Lent Week 5: The Bible is Human

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for five to six weeks. This year we have been coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

Currently we are coming around the question:  What is the Bible for?  In order to guide our thinking on this question, we have been looking at insights from Pete Enns’ latest book “How the Bible Actually Works“.  Enns is a Bible scholar and writer/blogger/podcaster whose passion is to make the Bible relatable to everyday believers.  His unorthodox views on what the Bible is and what we ought to expect from it have generated no small amount of controversy over the years.

Last week we came around the idea that the Bible is a diverse book, like a conversation happening across the ages as the Hebrew people interact with their past and reinterpret it to speak into their struggles to come to grips with what God is up to in their present circumstances.  God was guiding this process behind the scenes, and this is what Christians mean when they talk about the Bible as “inspired”.

But it is important to understand that God did not simply speak His words from heaven.  Many evangelicals have a view of the inspiration of Scripture that would honestly be much more at home in Islam or Mormonism than in anything remotely resembling biblical Christianity.  The Bible is a human book, the product of centuries of people wrestling with what God was doing in their midst.  It evolved over the ages and did not reach its final form until after the Babylonian exile as priests and scribes edited it into something that would give hope to those returning from captivity as they struggled to put the pieces of their nation back together.

Enns zeroes in on Chronicles as an example of how this worked.  In our English bibles, 1-2 Chronicles comes right after 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings and represents another look at the same period of history with a slightly different emphasis.  But in the Hebrew bible, 1-2 Chronicles comes at the very end.

Chronicles is not a repeat of 1 Samuel through 2 Kings. It is a retelling of those books from a much later point in Jewish history. In fact, it is nothing less than an act of reimaging God.

To make a long story short, 1 Samuel through 2 Kings were probably written before and during the Babylonian exile, and the main question these books address is, “How did we get into this mess? What did we do to deserve exile?” The short answer is, “You committed apostasy by worshiping foreign gods, with your kings leading the way.” In other words, these books interpret events of history and pronounce a guilty verdict on Judah.

But 1 and 2 Chronicles were written centuries later, probably no earlier than about 400 BCE and more likely closer to 300 or even a bit later—so somewhere in the middle of the Persian period (which began in 538) and perhaps as late as the Greek period (which began with the conquest by the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 332). And these books answer a different question altogether, not “What did we do to deserve this?” but “After all this time, is God still with us?”

Once again, we revisit our theme: as times changed, the ancient Jews had to reprocess what it meant to be the chosen people—if indeed that label even meant anything anymore.

Enns points to the example of Manasseh.  Manasseh was one of the worst kings Judah ever had, and from the account in 1-2 Kings it was his sins and excesses that led to the Babylonian exile.  The damage done to the kingdom during his reign was so great that even the revival and reforms that occurred under Josiah a couple of generations later could not undo it.

But in Chronicles the story of Manasseh is reimagined.  Manasseh is led into exile and returns humbled, chastened, ending his days as a repentant, restored, and righteous ruler. These details were left out of the Kings account–because it was written earlier and to answer a different set of questions.

Why is this important?  Because the story of Manasseh is, in microcosm, the story of Israel being led into exile, crying out to God in repentance, and then returning home to pick up the pieces.

The author of Chronicles wished for the exiles to learn the wisdom of repentance and seeking God in the midst of their hard circumstances.  To this end he showed that even the most wicked sinner–Manasseh–was not incapable of repentance or beyond redemption and restoration.

That is to say, the retelling of the reign of Manasseh (and 1 and 2 Chronicles as a whole) is an act of wisdom—of reading the moment and reimagining what God is doing and, more important, what God will do in the (hopefully not too distant) future.

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Lent Week 4: The Bible is Ambiguous and Diverse

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for five to six weeks. This year we are coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

Currently we are coming around the question:  What is the Bible for?  In order to guide our thinking on this question, we are looking at insights from Pete Enns’ latest book “How the Bible Actually Works“.  Enns is a Bible scholar and writer/blogger/podcaster whose passion is to make the Bible relatable to everyday believers.  His unorthodox views on what the Bible is and what we ought to expect from it have generated no small amount of controversy over the years.

