Jesus and the Holy Innocents

Readings: Psalm 123; Mark 10:13–16; Matthew 2:1–20.

The Magi: Pursuing Wisdom
We don’t know much about the Magi. There are lots of theories and ideas— snippets of both fact and fiction. There may, or may not, have been three Wise Men—three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh do not necessarily imply three Magi. They were probably part of a social elite of scholars. Although their field of expertise would have ranged from the wisdom of philosophy, through the physics of astronomy to something akin to astrology. They were doing the same basic task as the wise sages of Israel who left us with the Books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and ideas found in the Psalms and elsewhere in the First Testament.

The difference, of course, was they were not followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That didn’t deter God from dealing with them by revelations in the heavens and in a dream. The tribute from foreign kings that they carried to Jesus is the smallest foretaste of the honour that will be paid to this same Jesus as God’s plans are fulfilled Psalm 2 hints at these and includes these words:

Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Psalm 2:10–11, NIVUK

Like so many Bible narratives we must be cautious not to read too much into a text that seems intent on hiding many of the things we’d like to know. But with some certainty, both background knowledge about the Magi and what they do in this story indicates that they are pursuing wisdom. Following a star in a way that mashed astronomy and astrology, interpreting dreams in the quest for revelation.

The same God who inspired and spoke to the Magi would have us be wise. But the foundation of our pursuit of wisdom is the baby they first sought. We have a fuller revelation of Jesus Christ, the divine Logos, wisdom personified. Whatever we think of New Year’s resolutions we’d be wise to make Jesus Christ our foundation for 2022.

Herod: Pursuing Power
Herod, the so-called Great, is the villain of the piece. He provides an echo of the evil Pharaoh in the Exodus story who ordered the death of the Hebrew boys as the most callous of pre-emptive strikes to weaken a slave work force so they could not rebel. Like Pharaoh, Herod appears to balk at nothing in order to cling to power. He, like Pharaoh, was also obsessed with massive building projects, including renovating the temple in Jerusalem.

Though brought up a Jew, his father was an Edomite. He was happy to have power by colluding with the Romans. His singular concern in Matthew 2 is remaining a puppet ruler. His horrific decree to kill all male Jews, two-year old and under, is the bluntest and most unsavoury of pragmatic methods to remove a future king that might topple him from power. Such a callous act has all the hallmarks of the extremes that men—and they are usually men—will go to keep their power.

Our passage does not have a definitive answer to the horror that Herod unleashes. But it does relativise him brilliantly. Whilst men do everything to cling to power time moves inexorably on, as it does for us all. Our passage opened with Herod in power:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, . . .
Matthew 2:1, NIVUK

But we read at the close of the passage:

After Herod died, . . .
Matthew 2:19, NIVUK

This dark episode makes the gospel shine even brighter and it reminds us that the Christmas story cannot be buried in sentimentality. This is a story of life in the face of death.

Joseph: Pursuing Obedience
The Bible says very little about Joseph. Nevertheless, he is absolutely central to this story. Unlike Herod’s singlemindedness, Joseph’s focus has the best of motivations: obedience to God. Joseph simply does what he is instructed to do by God. Through three dreams, and on two occasion, he ‘up-sticks’ and moves with Mary and Jesus. First the holy family move to Egypt as refugees fleeing murderous persecution. Some two years, or so, later they journey to Nazareth where Jesus then grew up.

Joseph’s obedience was not a slow one. There was no trying and testing other options. The story makes it very clear that Joseph acted as quickly as he possibly could to get Jesus out of harm’s way:

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.
Matthew 2:13, NIVUK

We know far more about Herod than Joseph but the quiet good life of obedience to God is better in eternity than celebrity or political power ill-used for personal gain. George Eliot, in her novel Middlemarch, puts it like this:

The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Eliot is reflecting on Enlightenment progress, but in God’s plans Joseph was instrumental for the even better reasons of faith, trust and obedience.

Where might faith, trust and obedience take us in 2022? We don’t know. Our unhistoric acts—in faith, trust and obedience—not only prevent things going ill but in God’s hands they can serve his purposes—the building of a kingdom not of human progress but God’s design in eternity. To quote a more dubious source than George Eliot:

“What we do in life echoes in eternity”.

Jesus and the Holy Innocents: Utter Dependence
So much for the Magi, Herod and Joseph, for not all the players in this story are active. Passive at the centre of this narrative is Jesus who can do nothing. He is humanly utterly dependent upon Mary and Joseph. This reality of Incarnation is captured acutely in Luci Shaw’s remarkable poem titled Kenosis. Note the title is a profoundly theological concept whilst the poem opens this in fully human fleshly terms:

In sleep his infant mouth works in and out.
He is so new, his silk skin has not yet
been roughed by plane and wooden beam
nor, so far, has he had to deal with human doubt.

He is in a dream of nipple found,
of blue-white milk, of curving skin
and, pulsing in his ear, the inner throb
of a warm heart’s repeated sound.

His only memories float from fluid space.
So new he has not pounded nails, hung a door
broken bread, felt rebuff, bent to the lash,
wept for the sad heart of the human race.

