An Ever-Expanding Miracle

And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God" (Mark 1:23-24).

Consider the scene in the moments before the man possessed by the unclean spirit bursts into the synagogue. A crowd listens, transfixed, as Jesus teaches with a new and stirring authority. His teaching is not altogether new, yet it holds unparalleled sway.

Some listeners receive it with open hands, turning it over, astonished at its weight. Others, sensing a threat, transpose the words into a direct challenge to their place in the pecking order.

And it is here that the unclean spirit first enters, not in an animated rush or raucous disruption, but in a faint suggestion. Before the possessed man ever flings open the synagogue doors, the unclean spirit sneaks and skulks, flitting around in half-formulated thoughts

Upon entering the synagogue, the man possessed by the unclean spirit asks the question that has already entered the minds of some. "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?" he asks breathlessly. In an attempt to seize control of the moment with the force that only a mob can generate, the possessed man asks a second question on behalf of the crowd, framing himself as a victim alongside them: "Have you come to destroy us?"

As the question falls on the ears of those gathered, it mutates. The unclean spirit of distrust resides in each new form the question takes:

Have you come to destroy our status quo?
Have you come to destroy our established way of thinking?
Have you come to destroy what's familiar to us?

With the benefit of hindsight, readers of Mark's gospel can see the ultimate irony at work in this question, which is that it is the gathered crowd who will eventually destroy Jesus, and not the other way around. Mark makes this irony explicit later in the narrative when, following Jesus's miraculous healing of a man with a withered hand, "The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him" (Mark 3:6).

But the unclean spirit's accusatory question has a long history. It existed before the possessed man's hasty entrance, before the scribes' sneaking suspicion, before the law's inscription.

The unclean spirit of distrust reared its ugly head as the Israelites fled Pharaoh, whose pursuit prompted the people to ask Moses, their authoritative leader, "Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?" (Exodus 14:11)

Like the drug-resistant strain of some disease, the unclean spirit appeared again when Moses, God's mouthpiece, invited the Israelites to enter the Promised Land. The episode is recounted in Deuteronomy, where God's invitation to the people is met with a murmur, "Because the Lord hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us" (Deuteronomy 1:27).

The unclean spirit of distrust has a knack for surfacing at the moment of deliverance from bondage and wilderness wandering, so it is no surprise to see the same spirit here in the synagogue, holding a man captive, levying familiar accusations, and recruiting murmurers to join in asking the age-old question, "Have you come to destroy us?"

With these instances in mind, the unclean spirit's entrance onto the scene takes on a significance that transcends a mere interruption in the synagogue. In Mark's account, this episode is more than just an opportunity to demonstrate Jesus's authority over the scribes, or even over unclean spirits (although it does both of those things). 

Whatever else this episode might be, it is Jesus's definitive answer to the question asked in times past by God's people, and now by the unclean spirit. The question, "Have you come to destroy us" and its derivatives have always been rhetorical, asked for the purpose of making a not-so-subtle point about the suffering and victimhood of the asker. 

Jesus' expulsion of the demon is his definitive, decisive answer.  Has he come to destroy us? No, he has come to cast away the unclean spirit of distrust. The man previously in bondage can stay to experience freedom. The people fleeing in fear can leave aside their anxiety. Those who wander in the wilderness of complacency can wake up to the dawn of a new day.

In this act, Jesus is not only delivering the man from the unclean spirit, but also showing God's people in all times and places that he is the way out of bondage and into the Promised Land. At the beginning of this synagogue episode in Mark, the people are rightly astonished by the Jesus's authoritative teaching. After he casts out the unclean spirit, however, they are astonished at his authoritative action.

This early miracle from Mark's narrative is wider in scope than we might have imagined. It contains the grain of the good news of the kingdom that Jesus brings in teaching and in action. As it does so, Jesus's miracle both reaches backward and expands forever forward into the story of God's people to win their deliverance from the clutches of every kind of bondage.

A Word from Elsewhere

The season of Advent signals the beginning of the church year. We begin not with fanfare or flourish, but with silence and longing. In the moments before the dawn of Christmas, the darkness hangs thick like a curtain, obstructing our view of how, or even whether, God acts. 

Precisely when we do not see him, he announces his presence with a word from elsewhere. At Christmas, we not only hear this word, but somehow also touch, taste, and swallow it as is offered to us. Awakened and sustained by this word, we are also made aware that it has been given us to speak. 

Theologian N.T. Wright likens the unfolding narrative of redemptive history begun in scripture and taken up by the church to a Shakespeare play with a missing fifth act. Wright sets up the analogy this way:

"Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost.  The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged.  Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own.  Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves." (The New Testament and the People of God, 140, emphasis in original).

