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Wrestling with the Word, episode 109: Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A (April 10, 2011) March 28, 2011

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Fifth Sunday in Lent

I confess. I am fascinated by the discoveries of science that help us understand the development of life and the rich variety of life on earth. I also celebrate the knowledge that every life form is the way it is because it needs to be the way it is! Yet I find the biblical understandings of life and death to be even more fascinating. Frankly, I do not see the two approaches – science and Bible — to be mutually exclusive. Celebrating human life as the Bible defines it enables me to consider the values and ethics and meaning of human living within this great biological, botanical, and bacterial diversity. The faith-inspired lessons for today can help us discern what life and death mean. Let us see whether together we can discover in the lessons some biblical under-standings about death and some values of life with God and with one another.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 109: Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A.


Psalm 130
The psalm is that of an individual prayer. More specifically, it is a penitential prayer (like Psalm 51 and others). The psalmist begins with a cry to God from “the depths.” The depths represent darkness, isolation from God and others, even death. Death indeed is separation from God, and whatever led this petitioner to “the depths,” one thing is clear: The only way out is God’s forgiveness of iniquities. Apart from divine forgiveness, no one could possibly survive. God’s forgiveness has a purpose, however: “that you (God) may be revered” (v. 4). The psalmist confesses to God that this separation from God is unbearable and that the cry from the depths is the worshiper’s way of waiting for the Lord’s forgiveness. It is God’s “word” in which the God-forsaken one places “hope.” The final two verses change the flow dramatically from an individual prayer to an announcement to all Israel. The words call the people of Israel to “hope in the Lord” because in the Lord are covenant loyalty (steadfast love) and the power to redeem the people from their iniquities (vss. 7-8). This transition can be interpreted in one of two ways. On the one hand, they might be the words of a priest announcing publicly in the temple the need to “hope in the Lord,” in which case the individual making confession in verses 1-6 would find comfort and response from God. On the other hand, the final words might represent the psalmist’s announcement to others in the temple that the Lord has heard his cry and that they also should place their hope in God who forgives. In either case, the psalm makes abundantly clear that the loyalty of God gives us hope because the Lord does not allow us to remain in the clutches of death.


Ezekiel 37:1-14
Although the people lost hope in God and knew only death, God, through the prophetic word, gives new life and reunites the hopeless and forsaken to himself.

The people of Israel had been exiled to the land of Babylon in 597 B.C. and again in 587 B.C.  In the fifth year of the first exile, that is, in 593 B.C., God called Ezekiel, a priest, to prophesy to the exiles.  Much of his prophecy was directed to a false optimism as he preached to the exiles the destruction of their city back home.  Finally, according to 33:21, a messenger came with the word that Jerusalem had fallen.  Thereafter, the word from Ezekiel was one of promise of restoration to the land.

Key Words
V. 1.  hāyetâ ’ēlay yad-YHWH = “the hand of the Lord was upon me”:  See 3:22 where the “hand of the Lord” is the means by which God introduces a vision to the prophet, instructing him to go into the plain; there the spirit entered him and stood him up.  See also 8:1 where “the hand of the Lord” falls on the prophet, again introducing him to a vision.

V. 1.  wayyôtsî’ēnî berûach YHWH = “and the spirit of the Lord brought me out”:  Note the connection of the Spirit with the hand of the Lord in the two passages cited previously, 3:22 and 8:1.  More specifically, the movement by the spirit is attested at 3:12, 14.  habbiq‘â = “the plain”:  it is also in “the plain” that the vision of Ezekiel 3:22ff. occurs.  There the plain is the space where judgment must be suffered, and that judgment falls upon Ezekiel to suffer vicariously for the sins of Israel and Judah.  This plain is the one mentioned at Gen. 11:1 where the people built a tower with its top in the heavens, and thus experienced God’s judgment.

V. 3.  ben-’ādām = “son of man”:  God addresses Ezekiel with this title more than 80 times in the book, thereby contrasting the holy God and the mortal man (see also Ps. 8:4).  YHWH ’attâ yādā‘tā_ = “Lord, you know”:  For God’s power of life over death, see 1 Kings 17:17ff where the prophet Elijah was the vehicle by which God restored to life the only son of the widow of Zarephath; also 2 Kings 4:31ff. where Elisha raised from the dead the only son of the Shunamite woman.

V. 5.  anî mēbî’ bākem rûach wihyîtem = “I will keep bringing among you spirit/breath/wind, that you may live”:  The word “spirit” is used is various ways in the prophecy; at v. 1 it seems to be God’s spirit; here it is the animating spirit for humans; at v. 9 it is the wind.  That the rûach of God creates and restores life can be see also at Gen. 6:3; 6:17; 7:22 (all P); also Job 12:10; Ps. 104:30.  Note the contrast with Gen. 2:7 where the force that God breathes into Adam’s nostrils is not rûach but neshāmâ = “breath.”

V. 6.  wîda‘tem kî-’anî YHWH = “and you shall know that I am YHWH”:  The expression occurs eighty-six times in the Book of Ezekiel; note the priestly emphasis (P) in the story of the exodus (Exod. 14:18).