Poem: Kenosis by Luci Shaw
in Harvesting Fog (Pinyon Publishing, 2010) page 53

The other Jewish baby boys are passive too. They are also utterly dependent on human agency for protection. We don’t know the details—and I for one don’t want to—but we can imagine that some infants were protected by those around them but of course others were not.

In the midst of this horror, we can find a profound truth about the quality of being human. For we are all children, not utterly dependent upon human parents but dependent on God. We owe him our creation, our very breath and all that we can be in the future. Whilst he delegates us some power and authority, we remain under him. In the darkness of the story of the Holy Innocents this is no sentimental claim. This is a fact of life and death.

What do we do with this call to be childlike? This is the call of Jesus himself in Mark 10. It is the psalmist’s surrender recounted in Psalm 123. To be childlike is to empty ourselves, a pale echo of what Christ did. It is to denounce power. It is the only true wisdom. It is fearing God. It is the glance of a devoted servant to God face. It is, in short, about being holy.

Whether you are making, or have made, New Year’s resolutions, or they are not your thing, in 2022 let us all remember that we have a holy yet probably unhistoric part to play in God’s plans. Let us also remember the disturbing truth that no one becomes holy by accident.

 

Book Review: ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd: Psalm 23 for the Life of the Church’ by Richard S. Briggs

Richard S. Briggs, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Psalm 23 for the Life of the Church, Touchstone Texts, Baker Academic, 2001.

At the outset of this review, I am pleased to say that this is an engaging and delightfully readable book. Like all good guides Briggs ensures his company know precisely where they are at all times. Indeed, the whole enterprise is itself an echo of Psalm 23 as the reader is shepherded safely through Hebrew philology, metaphor, reception history, and theology.

Psalm 23 is arguably the Psalm of Psalms in the contemporary Western Church. Even to the unchurched its six verses are familiar from contexts as diverse as funeral liturgy to Howard Goodall’s setting of it as the theme tune for The Vicar of Dibley. As I was writing this review, it even had a round of its own in a seasonal episode of University Challenge! Such familiarity makes this psalm a fitting focus for this book which launches a new series examining touchstone biblical texts.

The generative nature of both Psalm 23 and its imagery is not only a central reason for its popularity it is also something of a problem for the guide—how can the journey be broken down into manageable steps? This challenge, and the way it is addressed, are explained in Chapter 1. Introduction: On Attending to Psalm 23. Much of the book comprises three longer central chapters which each examine one of three different, but intricately interconnected worlds: ‘behind’, ‘in’ and ‘in front of’ Psalm 23. This structure enables attention to the interpretive task without all the issues being brought to the fore at the same time. The subheadings of these three major chapters also reveal the logic of taking matters a step at a time as matters of background, exegesis and ministry are each explored in turn. This structure provides a sure path that avoids any risk of confusing detours.

In Chapter 2. The World behind Psalm 23 Briggs considers (i) what we can know about the author, (ii) who is speaking in the psalm, (iii) the relevance of shepherd imagery, and (iv) the significance of Psalm 23’s location in the Psalter. Briggs ably shows what we can know, and just as importantly what we cannot know, as he honestly establishes provisional answers. Chapter 3. The World in Psalm 23 is a verse-by-verse examination of the Hebrew text. Here Briggs is attentive to the full spectrum of his readers’ likely ability, and eagerness, to engage with the original language. By providing some optional sections and a short appendix there are effectively three ways to be guided through the psalm’s six verses depending on inclination and prior knowledge.

In Chapter 4. The World in Front of Psalm 23 Briggs moves to what he terms ministry—just how can this psalm can make a difference in the Church today? Having laid the necessary foundations in Chapters 2 and 3 this chapter examines four areas. As the connection of Psalm 23 to themes of rest, death, enemies and hope is examined, some key interlocuters contribute to what is a rich theological reflection. Walter Brueggemann, Jerome Creach, William Holladay, C. S. Lewis and Erich Zenger, for example, all help enliven the close of the journey. Indeed, so rich a table is prepared here that the reader is left in a quandary as to which overflowing cup might be taken to the congregation or small group. In fact, whilst Briggs does not specifically suggest it, I think this chapter—with support from elsewhere in the book— provides an excellent launch point for a four sermon series or fourfold set of teaching material.

The book closes with a wonderfully honest reflection on Hearing and Preaching Psalm 23 Today in the form of its fifth, and final, short chapter. This personal account somewhat paradoxically serves, as Briggs intends, to point firmally to this text in expectant anticipation that it can speak afresh today. The call—should we choose to accept it—is to do enough hard work that we can ‘get out of the way’ and enable others to hear the greatest shepherd of them all.

#AtoZChallenge Theme Reveal

I am looking forward to posting 26 posts this April. This is what it means to do the #AtoZChallenge. I’ve done it before and you can see the results by starting here with A is for Aleph to Tav.

This year I will be blogging on Psalm 51 and its legacy in literature, liturgy, music, poetry and theology. I hope to show that this psalm deserves the accolade of psalm of Psalms. This is all part of an ongoing project on the penitential psalms where Psalm 51 is the centre psalm of the seven.

This really is a challenge! All encouragement and questions welcome—these both lighten the journey.

