for their existence and boundaries. And though they grope after God, they cannot grasp him, even though, “in him, they live and move and have their being,” and are, in fact, “all God’s offspring,” quotations Paul cites from two Greek poets, the first from the 6th and the second from 3rd centuries BCE. Therefore, they ought not to think God is like the images they have created. God has overlooked this folly on their part until now, but will do so no longer. God now demands repentance, and, in fact, has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man appointed to do so, a man he has raised from the dead. At that, some start to scoff at Paul. Others say, “We will hear you again about this,” and leave him. Paul’s methods and success as a Greek orator have largely failed, and so he, too, leaves in disgusted disappointment. Only a few join him, among them Dionysius the Areopagite—who tradition tells us later became the Bishop of the church in Athens and later a martyr, and a women named Damaris, about whom we know nothing more.
This chapter ends with Jesus crying out one last time, “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me.” What follows is a summary of what he has said in the temple earlier about being the light of the world. He then makes a point first spoken in John 3:17: he has not come to judge the world but to save it. However, on the last day, his words to them will serve as judge of those who have heard and have not responded, for he speaks, not on his own, but at the commandment of the Father who has sent him. The Father has told Jesus what to say. That commandment is eternal life. What he speaks, then, he speaks as the Father has told him to speak.
Friday, September 19, 2014
Esther 1:1-4, 10-19; Psalm 69; Acts 17:1-15; John 12:36b-43
We take up the Book of Esther, one of the most unusual books in the Bible, in part, because God is never mentioned. It is a work of humorous and ironic fiction, written to sustain Jews in times of exile, hardship and victimization—set during the period of the Babylonian exile—with the theme that God, though never mentioned, works through providence to ensure the survival of his chosen people. The book opens with Ahasuerus—the Persian emperor Xerses—holding a series of banquets for his nobility as a context in which to display all the riches and glory of his reign. The text jumps over descriptions of a second banquet, held in the courtyards for those who served the court as well as other people of Susa. The description of the banquet and its surroundings are lavish, including the drinking bouts, for which the Persians were famous. At the same time, Vashti, the Queen, is giving a similar banquet for the women of the palace. On the last day of the feasts, when the wine has done its full work, King Ahasuerus calls for his eunuchs—important court officials in Persia—and tells them to bring forth Queen Vashti, adorned with her crown—and possibly little else!—to display her beauty to his guests. The Queen refuses, which, of course, is unheard of! The King erupts in drunken rage. Turning to his sages, who are versed in the law of the land so that his decision will be consistent with himself, he asks what is to be done. Introduced here is the theme that Persian law was not biased or based upon the emotions of the moment, but consistent and unalterable—even the King could not reverse it. The sages respond that not only has Vashti wronged the King, she has also insulted his officials—she is to be banished, never to see the King’s face again, and another take her place. For, if the other women hear of her behavior and that it has gone unpunished, they too will begin to behave in much the same way, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath. (This is a novel; hear the women to whom it is told laughing out loud and the men groaning—inwardly, of course!) And so, Ahasuerus banishes her. Queen Vashti is no longer Queen and is never again permitted in the King’s presence. The road is prepared for another, a Jewish orphan girl named Esther.
Psalm 69 is the prayer of one who suffers and calls on the Lord for rescue from enemies, and incorporates much of the vocabulary of Biblical lament: “the floods sweep over me,” “my eyes are weary with crying; my throat parched,” “I am hated without cause,” “have done no wrong,” and so on. “Do not hide your face,” “Answer me,” “Do not let me be put to shame,” are standard pleads in such laments. One unusual plea here is that “none will lose hope in God” because of the psalmist’s shame and condition, who claims that this suffering, shame, abandonment by family and friends and reproach are all being born for God’s sake. It is easy to see why writers of the New Testament so easily turned to this psalm as Old Testament prophecy of Jesus’ life and passion. Hated without cause, “he hoped in God, let him deliver him,” “zeal for [his Father’s] house has consumed [him],” “for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink”—all are images that were incorporated into the gospel narratives about Jesus. As a result, this psalm took on new Messianic understanding, after the fact, for the way in which it seemed to prophetically foretell Jesus’ innocent and vicarious suffering. However, the psalm takes a very human turn at verse 22 and leaves the Messianic dimensions behind and turns imprecatory, invoking suffering upon one’s enemies: “pour out your indignation upon them,” “May their camp be desolation,” “Add guilt to their guilt…, let them be blotted out of the book of the living.” The psalm then turns to one of praise as it anticipates the Lord’s faithful response to these pleas. Heaven and earth are called upon to join in praise as it affirms that God will save Zion, rebuild Judah, and God’s servants—those who love God’s name—will live there in prosperity and peace.
