In the aftermath of the election, we are no less divided. But Bible tells us that God is love, and that our love for others is a representation of God’s love for us and our love for God (1 John 4:7-21). Jesus calls us to see the other person as an actual human being (Luke 7:36-50). Using stories of people with different backgrounds, this sermon shows how different experiences and realities move us to different, even opposing, political opinions. We’re challenged to move beyond the slogans to really understand the people who use them.
And Zachariah said to the angel, “How can I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in her days.”
In reply, the angel said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and bring this good news. Now see! Because you did not believe in my words, you will become mute and will be unable to speak until that day when these things happen, which will be fulfilled in their due time!”
Now the people were expecting Zachariah, and they were wondering about his delay in the sanctuary. But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. And he was beckoning to them, and he remained mute.
As soon as his time of service was complete, he returned to his home. And after this his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant and hid herself for five months, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me when he looked upon me: He took away my shame among the people.”
There are two particularly notable things in this passage. The first is Luke’s first jab at the religious establishment. Zachariah, Luke has already told us, is a priest who is “righteous” and “above reproach” (1:6). Yet Zechariah still doubts that God can and will act in this world. We’ll see a contrast with Mary, who accepts what the angel tells her with little argument. And which is the greater miracle: that an old woman should become pregnant (Sarah did!), or that a woman should become pregnant without the participation of a man? Yet Zachariah, the best representative of the temple structure, doubts the smaller miracle, while Mary, an unwed and uneducated young woman, trusts God to do even that which seems biologically impossible.
This is one of the first portrayals of the Kingdom: it is not for the educated elite. It asks, rather, for the childlike trust of a peasant.
Secondly, Elizabeth’s proclamation in 1:25 doesn’t mention the pregnancy of an old woman at all. For her, the miracle is instead that God removed her shame. Again, this heralds the Kingdom, where no one has fallen to far to be redeemed. What’s important is not that Zachariah and Elizabeth got what they wanted, namely a child. What’s important is the removal of their shame, for the Kingdom is a place where all is healed (not merely where everyone gets what they want).
Now the narrative begins. And it begins in an astounding way: the appearance of an angel to a priest. This was not uncommon in the Old Testament, but it hadn’t occurred in centuries. To its audience, this links the Gospel to the Old Testament, but also announces that something amazing is at hand: God, who seemed so distant for so long, is once again working in our world.
I find that most translations fail to capture the magnificence of this event. Here’s my translation:
Let us begin the narrative with a priest in the time of Herod, King of Judea. This priest’s name was Zacharia, and he was of the priestly division of Abia. His wife’s name was Elizabeth, and she was a descendent of Aaron. They were also both righteous in the eyes of God, living according to every commandment and ordinance of the Lord, and above reproach. But they were childless because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both advanced in age.
But now something happened as he fulfilled the priestly duties in the holiest part of the temple. According to the tradition of his order he had been given his turn by lot, and he entered into the sanctuary to burn incense. All the people were praying outside at the time set for the lighting of the incense. But then he perceived that an angel, a messenger from God, had come to stand by him on the right side of the sacred altar. And upon seeing this, Zacharias became agitated, and terror overwhelmed him.
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth shall give birth to a son, and you shall name him John. And gladness and great joy will come to you, and because of his birth many will rejoice. For he will be great in the eyes of the Lord, and wine and strong drink he will neither drink nor desire. And he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. And he will bring a great many of the children of Israel back toward the Lord their God. And he will go before Him with the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the elders to those they are responsible for, and to transform the rebellious to righteousness, to prepare for the Lord a people made ready.”
Already, this Gospel is pointing toward structural change, a theme Luke emphasizes often. John will “turn the hearts of the elders” to the people, rather than to their own wealth and power. Luke echoes the calling of the prophets, to call the people back to God and “transform the rebellious to righteousness,” and to prepare the way of the Lord.