From Hand Washing to #SyrophoenicianLivesMatter: Mark 7

As human beings we have an annoying trait of complicating what God instructs us to do. This is where Mark 7 begins, but not where it ends. At the start of the chapter it is the Pharisees who are complicating God’s instruction. In fact, Jesus will go on to explain they are doing something even worse.

Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus faces hostility from the religious leaders. It was not just Jesus that the leaders had it in for, Israel had a long tradition of prophets who criticised the status quo and thereby the leaders. In Jesus’ time it was still the case. Many people would announce a new teaching, usually centred on the need for political change. Then they set out to bring truth to power. Some, like Jesus, gave everything in the attempt.

Here, the Pharisees have taken some of God’s instruction (torah) and made an extra burden of tradition to go on top. The Law (torah) required priests to ritually clean their hands. This was an act of grace as it reminded them that when dealing with the Holy God of Israel a clean heart is essential.

Please note that this is not about hand hygiene—though this is the centre of our daily lives at present. As an aside, we might want to have a word with Jesus and his disciples on this count.

The accusation that the disciples have not washed their hands, is a claim that they have not obeyed the extra rules made by the Elders. These rules had been added as a burden on everyone. When you are travelling doing itinerant ministry, is not feasible to carry the necessary dedicated washing cups, pots, and bronze kettles. And Mark’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus liked his disciples to travel light.

Jesus, as a rabbi, is responsible for his disciple’s actions. At this level, the Pharisees are justified in bringing the matter to Jesus. The problem with their case is, however, twofold. Firstly, their motives are dubious. This, however, is not the point that Jesus takes up with them. The second issue is the key one. By focusing on man-made traditions these become a distraction from God himself.

Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

We must not get self-righteous at this point by spotting what we do without thinking. In my own Baptist tradition, the trinity of words: tradition, doctrine, and ritual are often unspoken and these matters judged as peripheral. We might read what Jesus says about human traditions and then go further than Jesus does.

In quoting from Isaiah, God-sanctioned tradition, Jesus is primarily pointing out that God desires true worship. He wants hearts that are set on him. At the same time, he affirms that doctrine and ritual still have a place. In the New Testament, the disciples and Jesus’ brother, James, affirm both doctrine and ritual. In the case of ritual, we still have cleansing effected baptism, we have Christ’s sacrifice proclaimed in bread and wine, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit through anointing with oil. All these are mandated by Jesus and/or the testimony of the New Testament.

Our Christian tradition makes it easier to see some things than others. Let us not abandon other commandments of God. And Let us remember that working these out requires a framework of tradition, doctrine and ritual.

Things get worse for the Pharisees as Jesus spells out why he has quoted Isaiah. He suggests that their specific traditions get in the way of God’s commands. He mentions the idea of ‘corban‘ in which something could be set apart for God. The specific issues seem to be that some where giving land and wealth, made ‘corban‘, to the religious leaders. In doing so, some then deprived their parents of the support that was their due in old age, according to the Law.

Then Jesus gets to the revolutionary bit. Jesus’s comments about the human heart, our insides, our outsides, and purity is both great teaching, spells out a bigger problem—a problem for everyone.

With reference to our basic bodily functions, Jesus explains that what we eat cannot make us unclean. This even transforms some of the commandments of the Law. This is a trajectory that enables God’s people to eat screech owl and even pig should they wish to. The repercussions of this took years to work out after Jesus death hence the editorial note in verse 19.

The counterpoint to this is that we know a person’s heart by their fruit. There is that horrible list: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Jesus and the Pharisees are on common ground with this list. They can also agree on its root cause.

Jesus and the Pharisees agreed on ample evidence from the Scriptures that the heart is the underlying problem:

  1. God judges people on the basis of their heart, ‘for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7, NRSV).
  2. The law acknowledges the problem of the uncircumcised heart (Leviticus 26:41).
  3. Proverbs 20:9 puts the issue as a rhetorical question: “Who can say, “I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin”?”

Why does he tell them what they already know? The problem is that human effort, via traditions, cannot deal with the sinful heart that we each have. Not even God’s commandments can do this. They might be a helpful bandage or provide palliative care, but they do not deal with a sinful heart. This is a bigger problem than ritual impurity over the lack of hand-washing.

Jesus does not address the problem in this encounter with the Pharisees. Remarkably in the next episode in Mark’s gospel it is a Syrophoenician women—yes, a Gentile—that perceives that Jesus is the at the centre of a game changing solution to this conundrum.

Here we enter someone’s home, the details are left out by Mark. Presumably, this is a house where Jesus has been able to get peace and quiet previously—a safe house. But his effort to get some downtime has not worked. A Syrophoenician woman gate-crashes his rest. This is a bold and desperate move; Gentiles don’t barge into Jewish homes to address a Jewish Rabbi.

It is the hope that Jesus can work a miracle that has driven her to do the unthinkable. She begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her absent daughter, left suffering at home. So far so good, our sensibilities have not been ruffled even if those of polite Jewish society have.