This analogy beckons us to consider what our role might be in the unfolding drama. It infuses our seasons of waiting, once full of despair or boredom, with a sense of anticipation: Where is the story headed? When is our cue? What will we say and do when our moment comes? What words should we rehearse in the meantime?

I like to imagine how gospel texts from the third week of Advent might provide clues about how others have answered these questions:

We wait in the wings as Mary takes the stage with a song. The lights come up. Her lips move. A familiar tune.

The sound originates from somewhere behind or beyond the stage. This is Hannah's song!

The melody swells, pregnant with new meaning sung as a duet. Timeliness and timelessness harmonize. Transfixing.

With the song’s final note echoing, in storms John the Baptist, shoving us aside absent-mindedly as he takes the stage followed by an agitated crowd. Is this entrance or interruption?

A voice comes from the crowd, barely discernible above the clamor: “Who are you?” it asks. John turns on his heel to address the audience. The spotlight settles on him. This must be his soliloquy.

A pause. The silence lengthens. Has he forgotten his lines?

John is frozen. Surely not with fright. But what, then? Concentration? 

We hear a whisper beside us in the darkness. “I am the voice of one,” the voice rasps.

Onstage, John opens his mouth. He’s as likely to breathe fire as to respond to the question.

Again, we hear the eager voice of the figure beside us. “I am the voice of one,” the figure repeats, all but tumbling onto the stage.

John leans forward, as if bracing himself against a stiff wind, which carries the words from offstage.

“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” John says.

Relieved, we await our cue. 

 

Leaving the Tent

“The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”

As opening lines go, this one is among my favorites. It’s memorable and slightly unsettling, like George Orwell’s “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” with the charming, folksy quality of the opening line in Jon Cohen’s The Man in the Window, which begins, “Atlas Malone saw the angel again, this time down by the horse chestnut tree.”

Yahweh’s visit to Abraham occurs right on the heels of the establishment of the covenant of circumcision. Yahweh summons Abraham from his home and sets him and his promised offspring apart from all the other nations of the earth.

In light of Abraham's chosenness and special status, Yahweh’s visit in the guise of the three strangers could be a test: Will Abraham welcome the strangers, or will he send them on their way? Will he use the recently established covenant as a trump card, or as an invitation to those outside to receive blessing?

If this is indeed a test, Abraham passes with flying colors. Twice Abraham runs, first to greet the strangers, then to retrieve a calf and have a meal prepared. Considering Abraham’s age, along with the great lengths to which he goes to provide hospitality to the visitors in the sweltering heat, one might conclude that Abraham has an instinctual bent toward welcoming strangers.

Perhaps Abraham’s motivation to leave the tent to welcome the visitors comes from his own experience as a stranger. Here he is, approaching the seated visitors, the call of Yahweh echoing in his ear as he strains under the weight of the water basin, eyes scanning from stranger to stranger.
Go from your country. Go from your kindred. Go from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

Seen from this perspective, the test is not only whether Abraham, having been set apart, will welcome others, but also whether he will allow his own experience of being a stranger to shape his response to these visitors.

As a stranger himself, Abraham is well equipped to welcome the one who needs welcoming. Knowing the experience of being the one being welcomed, with all of its attendant vulnerability, sharpens his eye to see those in need of being welcomed.

The third-century Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria hints at this idea with his interpretation of the passage:

 “‘Under the tree of Mamre,’ the text says. Mamre in our language is translated ‘vision’ or ‘sharpness of sight.’ Do you see what kind of place it is where the Lord can have a meal? Abraham's vision and sharpness of sight pleased the Lord. For he was pure in heart so that he could see God. In such a place, therefore, and in such a heart the Lord can have a meal” (Homilies on Genesis 4.3).

What’s more, the test involves not just one, but three strangers. Many in the Christian tradition have seized upon this detail to suggest that the three travelers represent the three persons of the Trinity.

Take, for example, fifteenth century Russian painter Andrei Rublev. An icon he created portrays the scene in such a way that it is known interchangeably as “The Trinity” and “The Hospitality of Abraham.” The icon depicts the strangers as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, allowing the icon's viewer to behold the scene from the perspective of the humble host, standing at attention, perhaps even beckoned to abandon pretense and join in on the feast.

Long before the passage presented Christian interpreters with a conundrum about how to conceive of the identity of the three strangers, the visiting trio described therein presented Abraham with a logistical challenge. How could he, an elderly man who was likely beginning to tire, effectively welcome them by himself? Alone, Abraham may have been able to provide for a single guest, but three? Of all the compelling arguments that it is the triune God who visits Abraham, perhaps the most overlooked is the fact that they overwhelm Abraham’s ability to receive them on his own, confounding as their presence always is.

