Four Branches – September 2021

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Exegetical Theology: Historical Gaps – Where is the surprise?

Our historical-grammatical hermeneutic requires bridging gaps. Studying the original language bridges the grammatical gap.  Over the next months, we will look at examples of how studying the original context bridges the historical gap.

Historical information can help clarify which thoughts in a text were expected by its first hearers and which were unexpected. In Mark 10 (gospel for Pentecost 21B) the rich man was surprised when Jesus said to sell everything and give it to the poor and he’d have treasure in heaven. But what was so surprising about that?

Was it that he should help the poor? No, almsgiving was an expected part of Jewish religion,[1]  so this man likely already had been giving. Was it the connection between charitable donations and heavenly treasures? No, that idea was commonplace.[2] Instead, it was the radical and unheard-of percentage Jesus required: 100%. The closest contemporary parallel is a sectarian group requiring members to cede control of all personal wealth to community leaders.[3] Rabbis not long after this time[4] considered having to sell property publicly degrading[5] and being reduced to poverty a kind of death.[6] They even capped the amount anyone should give at 20%, thinking no one should give to the point of making himself poor.[7]

A comparison with contemporary Jewish views on charity clarifies that the issue here isn’t strictly almsgiving. The issue lies in that inheriting eternal life would require complete devotion and comprehensive service to God above all things, not just outward obedience.

Later in this pericope we see how poor historical analysis can actually sabotage understanding of a text. Jesus compares a rich person entering God’s kingdom to a camel going through a needle’s eye. A longstanding pop-interpretation posits that ‘Eye of the Needle” was a Jerusalem gate so narrow that camels had to unload their freight before humbly crawling in.

However, there’s no evidence of any gate called “Eye of the Needle.” No commentator for over 1000 years understood Jesus as speaking about a gate. The narrow entryways some bible atlases and tour guides identify as the “Needle Gate” were built in the Middle Ages, and likely received that name because of this pop-interpretation. Additionally, the three Synoptics use different words for ‘eye’ and ‘needle,’[8] making it implausible that “Eye of the Needle” was a technical or proper name.

Jesus is speaking of a literal needle eye, and that makes a difference. Where the gate interpretation makes Jesus point that, just like camels through a narrow gate, a rich person must do the difficult work of unburdening themselves of all their possessions and humbling themselves low to get inside the kingdom of heaven, the literal needle interpretation emphasizes the absolute impossibility of a rich person being saved—unless God does it.

It’s not merely difficult for sinners to place their love and trust in God and not in ourselves and our stuff; it’s impossible.

Blessings, brothers, as you lean on and hold up before his people a God who does the impossible not just for us but in us.

Rev. Aaron Jensen serves as pastor at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monticello, MN.

[1] Deut 15:7-11; Prov 14:31; Sir 4:1-6; 7:10; 29:1; 35:2; ͻAbot 1.2, 5; Ketub. 49b; 68a.

[2] Prov 10:2; 19:17; Dan 4:24; Sir 3:14-15; 30; 7:32; 17:22-23; 29:8-13; Tob 4:7-11; 12:8-9; 14:10-11; 2 Bar. 14:12; 24:1; Pss. Sol. 9:5; ͻAbot 5:13-14; Peͻah 1:1.

[3] 1QS 1:11-13; 5:1-4; 6:1-2; 7:6-8; 9:7-8.

[4] When exploring parallels from Rabbinic materials, it is always important to pay attention to the date of the materials. Some come from the late first- and early second-century and cite rabbis from even earlier. Such writings can help to illustrate non-Christian Jewish thought at the time of the New Testament. However, rabbinic materials from centuries later are of comparatively little value for this purpose.

[5] Ketub. 2.10.

[6] Ned. 64b.

[7] Ketub. 50a. Cf. Sir 29:20.

[8] Matt: τρύπημα ῥαφίδος; Mark: τρυμαλιά ῥαφίδος; Luke: τρῆμα βελόνης.

