Thursday, April 17, 2014

Like Mother, Like Son (Mary and Jesus)

Late last year I was at an ordination. The text for the sermon was Luke 1:38 in which Mary responds to the angel Gabriel, “Behold, the slave of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (my translation).

As I listened and pondered the text and Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55 I realized something fresh. The language used to describe Mary’s response and song includes specific language used of her son Jesus in the great Christ-hymn of Phil 2:6-11. I connected Mary with Jesus in a new way realizing that when God chose Mary, the one who would bear his Son to save the world, he chose someone who embodied the heart of God seen in the self-emptying Christ.

The word translated “servant” is doulē, the feminine of doulos, “slave.” Mary declares herself “slave of the Lord.” In Phil 2:7 it is Jesus who, being in the form of God, took the form of a slave (doulos). Mary in her obedience, served the Great Servant who will save the world.

In Mary’s hymn in Luke 1:48, she then sings, “because he has looked down upon the humility (tapeinōsis) of his slave (doulē)” (my translation). In Phil 2:8 it is said of Jesus that “he humbled (tapeinoō) himself.” I realized that Mary embodied the attitude of Christ in 2:6-8. She humbled herself before God and indeed people, carrying the shame of pregnancy, and she responds to God as his doulē, slave.

Now while Phil 2:6-8 is wonderfully kerygmatic and theological, it is ethical in intent. Paul is urging the Philippians to take on the mindset that Christ took up in his incarnation and death (2:5). Paul gives Christ as the primary example to the divided Philippians concerned for status to reinforce the appeal of 2:1–4; namely, that they come together in the mutual encouragement, comfort, love, unity, compassion, affection, one-mindedness, humility, selflessness, and others-centeredness. If they take on the mindset of Christ, they will become like him and their disunity healed.

It is then no surprise that when God was looking for a human woman to bear his Son, he chose someone who embodied the very pattern of life that Christ would demonstrate to the world, and which the world is to take on. It made me realize that Jesus was greatly helped in developing into the sinless one by having a mother who really embodied God’s ideals for humanity. This is reinforced by the example of Joseph explicated in Matthew 1, where we read that he too was a man of humility, servanthood and grace. So Jesus was raised in a home where the parents embodied humility and service as the basis of their ethic. That is a lesson to us all as parents.

So much can be drawn from this. Here are a few things.

First, we, men included, are to be like Mary and respond to God as she did, “behold, I am a slave of God, may it be to me according to your word.” She presents the ideal of living the Christ-pattern. This is the only way to live.

Secondly, God is in control, shaping history through people called to his purposes. He especially looks for the humble and servant-hearted.

Thirdly, Christmas reminds us of what an astonishing story we are swept up in when we come to Christ. We are swept up into a real life drama, in which what matters is not power, charisma, or status, but humility and service.

Finally, it is easy to see why Mary is so venerated. She truly is in a sense, the greatest example of human life there is. God was very careful in choosing the one who would bear his Son. While we should not worship her, we should honor her greatly.

Extravagant Forgiveness

I recently read Jesus’ Parable of the Unforgiving Servant again (Matt 18:21–35). I was hit afresh by its power.

Peter comes to Jesus and asks him how many times he should forgive his brother who has sinned against him, seven times? Jesus responds by saying something like, “not enough Peter, seventy–seven times.” This recalls Gen 4:24 where Lamech swears to avenge himself seventy–seven times. It effectively means, “an unlimited number of times” (Hagner, Matt, 2.537).

Jesus then told a story to reinforce his point. It involved a king who wished to settle his accounts. One guy owed him 10,000 talents. Now the talent of silver varied in value but was worth something like 6,000 denarii. Now a denarius was the standard pay for a day’s labour. So this guy owed something like 60 million denarii (BDAG, 988). That is a ridiculous amount of money. In NZ terms, assuming an average wage of $14.25/hour (which is rubbish) or $114/8 hour day, this would amount to a debt of $6.84b NZD (it would be more because a day was more like 12 hours). That’s more than the richest Kiwi in 2013 Graeme Hart earned ($6.4b)! In other words, an impossible debt to repay. The master called the guy in and told him to pay up or he and his family would be sold as a result (not an endorsement of slavery, this is a story, but understandable in the times). The debtor not surprisingly pleaded for mercy from the master. Filled with pity, the master released him and let him off his nearly $7b debt.

Instead of the one relieved going away with an attitude of mercy and forgiveness to others, he went to one of the people who owed him 100 denarii. This is around 3 months of a labourer’s pay, around $11,400 NZD. This is still a substantial sum but nothing like nearly $7b! The man owing 100 denarii was unable to pay immediately so the creditor threw him in prison until he did. The king then heard about this, and was filled with anger recalling the debtor he had forgiven and throwing him into prison until he could pay the 10,000 talents back. One can immediately see the irony, because it is impossible to pay debts when earning nothing while in prison, let alone such a monstrous one. He was in prison forever.

Two things stood out to me as I read this story.