Paul and Silas and their companions move south and then westward until they arrive in Thessalonica, a prosperous sea-port town, where they find a synagogue. As was their custom, for three successive sabbaths, they go to the synagogue to proclaim the gospel, using the scriptures and reason to explain why it was necessary for Jesus to suffer and how it was that he is the Christ. Some in the synagogue are convinced and join them, as do a great number of the God-Fearers who had been attracted to the synagogue because of its monotheism and ethical standards, but who had remained Gentiles rather than proselyte converts. In addition, a number of leading women in the community became believers. Once again, such success on the part of the gospel strikes jealousy in the leaders of the synagogue, who go to the market place and recruit a group of ruffians to start a riot and set Thessalonica in uproar. They come to Jason’s house—evidently a believer where other new believers were gathering for nightly worship—looking for Paul and Silas. When they are found not to be there, the mob drags Jason and some fellow believers into the street and before the city authorities, blaming them for starting the uproar. “These men who have turned the world upside down” have come here acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor and claiming there is another king, named Jesus. Suddenly, the new movement finds itself in opposition to the Emperor, and a new form of persecution will emerge, not simply from its Jewish roots, but also by the Empire. The authorities get a pledge from Jason concerning his guests—he is, after all, responsible for their behavior as their host—and after he has posted bail to keep them out of jail, they released them to Jason’s care. Immediately, the fellow believers who have gathered at Jason’s home, decide to forfeit the bail and send the missionaries away. They move on to Beroea, where again, they go to the local synagogue. The people of Beroea are more “noble minded” and open to what Paul, Silas and Timothy are proclaiming, and receive their word with great eagerness, examining the scriptures to see if this is true. Many in the synagogue come to believe in Jesus along with the prominent Greek men and women of the city. But when word of this reaches back to Thessalonica, the leadership there sends men to Beroea to stir up a similar commotion in Beorea. Immediately, the believing community in Beroea sends Paul east to the coast, with others of their group accompanying him, and they board a ship and sail south to Athens. Leaving Paul in Athens, they take back his word that Silas and Timothy should join him there soon. And now the gospel has reached the center of the Greek philosophic world.
Jesus’ public ministry in Jerusalem is over. In an interlude, the author struggles with how it is Jesus should have done so many signs and wonders among them, yet the people do not believe in him. He reconciles this with words from Isaiah (52:1 and 6:10); something the author rarely does in this gospel, concluding that in the end, their rejection is part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world. After saying that Isaiah “saw this,”—a common phrase for the prophetic act—we are told that, nevertheless, many, even some of the authorities, believed in Jesus, but remained silent about it for fear of the Pharisees, who if they knew of it, would put them out of the synagogue (the way many in the church for which this gospel is written, were likewise put out of their synagogues because of their belief in Jesus). The final judgment on their silence is one on all who remain silent about Jesus in moments appropriate for witness: “they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.”
Thursday, September 18, 2014
Job 28:1-28; Psalms 71; Acts 16:25-40; John 12:27-36a
Our reading of the Book of Job comes to a conclusion by returning us to chapter 28, which we earlier stepped over because it appears to be a later insertion in the book. It is not a summary, but rather an interlude that reflects on the illusive nature of wisdom. It begins celebrating humanities’ gifts, recognizing that people will search far and wide for the other of the world’s riches, and, in its search, find them. But, such searching for wisdom by people is futile, not only because wisdom is far more valuable than all of the other riches in the world, but because it is simply beyond the capacity of every living thing—even the crown of God’s creation, humankind. Who then can be wise, and where is wisdom to be found? God only knows! In the course of the poem it both confirms the value of wisdom, but also refutes much that appears in the wisdom literature of the Bible, especially the book of Proverbs which insists that keeping its ways actually makes one wise. One alone is wise! God, the all-powerful and all-knowing One understands the way to wisdom and knows it place. As for humankind, the path to it is simply this: “the fear of the Lord.” Walk in God’s way and depart from evil—that is the closest one can come to wisdom and is true understanding! If the ending of these readings seems anticlimactic, remember, this book was written to be a critique of the wisdom tradition, which could easily evolve into a religious system of its own. The best wisdom can do is to remind us to fear the Lord and walk in God’s ways. We will never be wise enough to approach life’s challenges and questions on our own, as “the fool”—those who say there is no God—never learns.