For a people who have been subjects of one empire or another for most of half a millennium, whose brief period of freedom ended just a few decades before with the arrival of the Romans, and who equated God’ Kingdom with the Kingdom of Israel, it seemed that God had been terribly silent for a very long time. But here, beginning with one righteous priest, God initiates a new relationship. We don’t see yet the fullness of that relationship, but even in this beginning, Luke points both backward to the prophets and forward to a new beginning.
Of course, this righteous priest doesn’t respond heroically, but that’s in the next passage.
“Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a prophet has been among them…” Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe. (Ezekiel 2:3-5, 9-10)
With 3% of the population and some of the best medical technology in the world, the U.S. has 27% of the world’s Coronavirus cases and 23% of the world’s Coronavirus deaths. Something is dreadfully wrong. When will we ask what it is?
Virus cases in the European Union are plummeting. Yet the measures they took didn’t harm their economy nearly as much as our government’s response did. Why is our response so ineffective and economically painful?
During these times of crisis, the EU and its member states are working together and helping each other. (ECCEU Report)
This may explain why our nation took the steps it did: downplaying the risk, being slow to close and quick to reopen, dragging its feet on testing, refusing to implement contact tracing, and even refusing to wear masks. Our own convenience has become an idol, more important than saving the lives of people we don’t know. Our own optimism has become an idol, outweighing the risk of sickness and death to those we do know and love. Our money has become more important than even our own lives.
Robber: Your money or your life!
Victim: Take my life, please. I’ll need my money for my old age!
The Bible says something different. While our churches argue about homosexuality, a topic that is arguably mentioned four times in the Bible, there are literally hundreds of instructions about the evils of not sharing our wealth. These range from Genesis (4:9-11) and the books of the law (Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus have too many to list here) to the prophets (again too many to list), the Gospel (ditto), and even Proverbs (e.g. 14:31; 19:17; 31:8-9) and the Psalms (e.g. 41:1, 82:3). We are to share our food and clothing (Prov 22:9; Is 58:6-7; Lk 14:13-14), even with immigrants (Dt 27:129), and even those whom we may believe are from a criminal class (Lk 10:25-37). Accumulation of wealth is an idol condemned (Is 5:8, Lk 12:16-21; 1 Tim 6:9-11).
Did God send the Coronavirus as a plague to punish an unjust nation? It’s possible (Dt 28:21, Lam 3:37). But in truth, the punishment we now receive we created ourselves. Cornonavirus showcases the fallacy of our “greed is good” culture. We wrote this future, God didn’t.
But will we listen to God now? God told us mortals what is good (Micah 6:8). We are called to put the good of the whole first, not our haircuts (buy a set of clippers here) or our gyms (try walking, or split your neighbor’s firewood). We’re called to wear a freaking mask–even if it’s only a little effective, every case we prevent avoids another potential death! We’re called to support widespread testing and, much as it rankles my libertarian conservatism, contact tracing. (Come on, folks– the government already knows where you’ve been because they have access to your cell phone location, and they can listen to your conversations anytime they want! The intelligence agencies already know who we’re in contact with, they just don’t tell the health agencies.)
And we’re called to go out less. Yes, I’m going crazy with the kids home all the time. Yes, I occasionally have to substitute an ingredient or rethink a meal plan because I’m out of something and don’t run to the store every day anymore. Yes, I hate Zoom meetings and miss seeing people in person.
But the longer we avoid doing these things, the longer this will go on and the worse it will get.
Will we listen, or will we continue to be a rebellious nation?
P.S. As I wrote this post, the New York Times reported that Hurricane Anna, the first of the season, is bearing down on one of areas most hard hit by the Coronavirus. It’s likely to hit Corpus Christi, whose name means “the Body of Christ.” Wildfires are ravaging the West. Americans are no longer welcome in many other countries, including some we consider allies. Mothers are being tear gassed. Agents without uniforms are grabbing people off the streets. Reporters are being shot at, tear gassed, and beaten by authorities.
Are we ready to listen yet?