And then we wake up because our Lord and Saviour, our role model for life, the sinless one, the man who has just preached that we are all judged by what comes from our mouths, makes what could be understood as a racial slur. Jesus implies the common label of Gentiles as dogs in what he says to his woman. So offensive is this episode that Luke misses it out of his gospel written to a Gentile audience. 

In this tricky saying, Jesus explains that his ministry has been essentially to the Jews, and only in passing to the Gentiles. In this way, Jesus’ ministry is food for the children of Israel, and not food for Gentiles.

Are you feeling uncomfortable? Are we going to have to have take down any statues of Jesus and crosses that commemorate his death and resurrection, in a #SyrophoencianLivesMatter rampage? Is Jesus being racist?

We will of course never know Jesus’ tone, his demeanour, the possible twinkle in his eye when he said these words. What we do know is that despite alluding to the labelling of Gentiles as dogs, standard practice in his culture, his statement elicits the most remarkable response from this woman:

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

In this brief exchange and based on the knowledge of Jesus that brought her to a strange Jewish house, she has understood what the Pharisees with all their hand-wringing and hand-washing have missed. She has seen that Jesus’ work starts with Jews but is the hope of all humanity. She is pleading that this might begin right here and right now with her daughter. Her faith and courage are rewarded:

Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

This remarkable new understanding of Jesus’ work is the start of Mark’s Gospel revealing that he in his deeds and his person he will address the bigger problem of the heart. Both Jew and Gentile will have the possibility of a circumcised heart as Leviticus puts it.

Life Understood Backwards

Looking Back
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard claimed that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

The experience of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus was something like this. How could they understand Jesus’ life at its end? Even at the end did it make sense? Cleopas and the other, unnamed disciple have not understood Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. We do not know how much time they spent with Jesus—it is clear they are not among the eleven disciples. But they certainly knew enough to be disappointed. He was not the deliverer they had hoped for. They, like many, wanted a Messiah who was a military redeemer. A messiah like David in every sense. An anointed leader who would defeat the occupying Romans just as David had tackled Goliath and the Philistines.

The one they had begun to think might be God’s anointed ruler had died shamefully on a cross. A remarkable man in many ways, but in the end as frail as any other. And now the women claimed his body was gone. More than that, they also said they had seen angels announcing that he was alive.

These events lived forwards made no sense to these two followers. Jesus was a man who taught with authority, healed the sick, and cast out demons. Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem like a king. And then it all turned sour. These two disciples had apparently given up on the one they had been following. They had left Jerusalem for Emmaus and presumably were returning to their old lives.

But they encounter the risen Jesus, although they do not know this at first. This meeting is a revelation—a revealing in two stages. They experience a progressive understanding of who Jesus is. They will come to understand Jesus’ life.

First Jesus makes them look back as they journey together. They simultaneously look back on the life of Jesus and the work of God in the Old Testament. The Risen Jesus does the most remarkable thing. He combines his story with the story of the Hebrew Scriptures. Read through Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures become the First Testament to his life, his death, and his resurrection. Jesus is the fulfilment of the Hebrew scriptures.

The second stage of unveiling is a more personal encounter that goes beyond explanation. It is an opening of their eyes. They literally see the risen Christ. They had started out lost on the road, but now were found. They had been blind but now they could see.

Our Conversion
We are unlikely to have had the same type of encounter with the risen Christ as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. But there is likely to be some similarity. I remember at the age of seventeen finding out more about Jesus and the Bible. I had seen lots of the bits and pieces of the gospel but struggled to put it all together. I still needed my eyes to be opened. I can remember two distinct moments when Jesus suddenly made more sense. The first was a bit like the two disciples on the road having things explained to them. My Emmaus road was a tent, in Margate, where the crucifixion was explained in rather graphic detail to me, and several hundred others. This converted my brain and my conscience. I went forward knowing that my life was never going to be the same again.

Just a few days later I had the second step of eye opening—only possible because of the first. I was reading the Parable of the Tenants in Mark 12 and my heart was converted. My heart burned at that moment like the experience of those two disciples. I understood at a heart level just what it meant that God had sent prophets to speak of him. Prophets who were beaten and killed. I understood at the heart level that he sent his own Son that we might know him. Only for him to suffer the same fate. It was as though Jesus was there with me, unpacking the Law and the Prophets—refreshing me as the bread of life with a meal.

Knowing Jesus in this way does not mean that the rest of our lives suddenly make complete sense. But it is a start. Much still happens in my life that I do not understand. Things have happened to me and my family which I wish had not. But in Christ I trust that in the end it will make sense. The times of pain and trial will be found to have some benefit or important consequence. If we have met Jesus on our Road to Emmaus we can find him too in our Valley of the Shadow of Death. The poet B M Franklin puts is this way:

My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

Our Ongoing Experience of Christ
In the Emmaus story the two disciples do something simple. They have a meal with Jesus—they break bread with him. It is no surprise that it was at the breaking of bread that their eyes were opened, and they recognised that the man before them is the risen Lord Jesus. Less than a week earlier Jesus has broken bread and explained that his body must be broken. These two disciples would surely have heard about this odd teaching.