Psalm 71 is both a lament and a song of praise, and almost seems to be an extension of Psalm 70. If David did not write this, he should have! It is filled with the language of praise, trust and assurance, and also with the continuing plea for God’s sustaining and saving presence in the midst of the wicked who seek his life, as indeed, many sought David’s life. But this is equally as important a prayer for us to pray through the seasons of our lives, as we continue to look to God to be for us a rock of refuge, a strong fortress that saves. From the moment of birth, when God began to watch over us, until our last breath, God will not forsake us but be our source of life and salvation. Therefore, the psalm shouts for joy and sings continuing praises to God.
Paul and Silas console themselves while in prison by singing hymns and praying, and at the darkest hour (midnight), an earthquake not only opens all the doors but also frees the shackles of all the prisoners—this is no mere earthquake! The Jailer, in despair over what will come of him because the prisoners will have escaped, is about to kill himself when he hears Paul shouting, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” Astonished, the jailer calls for light, rushes to Paul and Silas, and falls trembling before them. He then takes them outside their cell and asks the question of the hour—remember, it was asked in Jerusalem as well, on Pentecost?—“What must I do to be saved?” Paul responds, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved,” and then adds, “you and your household.” Notice that this salvation is free and through Jesus and is given in abundance to all—the whole household—to be receive and lived into, as it was by Cornelius and his household. Paul speaks the word of the Lord to him and the jailer takes them to his home and washes their wounds. He and his whole household are baptized—all enter into the way of Salvation. Then he brings food and sets it before them as he and his household rejoice in their new state of belief. Meanwhile, the magistrates have had better thoughts and send word for the jailer to quietly release Paul and Silas and send them on their way. They want this incident behind them as soon as possible. Paul objects rigorously; the magistrates have publically beaten Roman citizens, who were not even condemned, and having imprisoned them; now want to secretly release them and get them out of town? No; there has been a gross violation of Roman law. They must come themselves and release them. When this is reported to the magistrates, they do come and apologize and release them, but still ask them to leave the city. Paul, Silas and the entourage will, but before doing so, Paul and Silas will return to Lydia’s house where the church in Philippi gathers for worship, to continue to encourage the brothers and sisters in the faith. Only then do they leave the city.
As Jesus continues to speak about the necessity of his death, he becomes deeply troubled—the very same word in Greek that was used of him as he stood before Lazarus’ tomb and wept (John 1:33). Yes, this is not despair, but the serious recognition that his hour is upon him. In affirmation of this, he says, “Father Glorify your name,” and the Father responds from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” To those standing by it sounds like thunder, though some think it the voice of an angel speaking to him. Jesus uses the confusion among them to tell them that it is for their sake that this voice has spoken; the ruler of this world is about to be driven out. And, when he is lifted up from the earth—a reference not only to his death, but to his resurrection—he will draw all people to himself. This further confuses the crowd for they have come to believe that the Messiah is forever; why then, has he said that the son of man must be lifted up? “Who is the son of man?” Rather than answer their question, Jesus reminds them that the light (of the world) is with them just a little longer—therefore, walk in his light so that the darkness does not over take them (a word spoken not only to those around Jesus, but also to the church reading this gospel). While they have the light, believe in the light, that they may become children of light. But for now, it appears that the darkness is still present and obscuring their sight.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Job 42:1-17; Psalm 119:73-96; Acts 16:16-24; John 12:20-26
As God’s speech comes to an end, Job does answer. He does not disagree with God’s majesty, power, or sovereignty. Who is this that disregards counsel without knowledge? Someone who has uttered what he did not understand—things too wonderful, which he did not know. Job seems to acknowledge that even the answer he seeks he would not be able to understand. Heretofore, he had only heard of God by the ear, but now Job sees God and, in that seeing, recognizes that what he asked for—an explanation—will never come—it is simply beyond him. Verse 6, as it is traditionally translated, portrays Job confessing the sin of challenging God’s justice. But the Hebrew is capable of being translated another way. Job does not despise himself, and he does not repent, if such a word means “apologize,” “regret” or “feel sorry for his actions.” More correct is the translation “therefore I retract, recant and regret, being nothing more than dust and ashes,” or, “I retract and recant and regret these dust and ashes.” The Lord now responds, not to Job, but to Elihu and his friends, with words of wrath. They have not spoken what is right about God or Job, as Job has! (Notice that God says this twice to make the point.) They are told to prepare a sacrifice for Job and offer up a burnt offering for themselves and Job will pray for them, and God will accept Job’s prayer and not deal with them according to their actions. As for Job, he was right! The story ends “Happily ever after…” with all of Job’s fortune and prosperity not only restored, but increased. Though his property is restored two-fold, his new children number the same as before—seven sons and three daughters. Interestingly enough, only the daughters are named, each symbolically named after some aspect of beauty: dove, cassia perfume, and eye cosmetic, respectively, and we are told that “no women were found so fair as Job’s daughters.” Also, notice that contrary to patriarchal culture, Job’s fortunes are shared equally with his daughters as well as well as his sons, each of whom is given an inheritance. And so the book ends. And between the bookends of Job’s prosperity is the result of the wisdom tradition of Israel struggling with the ancient question of evil, and the role of suffering in the lives of the just, righteous, or innocent—what theologians call “Theodicy.”
