Sunday, August 05, 2018

Sit And Listen To Me

"In many pre-modern, traditional societies it is through his or her membership in a variety of social groups that the individual identifies himself or herself and is identified by others. I am brother, cousin, and grandson, member of this household, that village, this tribe. These are not characteristics that belong to human beings accidentally, to be stripped away in order to discover 'the real me'. They are part of my substance, defining partially at least and sometimes wholly my obligations and my duties. Individuals inherit a particular space within which an interlocking set of social relationships; lacking that space, they are nobody or at best a stranger or an outcast." -Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

Giotto's Crucifixion
The conversion from one power to another happens at the peaceful and exhilarating feet of Jesus, where this flash of insight was born. In the midst of anxieties born of my allegiance to foreign powers of family and nation, I had to carve out the time to sit at the feet of Jesus. And, it was while sitting at the feet of Jesus during a recent Lectio Divina when I heard the voice of the Lord say – with a gentle and quiet power, burning away the clamoring and mocking voices that come from outside – “Sit, and Listen to Me.” The Spirit repeated this voice as a reminder over and over while I was bathed with insight that the breath giving me life in this moment was really the simple point of this confusing passage in Mark 3 verses 20 through 35 - that had so confounded my blindness for so long.

BACKGROUND

Mark 3 records Jesus in action launching the new world into motion that Israel had hoped in for generations and generations. Mark starts to paint the picture with a confrontation with the scribes who try to find a reason to accuse Jesus by working on the Sabbath. Jesus responds with “anger, mortified at the harness of their hearts” and so “works” on the Sabbath by healing the guy with the withered hand. He then heals many, exorcises demons, is hounded my “multitudes” who are in hysterics, wondering if this might be, indeed, the fulfillment of the impossible dream they held so close to their heart as to constitute life and death. He then “summoned” and “sent out” a small band of his closest companions, followers, and students who would eventually come to, out of the root of Israel, constitute a new image of what the Kingdom and Reign of God looks like.

In the midst of this mass hysteria and vibrantly fermenting movement of a new political freedom from corrupt internal leaders and tyrannical foreign rule, Jesus’ family seems to get worried for his safety. “He’s gone mad! Get him out of here before he ends up dead!” That makes sense enough to me. But, then, I always wondered why that verse is immediately followed up with an accusation from the scribes that Jesus uses the leader of demons to exorcise demons. I mean, the accusation from the scribes sounds like standard political maneuvering with a red herring, but what on earth does that have to do with Jesus’ family? This always stumped me. The same basic question also always confused me to pieces later in Mark 3 when Jesus reminds his audience of the abundant grace of God except for in the case of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – immediately followed up again by his receiving word that he was being “summoned” by his family. Count me as confused again. What the heck do those two things have to do with each other!?

That’s a great question. I’m glad you asked, haha. One day recently, in a long Lectio Divina where I went through each step probably three to four times due to my level of utter confusion, the Spirit seemed to provide a flash of insight. After all, the Spirit seems to be the whole point of the passage. It began when I realized that when he says ”How can the Accuser exorcise the Accuser?..if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand....”, well, for one thing, his family had accused him of being mad. Back then, that would have basically amounted to having a demon. So the initial interactions with his family and Pharisees have that basic content of their confrontations in common. Not sure how I missed that one. Duh. But, the Spirit’s prompting went deeper than that, too.

And, if the Accuser has risen up against himself and has been divided, he cannot stand, but has reached an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s household and plunder his possessions unless first he should tie the strong man up, and then he can plunger his household.

NATION

Jesus is saying that Satan has done precisely this to Israel. Say what!? Come again? Please explain? See, what we have to realize is that many of Jesus’ parables have to be understood in their historical context. Jesus wasn’t “prophesying about the future” or even necessarily giving some special spiritual insight available only to him, him being God in the flesh and all.

He was speaking analogically or even allegorically about precisely what was happening in Israel at the time of his “visitation.” So, in a very brief and amazingly concise few sentences, he manages to implicate Israel’s leaders for dividing God’s people under the influence of Satan and, at the very same time, comment on Israel’s political exile under the thumb of Rome by identifying them with Satan. The crowds would have identified with this deeply, because they deeply resented Rome’s tyranny and, at other places, we see that they were deeply dissatisfied with Israel’s leadership. So, Jesus plays this up and returns the scribes’ accusation back to them in the mirror.