Almighty God does not fix his broken creation and broken relationships with a display of power and might. He does the unthinkable—Jesus lays down his life for his friends. One of the most frustrating things about our distance from one another because of Covid-19 is the fact that we cannot gather, and worse still that we cannot eat bread and drink wine, and remember Christ together. As the body of Christ, we are meant to meet together.

In our distance from each other let’s be reminded of the privilege of meeting together so that we can make the best of that day when we join one another again. Let’s remember that puzzle that we are in a mysterious sense the body of Christ.

Scattered we might be, but we are still united in Christ.

A Call to Passion for Christ
The two disciples have their hearts kindled by Jesus. A mixture of joy that he was not dead and a revelation of what he had accomplished in the twin events of cross and resurrection.

How can we kindle that flame afresh—that same passion and conviction in Christ that we have tasted before? There are obvious answers of course, such as prayer and Bible reading. But in the spirit of the gospel, and to keep the light alive in us, reaching out to our fellow disciples is vital. As members of his body our concern should be with the health of all.

Jesus came that we might have life and have it to the full. Circumstances prevent us meeting to celebrate together. This does not mean we retreat and just wait for a better time. A crisis like this, it tests our depth in Christ. Being united and encouraged in Christ can be as simple as a phone call, a text message, a card, or a good old-fashioned letter. Some of us might be called to heroics if we are on the front-line but for most of us we need to do the small things that show love and concern. George Eliot expresses it will in her novel Middlemarch:

“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Many of the blessings we can bring to one another, even at this time, are unremarkable. But these things not only achieve good now they echo in eternity as the lives of disciples of Jesus lived well. A crisis is just the time when we need some gospel purpose, when we need to show love, kindness, and generosity. Encouraging one another, listening to one another, taking time to do something for one another is part of living the gospel—it is the ongoing re-creation of proper relationships in Christ Jesus.

It is not just our fellow Christians that need encouragement. In these odd times all sorts of questions are in people’s minds. Many people are asking questions about life and death, not so different to those asked by Cleopas and his friend.

Our lives do not make much sense lived forward. How much more is this the case for those who do not know Christ? There are likely to be people you know who are lonely. If nothing else, you can remedy this for a few minutes. There are almost certainly people you know who are fearful. Well, you can listen. There are very likely people you know who are asking questions. Your effort to reach out to them might be the only answer they get.

We believe in the priesthood of all believers we can all use this time to connect with others.

Loving One Another Makes Sense
The act of reaching out to someone is a small step in making sense of life. The strengthening of relationships is a natural consequence of the gospel. Simple acts of love will strengthen both parties and strengthen the body, the fellowship of believers.

The one certainty of understanding our lives is that where there is love this is where they most readily make sense.

The ‘Corona test’ asks of us all how much we love. If we have not love we are, as the Apostle Paul says, a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. Love sings a better song. Don’t wait for someone else to connect.

Jesus tells a parable in Matthew’s gospel which tells us how our lives will make sense in the end when we meet him face-to-face:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:34–40, NIV

Maps and Wisdom

First Testament Problems

One of the challenges posed by the wisdom literature of the First Testament is what we, as Christian disciples and pilgrims, should do with it. Many Christians I have spoken to simply don’t see Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes as a priority in their Bible reading and reflection. Their thinking boils down to the question: “Why should I read Wisdom when it is so obviously trumped by the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles?”. Even those Christians I know who have read these three books recently see Job and Ecclesiastes as problems that need to be addressed, rather than life-giving Scripture to be cherished. A disturbing view emerges—once Job has been ‘explained’, there is no need to read all those tedious dialogues once, let alone to return to them at a later point. To be fair much of the First Testament, not just Job and Ecclesiastes, can be challenging. This challenge should however be the start of something and not the end. How could rich Scripture be a quick fix? How can we even know the issues it aims to address? Are we not simply narrowing its potential as a source information rather than being open to its transformative potential?

Full of Wind or Full of the Spirit?

If we see the Wisdom Books as the distillation of wise people’s observations and reflections from across the ancient Near East, curated and edited to become Scripture by generations of the sages of Israel, how could we imagine that its appropriation would be either quick or easy? How could it be as simple as reading a paperback self-help book by a contemporary privileged author who hasn’t seen death first hand or struggled with day-to-day survival? Why would we expect a podcast or sermon to crystallise the Book of Job into a paragraph of propositional truth? Such a view is especially ironic when Job is read carefully—it shows us that distilled overly simplified wisdom is the way to becoming full of wind (ruach) rather than spirit (ruach), see Job 26:4.

A Map or a Compass?

We have seen that the ancient Near Eastern understanding of wisdom is ‘living well’ and that the biblical development of this is ‘living well in fear of the living God’. This can mean that Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are seized upon for quick and precise answers. In short, these resources are incorrectly defined as maps for life. Both the testimony of Scripture and the experience of living the life of faith, reveal that God does not provide a map for our life. Indeed, such a map would be a denial of the very freedom and grace that Jesus Christ came to bestow upon his disciples. Despite the absurdity of God providing a map for our lives, time and again we seek the quick fix. Sometimes we hear those around us who claim to have received such instant guidance. And of course, God can choose to speak into our lives through dreams, circumstance and even in an audible voice. More often than not, however, having equipped us with Scripture, His Spirit and grace, he lets us make choices. We have a compass from him not a map. Our routine day-to-day choices come through walking with him in simple integrity. Less often, we face more complex choices. These are the choices that Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes prepare us for. They can only prepare us if we read, reflect and question these books.