Luke introduces his Gospel with a long prologue, a run-on sentence that spans four verses. This cannot compare with some of Paul’s, to be sure. But for many years it did discourage me from looking at it closely. I discovered much later what I’d missed. Luke’s prologue is rich in meaning. It tells us much about Luke’s perspective, and what he intends his Gospel to do.
But much of that gets lost in the conventional English translations because they stay close to the literal meaning. We shouldn’t dismiss the literal meaning, of course. But Greek and English differ greatly. Some words in Greek carry a more specific meaning than their English counterparts. And some Greek words allow much more ambiguity than the English translation.
Let’s take, for example, the Greek word ἐν, a simple preposition meaning “in.” In is in, right? How complicated could it be? Yet the definition of the word isn’t quite that simple:
properly, in (inside, within); (figuratively) “in the realm (sphere) of,” as in the condition (state) in which something operates from the inside (within).
You can see that this doesn’t entirely correspond with the English word “in,” and we don’t really have a word that carries that meaning.
Many translators substitute the English word “among.” That’s because for someone in 1st century Greco-Roman culture, perhaps especially in Jewish culture, a person was identified with the group to which they belonged. Where a Greek-speaker might say that something happened “in” a group, we as individualists would be more likely to say “among” the members of the group.
When we look at a translation like the NRSV and compare it with the Greek, we find that it leaves out a lot of the subtle meaning of the words. It comes out flat and lifeless. The NIV offers little improvement. And the KJV, while its language remains beautiful, doesn’t really come close.
But when we depart from the literal translation, we are challenged to remain true to the author’s actual meaning. Whenever we try to mix connotation with denotation, we risk distorting the meaning. As I translated this passage, I tried to consider its literal meaning, the more subtle implications of the words used, and the text it introduces. It took more words to convey the meaning, and the sentence was already too long for English, so I split it in two. Both sentences are still long, but I don’t see how to break them down further without losing meaning.
So here, for better or worse, is my translation.
Many have tried to arrange an encompassing narrative to express the magnitude of the things revealed in and among us, which from the beginning eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word have passed on to us. As one who has been involved myself, and after careful investigation of every part of the story, it seemed good to me to put this in a narrative to you, most noble Theophilus, so that you would come to experience that which you have been told and thus know it with certainty.
You’ll notice that in this translation, Luke emphasizes the aspect of revelation, that Jesus’s life and death revealed something new and astounding that others have not adequately conveyed. Obviously the most prominent feature for Luke was the inclusion of the Gentiles– us. But as we work through his Gospel, we’ll see more. For Luke, the coming and work of the Holy Spirit among (and within) us cannot be overstated. While Mark, like Luke emphasized an economic message, for Luke this economic shift is inseparable from the Holy Spirit and the Kingdom.
Another aspect that this translation includes is the distinction between head knowledge, “that which you have been told,” and heart knowledge, that which we truly know because we have experienced it. The Greek word ἐπιγνῷς means not just learning, but knowing through experience or relationship.
Luke intends for his Gospel to achieve that experience and relationship. He wants not to convince us, but to bring us into relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit. He wants to influence not merely our minds, but our hearts.
Many have undertaken to draw up an account… (Luke 1:1 [NIV])
As I said in my previous post, Luke begins by alerting us that he’s going to say something that “many” have so far failed to say. Who are these “many”? We don’t know. But we can make some educated guesses.
Most scholars believe that Luke wrote sometime in the 70s, about 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. This puts it about the same time as Matthew, after Mark, and before John. Some insist that because Acts ends with Paul’s arrival in Rome and doesn’t mention Paul’s execution in 64, Luke must have completed his work before Paul’s execution. But we should remember that Luke tells us not only what happened, but what it meant. Symbolism is important and, as I said before, Luke does nothing by accident. His major movement tracks the Gospel coming from Galilee to Jerusalem, then to Samaria, and finally to the Gentiles. Paul’s arrival in Rome represents the great victory: the Gospel comes to the seat of Empire itself. This final movement provides the finale for Luke’s narrative of the Gospel. The martyrdom of Paul (and of Peter as well) adds nothing to this movement– and for Luke, the Word eclipses those who carried it. Acts does not tell Paul’s or Peter’s story, it tells God’s. As a writer, Luke need not include all information, only that relevant to the narrative.