First, in Jesus Christ God in his mercy has provided extravagant forgiveness for us all. It doesn’t matter what we have done in the past, if we come to him in faith, humility, and genuine repentance seeking his mercy, we have it, period! God’s grace is sufficient for any debt. Any sinner, no matter how bad, can find forgiveness in Jesus.

Secondly, having received this level of forgiveness, we must show the same kind of mercy and forgiveness to others. People mess up. The news is full of it. Our challenge is to accept the extravagant forgiveness of God and pass it onto others. This is not easy when we are wronged, that is for sure. Yet, if we can find the mercy of the King, such forgiveness sets everyone free, ourselves included. And, “if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed” (John 8:36).

This all got me thinking of situations like the Pistorius' trial and the poor people who lost their families in Flight MH 370. The challenge of forgiving others in these situations is extreme. However difficult, Christ would call us to show the same forgiveness God has demonstrated in Christ. That is a challenge I have never had to face. I pray I never do. But if I do (may it never be!), I hope I will be equal to the challenge.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Was Jesus a Bum? A Hobo?

On the front page of the Sunday Star Times this week (6/4/2014) is featured an article concerning a thesis by Dr Robert Myles in which he argues that Jesus was a bum or hobo ( For this thesis, Dr Myles won the Auckland University Vice-Chancellor’s Award. Now, I haven’t had a chance to read this thesis, and in a way that should stop me commenting at all. But, I thought a few comments were appropriate.

First, even though I get annoyed that it is really only the more controversial stuff that gets in the mainstream media, it is excellent to see Jesus and biblical studies featured on the front page of a major NZ paper. This is great; people will be talking about Jesus.
Secondly, having written a doctoral thesis, I have to congratulate Dr Robert for not only completing a thesis which is difficult in itself, but winning this award. That is no mean feat. It must be a very good thesis indeed! It is great that a biblical studies thesis was considered worthy of such an accolade. It sounds like a fascinating idea which may have some real merit.

In the first place, it is true that Jesus did not really have a home to go to. He had left his family behind to become an itinerant preacher and was marginalised from them (Mark 3:20-21, 31-35). When he went home to Nazareth, he was ridiculed (Luke 4:16-30; 6:1-6). He did not do a lot in Nazareth as a result. We need to keep in mind that for the ancients, land was not owned in a western private individual way, but often in families. Not that his family were well-heeled anyway. They were apparently poor seen when they dedicated Jesus with an offering of doves (Luke 2:23-24).

His cousin John the Baptist had done the same, living it rough, wearing animal skins, eating locusts and wild honey, and living in the Judean wilderness. He certainly would have appeared as a homeless hobo (Mark 1:4-8).

Jesus too moved from place to place ducking and out of towns preaching; setting up in the countryside and ministering in fields and by lakes. He is often found praying and living out of doors. When a scribe tells Jesus he will follow him wherever he goes, Jesus responds by stating that, unlike foxes and birds which have dens and nests, he is homeless (Matt 8:19; Luke 9:58). He is effectively asking the scribe, “are you prepared to live this way too?” That’s the cost of following me. Jesus was also marginalised from the mainstream of society and identified with the poor and outcast. In first century Palestine, oppressed by Romans and the Jewish elite, the vast majority were struggling with poverty. It was more like a third world context than our nice comfortable living; and in an era before social welfare. Living among, and identifying with the poor in such a social context would make Jesus vulnerable to criticism for poverty was associated with accursedness (e.g. John 9:1). With his constant rebuke of those in the elite, it is not implausible that his homeless and apparently poor state would have been a factor in his demise. As such, this thesis is worth considering and reading. It perhaps touches on something that is not recognised enough.

On the other hand, Jesus had some real support. First, he had women who supported him and the others. Some from well-connected contexts like the wife of Chuza who ran Herod’s household (Luke 8:1-3). The mother of James and John, Zebedee the fisherman’s wife, was also with Jesus (Matt 20:20; 27:56). She may have used the proceeds of the family fishing business (Luke 5:1-11). Second, it appears while Jesus had no home of his own, he had a home base in Capernaum. This was likely the home of Peter (Matt 13:1, 36; 17:25; Mark 2:1; 3:20; 9:33; 10:10). Third, Jesus seems also to have had a base in Bethany outside of Jerusalem which he ducked back and forth from while in Jerusalem (Matt 21:7; Mark 11:11; Luke 10:38-42; John 11). This was likely the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Fourth, there is the place where he celebrated the Last Supper in Jerusalem suggesting Jesus had a supporter in the city (Mark 14:12-21). Jesus may have been homeless, but he was looked after.

Yet, the evidence of the Gospels is that Jesus was on the move and was viewed as a prophet. He may have had places to stay in Capernaum and other towns, but for long periods he also lived rough among the crowds as he ministered. He did intentionally identify with the poor. So, I should not be quick to criticise Dr Myles or the Sunday Star Times. It may be that Dr Myles has overstated the case. But that’s what you do in a thesis; you push an argument and allow the wider community to consider its validity over time. This thesis may well add another interesting angle to our understanding Jesus in his world.

So, we should not be quick to be critical of this article or the Sunday Star Times. It sounds fascinating and a thesis we should grab, read, and consider. I am going to.