At the same time, then, his response to the scribes serves as a claim upon his identity. By suggesting that the scribes represent a false leadership of Israel, he was affirming his various ways of claiming his own seat upon the Throne of Israel, as Israel’s One True Good and Merciful King and Messiah. So, then, if he is Isreal’s King, and if the scribes distrust him and continue to accuse and mock him, then they are dividing Israel in precisely the way that is implied in their accusation of him.

So, then, OK. I guess that makes sense? Then what about his family, again? I still haven’t addressed that, really.

FAMILY

His revelation that Israel is “tied up like a strong man” and “being plundered” by Rome and by false leaders applies to his family here, too. They, too, don’t trust him. They, too, are essentially mocking his claims on his self-identity. If they think he’s mad and suppose to have the authority to “seize him forcibly,” then they clearly don’t believe him to be the King and Messiah in whom Israel has long hoped. They clearly don’t see in Him and his works and healings the overwhelmingly powerful movement of the Spirit. So:

“Amen, I tell you that all will be excused the sons of men, but transgressions and the blasphemies, howsoever they may blaspheme; But whoever blasphemes against the Spirit, the Holy one, has no excuse throughout the age, but is answerable for a transgression in the Age”

Just as his family and the scribes both made essentially the same accusation, his response is directed to both just as equally. When Jesus says that “The Accuser…has been divided [and]…has reached an end,” he’s ironically saying that the loyalties of blood family and national heritage have come to an end. His very presence among them, coupled with their respective reactions to him, is and are revealing the division and futility of the path on which Israel and his family are currently walking. As their rightful representative and leader, he is revealing how they are divided against themselves by dividing against him.

The reminder of Jesus’ representation of the very people who are dividing themselves against him reminds us, as well, that the familial language of “all that will be excused the sons of men” is itself a reminder that, in the scriptural narrative, Israel serves as a representative of humanity, a kind of second Adam (or maybe third, if we count drunken Noah). So, this exchange between Jesus and his family and the scribes, then, serves, as well, as an analogical exchange between Jesus and all of humanity. When we distrust in Jesus and his goodness, power, and identity, we are essentially committing blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, dividing our household and kingdom against themselves, and ensuring destruction as the end of our path.

It’s pretty obvious in the text, then, that the scribes were doing that, but it now suddenly becomes apparent that the same applies to his mother and brothers. His family was speaking and acting against, even in rebelling against the Holy Spirit, against the reign, movement, presence, and work of the Spirit in the world and in their midst. And, in the familial blood lineage of my ancestor Adam, I tend to do the same.

JUDGMENT

It should also be noted that, insofar as Jesus is pointing out that, in our rebellion, we are ensuring destruction as the end of our path, his response to the scribes and to his family serves as a traditional prophetic warning. This, too, comes across somewhat obviously in regards to the scribes. But, for me, at least, I was too bound to the intimacy and attachment cultivated and experienced in my modern, nuclear family for me to begin to fathom that Jesus was issuing a prophetic warning against his Mom and brothers and, thus, against exactly that urge that blinded me to the whole point of this passage in Mark 3. This is part of why I had to multiply each step of Lectio Divina here 3 or so times before I started to get a taste of the body and blood of Jesus through this passage. His warning against false religious and political tyranny also serves as a prophetic judgment on all the ties that bind me to other and lesser things than himself, including my very family.

“Because they said, ‘He has an impure spirit.’ And his mother and his brothers come, and standing outside they sent word to him, summoning him. And the crowd was seated around him, and they said to him, ‘Look: Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside looking for you.’ And in reply he says to them, ’Who is my mother and who are my brothers?’…Whoever does the will of God, this one is my brother and sister and mother.”

Let’s go back to the context for a moment. Remember that Jesus had just “summoned” and “sent out” a small band of his closest companions, followers, and students who would eventually come to represent what the Kingdom and Reign of God looks like. So, in that light, do note the parallels in the term “summon” here. Jesus summoned ambassadors to proclaim the kingdom. The point of the passage – the power and reign of the Spirit – comes to a head here where his family presumes to have authority to “summon” him? The text seems to make clear, then, that – just like the scribes – his family was utterly mocking the rather clear and very public mission on which “the multitudes” understood him to be.