Psalm 119:73-96 continues to meditate upon God, God’s ways and word (Torah), using the acrostic literary form, each of its three sections beginning with a descending letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and consisting of separate two-lined strophes, suitable for memorization. It opens on Yod (Y), with the affirmation that God has made and fashioned him like a master-builder and pleads for understanding in order to learn God’s commandments. Verses 73 through 80 are an acknowledgement of the justice of God’s ways and a prayer that he may ever walk within them, ending, “May my heart be blameless in thy statutes, that I may not be ashamed.” Verses 81 through 88, beginning with Kaf (K) turn to a two-fold lament. On the one hand, life seems to simply be wasting away as he waits for God’s word and its comfort. He has become like a dried up, heat-worn wineskin, yet he does not forget God’s statutes. On the other hand, this is more than physical, as enemies, described as “the arrogant” have dug pits and other traps for him, persecuting him with lies. In the midst of this he cries out, simply, “Help me!” They have almost destroyed him, and yet he has not abandoned God’s precepts. Therefore, the plea that God revive him according to his loving kindness. Why? So that he may keep the testimony of God’s mouth! The third section of today’s reading begins at verse 89, with the Hebrew letter Lamed (L), declaring the universal and eternal nature of God’s word, revealing God’s faithfulness through all generations. It returns to themes of creation, now less about the psalmist than the physical world, still affirming that central and foremost in all of this is God’s ordinances. Had God’s law not been his delight, he would have perished long ago. Rather, he will never forget them, for by them he is revived. Thus, follows a vow: “I am yours;” with the plea for salvation. Again, though the wicked seek to destroy him, rather than engage them in their evil, he will diligently consider God’s testimonies. After all, the psalmist has seen that there is a limit to all perfection, but not to God’s commandments. They are, like God himself, forever. One can do no better than to read, ponder, meditate on and memorize God’s statutes and commandments. In them is life and salvation.
Paul, Silas and Timothy continue their ministry in Philippi where there is a young slave girl with “the spirit of divination” who is owned by men exploiting her gifts for their own living. As the ministry team makes its way through the streets of Philippi, the young girl follows and keeps announcing to all who will listen, that Paul, Silas, Timothy and their companions are “bond servants of the most-high God who are announcing the way of salvation.” After many days of this, and no marked sign that her words were having any impact on anyone, but simply becoming a problem to the ministry team, Paul demands, in the name of Jesus Christ, that the spirit leave her, and it does. This so infuriates her owners that they seize Paul and Silas, drag them before the city magistrates, in the city market place, and charge them, not with casting out the spirit, but of being Jews disturbing the city and advocating customs that are not lawful for Romans—what customs, we are not told. Soon the crowd is drawn into the controversy and adds its voice to the attack on the three outsiders. The magistrates order Paul and Silas stripped, beaten with rods, and thrown in jail. Ordered to keep the two prisoners secure, the jailer places them deep within the prison and places their feet in stocks.
The festival of Passover gathers Jews and Jewish proselytes from all over the dispersion. Greeks, from we know not where—remember the Pharisee’s comment that the whole world was going after him?—approach Phillip, whose name is Greek, asking to see Jesus. Phillip tells Andrew and, together, they go and tell Jesus. The arrival of the Greeks triggers for Jesus the awareness that “the hour has come” for him to be glorified. But it will be in a most unexpected way. Using language that must have had heavy resonance in a church experiencing persecution, suffering and death, Jesus tells his followers that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains but a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He is not only foretelling his own death and resurrection, but assuring those who follow who also face persecution and death for his sake, that loving their own life will cause them to lose it, but those who “hate” their lives in this world on his behalf will keep them in the next. Whoever serves him must follow him, and where he is thereafter, so will his servants be. Whoever serves him, the Father will honor. Suddenly, following Jesus has taken on a deeper meaning and more profound commitment than simply a confession of faith.
Author: The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Created: June 21, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, offers thoughts on today’s lectionary readings.