The City Gate: Wisdom in Community

Perhaps another reason we struggle with Wisdom Literature is that we make it reading it a solitary exercise; a part of our individualistic devotions. When we remember the societal and corporate experiences and effort that shaped these First Testament books our individualism looks foolish rather than wise. Biblical wisdom is corporate and communal in its richness. Why not find a way in which you can work on First Testament wisdom with some friends, and so discover God’s wisdom together in the twenty-first century? Our church has found that once a month over breakfast works well for us. Where is your equivalent of the city gate (see Proverbs 1:21 and 8:3)?

Job and Hitching to Wisdom

The Old Testament has been in the news in the last few weeks. Andy Stanley, a gifted preacher and Senior Pastor at North Point Community Church, argued in a series of sermons (Aftermath #1, #2 and #3) that Christians should unhitch from the Old Testament. Having listened to the sermons concerned, more than once and having read a follow-up interview, I am still not clear just what he actually means by ‘unhitching’. What I am clearer about is that Andy Stanley makes a number of unhelpful assumptions and steps in arriving at his conclusion. These include:

  • The notion that atheists object to the Old Testament but are quite willing to accept the New Testament’s claim about the resurrection of Jesus.
  • A misrepresentation of the Reformation idea of sola scriptura; divorcing it from the Rule of Faith.
  • Equating ‘the law’ with the whole of the Old Testament.
  • An understanding of Old Testament law as legalism, a notion that has been thoroughly discredited since E. P. Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism.
  • A failure to recognise that Paul worked very hard to stay hitched to the Old Testament, as evidenced in the whole Pauline corpus, given his experience of the resurrected Jesus. Paul remained a Pharisee committed to the Law (Philippians 3:5).
  • The failure to acknowledge the fact that not a single chapter of the New Testament can make sense without reference to the Old Testament. This includes the very chapters Stanley preached on.

Here in the UK, part of the incredulity at his suggestion of ‘unhitching’ might come from the fact that most Christians this side of the pond are not wedded to the incredibly unhelpful notion of Scripture’s inerrancy (most famously part of the Chicago Statement). I have a high view of Scripture, informed by 2 Timothy 3:16, but have found inerrancy to be a slippery and alien notion for describing Scripture. It represents the on-going and unhelpful tendency to make Scripture what it is not—history, science, biography and other modern categories. ‘God-breathed’ works better. And why would anyone want to unhitch from something that is God-breathed? Rather ironically Stanley says he agrees with the Chicago Statement’s view of Scripture in the same breath as attempting to deal with the problems introduced by this conservative straitjacket.

But what about Job? Despite the fact that I don’t agree with Stanley, we must acknowledge that Christian frustrations, of one sort or another, are not a new issue. Perhaps it is cheap to mention Marcion? Perhaps not. In any case, any Bible-reading Christian will have had challenging encounters with the Old Testament. Anyone who hasn’t is really not paying attention to its claims, worldview, ethics and God. Job raises one subset of the wider and very legitimate question: ‘What are we meant to do with the Old Testament?’. We certainly can’t see it as a monolith. The books of which it is comprised are of very different categories, although we could do worse than start with the Jewish categories of Torah (instruction rather than plain law), Prophets (this includes what we often call history books—Joshua to Kings—as well as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve) and the Writings. The Writings, where Job belongs, are akin to DVD extras. They complement the story that is unfolded in Genesis to Kings.

Job is often said to answer the question of suffering. But it does not. If we read it only to address this question we will ultimately be disappointed. If we think it might answer the question of the origin of evil we will be perplexed. So why do we have (i)  a narrative about God and Satan agreeing to let Job suffer, (ii) chapter-after-chapter of poetic dialogues with subtle, and sometimes less than subtle differences of opinion, and (iii) an epilogue in which Satan makes no appearance?

Well this post won’t entirely answer such questions. But a plausible and partial answer is that although we do not find theological certainties about suffering and evil, we find something far more biblical. We find, written large, the dangers of being hasty in narrowly pinning down answers to the biggest questions in a broken creation. All of Job’s friends think they have answers. In so doing, they make the twin mistakes of thinking (i) they know Job better than he knows himself, (ii) they know the mind of God. Job has questions. They have answers. Whilst it would be overstating Job’s case to say that God speaks to him with approval—he does not. Nevertheless, he receives from God. He receives nothing less than revelation (Job 38:1–42:6). What do Job’s friend get? Nothing except the text’s occasional play on words—wordplay that implies they are full of wind (ruach) rather than God’s Spirit (ruach), see for example Job 16:3.

Can we tell the difference between the wisdom of questions, and the foolishness of wrong answers and false certainties? Job, the book, exists to help us learn just this.

Job might have foreseen his resurrection (Job 19:26). We certainly have that hope (1 Corinthians 15:12). But, this side of resurrection, we cannot make Scripture what it was never meant to be. Scripture answers where salvation and the Universe’s future is to be found, and also founded—that is in Christ. It also, in texts such as Job, helps us learn to speak wisely about the mystery that is our God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and to know when we should just put our hands over our mouth (Job 40:4).