Abraham must recruit his wife, Sarah, along with an unnamed servant, to help prepare the meal, and so one invitation leads to another. Author Jean Vanier comments on the necessity of community for increasing the scope and depth of hospitality:

“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn't as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.”

Abraham’s decision to leave the tent is informative for contemporary Christian readers not only because of what he does in welcoming the strangers, but also for why and how he does it. Abraham leaves the tent not out of a sense of obligation to yet-unuttered command to love the stranger, and we’re given no indication that Abraham knows of the visitors’ divine identity. Nor does he leave the tent because it’s particularly convenient for him.

Instead, this one who had left home and family to pursue a promise offers a preemptive welcome to fellow travelers, enlisting others to join the welcoming committee. Among the first and most mysterious instances of foreshadowing of Trinity and the broken and shared bread of the Eucharist, this scene offers a corrective to self-reliance in the form of a reciprocal summons to the table.

But what does any attempt to put language to the mystery of this story do that isn’t already accomplished by a silent moment of meditation upon Rublev’s icon? After all theological parsing and piecing-together, there remains an opening line that enflames the imagination, the stranger outside the tent, awaiting our response.

 

Receiving Jesus

On the first Easter Sunday, two disciples of Jesus are walking on the road to Emmaus. We don’t know much about these traveling companions, except that one is named Cleopas, and he is discussing the events that had taken place in Jerusalem in the preceding days that led to the public execution of their teacher.

We might imagine, based on the fact that they are disciples traveling as a pair, that they were part of the 72 that Jesus sent out two-by-two to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God.

Among the instructions that Jesus gave to this group of 72 were the dual charges to eat whatever was set before them and to remain in the house of those who welcomed them in (Luke 10:7-8).  Aware of the vulnerable posture that his followers would assume should they heed these directives, Jesus tells them that he is sending them out as lambs among wolves.

If the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were indeed among those whom Jesus had sent out, they were accustomed to being completely beholden to the kindness of strangers. Whether these strangers extended hospitality or shut them out, the disciples were forced to trust people whom they had never met for their daily bread.

These two disciples know the harshness of needs unmet and have learned firsthand the value of hospitality. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising, then, that when a stranger joins Cleopas and his companion on the road, they invite him to stay with them.

The surprising thing is what happens next. The stranger, now a guest, takes on the role of host, breaking the bread and handing it to the two disciples. He doesn’t have to say anything, but as he hands them the bread, their eyes are opened to see who the stranger has been all along.

Perhaps the companions, in a moment, are taken back to the hillside where Jesus had fed multitudes.

Or perhaps they see in the breaking of the bread a reenactment of the Passover meal, their memories set free to hear and imagine anew the words of the one whom they had risked everything to trust, “Eat what is set before you.”

With their memories newly attuned in light of the miracle of resurrection, Cleopas and his companion undoubtedly reconsidered what it meant, and would continue to mean, to receive him.

Here is the resurrected Jesus, offering himself in the broken bread to those whose high hopes had fallen flat.

Here he is, torn apart for the sake of those he had sent out as lambs among wolves.

Here he is, taken in by road-weary travelers as sustenance for the journey that they had considered abandoning.

Here he is, having vanished from sight, yet animating those he had joined on the road on the evening of the first Easter, and centuries hence, to go and bear witness to his presence.

 

Salt and light

You are the salt of the earth . . . 
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

Following on the heels of the Beatitudes, Jesus offers instruction to his gathered followers about how they should live. 

He begins addressing them with the word, "You." If one were to read these verses apart from their immediate context in Matthew's gospel, it would be possible to read Jesus' words as if they were addressed to the reader him or herself, alone and isolated. After all, in English the singular "you" is indistinguishable from the plural "you"that is, unless you're partial to the YouVersion Bible app's Southern cousin, Ya'll Version, which makes explicit each instance of the plural "you" in the Bible and which does, in fact, exist.  

Reading this passage without knowing that the "you" Jesus uses is plural (or without the aid of the Ya'll Version) can lead to some confusion about what it might mean to be salt and light.

The plural "you" provides an interpretive key to the passage. Jesus is not sitting in a room alone with Peter, looking him in the eye, and declaring that he alone bears the responsibility of shining a light. Nor is the "you" plural simply because Jesus is addressing more than one person. Instead, the "you" is plural because, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, "[Jesus] is pointing to the corporate impact of the disciple community as an alternative society."

Hauerwas continues, intensifying his point about the declaration's claim on the disciple community: "The sermon is not a heroic ethic. It is the constitution of a people. You cannot live by the demands of the sermon on your own, but that is the point." The early church demonstrated their grasp of Jesus' collective call in their adoption of the phrase attributed to Tertullian: "One Christian is no Christian." 