V. 11.  yābešû ‘atsmôtênû = “our bones are dried up”:  The statement of the people indicates the meaning of death. Recall the warning of God to Adam and Eve regarding the consequence of eating the forbidden fruit: “on the day that you eat of it, you shall die” (Gen 2:17) yet they did not expire on that day; they died. Note Prov. 22:17 where “a downcast spirit” is what “dries up the bones.”  we’ābedâ tiqwātēnû = “and our hope is perishing”:  The object of Israel’s hope is exclusively YHWH (see Ps. 130:5; also 39:7); at times “hope” is even used as an epithet for YHWH (see Ps. 130:7; Jer. 14:8;17:13).  nigzarnû lānû = “we are cut off”:  for the impact of such exclusion see the use of nigzar at 2 Chron. 26:21; Ps. 88:6; Isa. 53:8.

V. 12.  weha‘alêtî ’etkem miqqibrôtêkem = “and I will raise you from your graves”:  The image is now changed, for here the corpses are buried in graves rather than scattered on the ground, as in v. 1.

V. 14.  kî-’anî YHWH dibbartî we‘āsîtî = “for I, YHWH, have spoken and I have done it”:  The notion that it is the spoken word that accomplishes the great acts of the Lord became particularly prominent and important during the Babylonian Exile; cf. Gen. 1; Isa. 55:10-11.


Romans 8:1-11
Left to our own devices (our sinfulness, our self-centered devotion to worldly success and comfort) that lead to death, God gives us the Spirit of life and peace by acquitting us of our sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the early chapters of Romans, Paul has been contrasting the universality of human sinfulness with God’s gracious declaration of justification through the cross of Christ. He has insisted on the failure of our actions to secure God’s love through the law (even the law of Moses). The law focuses our minds on our selves, our deeds, our innocence. In Christ, however, God discharges us from the law that enslaves us and leads to death (7:6) to give us “the new life in the Spirit” (7:6). In chapter 8 Paul returns to that emphasis on life in and through the Spirit of God.

Key Words
V. 1. ouden ara nun ,,, = “There is therefore now…”: In light of the context of chapter 7, the word “therefore” seems to pick up the thought and imagery of 7:6 rather than the immediately preceding verses of 7:21-25. The reference to “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” flows from “But now we are discharged from the law …” (7:6a), and the second verse regarding “life in the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” picks up the words “so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (7:6b). The word “Spirit” does not appear between 7:6 and 8:2, but it appears ten times in 8:2-11.

V. 3. ho theos ton heautou huion pempsas en homoiōmati sarkas hamartias kai peri hamartias = “God … sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin (or “as a sin offering”): The words raise the question whether Paul is taking the docetic view that the Son of God did not really take human flesh but appeared something like a ghost. Paul uses the word homoiōma elsewhere, even in this epistle (1:23 in terms of the idolatrous deeds of the gentiles; at 5:15 in terms of the nature of sin; in 6:5 of the similarity of Christ’s death to our own). In the hymn quoted by Paul at Phil. 2:6-11, the word appears in verse 7:

“But emptied himself, taking the form (morphē) of a slave,
being born in human likeness (en homoiōmati).
And being found in human form (schēmati … hōs anthrōpos),
He humbled himself, and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross.”

Many scholars argue that Paul added the words “even death on a cross” to the existing hymn in order to make abundantly clear that the Son of God did not merely appear to be human but was human, possessing flesh that nails would penetrate and blood that would emerge from the wounds. At Galatians 4:4, Paul wrote that “God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,” indicating that his birth was like (not appeared to be) our own. Further, at Col. 1:22 appears the expression “And you … he has now reconciled in his fleshly body….”

For the reality of the incarnation in other NT writers, see among many others John 1:14; Heb. 2:17; 4:15.

V. 5. “set their minds on the things of the flesh … on the things of the Spirit”: The effect of the divine gift of the Spirit enables people to look at life differently. Focusing on the “things of the Spirit” is “life and peace” rather than hostility to God (vss. 6-8). The Spirit, therefore, is the only source of life and peace.

V. 8. hoi de en sarki ontes theō aresai ou dynantai = “and those who are in the flesh cannot please God”: The way of Christ is not to please oneself but to please others by edifying them (Rom. 15:1-3; 1 Cor. 10:33). By contrast, those who minds focus on the flesh (selfish worldly gain) will not know the life and peace that comes from God.

V. 9-11. Being “in the Spirit” rather than “in the flesh,” Christians belong to Christ. If indeed Christ is within (among) us, while our bodies attest to our mortality, the Spirit makes us alive because of God’s righteousness (acquitting us in spite of our sinfulness). The same Spirit of God that raised Jesus from the dead already works in and among us to give us life that has no end.


John 11:1-45
Revealing himself as “the resurrection and the life,” Jesus makes possible the gift of faith so that others, too, might join him in the life to come and so that he and God might be glorified.

During the Feast of the Dedication in Jerusalem, Jesus taught about his relationship with the Father that caused some Jews to want to stone him (10:31) and arrest him (10:39).  Jesus crossed the Jordan to the point where John had been baptizing, and there many came to believe in him (10:40-42).

Key Words
V. 2.  “Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair”:  The incident about Mary reported here actually appears in the next chapter (12:1-6). The story about such an act by a woman “who was a sinner” is reported at Luke 7:36-50 (see esp. v. 38), but in the Lukan story she is not named.  At Mark 14:3-9 an unnamed woman who enters the house of Simon the leper at Bethany; her act involves pouring ointment on his head but nothing is said about anointing his feet or drying them with her hair.

V. 4.  all’ hyper tēs doxēs tou theou, hina doxasthē ho huios tou theou di’ autēs = “but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God might be glorified through it”:  See John 9:3 where Jesus describes for the disciples the role the man’s blindness will play: “that the works of God might be revealed in him.”  At v. 27 Martha confesses to Jesus, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.” In v. 40 Jesus reminds Martha that he promised she would see “the glory of God” if she believed.

