Monday, October 12, 2015

Swords and Sympathy

The scriptures referred to are Hebrews 4:12-16 and Mark 10:17-31.

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “The medium is the message.” In other words, how content is presented to us has as much effect as the actual content of the message. Look at it this way. The phrase “Can we talk?” has a somewhat different vibe if it is said to you in normal conversation, whispered in your ear, given to you in a handwritten note with a heart dotting the eye, texted to you, displayed on the Jumbotron at the Superbowl or delivered by mail on White House stationary. I won't go so far as to say the medium is more important than the message but certainly you would be foolish to simply pay attention to the message and to ignore how it is conveyed.

We have a similar puzzle in today's reading from Hebrews. The writer is speaking of the Word of God being living, active, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Is he referring to the written Word of God? Or is he referring to what we call the living Word of God, in other words, Jesus? Most commentaries I've read come down on the side of the first option, that the author is speaking of the scriptures, which at the time of the writing meant the Old Testament, since the New Testament was in the process of being composed. The New Bible Commentary says, “There is no ground in the context for identifying this with the personal word of God...” But for the commentator to assert this means that you have to skip over the immediately preceding discussion of the Sabbath and go back to verse 2 and then make the main subject, not the message, but the medium, the Bible, which is the source of the verses used to bolster his argument about the Sabbath. And I can see that.

It does mean that all of this talk about the Bible being active and living and able to judge is really a poetic way of describing the internal effects of the Scriptures on the reader. And, yes, often when we read some pertinent passage in the Bible it speaks to us and can even convict us of sin. It is hard to read our scriptures and not feel that some of the passages seem to be targeting us specifically and speaking to our personal situation. One of the reasons people read the Bible today is the fact that this 2000 year old collection of books still speaks to the human condition and does so in a personal way.

But I can't go along with the idea that there is nothing in this passage that would justify thinking that it refers to Christ, the Word of God incarnate. And the thing that first jumped out at me was verse 13: “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (Italics mine) That verse is obviously not talking about any written word but about God himself. As a matter of fact, since Christ will be our judge, the writer is speaking of Jesus.

Either the writer of Hebrews is abruptly switching subjects in the space of a sentence or he is talking about the same subject all along. And as evidence that he is doing precisely that, I want to draw your attention to the pronouns.

In translating from one language to another, you have to make concessions. Different languages have not only different words but different grammar, word order and even verb tenses. Sometimes you have to supply words that the original doesn't have in order to, in this case, translate the Bible into good English. The King James Version does this. Every time you see an italicized word in the Authorized Version, it means that the word was inserted to make the passage readable.

The fact is that in verse 12, all of the pronouns have to be supplied. And the pronoun the translators inserted is “it.” To wit: “Indeed, the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Those pronouns don't exist in the original Greek. Obviously they inserted “it” because they thought the author was speaking of the written Word of God. But in verse 13, we suddenly have a “him” which is in fact in the Greek text. So there are no pronouns in the original text for verse 12 but there is a personal masculine pronoun in verse 13. If we replace the two instances of “it” that were supplied by the translators in verse 12 with pronouns that harmonize with the “him” found in verse 13 in the Greek, the whole passage reads this way: “Indeed, the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until he divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; he is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

That also makes the transition to verses 14 through 16 and indeed all of chapter 5 smoother and more logical. So rather than having a passage that concerns two different things, we have a passage that is about two of the roles that Jesus plays in our lives.

The Bible, as I said, is a collection of books. There are 66 works in it, written by at least 40 authors, over a period of thousands of years. It includes history, poetry, essays, epistles, biography, sermons, politics, prophesy, songs and apocalyptic literature. It can be daunting to understand if you don't have some kind of unifying principle. For us Christians, Jesus Christ, the personal expression of who God is, is what pulls it all together. That doesn't mean there aren't a plethora of other themes to be found. But the lens through which we see everything in scripture is Jesus. Sometimes it is pretty obvious, as when one reads Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22 and without even trying, hears very specific foreshadowing of Jesus' death. Other times it may be more difficult to discern as in the Song of Songs. But the whole book of Hebrews is about finding Christ in the Scriptures. So I do have grounds for interpreting this passage as being about Jesus.

If the first part of today's passage is about Jesus as the Word of God, that means that when the author calls the Word living and active he is not being metaphorical. We put our trust in the risen Christ, who is alive and active in the world, working through the body of Christ, the worldwide communion of all who follow Jesus. It is a mistake to think of Jesus as merely someone who lived way back then and has no role in today's world. I admire Plato but not only does he have little influence today but I cannot ask him anything and expect an answer. I can with Christ. I have seen him heal people, felt him healing myself in response to my prayers, seen circumstances change and lives be transformed through him. Jesus is alive and not just in a metaphorical sense.

The next phrase does seem odd when applied to Jesus. How is he sharper than a two-edged sword? While most of the more than 400 references to the sword in scripture are literal, it is also a symbol, usually of war and violence, but sometimes of words or the tongue. And twice in Proverbs (5:4; 25:18) people are likened to a sword. In Revelation 1:16 Jesus is pictured as having a two-edged sword coming out of his mouth and later in that book he is explicitly called the Word of God (Rev 19:13). And this is not a passive sword hanging in the armory. It is a sword being wielded, piercing and dividing joints from bone marrow. It is a sword held to the exposed neck of the person who must give an account of himself, for that's what the Greek means by “laid bare.” The Word of God is not an inanimate object.