Perhaps to hear the call to be salt and light in isolation instead of hearing the call seated on the hillside surrounded by other disciples is to mishear it.

"You are a city on a hill," Jesus says. What is a lit city if not a cluster of individual lights, each adding to the intensity of the light? Jesus directs the call to the individual, to be sure. But it is precisely the intensity of the lights, brought about by their proximity to one another—what Hauerwas calls their "corporate impact"—that makes the city visible from afar off.

And what about this visibility? Jesus' use of the word "you," in addition to situating his hearers together, situates them as a certain kind of people given its context in the sermon. Namely, "you" refers to the blessed, persecuted ones (vv. 11-12), visible and vulnerable.

Inherent in a directive to be visible is the temptation to be seen for the sake of being seen. However, Jesus' implicit association of visibility and persecution ("Blessed are you when others revile you") should be sufficient to disabuse his hearers of the notion that being seen is an altogether positive experience. Perhaps recognizing the allure of this temptation, persecution notwithstanding, leads Jesus to make his warning explicit a little later on: "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 6:1).

Just as enticing, however, is the temptation to turn inward. For those among Jesus' disciples who would later experience the connection between visibility and persecution firsthand, concealing the light must have seemed like the most logical option. Or, leaving aside the potential for persecution, those who hear Jesus' declaration in twenty-first century America might well ask, Why take the risk of being seen, especially if I view my faith as merely a personal matter, as something to be reined in any time it transgresses the boundary of my day-to-day life?

But Jesus' declaration, along with the example of the early church, does not seem to leave the inward turn as an option. Consider the following summary from Alan Kreider, who draws on ancient sources to offer a picture of early Christians' visibility in the Roman Empire:

"According to Tertullian, the outsiders looked at the Christians and saw them energetically feeding poor people and burying them, caring for boys and girls who lacked property and parents, and being attentive to aged slaves and prisoners. They interpreted those actions as a “work of love.” And they said, “Vide, look! How they love one another.” They did not say, Aude, listen to the Christians’ message”; they did not say, “Lege, read what they write.” ... Christianity’s truth was visible; it was embodied and enacted by its members."

Or take the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ever the enemy of the idolatrous worship of empire, even at the risk of imprisonment and death: "To flee to invisibility is to deny the call. Any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him."

For those of us who have been conditioned to restrict faith to the confines of our private lives, or who have succumbed to the temptation of self-preserving hiddenness or self-promoting visibility, perhaps the first step, even before we take up the mantle of being salt and light, is to show grace to ourselves and to one another for the ways in which we've failed to live up to this ethic. Jesus' declaration might not be new to our ears, but hearing it as part of the collective, persecuted, and often vulnerable "you" might sound a bit foreign. If so, praying a prayer of confession together as "we" might sound equally as odd on our lips.

Unheroic though it may be, 

Most merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,
By what we have done,
And by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ,
Have mercy on us and forgive us,
That we may delight in your will,
And walk in your ways,
To the glory of your name. Amen.

We saw His star

“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?'"

Both the gospel narrative and the wider world pose a question to us during this season. Approached by the magi of our twenty-first century secularized culture, we hear the question anew: Where is Jesus?

I could count myself among the chief priests and scribes in Matthew 2 who direct Herod to Israel's scriptures, and thus to Bethlehem of Judea.

To those who ask the question today, I could point to the tradition that has been handed down to me and answer with those who have gone before, "In Him all things hold together." Simply put, he's everywhere!

But to offer these responses as final and exhaustive without allowing them to do their proper work and lead us to specific destinations would be to stop short of answering the question.

Consider the possibility that Jesus might be found closer to home than any ancient, beautiful prophecy could foretell; closer than Bethlehem; closer, even, than "everywhere." 

Consider the possibility that Jesus might be found on some sidewalk or back alley, that even a GPS satellite, like some bright star from of old, could lead us to him. 

Consider that the same sacred scriptures that led the magi to Bethlehem might lead us on a journey toward the same Jesus they sought.

And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;
For out of you shall come forth a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.

Consider that even as we seek Jesus, he shepherds us toward destinations where we might find him. Father Greg Boyle's reading of the Beatitudes illumines how Jesus, the sought-after one, also leads his people toward him. Instead of "Blessed are" or "Happy are," Boyle begins his reading of each Beatitude with the words, "You're in the right place if . . ." 

In the Beatitudes, Jesus also provides a set of directions. "I like that better," Boyle says, "because it turns out the Beatitudes is . . . a geography. You know, it tells you where to stand. You're in the right place if you're over here." 

Just as Herod receives news of a specific location in answer to the question "Where is Jesus" in Matthew's gospel by way of Micah's prophecy, we receive news of specific locations in answer to the same question from the mouth of Jesus himself. What bright star might appear during this season of waiting, of searching, of groping in the darkness, if we hear Jesus' words anew? 