So let’s assume that Luke and Acts were indeed written in the 70s. This gives us more context to guess at who the “many” may have been. Paul’s letters were in circulation. The Gospel of Mark had already been written. These two sources are fairly certain.
Many scholars think there existed a written collection of the sayings of Jesus, which they call Q, used by both Matthew and Luke (as well as Thomas, and may have been available to Paul as well), but no copy of it has ever been found. Did Q actually exist? Possibly.
Some argue that Luke had access to Matthew’s gospel. I tend to agree, having found literary evidence that Luke responds to some of Matthew’s positions. I’ll write more on this later, but let me give as example the language Luke uses in his version of the parable of the lost sheep. Matthew emphasizes the sheep on the mountain– the symbolic representation of Zion as the place to which the nations come– using language that echoes Isaiah. This was important symbolism for the Jewish community. But it put Jews at the center of Christianity. Matthew was a Jew writing to a church of Jewish Christians. Luke, on the other hand, emphasizes that the Gospel goes out to the Gentiles. His version of the parable emphasizes the wilderness and doesn’t mention the mountain at all. We can see a similar change in the Beatitudes, placed by Matthew on a mountain but by Luke on a plain, a level place. For Luke, equal access for the Gentiles is a major theme.
Let’s consider another possibility: The Gospel of John claims to have been written by an eyewitness. Scholars still debate whether John the Apostle or someone else wrote it. In one theory, admittedly not widely held, the “beloved disciple” refers to Lazarus, the one man John’s gospel tells us Jesus loved. Moreover, it would make sense to wonder if Lazarus would ever die (John 21:23), since he already had. Some believe that the name “John” comes from the man who transcribed Lazarus’s words, possibly “John, whose other name was Mark” (Acts 15:37). Considering this in depth would take more time and space than this post allows. However, this eyewitness probably had already begun teaching, and Luke may have had access to those teachings as well. We do see some interesting common word use between Luke and John.
In summary, we really don’t know what sources Luke had. Certainly Paul and Mark had been written. Possibly he also read Matthew, Thomas, and an early version of John. And the mysterious document called Q remains a possibility.
We can say one thing with certainty: the Greek word for “many,” πολλοὶ, emphasizes the number being considered. It can be translated “multitudinous.” Luke responds to more than just one or two accounts. And it shouldn’t surprise us, even before Christianity became widespread, that the momentous events of the life of Jesus created a great deal of talk and written consideration.
Luke tells us that he plans to tell the story in a way it hasn’t been told before. And that’s exactly what he does.
Since I first began reading the Bible I’ve been fascinated with the Gospel of Luke. Not only do Luke and its sequel Acts comprise almost 2/3 of the New Testament, but Luke is the only non-Jewish author. He was a Gentile. Given that I, too, am a Gentile, I find his perspective– and his inclusivity– particularly relevant to my own experience.
As time went on, I began to realize the magnitude of Luke’s claims: that the Holy Spirit, formerly reserved for a few chosen servants of God, became available to all at Pentecost. That Jesus conquered sin through His resurrection. And that the spreading of the Gospel– in word and deed– continues the victory.
At Seminary I studied Greek. Admittedly I took the lite version, not the scholarly version. But as a wordsmith myself, and someone who has lived in multiple cultures, I began to realize how difficult it is for a literal translation to convey the depth of meaning of the original.
Let me give an analogy. Not long ago, one of the pastors at our church preached to a mixed group of English and French speakers. Another pastor translated the sermon into French. The preacher referred to “a home run,” and the translator dutifully translated the expression literally. But the French listeners, who did not come from a culture that played baseball, had no idea what the expression meant. The meaning was lost.