Systematic Theology: The Theology of the Cross and Civil Affairs: A Match Worth Making

We live in a world that is divided.  Thanks to postmodernism, truth is now tribal.  Thanks to the internet, people can retreat into an echo chamber reinforcing their own opinions as right and all others as wrong.  Thanks to politics, differences in race, economic status, or gender identity matter more than any shared bonds.  These and many other fault lines seem well on their way to rending our world asunder.

In contrast we find in Scripture a marvelous unity.  When an expert in the law posed a question of Jesus asking him to divide Scripture by naming the greatest law, the Savior summed up the two commands on which all of Scripture hangs together.  Then for an encore he came back with a question meant to lead the Pharisees to see the connection between God’s law and his promises in the Christ (Matthew 22:34-46).  While systematics divides Scripture into logical chunks, this division works best when it emphasizes the unity of Scriptures and its doctrines.

We minister to members whose daily lives play out against the backdrop of our world’s divisions.  We ourselves may often feel the growing divide between our church and the society in which our church lives.  Likely the pandemic has only heightened that sense of division as our congregations and schools have wrestled with mask mandates and government ordered closures.  How do we as pastors not only faithfully teach our members what Scripture says about civil government, but “set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12b)?

It might be tempting to unite our view of civil government with the victim mentality pushed by some in our society, resulting in the thought: “We poor Christians have it so hard, because we are persecuted.”  It might be easy to filter the Bible’s teachings on civil government through the lens of Luther at Worms—seeing every point of division with government as a hill to die on.  It might even seem natural to shape what Scripture says about civil government to fit the mold of our American ideals of independence and individualism—insisting that government has no right to tread on me.  But we might do best if we connect what Scripture teaches about civil affairs with the theology of the cross.  When we make such a connection, we can more easily see the blessings of God that come under the crosses imposed through civil government and bear them.[1]  When we make such a connection, we may still live in a world that is deeply divided, but we will be uniquely prepared to deal with those divisions.  More on that next time.

Rev. Joshua Becker serves as Pastor at Christ Lutheran, Saginaw, MI.

Historical Theology: Lessons from the Early Church for Discipleship

The Christians have always been driven to find and reach, to evangelize, to catechize, to baptize and to commune the uninitiated, most often in that order.  But that’s a massive journey for a human soul.

“Making disciples,” which is our primary gospel business, is forming a rhythm of life in Christ.   From first encounter to enrolling and engaging in Jesus’ words in some formal way, to baptism, to confirmation, to saying prayers, to Supper, to assimilation, to bonding with the community, to service, to life-long study, to living out the love of God, to returning for His rest, to resting eternally in HIs presence, we’re engaging the new and old to lead and guide them on a journey to Christ and with Him.  It’s more than a doctrinal data dump; a disciple is more than one who intellectually agrees. Faith is believing God and having a relationship with Him.  From there, at St. Anselm said, “faith seeks understanding.” 

Forming disciples of Jesus has been a careful and deliberate, but evolving process in the Church.  We have some clues from the Pre-Nicene days, where a catechumenate developed in a setting hostile to the Church.  A more precise shape becomes clear in post-Constantinian Christianity.  I’ll share a basic sketch and hopefully some flavor of the formation process across the centuries in the next few months. 

In the first five centuries of Christianity, a general pattern of rites of initiation spans the East and West.  

1. Separation from a former status and entrance to the catechumenate.

2. A time of transition and preparation

3. The rites of initiation (baptism, confirmation, first communion) and incorporation into the community

4. A period of mystagogy, explanation of the mysteries.  

The journey into Christ and along with Him was marked with transcendent ceremonies (rites of passage).  The process was not hurried; it’s a massive journey.  Often, though certainly not always, the candidates for baptism prepared for three years and then experienced an intense preparation in the season of Lent preceding their baptism.  

Especially helpful for understanding the catechumenate in the fourth to fifth century are mystagogical sermons delivered the week after Easter to the newly baptized.  We have some of the preaching of Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose, Chrysostom and others.  I imagine if you’re reading this you have some experience with that history.