From the moment of his birth, before he takes a step or utters a word, the destiny of the entire world, uncomprehending, is changed.

From the moment we set out to find him, before we take a step or venture a guess, he leads us, unwitting, to his side.

You're in the right place if you're poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
You're in the right place if you're mourning, for you will be comforted.
You're in the right place if you're meek, for you will inherit the earth.
You're in the right place if you hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you will be satisfied.
You're in the right place if you're extending mercy, for you will receive mercy.
You're in the right place if you're pure in heart, for you will see God.
You're in the right place if you're making peace, for you will be called a son or daughter of God.
You're in the right place if you're being persecuted for righteousness' sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

The Widow and the Judge

2 “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”

One way of reading this parable might lead us to think that God’s answer to our prayer is contingent upon our capacity to suffer: If we just pray hard enough, dig deep enough, or persevere in our pain long enough, God will answer our prayer. I have written about a personal experience in which I confronted the inadequacy of this way of thinking. Maybe you have experienced something similar.

Through the experience, I came to see the truth in the words of the late theologian, Marcus Borg: “You can believe all the right things and still be miserable.”

You can perhaps see the inadequacy of an interpretation that associates God with the judge and 21st-century American Christians with the widow. Even though God listens, if we don’t read this parable in view of the scope of the rest of scripture—in view of God’s character—we’re left with a God who grants justice only if we do enough groveling.
1.     God in no way resembles the egotistical judge who only listens if we bother him long enough.
2.     And 21st-century American Christians are not on the margins socially in the way that a widow was in first-century Palestine.

The widow was up against an unjust system. Jesus hints at the widow’s predicament later in Luke’s gospel when he affirms the prophets’ criticism of those who deal unjustly with widows. Jesus condemns the scribes who “devour the houses of widows.” Acting as guardians appointed by a husband’s will to care for the widow’s estate, scribes often mismanaged the property of widows. They cheated widows of what was rightly theirs and took the houses as pledges for debts which could not be paid.

Such harsh treatment is a far cry from Yahweh’s commands in Deuteronomy:
Deut 24:17 You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge.
Deut 24:19 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.

These commands were taken up by the early Christian community, who proclaimed with the author of James that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” Without the support and representation of her husband, the widow was entirely at the mercy of the community.

And so the stage is set:
We have a socially powerful man. We know he is egotistical and irreverent.
We have a socially vulnerable woman. We know she is defenseless and has been defrauded.

The widow, although vulnerable in the social system, is by no means weak. She pesters the judge to give her justice. Night and day, on his doorstep, waiting for him when he comes home, waking him up in the morning, keeping him up at night, constantly re-articulating her need.

The judge has all the power in the encounter, and for some time, he does exactly what we would expect an egotistical, irreverent judge to do. He ignores the plight of the socially vulnerable.

But then, by some miracle, he relents. He doesn’t seem to have a change of heart. In fact, his reason for giving in sounds as delusional as we might expect from someone who has no regard for anyone but himself. Here’s a more literal translation from the Greek of the egotistical judge’s response in verse 5:

5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, lest she, coming and coming, give me a pair of black eyes.’”

Think about how absurd this sounds. The man with all the legal, social, and economic power considers the widow’s persistence a threat to his physical well-being! If anyone is in a place to do violence, it’s the judge. And indeed, up until his abrupt, albeit absurd, about-face, he is doing violence to the vulnerable widow by not listening to her repeated cries for justice.

What is perhaps just as important to reading this parable faithfully is what we don’t read. We don’t read, for instance, the details about how Jesus’ audience has failed in their duty to this widow. Those faithful to the God of Israel are called to pay special attention to the vulnerable, and yet here is the widow, fending for herself before the judge. 

I find this image particularly helpful in illustrating other things that I have overlooked in a quick reading:

1.     Where is the judge? [eyes down, wearily relenting]
2.     Where is the widow? [still there, pleading for justice]
3.     Where is Jesus? [mirroring the widow. If Jesus is anywhere in this encounter, he’s by the widow’s side, not behind the judge's desk.]
4.     Where am I? [standing by; perhaps even beside the judge, looking down.]                           

If the action of the parable weren't enough there's abrupt and rather odd transition in its closing sentences:

And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

The challenge of the parable in the final analysis that Luke's Jesus offers is a faith response from the gathered audience, and from those who would follow Jesus today.

CONSIDERATIONS
What is meant by “faith” here?
1.     Faith to believe that God will grant us justice when we pray, and that his answer is not contingent upon our effort to convince him to be just.
2.     Faith to act on behalf of the vulnerable one for whom justice is very much in doubt.