Last week we came around Enns’ big idea that the Bible is designed to lead us into wisdom.  It is not intended to be a rulebook or an owner’s manual or a field guide that gives us hard and fast answers, but is instead intended to guide us in developing wisdom for the unscripted journey of faith.  In other words:

Rather than providing us with information to be downloaded, the Bible holds out for us an invitation to join an ancient, well-traveled, and sacred quest to know God, the world we live in, and our place in it. Not abstractly, but intimately and experientially.

We also mentioned that Enns’ discussion of what the Bible is uses three key words seldom heard in any evangelical discussion of the Bible:  ancient, ambiguous, and diverse.  At this point Enns takes up the ambiguous nature of the Bible.  Even sections of the Bible that we are accustomed to thinking of as clear and unambiguous, like the book of Proverbs or the Law…well, it only takes a moment’s thought to realize that laws and instructions have to be interpreted and applied.  That is the task of wisdom.  Example:  When the Ten Commandments say “Honor your father and your mother”…well, how do we do that?  Turns out that the Bible’s clear and unambiguous instructions…aren’t quite so clear and unambiguous after all.

Next Enns turns to the diverse nature of the Bible.  This is a key to understanding the Bible’s teaching:

The Bible’s diversity is the key to uncovering the Bible’s true purpose for us.

…The diversity we see in the Bible reflects the inevitably changing circumstances of the biblical writers across the centuries as they grappled with their sacred yet ancient and ambiguous tradition.

…The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) exhibits this same characteristic of the sacred past being changed, adapted, rethought, and rewritten by people of faith, not because they disrespected the past, but because they respected it so much they had to tie it to their present.

…The Bible isn’t a book that reflects one point of view. It is a collection of books that records a conversation—even a debate—over time.

When I began to see that for myself, a lot of things fell into place about the Bible’s purpose and what it means to read it with the eyes of faith. When we accept the Bible as the moving, changing, adaptive organism it is, we will more readily accept our own sacred responsibility to engage the ancient biblical story with wisdom, to converse with the past rather than mimic it—which is to follow the very pattern laid out in the Bible itself.

The Bible is “timeless”, not because it contains propositional truths that apply to all people across all ages–what we would call “timeless truths”–but because of what Enns calls its “unwavering commitment to adaptation over time”.  In other words, the Bible was not written to us, it was written for us.  By the grace of God, we get to listen in on a conversation among different peoples across different ages as they struggled to come to grips with what God was doing in their midst and their place in His redemptive story.  Our task in reading, studying, and interpreting the Bible is to listen to what the biblical writers were saying in their own respective times and places and let it guide us in coming to grips with what God is doing in our own day and age, and our place in that story.

Lent Week 2: Higher Criticism and the Bible

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we will be coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

At this point it is important to note that no one just picks up the Bible and reads it.  Instead we come to the Bible with a certain set of assumptions and expectations conditioned by our culture and our faith communities.  Indeed, our very conception of what the Bible is and what it is supposed to do for us is shaped by centuries of interpretive tradition, including several centuries of what might be called a “critical” approach to the Bible.  Inevitably we come to higher criticism, which came about in the Enlightenment yet was rooted in Luther and Calvin and their “sola scriptura” emphasis on the Scriptures.  The mere mention of “higher criticism” gives most evangelicals a good hard case of the heebie-jeebies because it originated from a place of skepticism toward the authority and claims of Scripture.  Yet the critical methods which arose from higher criticism are quite useful when seeking to engage and understand Scripture.  These are:

  • Textual criticism – Gathering the ancient manuscripts in Hebrew, Greek and the other ancient languages, and comparing them side-by-side to determine the most accurate form of the text we can reconstruct.
  • Form criticism – Seeking to understand the literary form or genre of a given text and how understanding that form/genre can guide our understanding of the text in question.
  • Source criticism – Seeking to understand how/if the biblical authors used source materials and integrated those materials into the text.
  • Redaction criticism – Seeking to understand why a biblical author/editor arranged the material the way they did, and what point they wished to make by doing so.
  • Rhetorical criticism – Seeking to understand how the biblical authors used rhetorical devices to get their audience’s attention and/or persuade them.
  • Narrative/literary criticism – Analyzes stories and their elements in order to understand the impact the biblical authors wished for them to have with their readers.