So it is with Luke’s Greek. The very first phrase is translated in the NRSV as “Since many have undertalen to set down…” But this misses the underlying meaning of Luke’s words. The Greek word ἐπεχείρησαν, translated by NRSV as “undertaken,” literally means “to put the hand upon,” as in “To put the hand to the plow.” Luke isn’t just saying that his is not the first attempt. He’s stating, quite emphatically I think, that the previous authors didn’t finish the job. Luke is about to tell us something new, something amazing, and something the others have, in his opinion, missed.
This, of course, stirs the debate about whether all the biblical authors are saying the same thing. My answer is: Of course they aren’t! Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience. Luke wrote to Gentiles. John (the Gospel writer) wrote from a more mystical perspective and uses some of the best Greek in the Bible. John (the writer of the Letters of John) was a local preacher, not a theologian. He addressed matters of immediate concern, much like Paul (if in a less educated style). And John (the Revelator) was clearly a native Aramaic speaker– his Greek grammar is tortured, much like my grammar when I try to speak other languages I’m not fluent in. And his purpose was to relay prophecy– an entirely different art.
Luke is clearly a well-educated man, and an excellent writer of narrative. He says nothing that doesn’t contribute to the movement of the story he’s telling (and I don’t mean to imply in any way that it is fiction). He uses no word by accident.
That’s why looking at Luke’s Greek is so important. In a series of posts, I will do exactly that.
As I said, I’m no Greek scholar. But I am a wordsmith, and I know how to use the tools. I understand denotation (what a word literally means) and connotation (the underlying meanings understood by native speakers). And I accept that Luke, as he lays out his narrative, does nothing by accident. What he says in the beginning supports what follows.
So I “put my hand” to an attempt, as many others have before me. Perhaps true scholars will cringe. Or perhaps the Spirit moves us to see something the literal translation misses.
If my work causes you to think, then I’ve done my job. Because I accept it as a given that the Word of God cannot be held in ink on a page. God is infinite. We are not. And as powerful as the written word is, like us it is incapable of encompassing God.
Talking about gender is like walking into a minefield. Some of the hazards are societal beliefs, some global and some more local, while others are reactions to those beliefs. Nevertheless, this post will venture where most sane people fear to tread. And please remember that I am speaking of what we might call archetypes– the so-called “norm.” Many of us don’t fit that norm. Yet our beliefs about gender often do.
Let’s begin with one of the Bible’s most radical statement about gender identity: that of God.
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27 [NRSV])
I was raised with the vision of a male God. To be honest, coming from a matriarchal family, the idea of a female God terrifies me. But the Bible tells us something challenging: God is both male and female. This is radical because most ancient cultures had a pantheon of male and female gods. But the Hebrews had only one God, and that God encompassed both genders. The “image of God” is both male and female. One might say that the image of God is the union of the two.
Obviously this doesn’t mean God is a hermaphrodite. God has no physical body, and therefore no genitalia. Though we tend to limit our vision of creatures to their physical traits, male and female are characteristics that go beyond physical gender. The sea, for example, has most often been seen as female, as are the ships that have sailed on her. The earth is often described as female, and the sun as male.
God encompasses characteristics of both genders: creating and loving and nurturing, building and tearing down and disciplining. These are archetypal characteristics for female and male respectively. But in us as creatures, these characteristics are rarely manifested in ideal ways. Males, we believe, are responsible for propagating and protecting the species, and females for nurturing it. We know that the male role is often abused, and the female role is sometimes abdicated. Or the characteristics may be twisted into destructive forces: male (the archetype suggests) is prone to violence, and female to manipulation.
But we don’t always have perfect alignment with the characteristics of our gender, and that’s true throughout nature. The characteristics of male and female are neither exclusively genital nor consistently presented. What do we make, for example, of the male seahorse carrying embryos to birth? Or the female praying mantis decapitating her mate when he has served his purpose? Or the earthworm, each of which is biologically both male and female?
Still, our society often finds a nurturing man suspect, or a female leader. Men are not supposed to be beauticians, nor women soldiers or politicians. When you think of the word “nurse,” what gender is the image?