CHALLENGES:
1.     Recognize the judge in ourselves. [Are we looking down, allowing rhythms of life to dictate how we respond (or don’t) to the disadvantaged?]
2.     Know the widow in the city. [If we don’t know the disadvantaged, how can we be there for them?]
3.     Follow Jesus to her side. [If Jesus is indeed on the scene, we are to be there too.]

Ordering Acts

In the beginning of Luke-Acts, Luke tells his audience that he intends to give "an orderly account" based on the eyewitness testimonies delivered to him. The kingdom of God figures prominently in these testimonies (the phrase appears 32 times in Luke). Despite all the events in the narrative that threaten to disrupt any sense of order in the spread of the gospel, Acts ends with Paul "proclaiming the kingdom of God." From the first sentence of his gospel to the last sentence of Acts, Luke concerns himself with order.

In recent weeks as we have looked together at Paul's missionary journeys, I have at times lost sight of the extent to which the account of Paul in Acts is a continuation of events in Luke. Just as Luke intended his gospel account to be "orderly," so he intends his account of Acts to be "orderly." And this orderliness isn't limited to the two volumes as separate wholes. Rather, order exists throughout Luke-Acts, so that what Jesus accomplishes in the gospel account makes possible what occurs in the Acts narrative.

In his book The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright expounds upon the ways that Luke orders Acts:

"Paul, like Jesus, goes on a long journey, ending up being tried before both Jews and Romans . . .

Acts 25:6, 23-25
Festus took his eat on the tribunal and ordered Paul to be brought. On the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. And Festus said, "King Agrippa and all who are present with us, you see this man about whom the whole Jewish people petitioned me, both in Jerusalem and here [in Caesarea] shouting that he ought not to live any longer. But I found that he had done nothing deserving of death.

Luke 23:1, 7, 13-15
Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And when Pilate learned that he belonged to Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod. Pilate then called together the chief priests and rulers of the people, and said to them, "You brought me this man as one who was misleading many people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving of death has been done by him. 

 

The crucifixion narrative is echoed by the shipwreck in Acts . . . 

Acts 27:41
But striking a reef, they ran the vessel aground. The bow stuck and remained immovable, and the stern was being broken up by the surf. 

Luke 23:45-46
While the sun's light faded, the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." And having said this, he breathed his last. 

the resurrection [is echoed] by the safe arrival of Paul and his party in Rome . . . 

Acts 27:42-44
The soldiers' plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape. But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for land, and the rest on planks or pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.

Luke 23:47, 24:1-2
Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, "Certainly this man was innocent!" But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body of Jesus. 

 

leading to the open and unhindered proclamation of the kingdom of Israel's god, the god now revealed in the risen Lord Jesus."

Acts 28:23, 28
When they had appointed a day for Paul, the came to him at his lodging in great numbers. From morning till evening, he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. . . . "Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen. 

Luke 24:26-27, 47
Then Jesus said to them, "Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, Jesus interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. . . . and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. 

 

Luke's orderly storytelling provides readers and hearers with a pattern that they are invited to live into, a larger story that provides shape for their individual stories. Luke identifies a pattern in Jesus' life that leaves its mark upon Paul and, in turn, upon all those who would follow Christ. As Wright explains,

"The gospel of Jesus advances by the same means as Jesus himself had done; the cross and resurrection are stamped upon the life of the church that bears witness to them. But the work of the church derives from that of Jesus, and is not merely parallel to it." 

What might our roles be as we seek to participate in the life of Jesus, ordered as it is by cross and resurrection?

Earlier in his book, Wright suggests an analogy for how New Testament stories like these can instruct and direct readers. Imagine a Shakespeare play whose fifth act has been lost to history. To take up the first four acts and compose a final act, closing the book on the range of possible endings for the play, would be unfaithfully limiting. Another inadequate way to conclude the unfinished play would be to enlist actors to simply mimic what characters had done before. Instead, Wright proposes giving the roles "to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves."

One answer to the question of what our roles might be is to immerse ourselves in the ordering acts of the church: to know the Scripture and to pray the prayers, to follow Jesus in baptism and to come together at the Lord's table and so become the "highly trained, sensitive experienced" players who would perform fifth-act roles befitting of the previous action, even if the above description doesn't yet seem to fit us as we miss our cues and stumble over our lines.

Through participation in the drama, we reacquaint ourselves with the order of cross and resurrection that lends shape to Luke's narrative and that has been "stamped" upon our lives through Christ.

The Scene of the Crime

When Paul and Barnabas depart from Antioch of Pisidia at the end of Acts 13, they heed the command given by Jesus in Luke 9: 'Wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.'