Again, no one just picks up the Bible and reads it.  Engaging with Scripture is a matter of interpretation.  The religious traditions that appeal to the Bible all understand this, to some extent or another.

To put all of this another way, the biblical authors had other priorities than to give us 21st century moderns the actual factuals on how things went down.  They were people who lived in ancient communities that struggled to come to grips with what God was doing in their midst.  By the grace of God, we have the fruits of their struggles and we get to listen in on the conversations they had in the course of their struggles and let it guide us in our own struggles to understand what God is doing today in our own midst.

Lent Week 1: How We Got Our Bible

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we will be coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

In any discussion of these questions, it is best to start by considering how we got our Bible.

When one hears evangelicals talk about the Bible, one gets the impression that it basically just dropped from heaven in its present form, much like the Koran or the Book of Mormon.  The truth is, as they say, a bit more complicated.  The key point to keep in mind is that the Bible in itself is not the basis of our faith, but instead it points to a person and an event which are the basis of our faith.

It all started when Jesus rose from the dead.  People who knew Jesus and saw the Resurrection circulated their stories within the early church.  Eventually they came to the realization that the people who saw these things firsthand were starting to die off, and that Jesus (they believed he was coming back any day) was probably going to be a couple minutes.  So they sat these people down and had them write out their stories.  These stories were collected, along with letters written by key church leaders to different church communities, and after a process of winnowing that took a couple of centuries, became what we know today as the New Testament.

At the same time, Christians began to take a keen interest in the Jewish Scriptures (what we know today as the Old Testament).  They were searching for Jesus, and they found him everywhere.  Thus the Jewish Scriptures were taken and incorporated lock, stock, and barrel into our Christian Bible, becoming what we know as the Old Testament.

There was a significant amount of evolution over the first couple of centuries of church history as it went from the Jewish Scriptures plus other writings to the Bible we currently have today.  There were animated discussions and debates about which belonged and which did not.  It was not until the Council of Nicea in 325 AD that the present New Testament canon was codified.

When we see the origins of the Bible in this light, it leads us away from seeing it as a holy book which magically dropped from heaven in its present form, to something more akin to the book we actually have.  We recognize the Bible as divinely inspired, yet at the same time it is a very human book and its humanness shows through all over the place.  We will take a more in-depth look at this in weeks to come.

Ash Wednesday: What Is the Bible?

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season.

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this journey. Many churches have Ash Wednesday services where you receive ashes on your forehead. Ashes symbolize repentance from sin; to go around in sackcloth and ashes was a classic Old Testament expression of grief and repentance. Ashes also symbolize mortality; we are but dust and unto dust we shall return. We die to ourselves and all that we are in this world in order that we may rise to life in Christ.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks.  This year we will be coming around two questions:  What is the Bible?  And what is the Bible for?  The big idea that we will be fleshing out over the coming weeks is that the Bible is not the book we want or expect, but it is the book we need.  It does not spoonfeed us easy answers to every question we could think to ask, but instead gives us the tools to develop wisdom as we engage it and wrestle with it.

Good Friday: The Pilate Chronicles

This year during the Lenten season we have been looking at events and conversations in the life of Jesus on his way to the cross. The cross was the ultimate point of conflict between the kingdoms of this world and the new kingdom which Jesus had come to inaugurate. The kingdoms of this world, with their top-down, violence-based, power-driven, what’s-in-it-for-me ways of doing things, and the kingdom of God with its upside-down, others-first, get-to-the-back-of-the-line-if-you-want-to-lead way of doing things.