POWER, KINGDOM, AND MISSION

Just as his family presumed such power, it was a power that bound me to my blindness to this passage. But in their midst was a great power that was being set in motion to set the world ablaze in a cleansing and purifying fire. It was by and because of that power and its purpose that his rather crowded audience sat at his feet, enraptured to every word. As great as is my family’s love for me, they were encountering and filled with “a love greater than this.” After all, once he has their attention – once they realize how he has shamed and silenced his accusers, how their accusation against him has been turned back upon them, how their judgment of him becomes a judgment upon themselves – I imagine that he looks slowly around the room just as intently and intensely as in verse 5 where he was “looking around at them," his eyes ablaze with the fire of a savage kind of overpowering love. Only then does he say “Who is my mother and brother?...Whoever does the will of God.” Whoever loves the way I am in my presence with you now…

So, in Jesus condemning my being falsely “bound” by the “strong man” of my family and my national heritage, he’s apparently not pronouncing judgment on family itself. He’s condemning my blindness rather than my family or my nation. Perhaps his family and national representatives (the scribes) got offended, but they didn’t need to worry that he was disowning them as them his family and nation. He still took care to formally pronounce John as his mother’s new son for the cross, and he still clearly identified as Jewish.

PRESENCE

He wasn’t speaking against family and nation. He was speaking for and to his audience, before and among whom he stands. Those who are against him stand against him of their own accord. It’s the kingdom that is divided against itself that cannot stand. He himself does not stand divided against it. Those who have their allegiance in the foreign powers of family and nation “come down from Jerusalem” and “stand outside” “summoning” him.

But faith in his claims, his identity, his judgments, his power and his love – it’s those of us sitting at his feet who are given the gift of even seeing that in the first place. And seeing that means meeting Jesus face to face. It means meeting his powerful and loving gave of all consuming love. It means being on the inside of the house where he was teaching his enraptured audience.

And, because we are talking about a confrontation of powers who battle for our allegiance – very familiar powers of family and nation – being caught up in this gaze requires a kind of conversion of sorts. We don’t just happen upon it. It happens after having pushed our way inside the house, after having desired to meet Jesus so badly as to have fought off the thronging multitudes clamoring outside to get in and hear, to get a glimpse of Jesus. Or, perhaps, it happens by being "summoned." Who can say which is which?

SIT AND LISTEN TO ME

The conversion from one power to another happens at the peaceful and exhilarating feet of Jesus, where this flash of insight was born. In the midst of anxieties born of my allegiance to foreign powers of family and nation, I had to carve out the time to sit at the feet of Jesus. And, it was while sitting at the feet of Jesus during this Lectio Divina when I heard the voice of the Lord say – with a gentle and quiet power, burning away the clamoring and mocking voices that come from outside – “Sit, and Listen to Me.” The Spirit repeated this voice as a reminder over and over while I was bathed with insight that the breath giving me life in this moment was really the simple point of this passage that had so confounded my blindness for so long.

And, it's not just the Israelites in the first century who sat before and were formed in the penetrating gaze of God. By sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to him, we are in the present formed, cultivated, and constituted as the people of God under the reign of Jesus Christ, fulfilling the hope of Israel that serves as the history of this rather simple word of the work of the Spirit.

Why Does A World "at once concretely physical and vibrantly spiritual" Necessarily Imply Eschatological Ascent?

I finally just yesterday got around to reading David Bentley Hart's response to N.T. Wright's critique of his translation of the New Testament. FOUND HERE. Here is my response.

1. When Hart was a dick to the Yankees and America, I kind of enjoyed it but thought: "Man, he's being kind of a dick to Yankees fans, though possibly in fun jest." I did kind of turn me off to his message to some degree, but only insofar as it kept me from gushing too much. Now, as a fan of N.T. Wright, I don't really like it. Maybe this says something about me, lol.

2. It's funny. I didn't have time to read the whole thing when it came out months ago. Also, I would have to subscribe to read the entirety of Wright’s piece to which Hart was responding. I read about the argument a bit from multiple other sources and from Brian Zahnd. I do enjoy Hart's translation, maybe even more than Wright's. On the basic question of how to go about translating the text, I think I'd rather read Hart. Which is not to say that Wright doesn’t seem to have a point. I can see both sides. I just suspect that demanding one answer to the question of which way to approach translation is to needlessly reach and grasp (see below). Both arguments, taken together, frame for us a picture, particularly in a way that neither argument does solely or separately. I'm thankful for both scholars.

So, I also kind of see this as a bit of a fruitless argument where they're actually saying something quite similar but arguing over minutia. I think they agree on so much. Perhaps a case of academics splitting hairs into finer and finer particles as an act of self-affirmation. Which is not to say that they don't have any substantial disagreement here (see below).