50 Then the Jews stirred up the influential religious women and the leaders of the city, and they incited a mob against Paul and Barnabas and ran them out of town.51 So they shook the dust from their feet as a sign of rejection and went to the town of Iconium. 52 And the believers were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

This response differs greatly from James and John's response, also in Luke 9, when the Samaritans don't show hospitality to Jesus. Instead of shaking the dust off their feet and moving on, James and John say, 'Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?'

By the time Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra, having been driven out of yet another town in Acts 14:1-7, perhaps they, too, are tempted to call down fire on those who reject them. Instead, Paul and Barnabas turn their attention to a man with a disability.

8 While they were at Lystra, Paul and Barnabas came upon a man with crippled feet. He had been that way from birth, so he had never walked. He was sitting 9 and listening as Paul preached.  

Imagine yourself at the scene:

Imagine you’re a resident of Lystra. You see two men come into your town, and instead of walking right past the crippled man, who has become a fixture by the gate, they stop and address him. And this strikes you. One of them crouches down and stares straight into his eyes. You can’t tell if there are any words being exchanged, but all of a sudden you hear the visitor shout, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Stand up!”

And here see is the man, who has always been sitting or lying—you’ve never seen him in any other posture—rocking back, then leaning forward. He is on his hands and knees, and then he lifts one leg up underneath him. He stares in shock at the stranger, and then plants one foot on the ground. He rocks to his side and puts the other foot on the ground. He steadies himself. They’re still eye to eye, but now he’s in the same crouched position as the stranger. Then, in one motion, the man stands to his feet.

By now, a large crowd has gathered around, and you can hear them start to murmur about the strangers. They’re saying, “This must be Zeus visiting us in human form, and his companion must be Hermes."

You recognize this reference immediately from a story you’ve heard. It’s the story from the famous Roman poet Ovid. The story, as you remember it, goes like this:

There were once two strangers who visited this region, and they came seeking a place to rest and eat. But every house they approached turned them away until they arrived in the poorest part of the town. They knocked on the door of a shabby dwelling. The house belonged to Baucis and Philemon, an elderly couple who barely had enough to support themselves, let alone two guests, but they invited the strangers in.

As the story goes, they shared what little food they had with the strangers. They poured what little remained of their wine, yet it never emptied. Glass after glass, the wine never ran dry. That’s when they realized they were in the presence of the gods in human form.

After the dinner, the god-strangers, Zeus and Hermes, took a walk with the elderly couple. They left the city and started to ascend the foothills outside of town. When they had reached a certain height, the god-strangers told Baucis and Philemon to look back and see what had become of the place they’d left. What they saw was no longer a town; the gods had condemned the city to the flood. As the story goes, everyone in the town perished, and only Baucis and Philemon were spared, and they were given a richly adorned palace to return to.

And here you are, watching the man whom you’ve never seen move from his place near the gate. The crippled man pushes through the crowd, walking right past you. He extends a hand to your chest to steady himself as he stumbles by, walking for the first time and moving as though he may never stop.

Yes, you think, these strangers must be gods in human form.

Soon the priests are parading livestock past you, preparing to offer sacrifice to the god-strangers. The same stranger who told the crippled man to stand up is shouting again, but this time it’s in anger. You look up to where the visitors are standing, and see that they’ve begun to tear their clothes. They insist that the crowd stop; they say that they are here to tell you good news about a living God who created the sea and earth. Over the next few days, you’ll hear more about this God. He is the one responsible for the rain and the crops, who sustains your very existence, who gives you joy.

A few days later, another group arrives, and they spread the word that the visitors are telling lies. Many people remain upset that the two men refused the town’s hospitality and rebuked the priests. A mob forms, and they go after the one they had called Zeus.

You watch as the mob hurls stones at the god-stranger who, just a few days prior, had knelt next to the crippled man at the gate. When he falls to the ground, they drag him out of town and leave him for dead. But you stay, looking at his battered body, thinking they've killed him.

He lies unconscious for a long while, but then he stirs. You can tell he’s in pain as he sits up, rocks back, and then leans forward. He is on his hands and knees, and then he lifts one leg underneath him. He plants one foot on the ground. He rocks to his side and puts the other foot on the ground. Then, at once, he stands to his feet.

'Maybe he’ll walk away,' you think. Like Zeus and Hermes leading Philemon and Baucis, he’ll walk a distance, and by the time he turns around, you’ll be fighting to keep your head above water as he orders a flood to roll over your town.

Just then, the god-stranger extends a hand to your chest to steady himself as he stumbles past. To your amazement, instead of walking away, he walks back toward the town. You watch as he staggers back, bloodied, to the people who had stoned him and left him for dead.

____

If ever there was a picture of Christlikeness, it’s Paul limping back into the city that tried to kill him. The risen Christ, like Paul in this story, returns to the scene of the crime committed against him.