Previously we saw Jesus and his disciples entering Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  The whole city was abuzz, not only because of the celebration of Passover but also because of the expectation that things would be different this year and that at some point Jesus would declare himself Messiah.  The religious leaders, who represented the kingdoms of this world par excellence, were watching Jesus.  By this point they had given up on trying to trip Jesus up in his speech and thereby turn the crowd against him.  At one point one of them blurted out in a meeting, “See, this is getting us nowhere!!!!!  Look how the whole world has gone after him!!!!!”  Their only hope was to somehow get Jesus separated from the crowd and then move in and arrest him and have him executed.

Jesus and his disciples found a secure, out-of-the-way place to celebrate Passover.  So much went on that night.  Jesus declared to his disciples that he had come to establish a new covenant, one that would fulfill the covenant with Abraham and replace the covenant with Moses.  He gave them the terms and conditions of this covenant; all covenants have them.  There weren’t 600-plus, there weren’t ten or even two.  There was only one:  “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  The evening started with Jesus saying that from then on when they celebrated Passover they would not remember Moses and the deliverance from Egypt but instead they would remember him.  The bread was his body and the wine was his blood.  The disciples had no categories for any of this.

As the night wore on it became evident that something was up, but Jesus wasn’t.  He seemed…worried.  And where was Judas?  Shouldn’t he have been back by now?  After the supper Jesus gets up and says let’s leave.  They went to Gethsemane, an urban garden in the middle of the city where they had been many times.  They went at night so they wouldn’t be recognized or disturbed.  They went into the garden and Jesus instructed the disciples to wait and pray.  Then he went further in.  There he prayed that agonizing prayer:  Father, you and I both know that if it were up to me I would choose another way, but not my will but yours be done.  He went back to check on the disciples and they are sound asleep.  Could you not even stay awake and pray with me for an hour?  he asked.

Then Judas returned.  But he wasn’t alone.  Judas knew better than the disciples where this Jesus thing was going, and he didn’t want any part of it.  So he decided to “unfollow” Jesus, but he wanted a little something at least for his trouble.  So he went to the chief priests and for a price arranged to hand Jesus over at an opportune time.  And now here he was, with a small army of temple henchmen.  And to the shock and dismay of everyone present, Jesus surrendered to them.  The disciples deserted and fled.

The story continues.  Jesus is brought to the high priest’s house.  All the chief priests, elders, and teachers of the law are there, crammed into that building.  They had never before been able to get this close to Jesus, and this was their chance.  They were curious, and emboldened.  Many testified falsely against Jesus but their statements didn’t line up.  They would ask Jesus a direct question but he wouldn’t answer.

Finally the high priest has had enough.  He stands up and asks the one question that goes right to the heart of the matter.  Answer this one incorrectly and it’s all the evidence they need to crucify Jesus.  He asks:  Are you the Messiah?  Jesus answered:  I am.  The chief priests and high priest tore their robes.  In ancient times, this was a gesture of complete and utter anguish, dismay, and lament.  There it is, they said.  You have heard the blasphemy with your own ears.  We don’t need any more of this.  He is deserving of death.  The temple guards stepped in, bound him, blindfolded him and beat him.  The priests and leaders spent the rest of the night discussing next steps and where to go from there.  In all likelihood Jesus go no sleep that night.

Very early in the morning they came up with a plan.  They were going to take Jesus to Pilate.  Why?  Because they had determined their sentence but they needed Rome to carry it out.  If all went properly they could get it done early in the day, give the city time to settle down and the people time to give up on their messianic hopes and dreams, and go on and celebrate Passover with everything exactly as it was before.  They hoped to have it all done by sundown, at which time the Passover would start.

Now Pilate had been in place for about seven years.  He ruled over Judea and Samaria.  If you know anything about Pilate you know that he hated the Jews and hated Jerusalem.  He had a palace down by the coast, and that was where he spent most of his time.  He only came to Jerusalem during festivals, to keep the peace.  He got his kicks out of antagonizing the Jewish leaders and reminding them that they were subjects of Rome.  He reveled in their groveling whenever they had anything to ask of him.