I’m going to let Egeria (late fourth century Spanish pilgrim to Jerusalem) share her experience.  A few selections from her travel diary, the Peregrinatio Egeriae: 

“I feel I should add something about the way they instruct those who are to be baptized at Easter.  Names must be given in before the first day of Lent…  Once the priest has all the names…one by one those seeking baptism are brought up, men coming with their godfathers and women with their godmothers.  As they come in one by one, the bishop asks their neighbors questions about them: “Is this person leading a good life?”…He asks about all the serious human vices…

All those to be baptized, the men and women, sit round him [the bishop] in a circle…His subject is God’s Law; during the forty days he goes through the whole Bible, beginning with Genesis…He also teaches them at this time all about the resurrection and the faith.  And this is called catechesis.  After five weeks teaching they receive the Creed…So the dismissal is at nine, which makes three hours teaching a day for seven weeks.  But in the eight, known as the Greet Week, there is no time…one by one the candidates go up to the bishop, men with their godfathers and women with their godmothers and repeat the Creed to him.  When they have done so, the bishop speaks to them as follows: “During the seven weeks you have received instruction in the whole biblical Law.  You have heard about the faith and the resurrection of the body.  You have also learned all you can as catechumens of the content of the Creed.  But the teaching about baptism itself is a deeper mystery, and you have not the right to hear it while you remain catechumens.  Do not think it will never be explained; you will hear it all during the eight days of Easter after you have been baptized.  But so long as you are catechumens you cannot be told God’s deep mysteries.”1

Rev. Tyler Peil serves as Pastor at Prince of Peace, Salt Lake City, UT

 1. Johnson, M. E. (2007). pages 125-126. In The rites of Christian Initiation: Their evolution and interpretation. essay, Liturgical Press. 

[1] For a reading that does an interesting job of laying out the intersection of the cross and civil government as part of the lived experience of Christians you might want to read chapter L of Tertullian’s “Apology” (Tertullian:  The Apology, translated by Wm. Reeve, (1709 reprinted 1889)).

Practical Theology: The Hidden Pastor

“Pastor, it doesn’t matter how I personally feel. What matters is what is best for the church.” This is a statement our church president made as we were approaching a team meeting. The decision that hung in the balance could be potentially upsetting depending on your point of view on how to handle COVID. It was a beautiful response. And while as his pastor I still cared where he stood, he knew something more important was at stake.

It reminds me of what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” Paul here lays aside how he personally feels and operates because there is something bigger at stake. That bigger things is for people to see their Savior and be saved through the Gospel.

This past year as pastors it was difficult to hide our personal preferences. As people we still have opinions on what our government is doing, on masks, and on vaccines.  As pastors who take great joy in proclaiming God’s grace to others, let us remember God’s grace is for us too when we err.

And yet what do God’s people need? They need to see their Savior Jesus and to hear his Word. He addresses the biggest issues. He is the King of Kings, regardless of the earthy ruler. He is the one who has ordained all our days, regardless of how people choose to steward the bodies God gave them. He is the one who unites us in an eternal family regardless of the differences that have the potential to divide.

As pastors we should do our best to keep the main thing the main thing, remembering that our calling is to be an ambassador for him. More important than who we are is who Jesus is, and others ability to hear him through us. Let us be careful that we do not lose an audience for the Gospel because we weighed in on divisive issues. Below are some considerations for how to become the hidden pastor in an age of division.

Work with your church to establish an environment where everyone can be comfortable. Should we have a masked required service, a mask recommended, or mask optional service? (I recognize this varies by state, I am in Illinois.) If you have members on either side, is it possible a worship environment that can accommodate those preferences? Could you perhaps add an additional service to ensure all can worship comfortably?

Continued caution on social media. This is not new news. If you choose to post on social media, remember that many people are listening to what you say. If you share a strong personal preference on a divisive issue, you could lose an audience for the Gospel.

– Empathize with those you serve and share their story. Do you know of someone who has lost a loved one due to COVID? How cautious might they be after having gone through that experience? Do you know of someone who struggles to wear a mask because of asthma, or struggles with the vaccine because of negative reaction to one? Can you put yourself in their shoes? Listen to them. Imagine what that would feel like. And when appropriate represent them in conversation to others. Yes, we will never make everyone happy. But we can lead in what it is to show love and understanding.

Rev. Dustin Blumer serves as Pastor at Amazing Love Lutheran, Joliet, IL.