Imagination and Wisdom

Imagination is not the first word that springs to mind in connection with biblical Wisdom. Nevertheless the origin of wisdom required imagination and its application requires imagination. If Wisdom is the quest for ‘how to live well’ this is not in the abstract sense but in a manner that makes the best of our context and reality. How could this not require imagination?

As wisdom originated in the Ancient Near East, reflection—imagination—was needed. The proverbs, which were probably the first wisdom literature, required sifting and testing—imagination is required to apply a saying to a new context and analyse its success. Only through the use of imagination could proverbs be tested, sifted and made Scripture. Only through the use of our imaginations can we apply wisdom to our lives.

When it comes to the Book of Job, imagination is also required to allow it to function as intended. The book is the lengthiest sustained piece of wisdom literature by a long way. If we read it with a closed imagination we will mistake it for narrative in the narrowest of senses. Once we ‘relax’ and use our imagination— recognising it as a work of theological imagination—can we free the text to ‘work’ and function as Scripture. Taken as some sort of historical account it begs so many questions that we are distracted from allowing it to function in any useful manner. Once we see and perceive the premise posed in the opening and the rhythm, beauty and design of the poetic dialogues we can feed on the text. We are then open to thinking afresh about our place in God’s creation and his wider relationship with all humanity. Imagination is an openness to change our thinking, how could we become wiser without change?

 

God and Wisdom, Part 2

7. Sources of Wisdom: Experience, Observation, Tradition, Correction, and Ultimately Revelation
In this chapter Longman explores the expected role of experience and observation in wisdom. These are the sources that mark out the idea of wisdom, i.e. in this sense it differs from legal material, historical narrative and prophetic texts. Longman argues that despite these distinct points of departure of wisdom thought, they have a theological trajectory crystallised in the centrality of the idea of Fear of the Lord. Longman also explores the false claims to revelation within wisdom material, such as those of Eliphaz and Elihu, and he argues that though such views are found wanting they can also be instructive.

8. Wisdom, Creation, and (Dis)order
Longman explores the connection of wisdom with creation, a relationship which he points out is the subject of some scholarly disagreement. He starts out with a brief survey of various key wisdom texts in Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom Psalms and Song of Songs. He suggests that creation is a thread in all five texts, although he also points out that it is not a dominant concern. On this basis he makes that case that ‘the sages’ understand both the fact of creation and the existence of a creator as part of their worldview. Longman concludes this chapter by considering the role of wisdom in a world which is both ordered and yet broken.

9. Israelite Wisdom in its Ancient Near Eastern Setting
Israelite wisdom is more open to similar literature in other Near Eastern nations than is the case for prophecy and law. Longman argues that this openness is, however, not an uncritical one. He argues there ‘is, accordingly, no way that the Israelite sages who produced Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes would think that ancient Near Eastern wisdom teachers were wise in the most important sense of the word’ [p.163]. This is of course unsurprising in light of Longman’s central argument that Fear of the Lord is a necessity as a foundation for wisdom.

10. Wisdom, Covenant, and Law
In this chapter Longman addresses the claim that was highlighted in chapter 9, namely that wisdom is concerned with universal matters and is in some sense distinct from the wider Old Testament. Anyone who has read the book, or even this review, up to this point will know Longman’s likely conclusion—he argues that there are connections between the various Old Testament covenants and the Law.

11. The Consequences of Wise and Foolish Behaviour: The Issue of Retribution Theology
This chapter is an important one in that it addresses some of the terrible category mistakes that have been made regarding the wisdom elements of the Old Testament. He addresses the fact that a proverb is not a promise and the even more insidious claims of those who articulate a so-called prosperity gospel. The way this is approached is helpful—the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes are both recapitulated in terms of their identification of a simple theology of retribution in this life as ‘wrong-minded’. On this basis he helps unfold a more nuanced appreciation of the Book of Proverbs. In this way the three books generally identified as wisdom literature are seen to be of one mind in rejecting the notion of retribution theology.

12. The Social Setting of Wisdom
This chapter is helpfully frank about the limitations of the data available about the social setting of wisdom. The evidence for both the existence of schools and sages in Israelite society is considered. Longman concludes that despite some evidence we cannot be certain of the existence of schools of professional wise people. There is judged to be sufficient evidence to conclude that the wisdom has a variety of social settings and the canon has made use of proverbial instruction from every stratum of society.

The third and final part of this review will follow very soon.

God and Wisdom, Part 1

The form of this post is a little different to the previous ones in this #AtoZWisdom series. It is a book review. The book in question is by Tremper Longman III and the reason why it provides a fitting post on ‘God and Wisdom’ will soon become apparent.