So it was early morning and the Jewish leaders were out on Pilate’s doorstep with Jesus in tow.  Now they did not want to go into Pilate’s palace, and thereby defile themselves ceremonially by being under the same roof as a Gentile on the day they were supposed to preside over the Passover celebration.  They had gone through an elaborate series of ceremonial washings to prepare themselves to celebrate the Passover, and if they passed over the threshold of a Gentile’s residence they would become unclean and have to start all over from scratch with the ceremonial washings, and there just wasn’t time for all that.  Note the hypocrisy here:  They are about to commit murder by insisting that an innocent man be put to death, but they haven’t entered a Gentile’s house so it’s all good.

So Pilate goes out to meet them because he has no other choice.  What is this man doing here?  he asks.  They have a prepared statement:  Pilate, if he were not a criminal we would not have handed him over to you.  Translation:  Don’t get bogged down in the details here.  We need a favor.  We wouldn’t be here–on the eve of Passover no less–if this wasn’t important.

Pilate lives for this.  He wants to hear the Jewish leaders acknowledge that Rome is sovereign over their rebel state.  So he eggs them on:  Go ahead.  Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.  Oh wait…you don’t have the power to impose your own laws.  What a pity.

But Pilate isn’t done.  He rubs the Jewish leaders’ noses in it even more by going back inside, knowing they wouldn’t follow–they’re too good for that.  He takes Jesus inside with him.

Back outside the Jewish leaders are sweating bullets.  Jesus, one-on-one with Pilate…no telling how that will end up.  He has already swayed the nation, what’s to stop him from swaying Pilate?  This was the flaw in their plan:  They wouldn’t go inside with Pilate–they were too good for that–but Jesus would.  He didn’t mind going under the same roof as a Gentile.  That was part of the problem, in fact:  Jesus was always hanging out with the wrong sorts of people.

Pilate goes right to the heart of the matter.  Are you the king of the Jews?  he asks.  He had heard the rumors.  He had heard about the parade.  He had heard the crowds and the commotion.  He had heard the reports from his soldiers that the city was on the verge of a riot.  All because that rabbi from Galilee was coming to Jerusalem for Passover.  This is Pilate’s big chance to ask his question.

Jesus responds:  Is that your idea?  Or did others talk to you about me?  Yes I am a king, but my kingdom is not of this world, not like the kingdoms of this world.  If it were, my subjects would be in arms right this very moment, trying to get me out of here.  You know how this plays out because you’ve seen it a million times before:  If my kingdom were of this world I would out-Rome Rome.  I would play by your rules.  I would use force, because that’s the way of things.  But my kingdom is not like yours, or anything else in this world.  Ah, says Pilate, so you are a king?  At least we’ve got that straight.

So Pilate goes back out:  I find no basis for a charge against this man.  But they insist:  He stirs up the people and causes trouble all over the city.  One of them blurted out:  He started in Galilee and now here he is.  At which point all the others are groaning because they had agreed in advance not to bring up Galilee.  Ah, says Pilate.  So he is a Galilean?  Not my problem.  You’re wasting your time.  Take him to Herod.

Now this Herod was the son of Herod the Great, the Herod who thirty years earlier had murdered all the kids two years old and younger in the area because he didn’t want any of them growing up to become king and take his throne.  When Herod died his kingdom fell to his sons, and this son got Galilee.  Now this Herod happened to be in Jerusalem, up for the Passover.  Lucky break there.

So they take him to Herod, and Herod is thrilled.  Like so many others he had heard the rumors about Jesus but had never been able to get close.  So he brings Jesus in and asks him questions but Jesus won’t answer.  He asks Jesus to do some tricks but he won’t.  Herod is fed up, so he sends Jesus back to Pilate.

