This lection reminded me of a book title from a few years back: Good News is Bad News is Good News.
Our pericope for this week is certainly about the good news in connection with Jesus as he preaches his first home-town sermon in Nazareth. True enough! But like a lot of good news, there’s often a little bad news lurking quietly underneath. Perhaps Luther was not too far off, the gospel is kakevangelium before it is evangelium.
Given the happy description of Jesus’ Galilean ministry in 4:14-15, it takes some work to discern the hidden bad news. But when someone announces that you’ve been healed, it presupposes you had something you needed to be healed from. If someone says, “you’re forgiven,” it doesn’t make sense unless you needed something to be forgiven for. Good news is bad news is good news.
With the story of Jesus in Luke 4, however, this reality gets even more complicated as the Nazareth synagogue sermon continues. The issue for us is not just about North American middle-class individual good news or bad news, but the ancient world’s corporate variety. Jesus shows up in his home town synagogue in good pious fashion: he attends on the Sabbath as was his custom, he had been brought up locally, and ultimately he stands up as a now famous figure to read the text for the day — this Jesus is a devoted local boy who turned out well (Luke 2:52).
But the words Jesus reads are those of the great prophet, Isaiah. And Isaiah moves quickly from the singular of character to the plural good news of shared public life and justice: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and has anointed me.” But this Spirit is calling the singular anointed one to attend to the plural reality: to preach good news to the poor, release to prisoners, sight for the blind, and relief for those who are downtrodden. The final part is reminiscent of the year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25: “and to proclaim the year of Lord’s favor.”
All of those plural nouns only bring out the theological complexity of the moment: good news for the poor may mean bad news for the non-poor. Indeed, the jubilee year of the Lord’s favor sounds great if you need the redistribution of now alienated ancestral lands, but if you have amassed someone else’s land –not so much. Now we see the same gospel problem at a whole new, corporate level: good news is bad news is good news.
But add to this synagogue scene one final layer of complexity: the word of Jesus is where all this news meets today. And the person of Jesus is the very place where Luke stakes his story of the Gospel. It is Jesus who reads this amalgam of Isaianic texts (61:1; 58:6; 61:2), closes the scroll, hands it to the attendant, and sits down — did you catch that, sits down? Jesus sits to teach, to exposit his text, as it were, as a preacher in the midst of the messiness of traditions, a jumble of received practices, and all the local particularities of a Jewish synagogue worship tradition that until 70 CE ran alongside the central Temple rites, but would afterward stand at the center of rabbinic Judaism.
But what Jesus says practically cracks open the traditions with a brazen speech-act: his is a word that does something, “today this text has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He’s not so much giving information in a lecture as he is announcing an emancipation or proclaiming an amnesty — the kind of word that changes things. The key term in his announcement is an eschatological word — today! In his person, in this moment in a Galilean synagogue, in this word a divine future is dawning today.
Yet the trick is this: one has to be open enough to hear this news from Jesus’ lips to your ears. And this is precisely what makes good news, bad news, and yet good news. This Jesus who by Spirit and anointing announces the fulfillment of the prophet’s dream today, is nonetheless always being accepted and rejected, celebrated and vilified in the Lukan narrative. This is all part of Luke’s more tragic vision of Jesus’ good news.
Luke is no theologian of glory, but in his own way a narrative theologian of the cross.1 Just as Simeon pointed out in Luke 2:35, Jesus is set for the falling and rising of many. Unfortunately, this justice vision is not ever going to pass by acclamation — “of course, everybody is for justice!” It will rather be both graciously given and practically hard-won. Through this person, Jesus, on this day, in this place of worship. Good news is bad news is good news. O, people of God, may it be so. Let the struggle begin.
I work at a theological seminary where this Lukan text is set in stained glass in a stairwell. It is a beautiful, broken-glass vision of God’s messianic purposes for grace and justice in Jesus. We at Boston University School of Theology tend to resonate with that vision because we aspire to be a schola prophetarum, a “school for the prophets.” Yet if you are a student with a disability or a faculty person of color, you may be all too aware that the vision both graces and challenges the seminary community which professes to place its hope in it. We see the stained-glass vision of Luke 4 through our own prisms of privilege and intersectionality in it every day as we move up and down in this place of theological learning: indeed, good news is bad news is good news.