Tremper Longman III, The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017

Both the title and subtitle of this book distil the backbone of Tremper Longman III’s account of wisdom in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (OT/HB). He argues, with clarity and conviction, that the diverse elements of wisdom in the OT/HB find their unity within a theological framework. Such a view is not shared by all scholars. Indeed, some drive a wedge between wisdom (often in the form of the three books, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job) and the cultic life of Israel. Longman not only sees the wisdom elements of the OT/HB as theological but in his commitment to a canonical reading (p.26) he sees ‘Fear of the Lord’ as the specific theological locus. Perhaps some will find such a reading displays too great a hermeneutic of trust, but the book makes an excellent case for such a reading—and despite the claim of theological canonical unity the wisdom material is not flattened but is permitted its wide-ranging claims and emotions.

The book has fifteen chapters and covers more ground than many introductions to the wisdom books of the OT/HB. I would recommend this book, because of its clarity, to anyone wanting a first introduction to wisdom literature. The book engages with wider technical scholarship, but it is written without pretension and little prior knowledge is required to get the best from it.

The rest of this review will make some brief comments about each chapter to give a flavour of the book’s thesis—and yes that is what it is, a coherent argument for a specific reading. For this reason, readers already familiar with biblical wisdom will also find this book stimulating.

The length of this review means that it will be posted in two parts. In this post the first six chapters are covered.

1. Proverbs: The Fear of the Lord Is the Beginning of Wisdom

This chapter considers three ways in which the Book of Proverbs defines wisdom. The first of these is at the practical level, as a skill for living. Longman suggests that wisdom, in this sense, parallels how emotional intelligence can lead to success in life. The second aspect of wisdom is the ethical level—the Book of Proverbs continually equates a wise person with a good person. The third level, according to Longman, is the theological level and especially the Fear of the Lord as expressed at the outset in Proverbs in 1:7. The theological perspective is further developed by considering the rich imagery of woman wisdom who permeates the Book of Proverbs.

2. Ecclesiastes: Fear God, Obey the Commandments, and Live in Light of the Coming Judgement

Longman explores from the outset his view that the Book of Ecclesiastes is the product of two voices and not just one. He argues that the bulk of the book, 1:12–12:7, are the words of Qohelet as indicated in by the constant use of the first person. He identifies Qohelet as a pseudonym of a post-exilic author. The case is made for the prologue (1:1–11) and the epilogue (12:8–14) being the second voice; the editor who commends the work to his son and thereby to all subsequent readers. This epilogue is key to Longman’s theological approach to the book. He argues that the work shows the limits of human wisdom—it is Fear of God (12:13) that is an essential stance for overcoming the limits of wisdom.

3. The Book of Job: “Behold, the Fear of the Lord Is Wisdom” (Job 28:28)

Longman dismisses the unhelpful caricatures of the Book of Job, such as a supposed concern with answering the questions of either suffering or theodicy. He rightly sees the book as a wisdom dispute. The three friends of Job share a similar wisdom view—so-called retribution theology. Because of this view they are convinced that Job’s suffering testifies that Job must have sinned. Job shares their perspective but knows he has not sinned. Thus, argues Longman, Job’s concern is that God is unjust (p.47). Longman sees Elihu as largely sharing the same view but being especially ‘full of hot air’. In the light of Yahweh’s speeches to Job and the book’s epilogues, Longman argues that Job makes three key contributions: (i) God is the source of wisdom, (ii) the proper human response to such wisdom is submission, and (iii) the fear of the Lord already articulated in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes is central.

4. Other Sources of Wisdom: Deuteronomy, Psalms, Song of Songs, and Prophecy

In this chapter Longman explores various parts of the OT/HB some of which are generally recognised to have some wisdom elements (for example Psalms) and others that are more controversial with respect to the role of wisdom (Deuteronomy for example). Longman is at pains to point out that even if there were such a concept as wisdom literature the books mentioned in this chapter would not be part of this literature. His argument is that wisdom motifs and ideas are found more widely in the OT/HB than is generally appreciated. This is important to the argument about the nature of wisdom in later chapters.

5. Joseph and Daniel: Paragons of Wisdom

In this chapter, and the next, Longman further broadens the concept of wisdom to the narratives of the OT/HB. This chapter is concerned with the Joseph and Daniel narratives. Longman explains that some scholars, for example von Rad, have made much of the wisdom influence in the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37–50). Others, like Crenshaw, have argued quite the opposite. Longman steers a clear middle road. He does not argue that wisdom is the dominant genre or theme within the Joseph narrative or the Book of Daniel. Rather he points to some core similarities between the characters at the heart of these stories. These are (i) their use of wisdom to interpret dreams, (ii) they acknowledge God as the origin of their wisdom, (iii) they use their wisdom to guide their foreign royal masters.

6. Adam and Solomon: From the Heights of Wisdom to the Depths of Folly

In this chapter Adam and Solomon (and the king of Tyre) are explored as examples of individuals who journeyed from wisdom to folly. The example of Adam is of course interesting due to the account of his folly at the outset of the HB/OT. The account of the fall in Genesis 3 is rich with the language of wisdom: the serpent is described as crafty/prudent (3:1), there is the tree of knowledge (2:17) and the fruit is perceived by Eve as being useful for gaining wisdom (3:6). The negative outcome of the story shows the stark problem of humanity seeking wisdom on their own terms without God. Longman shows that Solomon, despite his wisdom, followed a similar path of trusting in things other than God.