Much of this presupposition can be traced back to the Mosaic Law, which defined male and female roles.
A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God. (Dt 22:5)
These books were finalized at a time when order was extremely important. They defined who was “in” and who wasn’t. You see, when Israel fell to Assyria, ten tribes were taken into exile. They were never heard from again. When Judah went into exile in Babylon, they were determined to survive as a people. They wanted above all to avoid assimilation. That is why there is so much emphasis placed on category.
Here’s an example: animals with cloven hooves are ruminants and provide dairy. The pig has a cloven hoof but is not a ruminant and does not provide dairy. It doesn’t fit, therefore it is unclean. The camel and the rabbit are ruminants but do not have a cloven hoof, therefore they are unclean (Lev 11:3-7). Similarly, lobster is neither insect nor fish; it doesn’t fit and is therefore unclean (Lev 11:12).
And they emphasized that different categories do not mix. Don’t wear a garment made of two fabrics, or plant a field with two kinds of seed (Lev 19:19, cf Dt 22:9-11). The practice of growing corn, beans, and squash together would have been an abomination, and a cotton-poly t-shirt would be strictly forbidden.
This concern with order extended to interpersonal relations. Just as Lev 19:19 forbids the mating of different kinds of animals– no breeding of mules in the Hebrew world– so a particular view of family was also emphasized. Not only was incest forbidden, but so was the marrying of your wife’s sister as a second wife (Lev 18:18, note that polygamy was assumed.) This is also where homsexualty is condemned. These are practices that “don’t fit,” and keeping category boundaries was imperative for survival. Similarly, men must be men and women must be women. Belonging to a category was everything.
This was embedded in Jewish culture for centuries before the birth of Christ. It was so important that, in at least one instance, category overrode the biblical ideal to “cleave to” your spouse (Gen 2:24) when, after return from exile, the Jews sent away all foreign wives (Ezra 10:3, Neh 13:23ff).
It’s only in this light that we can see how radical was Peter’s dream about eating unclean food (Acts 10:9ff). He was told, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15). Immediately afterward, Peter witnesses the Holy Spirit coming to a group of Gentiles– non-Jews who were considered unclean. The dream was not really about food at all. It was about the inclusion of those traditionally seen as unclean, the “out” group, into God’s plan of salvation. The people who don’t belong, who don’t fit. Paul would later write, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This turned Jewish traditions on their head! Category was no longer a barrier. The Jewish obsession with “in” and “out” had served its purpose.
Some of this reversal we accept. No longer do we recoil at mixed garments or different crops planted side by side. Mules may have fallen out of fashion, but labradoodles are popular. I was even recently served lobster at a Jewish wedding!
But other aspects remain challenging for us. Not long ago it was still considered scandalous for a woman to wear trousers in public. Based on the comments of some female pastors, for some people it still is! And I’m old enough to remember the comments made about men with long hair and women with short hair. Underlying these comments is a common concern: “They don’t fit!” For us, as for the ancient Hebrews, category remains important.
But God has overthrown human categories. In Christ there is no male and female. This challenges us! Men, according to our accepted archetypes, want to “manly men doing manly things.” We want our women to be feminine, however we might define that. (As a man, I dare not speak to what women want.) To consider that gender is a category that has been overthrown challenges our social order. Jesus wouldn’t do that, would he? Yes, he did exactly that. “So the last shall be first, and the first last…” (Mt 20:16). This was not just spiritual, and not even just economic.
This has far reaching ramifications. The most obvious have to do with gender equity and gender identity, but it doesn’t stop there. If God represents male and female, what does that say for leadership styles? For a system of incarceration based on punishment? For our foreign and domestic policies? For judging a presidential candidate (male or female) on their fitness to lead the nation through troubled times?
Society, of course, has a hard time with this. Category remains an important tool for preserving order, and we are acutely aware of who is “in” and who isn’t. But as Christians who follow the Gospel, we are called to challenge societal norms. God is both male and female. So is the Body of Christ. How can we transform our own vision to that of the Bible?