The book of Ezra-Nehemiah could have easily ended at Nehemiah 7.
By that time, the people had returned to Judah, rebuilt the temple and restored the city walls. Nehemiah 7 closes a section with a long genealogy of the repatriates, a list which largely matches the genealogy of Ezra 2. The very end at Nehemiah 7:73 indicates that the people of Israel had settled in their cities. The idea of “settling” is fitting closure for a narrative that centers on a diasporic people, who return to a homeland after multiple generations in exile.
But the story is not yet complete. Nehemiah 8 opens with a reintroduction of the scribe and priest, Ezra. Perhaps the conclusion of settling in cities was premature. Questions remained. How was the community to live in shalom with one another? What were some principles for reformulating a collective identity as worshippers of God? How can we prevent any further divine punishment?
Nehemiah 8 answers these questions by elevating the place of the Torah in the community. This emphasis largely matches the rest of the Old Testament. From the Exodus narratives, the Torah occupies a central role in God’s instruction. In biblical texts, the word “Torah” refers to both the teaching of God as well as the specific legal code given to Moses. The revelation of Torah crystallizes in the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and is associated with instructions on sacrifices and purity.
“The Book of Torah of Moses”
But Nehemiah 8 shows a very significant development of the term Torah. For Nehemiah, the Torah is still teaching, and it is still specific instruction associated with legal materials. But Torah was understood to be a collection of material circulated through oral transmission. God spoke on Mount Sinai. The entire book of Deuteronomy is essentially a long speech! But Nehemiah uses a very rare phrase, “Book of the Torah of Moses” (8:1) to categorize Torah as a written text. Ezra reads from it (8:3). He opens the book (8:5) and this act engenders a response of respect from the people (8:5). It is read and then interpreted (8:8). As the reader, Ezra’s qualifications are underscored with two mentions of his office as a scribe (8:1, 9).
Remember that at the time of Ezra-Nehemiah, Judah is still a very oral society with literacy at less than 3% and restricted to the elite. Most people did not have direct access to the Word of God. That is why the book or scroll was brought before the people. With the written Torah, everyone could hear the teachings of God. Consider that Ezra was a scribe. Not only was he of the 3% literate, but as a professional scribe, he was probably the most literate of the community. He would be one of the select few who could actually have some sort of access to this Torah. But the leadership decision is not to talk about Torah, but to empower the rest of the people by reading directly from the written text.
And the reading is not merely a few moments. Ezra chooses from early morning to midday and the people listen. And this reading from the book of Torah was powerful. Ezra read for 6-7 hours and the people were attentive. How can that be? Imagine that you were not literate, and you did not have access to Bibles, and together in a community. This was a rough time. You are socially displaced, living back in Jerusalem, but everywhere you go is a reminder that God had allowed destruction of the temple and the rulers are not Davides but Persians. But you get a rare opportunity to hear the word of God. The people had a deep hunger for the Torah, they had a deep hunger for the teachings of God because their lives needed it.
The reading of the Torah brought a natural response of the people. It was bodily, with people standing up in response. The lifting of hands was a sign of need and dependence explained in Psalms 28:2 and 134:2. Their bodies naturally turned to positions of worship in response to the reading of Torah.
“All who have ears to hear”
Another striking aspect of the passage is a fierce inclusivity. The Torah was meant for all. The text specifically refers to both “men and women.” Grammatically, the Hebrew word for “men” can be understood as inclusive of both genders. In fact, it is rare for the Bible, or even any pre-modern literature to specifically address both men and women. Even throughout church history, the main figures are almost exclusively men: Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, the reformers, and Karl Barth. I suggest that the explicit descriptor of “men and women” is deliberate and that leadership is inclusive. And it is not only women, but all who could hear with understanding –this includes children.
A fitting application today, in 2019, is the idea that the hearers of Torah are not delimited by gender lines but extends to all liminal spaces including ethnicity, class, different degrees of able-bodiness, and age, or any other external category. Leadership belongs to the community, so it must be inclusive. And the address of “men and women” in verses 2 and 3 is complemented by the address to “all the people” in verses 1, 5, 6.