3. I know from reading Hart's piece that he's being somewhat ungenerous in his reading of Wright, which makes me further suspicious of the argument and seems to support my "splitting minutia hairs" point. Example: "Worse still, Wright follows a deeply misguided tradition of translation in imposing an opposition between 'natural' and (one must suppose) 'supernatural' on the text; that too, as I have said, is anachronistic." Wright himself objects to such an opposition repeatedly throughout various of his writings. So, like I said, not charitable.

I really like how Hart paints a picture of a world that includes or is filled with "shining hierarchies of spirits and powers and morally ambiguous angels and demi-angelic nefilim,” where spirit, soul and flesh are not (over-simply) “etherealized or moralized,” where the “heavenly and earthly” are categorized and classified differently but not divided and separated, and where the “world” or “cosmos” is “at once concretely physical and vibrantly spiritual.” This is pretty basic to Jason the mystic who is an exile in modern frameworks.

But then Hart goes onto rail against the translation of “flesh” as “sinful nature.” Wright purposefully avoids “sinful nature” in his writings. I doubt Hart misses that, so I guess that goes back to Hart’s opening point that Wright is here serving as an emblem of a larger problem. But, my point is, I suspect that might be a bit unfair to Wright in general. Because I don’t think Wright would object to the way Hart paints the ancient world noted in the above paragraph (see, for example, the previous point about the “natural” and “supernatural).

4. On the other hand, there is a substantial disagreement over more than just how to go about translating ancient texts (particularly the scriptures).

I do still agree that the “flesh” is “bad,” and I read it as such throughout the NT. But, I only read it that way insofar as it belongs to that which is temporary and passing away (how the ancients thought of that which is “earthly”, per Hart’s point). Partially for that very reason, it tends towards intemperance. In its extreme sensitivity (imagine surgery with no anesthetic), it is easily swayed. In that sense, I agree that it is “bad.”

In a sense, though, I do still side with Wright on the resurrection. I do still read the term “flesh” “as a lexical synecdoche for some larger conceptual construct like ‘the mortal life in the flesh, stained with sin and lying under divine judgment.’” If “flesh” “can form only a body of death,” then what happened to Christ’s "fleshly" BODY in the tomb if what Mary “embraced” was supposedly purely a spiritual “simplex”?

Did it just vaporize? Disappear into thin air? Did it simply no longer exist, as an appropriate state of things in light of the fulfillment of true existence embodied in the One who governs existence outside the empty tomb? I suppose that would be fitting if that’s the telos of "flesh." To me, though - because this implies "ascent" as the end of the story, as Hart explicitly makes clear in this piece - that doesn’t fit the rest of the scriptural narrative.

Hart mentioned that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom,” but he failed to mention that where a similar idea occurs in the beginning of Romans 8, it’s in reference to Jewish self-identity (and thus to the point of unity in the church, in and because of the One true God of Israel). Hart also failed to mention that, where this disinheritance of the flesh is stated directly in 1 Corinthians 15, it is immediately followed up with and I think qualified by “we are transformed” (metamorphosis), as well as by the perishable and mortal “putting on” “in a moment” the imperishable and immortal. That would seem to tell the tale of what happened to Christ’s BODY, of what it was that Jesus told Mary not to embrace.

The beginning of the scriptural narrative affirms all of creation as GOOD. And, the end of the story is the mysterious union of heaven and earth, affirmed by both the end of Revelation and, per Wright, 1 Thes. 4: 13-18. As far as I can tell, this would mean that, in the end, God is “all in all” and "flesh" is redeemed. For Wright, Moses coming down off the Mountain of God, the heavenly city descending and God becoming the God of His people, and the victorious King returning to a previously planted colony are all re-enactments of the same image.

The sensitivity and responsiveness of flesh bends its path towards that which is passing away. But, I also take that to be a sign of life, though obviously that is not to say that the flesh is the source of life (part of Hart’s point is that Genesis 2:7 could also be read as “spirit” just as well as “breath”, I think). I tend to imagine the autism spectrum as being defined by an over-sensitivity to life to such a degree that well-ordered functioning becomes near impossible in our particularly speedy society marked by an overwhelming onslaught of alarms, lights, bells, neon signs, whistles, flashing signals, horns, and blinding reflections.

5. I think Hart is emblematic here of the tendency for academics to telescope complex questions into simple certainties, to over-reach for answers. That very same section of 1 Corinthians 15 says directly: “I will tell you a mystery.”

6. I wonder if DBH's bent here reflects his Eastern Orthodoxy? It makes me want to look more into that.

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