V. 25.  egō eimi hē anastasis kai hē zōē = “I am the resurrection and the life”:  At 14:6 Jesus announces to the disciples that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.”  To say here that he is “the resurrection” means he must act in order to prove the point in advance of his own resurrection, and so he raises Lazarus from the grave by uttering his effective word.

V. 45.  “Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him”:  Faith in who Jesus is seems once again to be the point of the story see vv. 27, 40; see also 2:23; 4:53; 9:35-38; 20:30-31. The result of such faith here, as in 20:30-31, is the gift of life.

Wrestling with the Word, episode 108: Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A (April 3, 2011) March 22, 2011

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Fourth Sunday in Lent

No wonder we mortals have difficulty grasping the word of God and applying the divine address to our lives here and now. God does not fit any of the categories by which we manage our lives and the affairs of the world. The Bible makes no qualms about the differences between God and us. In the words of God,

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).

Even the future Davidic ruler that God promises to send will exercise justice and judgment not by what his eyes and ears detect (the ways a human judge would act), but—as a result of the Spirit of the Lord—righteousness, equity, and faithfulness will serve as the foundations of his reign (Isaiah 11:3b-5).

As we discuss the lessons for the day, we necessarily use our human eyes and ears. These and our other senses are the ways we perceive the world. Yet they are insufficient to grasp the vision and word of God.  Maybe it’s just because “My light is not your light, says the Lord.”

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 108: Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A.


Psalm 23
This psalm of trust is based on the development of the image of YHWH as the Shepherd of Israel (Psalm 80; Ezekiel 34) to the intimate relationship of YHWH and the individual worshiper.  The imagery speaks of the Lord’s guidance, presence, and protection through the valley of darkness.  (The traditional translation “the valley of the shadow of death” was based on reading Hebrew tsalmût = “darkness” as tsalmāwet = “valley of death”; however, there are no compound nouns in biblical Hebrew.)  The scene switches in verses 5-6 to a festive meal in the temple (perhaps a thanksgiving meal that seems to celebrate divine rescue from a lamentable situation). The exhilaration even includes the worshiper’s awareness that the Lord has anointed his head with oil. Through it all, the psalmist exults in the ongoing joy at participating in this different kind of intimacy with the Lord.  The worshiper has confidence for the future because of the constancy of God’s care past and present.


Psalm 142
The psalm is a lament in which the psalmist is suffering persecution from enemies who lie in wait along pathways. The cries for help to YHWH result from the psalmist’s confidence in the Lord as “my refuge” (v. 5) and his promise to give thanks to the name of the Lord. The psalm concludes with the hope that “the righteous will surround me” on the basis on the Lord’s bountiful action (v. 7).


1 Samuel 16:1-13
Having sent Samuel to the family of Jesse in order to anoint a king to succeed Saul, God selects the anointed one not on the basis of what people see, even the prophet, but on the basis of God sees in the heart.

In the latter part of chapter 9 the Lord commanded the prophet Samuel to anoint Saul to become king over the people of Israel.  In the following chapter the anointing took place in private, and Samuel assured Saul of his new role by giving him a sign.  By the time we reach our pericope, the ability of Saul to reign faithfully has been brought into question. The Lord regretted the selection of Saul, and so the Lord sends Samuel to Bethlehem in order to anoint a new king, one of the sons of Jesse.

Key Words
V. 3.  ûmāšaktî lî = “you shall anoint for me”:  At 10:1 Samuel anointed Saul to be ruler of the people, and that man was so identified as “the Lord’s anointed” on several occasions, even by David.  Following the anointing of David in our pericope, only Davidic kings were anointed and called “the Lord’s Messiah.”  The concept changed drastically in the preaching of Second Isaiah who used the title of Cyrus, king of Persia (Isa. 45:1).  The title is not used in the OT prophecies about a future ideal Davidic king.

V. 7.  kî lō’ ’ašer yir’eh hā’ādām kî hā’ādām yir’eh la‘ênayim waYHWH yir’eh lallēbāb = “for not as a human sees, because a human sees with (lit. “to”) the eyes, but Yahweh sees with (lit. “to”) the heart”:  In the immediate context the reference is to the selection of which son of Jesse is to be anointed:  Samuel would have picked on the basis of appearance.  Yahweh, however, makes the selection on the basis of something humans cannot discern.  Similar differences between the Lord and humans can be seen at Isa. 55:8-9 in terms of thoughts, and differences between the future ideal Davidic king and other humans appear at Isa. 11:3 in terms of judgment on the basis of sight or hearsay.  The issue of divine sight appears to be the reason for the selection of this passage in connection with John 9.

V. 13.  wattitslach rûach-YHWH ’el-dāwid mēhayyôm wāmā‘lâ = “and the Spirit of the Lord rushed to/upon David from that day and onward”:  The Spirit rushes similarly on Samson, giving him strength to kill an onrushing lion (Judg. 14:6), anger to slay 30 men of Ashkelon (14:19), and power to break his bonds to kill a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass (15:14).  In a lighter vein, when the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon Saul he prophesied along with a band of prophets (1 Sam. 10:6, 10), but on another occasion such a rush aroused Saul’s anger to the point of killing a yoke of oxen.  At 1 Sam. 18:10 “an evil spirit from God” rushed upon Saul and he raved like a lunatic over the music David played.  All of these references sound like an adrenalin rush rather than divine inspiration. Strikingly, in the Gospels, Mark writes that “The Spirit immediately drove him (Jesus) out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). The Temptation story in Matthew and Luke, quite different from Mark’s, talks about the role of the Spirit but not with such urgency.


Isaiah 42:14-21
Confirming the lament of the people in exile, the Lord announces that the time has come for him to turn darkness into light and to make glorious his torah.

In the preaching of the prophet in Isaiah 40—55, the context of lamentation looms large. The people express their exilic suffering at 40:27: “My way is hid from the Lord, and my justice is disregarded by my God.” The theme is repeated in different words at 49:14: “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”  In our passage the Lord admits to silence and inactivity, but now is prepared to end the silence with a shout of transformation.


Ephesians 5:8-14
Having been called to imitate God, Christians are called also to be and act what we are:  light in the Lord who is and who gives light.


John 9:1-41
Against the notion that people who suffer are being punished for their sin, Jesus heals the man born blind so that his identity as the light of the world and God’s eschatological works accomplished in him might be known.

In many cultures of the ancient world people believed that one suffered according to one’s misdeeds.  So automatic was the sentence that often the same word was used for the crime and its punishment.  This philosophy was particularly popular among the wisdom teachers and can be gleaned from the Book of Proverbs and especially from the friends of Job.

As for the context in the Gospel, Jesus had been teaching in the precincts of the Temple.  He had been present in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Tabernacles (7:2, 10, 37).  Having placed himself in jeopardy by his “I am” speech, Jesus left the Temple as the Jews picked up stones.

Key Words
V. 3.  all’ hina phanerōthē ta erga tou theou en autō = “but that the works of God might be manifest in him”:  while the disciples asked the cause of the man’s blindness, Jesus answers in terms of what good can come out of it.  That good, the glorification of God, is a well-known theme throughout the Bible:  it is the reason for the plagues against the Egyptians in the days of Moses (Exod. 9:16; 10:2) and for the Reed Sea event itself (Exod. 14:17-18).  The glory of God is also the reason for the new exodus, the return from Babylonian exile (Isa. 43:21; Ezek. 37:14 and often in Ezekiel).  In the NT see the conclusion of the hymn at Phil. 2:6-11; Rom. 9:17.

V. 5.  hotan en tō kosmō ō, phōs eimi tou kosmou = “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world”:  That Jesus is the light of the world is seen by the quotation of Isa. 9:2 at Matt. 4:16 and at John 1:4, 7, 9.  Beginning already at Gen. 1, God is the light of the world, and at Isa. 10:17, YHWH is the light of Israel.  In Rev. 21:23 and 22:5 God will be the light of the new Jerusalem and Christ will be the lamp.  Jesus’ condition stated here, “as long as I am in the world,” paves the way for his disciples to be the light after he has gone (see Isa. 49:6; Matt. 5:14; Eph. 5:8-14; and cf. 1 John 1:5-7).

Wrestling with the Word, episode 107: Third Sunday in Lent, Year A (March 27, 2011) March 20, 2011

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Third Sunday in Lent
We can all understand, I think, that when people of faith experience hardships in their own lives and observe the sufferings of others, they often lose their faith in the God they worshiped. Such a response is quite common among people during grief and trauma. It is more difficult to understand why people reject God even after God reveals himself as the protector of the oppressed, as Savior of the underdog, and as the loving Creator of all life. Precisely because God announces divine identity through such actions, our turning away from God is an affront to God’s honor. Our passages for this day demonstrate a variety of dishonorable actions from respected people and some quite commendable actions on the part of the despised. Watch how God responds as we move through the lessons.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 107: Third Sunday in Lent, Year A.


Psalm 95
Because the Lord is a great God, even the greatest among the nations’ gods, the people of Israel enter the Lord’s presence with song and joyful noise. Such praise and adoration are due the Lord because he is the Creator of the universe and the Shepherd of his people. Now switching to the direct address, the Lord surprisingly reminds the people of their rebellion in the wilderness (at Massah). God’s displeasure with their testing him means such rebels will not enter God’s “rest.”


Exodus 17:1-7
In spite of the people’s rejection of the Lord’s salvation accomplished through Moses, God responds to their faultfinding and testing by providing water in the desert.

Beginning at 15:22 the people of Israel, under the leadership of Moses, entered the wilderness.  They began complaining about the wilderness already at 15:24, then about food in 16:2-3.  In the first instance God sweetened the bitter water to make it drinkable; in the second, God provided manna as food in the desert (16:13-36).  Now they murmur for another necessity of life, and God responds favorably once more.


Romans 5:1-11
By justifying us through faith in Christ Jesus, God gives us that peace which enables us to honor to God through the tribulations of life here and now and to confidently wait for salvation on the Judgment Day to come.

In 4:1-8 Paul had explained that Abraham was justified by faith, and in 4:13-25 he writes that as with Abraham, the promise of God comes only to and through faith.  Now he begins a section which runs through 8:39 about the reality of the righteousness of faith as Christian freedom.

Key Words
V. 1.  oun = “therefore”:  The results of the previous argument follow.  At the end of chap.4, Paul spoke of God’s giving to us righteousness (declaring us innocent) on the basis of faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

V. 1.  eirēnēn … pros ton theon = “peace with God”:  Paul uses “peace” many times in Romans prior to this verse:  1:7 (“peace from God” as a Christian greeting); 2:10 (along with glory and honor is given to those who do good); 3:17 (in OT quote); after this verse:  8:6 (along with life is the result of setting one’s mind on the Spirit); 14:17 (along with righteousness and joy constitutes the reign of God); 14:19 (along with mutual upbuilding is a goal of the Christian community); 15:13 (along with joy is the gift of God which enables the Christian to abound in hope through the power of the Holy Spirit); 15:33; 16:20 (a characteristic which defines God).

Vv. 2-3.  kauchōmetha = “we boast”:  The word appears negatively in Romans at 2:17, 23; 3:27 (noun); postively here and v. 11; 15:17 (noun).

V. 3.  thlipsis = “affliction”:  The word appears in connection with evildoers at 2:9; at 8:35 it is that which has no power to separate us from the love of God; here and at 12:12 it appears for the New Day suffering of those who follow Christ.

V. 4.  dokimē = “confirmation”:  The word appears only in Paul’s writings in the NT (see elsewhere at 2 Cor. 2:9; 8:2; 9:13; 13:3; Phil. 2:22).  In all cases it is that which is determined through testing.

V. 5.  ou kataischynei = “not put to shame”:  The expression derives from Ps. 22:6 (Eng. v. 5) and 25:20 where the loyalty and love of God protect the believer from hostile forces.  It appears also in Romans also at 9:33 and 10:11 in quoting Isa. 28:16 where it promises the same protection for anyone who believes in the Lord.

V. 6.  kata kairon = “at the appointed time”:  kairos is not primarily measurable time but the time at which something significant occurs. It often appears with reference to the arrival of the “reign of God”:  see Mark 1:15 and Romans 13:11-14.

V. 9.  dikaiōthentes nun en tō haimati autou sōthē_sometha = “we are now justified by his blood, we shall be saved”:  The tenses dramatize the contrast between the present gift of justification and the future promise of salvation. The passive voice serves as a theological passive, that is, the actor is God.

V. 11.  kauchōmenoi = “we rejoice/boast”:  The present tense indicates the result of the present gift and the future promise.


John 4:5-42
In his conversation with the Samaritan woman in Sychar, Jesus desacralizes the water in Jacob’s well in addition to Mounts Gerizim and Zion, in order to point to the worship of God in spirit and in truth, that is, in himself; through the woman’s testimony in the community, others come to know him and confess he is the Savior of the world.

The previous chapter reports the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus and then moves on to describe the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus.  Both men had been baptizing in the same area (actually the author corrects himself by indicating only the disciples were baptizing, not Jesus).  When John’s disciples report the activity of Jesus, the Gospel writer responds with a speech that is reminiscent of those made by him in chapter 1.  Realizing, though, that the Pharisees learned of the numbers of people he (or his disciples) was baptizing, Jesus left Judea and headed toward Galilee.  While Jesus normally made this journey by traveling around the territory of Samaria (Matt. 19:1; Luke 17:11), on this trip he passed through Samaria, specifically through one of its major cities, Sychar.  This city is the Shechem of the OT and today is called Nablus.

Key Words
V. 5-42. Samaria … Samaritans: Samaria was the region named for the city of Samaria that served at one point as the capital of the northern kingdom called Israel. Its territory comprised what had once been the tribal land of Ephraim and Manasseh. The Samaritans family tree is rooted, it seems, both in the Israelite ancestors on the one hand and in the foreign deportees that the Assyrians imported into the land. In either case, the population did not worship in Jerusalem, establishing their own sanctuaries first in Dan and Bethel, then on Mount Gerizim outside Shechem = Nablus. As a result, the Judeans despised the Samaritans, denying their Israelite ancestry and accusing them all of being pagans.

V. 6. ēn de ekei pēgē tou Iakōb = “Jacob’s well was there”: This verse provides the earliest mention of Jacob’s well. There is not mention of the place in the OT or in Intertestamental Literature. From early in the 4th century A.D. the site became beloved and revered by the construction of churches and by pilgrimages. The traditional well lies a little over a mile from the modern town of Nablus.

V. 10. “who it is that is saying to you”: The remark by Jesus focuses the woman’s and the reader’s attention on the identity of Jesus throughout the entire story.

V. 14.  pēgē hydatos hallomenou eis zōēn aiōnion = “a spring of water welling up to eternal life”:  The proposed gift from Jesus sounds much like the description of God at Jer. 2:13:  “the fountain of living waters.” The expression also recalls the prophecy that “on that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem” (Zech. 14:8).  Here, however, the source of such living water is Jesus himself.

V. 19. kyrie, theōrō hoti prophētēs ei su = “I perceive that you are a prophet”: The woman comes to this conclusion because without ever having seen her before this meeting, Jesus is able to speak about her personal life and history. As Jesus continues the conversation, he demonstrates that he acts like a prophet in another sense: he speaks of the coming Day of the Lord and the ensuing kingdom of God.

V, 21. erchetai hōra = “the hour is coming”:  At v. 23 Jesus repeats the expression and adds something else: “the hour is coming and now is” (see also 5:25), indicating the new time is already beginning. In other places in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ hour had “not yet come” (John 2:4; 7:30; 8:20), but at 12:23, Jesus announces that the quest of the Greeks to “see Jesus” marks the time when “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” In verses following this announcement (12:27), Jesus connects the “hour” to his crucifixion. At 13:1 the “hour” refers to his departure from the world, and at 16:2, 4, 21, 25 the “hour” is the time when the disciples of Jesus would also face persecution but through it come to know the glory of discipleship.

V. 21.  “Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem”:  “this mountain” from the perspective of Sychar was Mount Gerizim, the mountain that was and still is considered by the Samaritans to be the holy mountain. The Jews, of course, believed that the holy mountain was the mount in Jerusalem on which stood the Temple.

V. 25-26. “I know the Messiah is coming” … And Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he”: The identity of Jesus now focuses on the title Messiah, one that Jesus hardly ever uses of himself in the gospel stories (see Mark 14:61-62 for Jesus’ response of “I am” to the high priest’s question: “Are you the Christ…?”).

Vss. 23-24. en pneumati kai alētheia = “in spirit and truth”: The worship of God “in spirit and truth” becomes the reason sacred places can be desacralized. “God is spirit” (v. 24). John’s prologue announces that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (1:14). Jesus speaks of himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” at 14:6, and that through him people can know the Father. Before Pilate Jesus says that he came to bear witness to “the truth,” leading Pilate to ask his famous question: “What is truth?” (18:37-38).

V. 42. kai oidamen hoti houtis estin alēthōs ho sōtēr tou kosmou = “and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world”: The title “Savior” appears only here in John’s Gospel, and the word “salvation” in v. 22 is also unique in John. Luke uses the title at 1:47;  2:11; 3:6; Acts 5:31; 13:23 and employs the word “salvation” thirteen times in Luke—Acts. Strikingly, neither “Savior” nor “salvation” appear in Matthew and Mark. The verb “save,” however, appears frequently to describe Jesus’ mission in all four gospels. In John, see 3:17; 5:34; 10:9; 11:12; 12:27, 47. That this expression of faith rolls off the lips of the Samaritans contrasts these people sharply with the religious establishment in Jerusalem. In other stories, individual Samaritans become models for faith and deeds (e.g., the grateful Samaritan leper at Luke 17:11-19 and the generous caregiver at Luke 10:29-37).

Wrestling with the Word, episode 106: Second Sunday in Lent, Year A (March 20, 2011) March 15, 2011

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Second Sunday in Lent
Many stories tell about a journey. The Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic is about Gilgamesh’s long journey to attain immortality. Homer’s The Odyssey relates the trials and tribulations of Odysseus as he travels home from the Trojan battlefield. J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings dramatically relates the journey of Frodo and his friends toward Mount Doom where they will destroy the One Ring that can destroy Middle Earth. Even modern movies like Little Miss Sunshine and Trains, Planes, and Automobiles wind their amusing anecdotes around journeys. The Bible, too, has its stories of journeys to tell. Some of them are regular pilgrimages, as in our psalm for the day. Others are world-changing events like that of Abraham and Sara in our first lesson. And the gospel story about Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is just out of this world! Strikingly, the journey of all of them is founded upon faith-inspired trust in God, and the destination is blessing, wholeness, and life.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 106: Second Sunday in Lent, Year A.


Psalm 121
While the original purpose of this psalm is not certain, its beauty and comforting expressions give it a place of favor among devout people of all times. The first verses introduce the psalm as a dialogue. Verse 1 comes from the lips of a person about to begin a journey. The speaker looks to the mountains ahead, awesome to behold yet full of potential danger. An imminent journey across and through their heights causes the worshiper to ask about the source of “help” or “strength” on the way. Unlike the answer to a similar question regarding wisdom (Job 28:12, 20), the response here provides the traveler hope and promise: “help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (v. 2). Whoever speaks that answer—either the worshiper or a priest—the following verses appear to flow from the lips of a priest. The journey itself is often assumed, therefore, to be the homeward trip from the temple in Jerusalem following a pilgrim’s required visit. It is also possible that the setting takes place outside the home of the pilgrims as they set out for the temple. In that case, the answer might come from a Levite. In any case, the Lord who will be the “help” will remain constantly alert to keep the traveler from harm (vss. 3-4). YHWH will protect and guard the pilgrim, even from the blistering sun and the mysterious moon (vss. 5-6). Even beyond the immediate journey, the Lord will maintain diligence on the worshiper’s behalf in every place and at all times.


Genesis 12:1-4a (1-9)
God calls Abraham and Sarah to relinquish their worldly security (home and family connections) in order to journey to a new land of God’s promise and become a source of blessing to others in their midst and beyond.

The call of Abraham recorded here occurs after the long pre-history of Genesis 3 through 11.  The final chapter of the pre-history tells of the Tower of Babel (vv. 1-9) and the subsequent judgment of God by which resulted in the diversity of languages and in the scattering of the people.

The pericope is assigned to the Yahwist (J). However, verses 4b-5 are clearly P.  The Yahwist addresses Israel in the time of David and Solomon (tenth century B.C.) in order to answer two questions:  (1) How did we get to be the great people we are? (2) What is our function? The priestly school (P) was at work for centuries, but its defining work and editorial hand were especially active in the sixth century B.C.

Key Words
V. 1:  lek-lekā  mē’artsekā … ’el-hā’ārets  ’ašer ’arekkā = “Go from your land … to the land which I will show you”:  The land where Abram resided was somewhere in Mesopotamia:  according to the last two verses of chap. 11 (which is P rather than J) Abram’s father left Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan, but settled for a while in Haran.

V. 2.  wa’agaddelā šemekā = “so that I might make your name great”:  Note the contrast between this verse and the Yahwist’s story of the Tower of Babel where the people tried to make their own name great (11:4).

V. 3.  mebārekêkā ûmeqallelkā = “those who bless you and the one who curses you”:  While some mss. make both participles plural, the contrast between the many who will bless and the exceptional one who will curse is likely intentional.

V. 3.  wenibrekû bekā kōl mišpechôt hā’adāmâ = “and by you all the families of the land will consider themselves blessed (or be blessed”):  The niph‘al of the verb nibrecan be used as a simple passive or as a reflexive, thus the alternate translations; nibrekû mišpechôt hā’adāmâ occurs also at 28:14 as God’s promise to Jacob.  The clause appears elsewhere but in a wider context at Genesis at 18:18 (“nations of the earth”); 22:18 (“nations of the earth”); 26:4 (“nations of the earth”).  Note Gal. 3:8 where Paul cites this promise as “the gospel preached beforehand to Abraham.”  For examples of Abraham and his descendants serving as a source of blessing even when the formula does not appear, see 30:27 (Laban to Jacob), 30 (Jacob to Laban).


Romans 4:1-5 [8], 13-17
The righteousness that comes from God was reckoned to Abraham on the basis of his faith, and the promise given to Abraham–that he and his descendants would inherit the world–is given to everyone through the righteousness of faith.

Having demonstrated that all people–Jews and Gentiles–are guilty before God (chapters 1-2), Paul demonstrated in chapter 3 that all are justified by grace as a gift.  Toward the end of chapter 3, he then raises the issue of works and contrasts them with faith.  Now using Abraham, the ancestor of the Jews himself, as his example, Paul drives home his point.


John 3:1-17
In response to the confession of Nicodemus that Jesus comes from God, Jesus indicates that in order to participate in the kingdom of God and in the salvation he offers, one must be born anew.

According to John, Jesus went up to Jerusalem three times during his life. This encounter with Nicodemus occurred during the first visit at the time of the Passover. Many people had already come to believe in Jesus because of the signs he performed, but Jesus, we are told, did not entrust himself to them … for he himself knew what was in people (2:24-25).

Key Words
V. 3.  ean mē tis gennēthē anōthen = “unless someone is born from above”:  The issue is not simply another birth but an existence based on heavenly origins. The statement is explained further by v. 13 where “the Son of man” is identified as the one who descended from heaven; see John 1:1-14.

V. 3.  tēn basileian tou theou = “the kingdom of God”:  After this initial reference to the kingdom, a synoptic emphasis, John usually talks about “life” rather than the kingdom. The question of kingdom and kingship will occur again in the trial by Pilate (19:36).

V. 5. “unless one of born of water and the Spirit … born of the flesh … born of the Spirit … born of the Spirit”:  As Jesus himself received the Holy Spirit (see John 1:33), proving that Jesus is the Son of God (1:34), so Jesus announces the means by which others can become born from above and see/enter the kingdom of God with him.

V. 14.  kai kathōs Mōysēs hypsōsen ton ophin en tē  erēmō, houtōs hypsōthēnai dei ton huion tou anthrōpou = “and as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”:  The “lifting up” is an important expression in John’s Gospel. Here, by comparison to the visible raising of the bronze serpent, and at 8:28, the verb appears to refer to the crucifixion. At 12:32, 34 the word refers to the resurrection/ascension. Strikingly, the word dei = “must” is used here, as it is in the synoptic tradition, regarding the necessity of the suffering and resurrection of the Son of Man (see Mark 8:31). The result of looking at the uplifted serpent is “life” in Num. 21:9 and “salvation” at Wisdom of Solomon 16:5-7.

V. 16. houtōs gar ēgapēsen ho theos ton kosmon, ōste ton huion ton monogenē edōken = “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”: The tense of the verb for “loved” signifies a once for all act. It thus points to the crucifixion rather than to a more general affection for the created world. Appropriating this message to one’s life results in “eternal life.”

V. 17. “For God sent the Son into the world (eis ton kosmon), not to condemn the world (ton kosmon), but that the world (ho kosmos) (Creation) might be saved (sōthē) through him”:  The work of God in Jesus is described here in the third person; at 12:47, Jesus speaks in the first person about his purpose in the same terms: not to condemn but to save the world. At 1 John 4:14 the author writes similarly: “the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world” (sōtēra tou kosmou). Recall that according to the angel’s words to Joseph, the name of the baby Mary will bear will be “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Luke’s narrative about the message of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds includes the title “a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

Wrestling with the Word, episode 105: First Sunday in Lent, Year A (March 13, 2011) March 7, 2011

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First Sunday in Lent

As I was listening over the past few weeks to some lectures on music, I became particularly interested when the teacher waxed eloquently about Pythagoras, the 6th century B.C, philosopher, mathematician, and most everything else. Pythagoras and his disciples (the Pythagoreans) developed a theory of numbers, often in terms of the ratio of objects to one another. In fact, they looked at numbers as a guide to interpret the world. The sought the mathematical harmony of all things. They spoke of the “Musica universalis,” the harmony of the spheres. The planets and stars moved according to mathematical equations, and they showed the same for musical notes.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 105: First Sunday in Lent, Year A.


Psalm 32
The psalm is a combination of two different genres. The first seven verses make up a song of thanksgiving. That expression of gratitude results from the psalmist’s personal reflections on his own sinfulness and his ultimate confession of guilt, after which the Lord forgave him. The second part (verses 8-9) focuses on Wisdom themes. The personal experience expressed at the beginning leads the psalmist to instruct others so that they too might relinquish their autonomy and submit their wills to the Lord. The conclusion (verses 10-11) exhorts others to be joyful that the Lord is a God who shows covenant loyalty (chesed) to the people.


Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 (ELCA)
Genesis 3:1-21 (LCMS)
Against God’s intentions for a faithful and healthy humanity, God held Adam and Eve accountable for choosing to “be like God, knowing good and evil,” setting the stage for a life of discord.

Following the Priestly account of creation in Genesis 1:1–2:4a, the Yahwist’s account in Genesis 2–3 portrays the story of humanity in terms of a local oasis story.  “J” wrote his epic in the reigns of David and/or Solomon, that is, sometime in the tenth century B.C.

Key Words
2:15.  le‘obdāh ûlešomrāh = “to work it and to protect it”:  The expression demonstrates several important points:  (1) fruitful labor is part of the what God wills for humanity, not the result of human sinfulness; (2) that labor is performed for the production of food; (3) it is the responsibility of humans to protect the soil.

2:17. ûmē‘ēts hadda‘at tôb wārā‘ = “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”:  For the meaning of “good and evil” elsewhere, see 2 Sam. 19:35 where it seems to have something to do with pleasant and unpleasant tastes; cf. also 2 Sam. 14 where the “good and evil” of v. 17 seems to be explained as “all things” in v. 20; see also Isa. 7:15, 16.  As for “knowledge” (Heb. da‘at), the word in the Hebrew Bible has to do with intimate experience rather than with intellectual awareness (see Gen. 4:1; Amos 3:2).

3:1.  hannāchāš = “the serpent”:  Why a serpent is selected for the dirty work is not entirely clear.  Perhaps it is because (1) the serpent was a symbol of healing in ancient times, and so here the critter is put in its place, or (2) in the Gilgamesh Epic it is a serpent that takes the plant of life away from the hero, thus depriving him of immortality.

3:3.  pen-temûtûn = “lest you die”:  The question about what is meant by “die” here becomes significant because when they did eat the fruit, they did not expire. Perhaps death means the separation from God. Or perhaps the grace of God overpowered the judgment of God.

3:5.  wihyîtem kē’lōhîm yōde‘ê tôb wārā‘ = “and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil”:  The plural participle yôde‘ê gives the impression that kēlōhîm is plural also: “gods.”

3:7.  wayyēde‘û kî ‘êrummîm = “and they knew that they were naked”:  According to biblical understandings, they had been intellectually aware of their nakedness prior to the disobedience; now they experienced nakedness in terms of guilt and vulnerability.


Romans 5:12-19
In contrast to the devastating effects of sin when “death reigned,” starting with the first couple, the effects of God’s justification in Christ will enable those who receive it to “reign in life through Jesus Christ.”


Matthew 4:1-11
In the face of the devil’s temptations that Jesus prove he is the Son of God and that he can gain glory without suffering, Jesus proved faithful to his identity and mission.

Immediately prior to our pericope is the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan (3:13-17).  On that occasion the voice from heaven announced to John (and others?) that Jesus was the “beloved Son (of God) with whom (God) was pleased.” That identity established, the temptation follows immediately.

Key Words
V. 1.  Tote ho Iēsous anēchthē … hypo tou pneumatos = “Then Jesus was led … by the Spirit”:  The Q version of the temptation differs from Mark’s not only in length and in discourse but even in the role of the Spirit who “drove” Jesus into the wilderness according to Mark’s account (1:12).

V. 1.  peirasthēnai hypo tou diabolou = “to be tempted by the devil”:  Matthew uses diabolos here in place of Mark’s Satan.  However, at v. 10, Jesus calls “the devil” Satan. In v. 3 he is called ho peirazōn = “the tempter,” a term used also at 1 Thess. 3:5.  In addition to the synoptic parallels, reference is made to Jesus’ temptation also at Heb. 2:18; 4:15.  For the temptations of the devil on people, see 1 Cor. 7:5; 1 Thess. 3:5; Rev. 2:10. For the temptation by Satan on the people of Israel, see 1 Chron. 21:1.

Vv. 3, 6.  ei huios ei tou theou = “if you are the Son of God”:  Note the same temptation raised by the mockers at his crucifixion (27:40).  As a question at the trial, see 26:63.  At 26:63 the high priest demanded that Jesus “tell us, if you are the Christ, the Son of God,” and Jesus responded with “You said so!” and spoke instead of the Son of Man.

V. 8.  eis oros hypselon lian = “a very high mountain”:  In the LXX the expression refers to “high places” that are sacred places for Canaanites or Israelites (see Matt. 17:1//Mark 9:2).  The impression is that each temptation moves to a higher elevation:  the wilderness hills, the temple pinnacle on Mount Zion/Moriah, and finally the “cosmic” mountain, the only spot from which one could see “all the kingdoms of the world.”

V. 10. hypage, satana = “Go away, Satan”: When Peter tries to prevent Jesus from his prophecy regarding the cross at 16:23, Jesus addresses Peter with the words, hypage…, satana, but adds opisō mou = “behind me.” Jesus explains to Peter his accusation and address: Peter is “not on the side of God but of humans.” Here Jesus explains to Satan that the temptation runs contrary to God’s claim to exclusive devotion expressed in the words of the Shema.

V. 11. kai idou aggeloi prosēlthon kai diēkonooun autō = “and behold angels came and served him”: At 26:53 Jesus calms his disciples when soldiers and Judas came to arrest him in Gethsemane by indicating if he wanted, God would send legions of angels to protect him. Even the prophet Elijah knew of God’s protective angels when an angel served him food in the desert (1 Kings 19:5-8). That incident led to the prophet’s sustenance for “forty days and forty nights,” the length of Jesus’ fasting in the desert (v. 2).