Pilate says:  You said he is inciting the people to riot.  I don’t see any riot, and neither do you.  I find no basis for a charge against him.  Neither does Herod, because he sent him back here.  But just to appease you, just to get you off my front lawn so we can celebrate Passover, I will punish him and then release him.

True to his word, Pilate had Jesus flogged.  They tied him up with his hands stretched overhead as far as they would go.  Two Roman soldiers took turns, using a special kind of whip with leather cords and fragments of bone and other shrapnel embedded into the ends.  They would count.  Even the Romans had rules about flogging.  It was just that gruesome.  The whip would rip layer after layer of skin from the victim’s back and from his stomach, because the cords would wrap around.  People died from flogging.  People died from the resulting infections.

Next the soldiers placed a crown of thorns on his head, and a purple robe on his back–his beaten, raw, bloody back.  Again and again they said “Hail king of the Jews!!!!!” and slapped him in the face, the same face that had already been bruised by the temple thugs the night before.

Pilate brought Jesus out and said “Look!!!!!”, in hopes that the crowd outside would have pity upon seeing him in that state.  Surely seeing him in this state–incapable of causing trouble and likely to die in short order anyway–would satisfy them and get them off his lawn so they could all get on with Passover and be done with it so he could get back to the coast which was where he really wanted to be.

Once more Pilate reiterates that he finds no basis for a charge against him.  Even when he was being beaten to death Jesus did not break, did not cry out and admit to things that he and everyone else knew weren’t true just to get the beating to stop.  Now can we please just go on?

This was going nowhere, so the chief priests implemented Phase 2 of their plan.  We have a law, they exclaimed, and according to that law he must die because (we didn’t tell you this earlier) he claimed to be the son of God.  Now Pilate was even more afraid than before.  Why?  Because this crossed over into Roman territory.  This intersected with Roman myth and legend, and was threatening to the empire.  So Pilate questions Jesus further, but this time he doesn’t answer.  Now don’t miss this:  Pilate was a first century Roman soldier who had seen it all.  This was the point at which men begged, not for their lives but for a quick death.  And yet Jesus was not speaking.  Pilate had seen it all, but he had never seen this.  He was incredulous.  Do you not realize that I have the power to free you or crucify you?  he asks.  You would have no power over me, responds Jesus, if it were not given to you.

From then on Pilate tried everything he could to set Jesus free.  But the Jewish leaders were having none of it.  They went into Phase 3 of their plan:  If you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar.  Anyone who claims to be a king is opposed to Caesar.  Checkmate.

Pilate was outmaneuvered.  He knew that Tiberias, the reigning Caesar of the time, had spies all over the place.  He brought Jesus out and said:  Here is your king!  Shall I crucify your king?  At which point someone in the crowd shouted something which at any other time and in any other context would have been considered blasphemous:  We have no king but Caesar!!!!!

So Pilate hands Jesus over.  They take him to Golgotha.  They offer him wine mixed with myrrh, a small act of mercy, but he refuses.  Now up until this point in all four Gospel narratives the story was being told in excruciating detail, but at this point all four Gospel writers go minimalist.  Because what happened next required no explanation.  Why?  Because once you’ve seen a crucifixion in real life you can’t unsee it.

The Greeks invented crucifixion; the Romans perfected it.  It could take hours or it could take days, depending on how healthy the victim was and how well the Romans did their job.  The goal here was not a quick death but a prolonged death.  Crucifixion was so gruesome that it was banned by Church leaders from depiction in art until the fourth century, when Constantine took over as emperor and banned crucifixion as a form of punishment in Rome.  C. S. Lewis wrote that the crucifix did not become a motif in Christian art until the generations that had seen real crucifixions had passed out of existence.

There was nothing glamorous or sentimental about a crucifixion.  There was no way to clean it up or sanitize it.  Once you’ve seen it in real life, you can’t unsee it.  Many have had this form of death imposed upon them, but only one chose it voluntarily.