This written Torah is still transformative today. I encourage you to refrain from legalistic assumptions, dangerously anti-Semitic in much Christian interpretation. But instead, I suggest that you embrace a form of Torah that is powerful, inclusive, and brings about transformation in a community in need of learning to live in the reality of God’s love.
Epiphany and the days surrounding it celebrate the “appearance” or “manifestation” (the meaning of the name’s Greek root) of God in the world.
Most immediately, the church reflects on the appearance of the infant Christ — particularly to the Gentile world the magi represent — but the other lectionary readings of this season provide opportunities to reflect on a whole variety of divine manifestations. On this third Sunday after the Epiphany, Psalm 19 represents, in many ways, a poetic celebration of this variety and how it works to bring humanity into relationship with the God who appears in creation, in instruction, in relationship, and in flesh.
Like many psalms, Psalm 19 defies simple genre categorization. Scholars believe the psalm’s current form is a composite of originally separate psalms: a creation hymn (verses 1-6), hymn to God’s torah or “instruction” (verses 7-10), and the prayer of a servant (verses 11-14). The celebration of speech illustrated by related images holds these parts together.1 In the context of Epiphany, a sermon on this text might emphasize the power of speech of all kinds (not always using words!) to make things known — God to humanity, humanity to itself, humanity to God, and so on.
Psalm 19 begins on a cosmic level and progressively narrows to conclude with the human heart.2
The theme of revelation through speech dominates the opening verses (verses 1-4). Every line contains some reference to it: the heavens declare, the firmament proclaims, speech is poured out, knowledge declared, and even the silence of creation sends forth wordless words and voiceless voices about the Creator. The psalmist then focuses on how one part of creation — the sun — makes known the glory of the God who created it merely by being (verses 5-6).
The sun was a critical part of ancient Near Eastern religions, and many scholars think that the psalmist has adapted a Canaanite or Babylonian hymn to the sun god as a polemic against these other deities. In Psalm 19, nothing is hidden from the sun and its journey across the heavens, but the sun is clearly subservient to the God who set its course.3 The light and heat and life the sun brings are just a few examples of how God appears in and cares for the world.
The next portion of the psalm turns from God “showing” God’s character to “telling” about it through divine instruction about who God is and how God intends us to live in relationship (verses 7-10). Fittingly for a psalm about speech, the psalmist offers in these verses six different synonyms for the Hebrew word torah: law, decrees, precepts, commandment, fear, and ordinances.4 This section also introduces the personal name of God — Yahweh, “the LORD” — rather than the more general name — El, “God” — that appeared in the first section.
Yahweh is the God who spoke out of the burning bush to Moses, who led Israel out of slavery, and who gave the gift of instruction at Sinai to help the people live in right relationship to Yahweh and to each other. Yahweh’s words are as eternal and unquenchable as the sun and prompt those who encounter them to recognize Yahweh’s power and to live as Yahweh calls. Far from being the burden we often associate with instructions, the psalmist characterizes life lived in accordance with Yahweh’s speech as revitalizing, joyful, illuminating, and sweeter than honey.
With an introductory “Moreover,” the final section of Psalm 19 builds on the preceding celebration of Yahweh’s torah to illustrate how those to whom God speaks also speak to God (verses 11-14). Here the psalmist starts using second-person pronouns to speak directly to the God who has appeared across the cosmos, in specific instructions, and who has invited creation into relationship guided by these instructions. After the dramatic hymns in verses 1-10, this prayer testifies to the fact that the God of creation and Sinai wants to have a dialogue with us, not just speak in soliloquies. The psalm ends with the psalmist asking the God whose glory is announced by every aspect of creation and who speaks perfect instruction to help ensure the psalmist’s own speech — external and internal — pours forth as an “acceptable” offering of praise.5
Psalm 19 and Epiphany
Psalm 19 offers preachers numerous avenues for exploring different ways God appears and what implications these appearances have for our lives:
Beyond the text or the sermon, the diversity of divine appearances in Psalm 19 can encourage congregants to pay attention to how God appears in diverse ways in their day-to-day lives — and to celebrate that diversity together.
Earlier in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, Paul emphasized that there are varieties of gifts from the Spirit.
There are also varieties of services informed by the Lord, and varieties of deeds activated by God. Now in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, he deals with what it means to have such varieties of gifts in the church and how each member should relate with one another. Namely, he deals with the body politics in which key terms are the body, Christ, and the community.