Jesus' words certainly were piercing and exposed what people really thought. In today's gospel he rightly discerns that the man before him, while good in other respects, puts his money before God. Perhaps the man's clothes made it obvious that he was rich. Jesus looks at him in love, Mark says, and tells him something Jesus never tells anyone else in the Bible: to sell all he has and give the proceeds to the poor and only then follow him. As I said a few weeks ago, anything can become an idol if we put it before God. When the rich man leaves, crestfallen, Jesus makes the clearest statement of the need for God's grace that he ever gave. In his day, the rich were thought to be blessed by God and the poor cursed. That's why when Jesus says a camel could go through the eye of a sewing needle easier than a rich man could enter God's kingdom, the disciples are shocked. That's why they ask, “Then who can be saved?” To which Jesus replies, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Rich or poor, we cannot save ourselves. We all need God's grace.

Jesus cut through the nonsense and secondary issues to get to the heart of the matter. He easily parried the verbal attacks made by his adversaries and critics. And, as with the rich man, Jesus was able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. He knew that the man's possessions, not God, had the final word in his decisions. And he does it in this instance without quoting the Bible. Jesus is the Word of God and his words are the Word of God.

But a sword is scary. Usually people tend to picture Jesus as just a big teddy bear. But why would anyone crucify someone as inoffensive as a teddy bear? Jesus was closer to Aslan in the Narnia chronicles, the lion who is the rightful king of Narnia, who gives his life to save a traitor and whose death reverses the spell of death. Aslan is described as not tame but good. People's first reaction to him is to be nervous and even a little frightened. C.S. Lewis knew what he was doing when he decided to retell the gospel in the manner of a fairy tale. And he did not soften the fact that Jesus is our judge and king as well as our savior and friend.

The author of Hebrews also shows both sides of Jesus. Besides the Word of God who stands in judgment of our sins, Jesus is also our great high priest, the one who puts away our sins. Now there are a lot of directions the author could have gone with this but he says this, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” There are 3 great truths in this verse.

First, Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. The Son of God, “who has passed through the heavens,” understands our problems. This means when we go to him in prayer we are not to see the process as us futilely recounting our little personal problems to a vast indifferent transcendent force. He can sympathize with our plight. In fact, the Greek word used is the one from which we get the word “sympathize.” It means “have compassion for” but also has overtones of “commiserate with.” Jesus can commiserate with us in our pain and suffering. He can be touched by our feelings. But how is that possible? How can God the Son know what our lives are like and how badly some of our experiences hurt?

Because of the second great truth in verse 15: he has been tested in every respect as we are. The Greek word here can also mean “tempted” and comes from a word that means “pressured” or even “pierced.” Think about the implications of that. Every test, every temptation, every stress that we have felt, Jesus has too. That means Jesus was under constant assault by the things that try us. He lived a very hard life. His birth was questionable because his mother was pregnant out of wedlock. His small town would never forget that. His parents were poor, which we know from the offering they made at the temple for his birth. He and his family fled violence and were refugees in Egypt until Herod the Great died. When they returned to Nazareth, he was the “new” kid, perhaps even having an odd accent from spending the years when he was learning to talk in a foreign land. He was the smart kid who was probably resented by the local rabbi for his questions and observations when being taught the Torah. His father figure, Joseph, probably died when he was a kid because he is never mentioned during Jesus' adult years, unlike his mother and siblings. Which meant at an early age he had to become the man of the house and support his mother, brothers and sisters. He was self-employed and worked a physically demanding job and probably dealt with difficult clients.

During his ministry, his brothers thought he was crazy and mocked him. He was so mobbed by people seeking healing that he rarely had time to eat or rest. He was continually harassed by other religious leaders, who were seeking a reason to kill him. His students were slow on the uptake. His best friend, Lazarus, died and his sisters Mary and Martha blamed Jesus for that. He was betrayed by a friend and denied before his enemies by another. He was unjustly arrested, tried in a kangaroo court, abused, hauled before 3 leaders who could have acquitted him but didn't because of hostility, indifference and political cowardice. A crowd of his countrymen screamed for his blood. He was whipped and beaten, had his head pierced with thorns, had a heavy beam of wood laid on his torn shoulders and tied to his arms, was frogmarched through the streets of the holy city, fell a number of times on the way, was so weak that his guards had to force a stranger to support him, was marched up a hill, was stripped, had his arms held down and spikes pounded through his wrists, was raised by those pinioned wrists to the upright of the cross and dropped into place, and then hung there while his enemies jeered and his mother cried along with only a few of his followers. He felt the presence of God withdraw from him. He suffered blood loss, dehydration, exhaustion, and trouble breathing until his heart gave out. Truly he was a man of sorrows.

There is nothing that we can bring to him that Jesus cannot empathize with because he has seen and felt it all. We can talk to him as a fellow sufferer and know that he has been there, too, and knows from firsthand experience what we are going through.

And yet the third truth is that he endured all that, without sinning, without succumbing to the natural tendency to lash out, to envy those better off, to become bitter, to hate, to give up on others, to withdraw, to despair, or to indulge in forbidden pleasures as consolation for mistreatment or as reward for being good so long. Which means that by being united to Christ, by allowing his Spirit to work with us and in us, we too can triumph over our troubles and disadvantages and self-destructive urges and habits. If Jesus was able to overcome all that, we can too—with his help.

And so, as the author of Hebrews encourages us, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” We need not fear the sword of the living Word of the Lord because he too has been pierced to his joints and had the sword laid on his bare neck and been judged and condemned, all for our sake. He knows every pain and sorrow we do and yet managed to rise above it. And so his throne is called grace and we can go boldly to him and ask for and receive mercy. He will give us the strength we need to meet our daily challenges.

The medium is the message. The medium by which God chose to send us his message of love is his Son in a human body, with a human life and human concerns. That alone tells us more about God than all the words ever written. When we look for the face of God we see it in Jesus, a face that has known pain and holds the promise of triumph and joy.

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