Here is what makes all of this remarkable:  When Jesus died, there were no believers and no followers.  Sympathizers?  Yes.  Followers?  No.  Why?  Because Jesus claimed too much about himself.  He claimed to be the resurrection and the life, but you can’t crucify the resurrection and the life.  He claimed to be the Son of Man and was…arrested by Romans?????  He gave every indication of being the Messiah that the Jewish people had been waiting for for ages and was…killed by a foreign power?????  If Jesus was dead and crucified then he was most emphatically not who he had claimed to be.  There was no dream to keep alive, no movement to keep moving.  It was over.

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, whom we met a few weeks earlier, went to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body.  No doubt they risked their lives in doing so.  They probably exchanged a significant amount of money with Pilate in the process.  It was illegal for crucifixion victims to be buried; their bodies were left on the trash heap to be devoured by wolves and dogs and other scavengers.  Jesus was clearly not who they had hoped, yet he deserved better than that.  Rome could always be convinced to look the other way if the price was right.  So off they went, with myrrh and aloe and other spices, about seventy five pounds worth.  Sabbath was coming, they had to hurry.  They took the body and wrapped it in strips of cloth.  They wrapped it in such a way that if by some chance he was still alive he would surely have suffocated.  Why?  Because he was dead and they expected him to stay dead.  When they were done they made their way home and celebrated the Passover, confused and dismayed and with no answers to well over a million questions.

The Jewish leaders went back to Pilate one more time.  Somehow they found out that Jesus had been buried, and they knew where.  That was not part of the plan.  So they needed one more favor from Pilate.  Go, said Pilate.  Take a guard and make that tomb as secure as you know how.  So they put a seal on it and posted a guard.

And everyone slept well.

Caiaphas slept well.  Once again he had outmaneuvered Pilate.  Once again he had leveraged his power to get Rome to do his bidding.

Pilate slept well.  Soon Passover would be behind him.  Soon he would be able to go back home to the coast and enjoy his life and his family.

Up north somewhere, Saul of Tarsus was preparing another message on the Passover and its meaning.  And over across the ocean somewhere, Tiberius was going on with his life, without even the remotest clue that any of this was happening.

And all was as it always was.  Because everyone was expecting Jesus to do exactly what dead people always do:  Stay dead.

These individuals were each only a few hours away from securing their respective places in history.  But not at all in the way they had intended or suspected.

Palm Sunday: A New Command

“A new command I give you:  Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

–John 13:34-35

This year during the Lenten season we have been looking at events and conversations in the life of Jesus on his way to the cross. The cross was the ultimate point of conflict between the kingdoms of this world and the new kingdom which Jesus had come to inaugurate. The kingdoms of this world, with their top-down, violence-based, power-driven, what’s-in-it-for-me ways of doing things, and the kingdom of God with its upside-down, others-first, get-to-the-back-of-the-line-if-you-want-to-lead way of doing things.

But before we get to the cross there are a couple of loose ends to tie up.  Last week we saw Jesus celebrating the Passover with his disciples, and it got weird.  First Jesus embarrassed the hell out of them by getting down and washing their feet.  Then they had the actual meal.  They knew the Passover script.  They knew it was all about God delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt but the whole time Jesus kept changing everything around and going on as if it was all about him.  (Maybe this whole Messiah thing was getting to his head?)  Then Judas left and God knows where he got off to and what he was doing and would he be coming back.

Then Jesus started going on about a new covenant, one that would replace the covenant God had with Israel that had been in force ever since Moses and Sinai.  This new covenant would be for all people on the face of the earth, not just for Israel, and it was a covenant where God took on all the obligation and all people would receive the benefit.  There was talk about flesh being given and blood being spilt and what was that all about?  Jesus’ flesh could only be given and his blood could only be spilt once and if he was going to become Messiah what was that all about?

But as with any covenant there is always fine print.  That is the final loose end which remains to be tied up.

With this covenant there is a command.  Not a new command to be added to the other 633 or however many there were.  This is a new command that replaces all the others.

The disciples should have seen this coming.  Jesus had been dropping breadcrumbs along the way over the course of the past year, if they had been paying attention.  Over the course of the past week it had come to a head.  The Pharisees were scheming to trip Jesus up so that the crowd would turn on him, he would lose the crowd, and they would have their chance to get to him and enact their nefarious plans.  Toward this end, they teamed up with the Sadducees.  Now the Pharisees were the populist party and it was a straight, short line from the Pharisees to the Zealots.  (Think:  Trump-supporting Republicans.)  The Sadducees were a rich, well-heeled elite (think:  Northeastern liberals) who believed that there was no resurrection or afterlife and that we all lived for God and then we died and that was that.

At any rate, these two factions teamed up in hopes of delivering a one-two punch during Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem.  They probably flipped a coin to decide who would go first for all we know.  The Pharisees came out first.  They sent their interns down (none of the actual Pharisees would go because they would be too easily recognized and then the whole gig would be up) to pose as honest questioners.  They started by buttering Jesus up, then asked him a question about paying taxes to Caesar.  This was intended to be a no-win question that would split the crowd along partisan lines.  But Jesus shut them down with a coin trick.

Next up were the Sadducees.  Recall that they believed that there is no resurrection and no afterlife.  The Pharisees and many of the rank-and-file Jews believed the exact opposite.  The Sadducees sent their interns, who posed a riddle intended to show the whole ridiculousness of believing in all that afterlife/resurrection nonsense.  But Jesus shut them down by going all the way back to Abraham and making an argument based on the tense of a verb.

Now it was the Pharisees’ turn.  They sent one of the teachers of the Law (or likely one of their interns) to ask Jesus “What is the greatest commandment?”  This, for the Old Testament Jews, was basic Sunday school stuff.  Everybody knew the Sunday school answer:  “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”  Of course this person had a question behind the question, one intended to trip Jesus up.  But we will never know what it was.  Jesus gave the Sunday school answer, but before his questioner could say anything he continued:  “The second is this:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no commandment greater than these.”

That had never been done before.  The “Love the Lord your God” part came from Leviticus, and the “Love your neighbor as yourself” part came from Deuteronomy.  Never before had anyone taken these verses from two completely different books and linked them up like this.  Yet here was Jesus doing exactly that.  With this one stroke Jesus took all 633 or however many commands of the Jewish law and reduced them down to two.

But on this night Jesus would go one better.  He would take the two and reduce them down to one:  Love one another–not as you love yourself–but as I have loved you.

And herein lies the beauty of it:  With 633 or however many commands there were, there was a lot of room to find loopholes.  The more commands there are, the more space for loopholes there is.  The Pharisees and teachers of the Jewish law who were in power then specialized in finding loopholes.  That was their raison d’etre.  But with only one command–and a simple one at that–there is no room whatsoever for loopholes.

And herein lies the problem with claiming to just believe the Bible or just follow the Bible.  If you look to the Bible, you can find a loophole for anything.  You can find a verse or even multiple verses to justify pretty much anything you wish to justify.  But when there is only one command, it becomes that much harder to find loopholes.  And when the command is “Love one another as I [Jesus] have loved you”,  …well, there are some things you just can’t justify no matter how hard you try.

So now Jesus and his disciples leave to go out to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives.  They knew the spot well.  They went to pray.  Jesus went off to pray by himself.  He came back to find the disciples sound asleep.  Then the Pharisees and Judas showed up with torches.  After a bit of a scuffle, they led Jesus away.  The disciples took to their heels.

Jesus was taken to the high priest’s house for a hastily convened trial.  Many witnesses spoke up and said many different things, but the witnesses who were closest to Jesus and knew the truth because they had been with him the whole time were nowhere to be seen because they were all in hiding.

Eventually word trickled back to the disciples that Jesus had gone to Pilate.  That could only mean one thing.  For any other punishment the Jewish religious elites wished to impose, they didn’t need Pilate.  But if they wished to put someone to death, Pilate would have to give the OK.  And if the Pharisees were going to do that to Jesus, they as his closest followers were surely next.

That is as good a place as any to leave it.