Maybe a relationship has run roughshod over you. Maybe you feel like it’s dead, or that it has nearly killed you.

Maybe you feel abandoned, or like there’s no hope in your present circumstance, like you’re trapped and can't move. 

Maybe you’ve received a diagnosis that you feel has left you for dead. 

In Acts 14 Paul is acting like Christ. When we see Paul in this story, we see Jesus returning to the scene of the crime committed against him. Christ is not just returning someday, but he’s always coming back. 

When the disciples leave a place and shake the dust off their feet, they are leaving it to God’s judgment. But I think one of the most powerful images of this story in Acts 14 is that they’re not leaving it to be destroyed by God, but to make room for God to come again and bring renewal.

Shaking the dust off their feet is a symbol of trust, of handing a situation over to God’s justice. We don’t serve a god who walks away and sends floodwaters rolling over the inhospitable parts of us. Nor do we serve a God who calls down fire on what seems to be dead. We serve a God who is always acting to redeem and restore. We serve a God who is always returning to the scene of the crime committed against him.

A Baptism

The Ethiopian eunuch (St. Irenaeus of Lyons tells us his name is Simeon Bachos) made the 1,000-mile journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship. Perhaps he undertook the journey because the words of the prophet Isaiah caught his attention:

“Don’t let foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord say,
    ‘The Lord will never let me be part of his people.’
And don’t let the eunuchs say,   ‘I’m a dried-up tree with no children and no future.’

Simeon was castrated, probably as an infant, before he could utter a word. He had grown up serving his queen faithfully.

And now Simeon has been turned away in Jerusalem. Upon arriving, he saw a warning, written in Greek, that said, "No foreigner is to go beyond this barrier of this temple. Whoever is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his death, which will follow."

He has reached his destination and been turned away.

Here is Simeon, returning home not to a family, but to resume his post as treasurer.

Here is Simeon, riding with his caravan, perhaps searching for the passage that prompted him to embark on this journey in the first place. 

Here is Simeon reading aloud from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

As Simeon searches, this is what Luke tells us he reads:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter. 
    And as a lamb is silent before the shearers,
    he did not open his mouth.
 He was humiliated and received no justice.
    Who can speak of his descendants?

    For his life was taken from the earth.”

Perhaps Simeon reads the description of this mysterious figure and feels as though the prophet Isaiah is sitting next to him in the carriage, describing Simeon himself. 

He was despised and rejected—

    a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.

We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.

    He was despised, and we did not care.

He was pierced.

He was crushed.

Not far from where Simeon is reading, Philip has the same suspicion. It's as though a familiar voice is beckoning him, saying, "Walk beside that carriage."

As he approaches, he hears another voice. This time, it's an unfamiliar voice from nearby, reading what Philip immediately recognizes as the words of the prophet Isaiah. Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

Simeon replies, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” Then he invites Philip to come up into the carriage and sit with him.

As Philip climbs up, Simeon asks him the question that has bothered him for miles: “Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or someone else?”

"Tell me," he pleads, "who is this person whose voice sounds so familiar, even though the prophet says it has been silenced?"

So beginning with this familiar Scripture, Philip embarks on the long journey toward the Good News about Jesus. As the caravan covers distance, together Philip and Simeon draw nearer to this familiar-sounding voice.

Before long, they arrive at some water, and Simeon says,

"See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?"

Consider the possibility that Simeon asks this question not in a happy-go-lucky, exclamatory tone.

Imagine instead, in the space between the exclamation, "Here is water!" and the question, "What prevents me," Simeon remembers that, as always, there will be a catch. 

What prevents me from being baptized?

Because of my ethnicity, what prevents me? 

Because of my bodily injury, what prevents me?

Because of my appearance, what prevents me?

This conditioned response, which has gathered for years like a wave and crested in Jerusalem, submerges Simeon in doubt. But when Simeon rises to the surface, he hears these familiar words, as if for the first time:

“Don’t let foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord say,
    ‘The Lord will never let me be part of his people.’
And don’t let the eunuchs say,
    ‘I’m a dried-up tree with no children and no future.’
4 For this is what the Lord says:
I will bless those eunuchs
    who keep my Sabbath days holy
and who choose to do what pleases me
    and commit their lives to me.
5 I will give them—within the walls of my house—
    a memorial and a name
    far greater than sons and daughters could give.
For the name I give them is an everlasting one.
    It will never disappear!

6 “I will also bless the foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord,
    who serve him and love his name,
who worship him and do not desecrate the Sabbath day of rest,
    and who hold fast to my covenant.
7 I will bring them to my holy mountain of Jerusalem
    and will fill them with joy in my house of prayer.
I will accept their burnt offerings and sacrifices,   because my Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations.