Sunday, May 19, 2019

God's Plans

God’s Plans
Genesis 50:15-21
            The trouble began when Jacob gave Joseph a coat, a garment more beautiful than anything his older brothers owned.  As M. Thomas Norwood, Jr. says, Joseph is strutting around in a garment too classy to work in while his brothers are working up a sweat in “jeans and dirty T-shirts.”
            Everything goes downhill from there.  Joseph has a couple of dreams that make it look as if his brothers and parents will bow to him.  This does not make for a happy family.  When an opportunity presents itself, the brothers sell Joseph to a passing caravan, which in turn sells him to a high official in the Egyptian court.  Joseph winds up in jail for refusing to have an affair with his owner’s wife, but is rescued to become Number Two in Pharaoh’s government.
            Eventually, Joseph’s dreams come true.  His brothers, fearful that he might harm them for their ill-treatment, fall on their faces before him, trying to save their necks.  Joseph utters the words which sum up his entire life: “As for you, you meant evil against me, bur God meant it for good…”  Joseph has forgiven them, but lets them know their fate is ultimately in God’s hands.  As for Joseph: “I will provide for you and your [families].”
            There was a time, many years ago, when I was in a work situation that turned out badly.  Admittedly, like Joseph, some of it was my fault:  I assumed I knew more than I did, and put myself in an untenable situation.  My supervisor decided the school would be better off without me, and let me go. 
The next few years were difficult, but eventually I wound up with a better job in a much better educational setting.  I always hoped I might run into my old supervisor and share with him Joseph’s words to his brothers.  The opportunity never presented itself—probably for the best.  Sometimes I’m not smart enough to keep my mouth shut.  I hope I’m learning to do a better job of that.
You may have been in a similar situation.  You know how difficult life can be when everything seems to be going against you.  You are sure everyone from God on down has only your worst interests in mind.  There is no light at the end of this tunnel, only unending darkness.
At some point, the light appears, and you can see better times ahead.  Often the final result is the best situation you have ever been in.  When you look back you may, like Joseph, see God’s hand at work even in the darkest times. 
Something like this happened to me.  Many things I learned during the lean years helped make me a better administrator when that career finally opened up for me.  I saw what bad leaders did, and their affect on the people who worked for them, and was able to avoid many of those pitfalls.
God had something like this in mind when he said to Jeremiah (29:10-11), “For I know the plans I have for you, … plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” 
Jeremiah was despondent.  His nation was in exile.  Those who remained in Judea turned their backs on him.  They hadn’t listened to his warning, and now they ignored his teaching.  But God had everything under control.  God knew how this was going to work out:  for Jeremiah’s (and Judea’s) welfare and not for evil.
Paul said much the same thing in Romans 8:28. “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” 

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Two Questions

Two Questions
Luke 10:25-37
Luke’s story of the Good Samaritan raises two questions: 
Am I my neighbor’s keeper?  Who is my neighbor?  
Both questions are answered explicitly, the first in the conversation between Jesus and the lawyer.  The second, raised by the lawyer in an attempt to clarify the law, is answered by Jesus’ parable.  Even though the answers are obvious, they invite examination.
            When I was teaching college classes I often used the expression, “That’s a teacher question!”  I meant that the question had an obvious answer (usually “yes,” or “no”), but an answer that led to a host of other questions with not so simple answers.  I see “Am I my neighbor’s keeper?” as a teacher question.  The lawyer gives the correct answer: “Yes.”
            The lawyer asks Jesus a rabbinical question:  What shall I do to inherit eternal life?  Luke says the question was asked to put Jesus to the test.   Does Luke mean he was trying to trap Jesus?  This happens frequently.  Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees try to catch Jesus making a statement for which they can condemn him as a heretic or dissuade people from following him. 
            It is also possible that the lawyer was trying to engage Jesus in the kind of debate any expert on Judaic law would expect.  One expert would pose a question; the other would answer, and the debate would begin.  I’m willing to give the lawyer the benefit of the doubt, especially since other evangelists present this story in a less confrontational way.
            Jesus answers in rabbinic fashion; he asks a question in return: “What does the law say?”  The lawyer’s answer is interesting.  Instead of quoting one or more of the Ten Commandments (the heart of Torah law), he quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”), and adds, “and your neighbor as yourself.  His answer is the heart of the Ten Commandments, and of Jesus’ message and ministry.
            Clearly, if we love our neighbors as we love ourselves we must be our neighbors’ keeper.  If I treat myself to a new item of clothing, I should make sure my neighbor is well-dressed.  If I enjoy a good meal at a fine restaurant, I should make sure my neighbor is well-fed.  Sound familiar?  You’ll find similar thoughts in Matthew 25:31-46.
            The lawyer doesn’t want to end the discussion so he asks, “Who is my neighbor?”  Good question.  Logical question.  Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  This is also in keeping with rabbinic teaching.  Western preachers make a point then use stories to illustrate that point and bring it home to their congregations.  Middle Eastern preachers/teachers tell stories (parables) then demonstrate how the principle flows from the story.  The two styles are exactly opposite.  I wonder sometimes if my preaching would be more effective if, like Jesus, I used the Middle Eastern approach.
            At the end of the parable Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”  The lawyer knows the answer: “The one who showed him mercy.”
            Jesus’ point is clear:  anyone in need is my neighbor.  Race doesn’t matter.  Gender doesn’t matter.  Religion doesn’t matter.  Political beliefs don’t matter.  Sexual orientation doesn’t matter.  What matters is need.  Jesus demonstrated this throughout his ministry, addressing people’s needs wherever and whenever he found them.
Jesus says to us, as he said to the lawyer, “You go and do likewise.”

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Who Is Mary Madalene?

Who Is Mary Magdalene?
John 20:11-18
            For the past two thousand years Mary Magdalene has been a center of conroversy.  Accused of living a less-than-honorable lifestyle, suspected of being married to the earthly Jesus, and perhaps eased out of a leadership position in the early church, she has risen above all that to be recognized as a role model for Christian discipleship.
            We know little about Mary from Scripture. 
Luke tells us (8:2) that she was one of the women who traveled with Jesus throughout Galilee after he rid her of seven demons.
Matthew (27:56) and Mark (15:40) place her with other women at the crucifixion.  She also followed the funeral procession to Gethsemane (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47)
All four evangelists tell us that Mary went to the tomb the first Easter morning.  She is the only one mentioned by all four.  John (20:1-10) mentions only Mary Magdalene.
How could so much controversy come from so little written evidence?
Let’s deal first with the most damning charge against her:  that she was a prostitute.  Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) decided that Mary Magdalene was also Mary of Bethany (sister of Lazarus and Martha), who figures in John’s version of the story about Jesus’ anointing.  Luke’s version (7:36-50) says the woman who anointed Jesus was a sinner.  Prostitution was the most common way for a woman to be labeled a sinner in the first century.  By combining Luke’s version with John’s, and Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, Gregory decided that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute who repented, anointed Jesus, and became a follower.  He used Luke’s story about Mary’s seven devils to bolster his decision.
I read somewhere that Gregory was seeking a female success story from Jesus’ ministry and decided this was it.  In addition to making assumptions that are unwarranted he overlooked one important piece of evidence that negates his conclusion.  Mary Magdalene was from Magdala, in Galilee—that’s where she got her name.  Bethany is in Judea, near Jerusalem.  It’s difficult to believe the same woman would have been identified with two such widely separated locations.
The speculation that Jesus and Mary were married is based primarily on the fact that most Jewish men were married.  There is no proof anywhere in the gospels that Jesus and Mary were a couple.  The story goes farther.  It claims that at the time of the crucifixion Mary was pregnant.  After the ascension she was taken to southern France by Joseph of Arimathea, where she gave birth to a child (some say female, some male) who became the founder of the Merovingian line of kings.  It’s an interesting story, but more legend than fact.
The other line of speculation at least has the ring of possibility.  It states that Jesus chose Mary to be the leader of the movement after his resurrection.  After the ascension the men, led by Peter, decided they did not want a woman to be in charge, so they squeezed her out.  In opposition, we have the written record of Jesus telling Peter, “on this rock I will build my church,” and Peter’s take-charge sermon in Acts 2.  It is possible, however, that once Mary Magdalene had been pushed aside, the written record could have been adjusted in Peter’s favor.
Where does all this leave us?  Of course, everyone is free to believe what he or she wants, but none of these stories are based on fact.  They are interesting, and since we know so little about Mary, the field is open to all kinds of speculation.  Perhaps the safest route is to accept Mary for what we know her to be, a faithful follower and disciple of Jesus Christ, and the first person of either gender to announce the good news of the resurrection.