In 1 Corinthians 12:12, he says, “The body is one and has many members.” “The body” (soma) is a technical term, which means more than one thing. It can be a human body or a community in a metaphorical sense. But probably he refers to the human body in this verse because he uses the human body as an analogy throughout 12:15-26.
In the human body there are many parts (mele, which means “parts” of the human body such as a foot or a hand). Alluding to the human body, he states: “The body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body” (12:12). This statement rings very true, but the meaning of it is not so obvious as we think because the relation between “one body and many parts” can be construed differently.
In other words, we can think of the following questions: “In what sense is the body one, or how does the body maintain its oneness? Does he mean that the body is one because it is a hierarchical organism where the head is a central part under which all other parts are subsumed? Or does he mean that the body is one because it is a system of mutual support and solidifying union with all parts, including the head?” All these questions will be answered one way or another throughout this commentary.
Having said “the body is one and has many members,” interestingly, he now connects the above body talk to Christ, as he says at the end of 1 Corinthians 12:12: “So it is with Christ.” Christ is the body just like the human body that has many parts. In this frame thinking, Christ is not the head of the body but the body itself (compare with Colossians 1:18). He is the body to which many members are united. Here the language of union echoes 1 Corinthians 6:15-20 in which Paul emphasizes the importance of union with Christ in terms of the Corinthians’ ethical behavior.
It is worth quoting 1 Corinthians 6:15-17: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’ But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” In other words, the ideal relationships within the community need Christ’s spirit and his work, as he also hints in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
In such an ideal Christ-informed community, all must be equally respected regardless of their class, ethnicity, or gender. All were baptized into one body and were made to drink of one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). However, here, oneness or unity of the community should not be confused with the Stoic ideal of unity (homonoia) where Rome is center and elites control the lower class people.
To further back up his point of the ideal Christian community, Paul takes up the human body as an analogy. In 1 Corinthians 12:14, he states that “the body does not consist of one member but of many,” echoing his protest against the hegemonic body politics of society where the head (the Emperor) controls the rest. In that hegemonic body, not all members are treated equally or respectfully. Rather, the lesser or unfortunate serve the bigger or the strong. But Paul’s body politics is very different from Rome’s. In 12:15-26, he characterizes the ideal marks of such an egalitarian body politic.
Paul understands the human body not as a hierarchical system but as a supplementing, solidifying union with various parts. There are many parts in the body; the foot is different from the hand, but that would not make it any less a part of the body. All parts work differently, but they are all needed in the body. As the Spirit chooses which gift to allot (12:11), God “arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (12:18). This means all parts of the body are necessary and important.
The above idea of the body applies to the Christ-informed community. No part can say, “I have no need of you.” Even the head cannot say to the feet, “I have no need of you” (1 Corinthians 12:21). Note here that even the head, considered to be the central part, cannot degrade other parts.
Unlike in the society, Paul says, “On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect” (12:22-23). In the body, the greater honor is given to the inferior member; there should be “no dissension within the body” (12:25). Also, in the body, “the members have the same care for one another” (12:25). Furthermore, “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (12:26).
With the above characterization of the Christ-informed community, Paul concludes: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). “The body of Christ” (soma christou) as a metaphor has traditionally been understood as an organism metaphor: “a community belonging to Christ.” But this metaphor may be also understood as a metaphor “for a way of living”: A Christic body as a Christ-informed community and personal life.1 “You” (the Corinthians) are predicated on the “Christic body.” If the body is ruled by sin, it is the sin-ruled body (Romans 6:6). Likewise, if Christ rules or informs members of the community, it is the Christ-informed community. They are a Christic body and have to embody Christ communally and individually.
Having established the Christ-informed community, Paul now lists, in 1 Corinthians 12:28-31a, various works done by the members of the church, as he did regarding the gifts of the Spirit in 12:7-10. He states that “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues” (12:28). Ordinal numbers in the list do not seem to convey the notion of hierarchy or rank among different works in the church because, as we saw above in 12:12-27, the Christ-informed community is not run by such a hierarchy, as even the head does not dominate the whole body. While apostles are important in the church and appear first in the list, that does not necessarily mean that they are better than others.