Thursday, December 11, 2014

WHAT - YOU'RE PREGNANT?

Whenever and in whatever manner the Christmas story is told, there's a character of whom we don't hear a lot.  Oh, he's there, but he usually doesn't seem to have an important role.  In the nativity scene he's seen bowing piously before the manger; in the pageants he's seen leading the donkey on which Mary sits, or he's knocking at the door of the inn.
 
No, Joseph doesn't seem that important.  In the Gospels, he's not around much after the Christmas story, except for a few disparaging remarks about "the carpenter." And yet he is the main character in Matthew's version of the Christmas story. The first 17 verses of the New Testament give the royal genealogy of Jesus through Joseph - even though Joseph was not Jesus' biological father.
 
After the genealogy Matthew begins his story with a brief account of Joseph's dilemma:  "Now the birth story of Jesus Christ was like this:  when His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph - before they came together - she was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit.  And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wishing to put her to public shame, decided to divorce her privately" (Matthew 1:18, 19).

Joseph and Mary were not simply "engaged" as many modern translations tell us.  Betrothal under the Mosaic Law meant that they were actually legally married; the bride price had been paid and vows had been exchanged.  Only one thing remained undone during this period - the actual consummation of the marriage through sexual union. (This was different of course from our modern "enlightened" custom, where sex comes first.
 
There's a lot packed into these two verses.  I've tried to put myself in Joseph's place and imagine his emotional reaction to the discovery that his beloved was pregnant and he wasn't the father.  Perhaps the discovery occurred when Mary returned from her three-month visit with her cousin Elizabeth as related in Luke's Gospel.  Perhaps she was beginning to show.  I can imagine the dialogue as she approaches.
 
Joseph:  "It's my pure precious Mary, returning at last.  It's so wonderful to see you again.  I've missed you so.  You look so good.  But Mary, you've changed!  You seem to have - uh - gained a little weight."
Mary:  "I'm pregnant Joseph."
Joseph:  "You're pregnant?  You're kidding right?"
Mary:  "No, I'm pregnant ..."
Joseph:  "Mary!  No!  How can this be?  How could this happen?  You've always been so pure!  What have you done?  You've broken your vows!  Who...?  What...?  Why ...?"
Mary:  "Joseph, please calm down.  I'm still a virgin."
Joseph:  "Mary, that's nonsense!  How can you be pregnant and still a virgin?"
Mary:  "The Holy Spirit came upon me and the power of the Most High overshadowed me.  And the Child within me is holy.  He's the Son of God!"

I can feel the confusion and the conflicting emotions in Joseph and can hear his voice rising with every word he speaks.

Joseph:  "Mary, stop saying crazy things.  That's impossible!"
Mary:  "Nothing is impossible with God!"
Joseph:  "I know that!  Of course, I know that!  I've said it myself many times.  But God doesn't work this way!  Not since Adam has a man come into this world without a human father!       But what am I doing arguing theology with you?"
Mary:  "Please Joseph, let me tell you how this happened.  You see the angel Gabriel came to me and ..."
Joseph:  "An angel?  Mary, you know angels don't speak to us anymore!  That only happened in the Bible!"
Mary:  "Please, let me explain ..."
Joseph:  "Mary, you know that I love you!  But it's clear that you have sinned horribly - against God and against me.  Your adultery is bad enough.  Don't make matters worse by making up this lie.  Don't blaspheme God by blaming Him for your sin!"
Mary:  "Joseph ..."
Joseph:  "Mary, Mary - please stop talking.  I'll have to divorce you.  I could have you stoned for adultery but I can't do that.  Just go away.  You've ruined our lives!”

Matthew continues his narrative, telling us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and explained matters.  Joseph does take Mary as his wife but the marriage is not consummated until after the birth of Jesus.

Most of the rest of the story is familiar and can be found in the following verses.  But one thing about the angel's speech may tell us a bit more about Joseph.  The angel told him, "Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife ..." (verse 20).

Why did the angel tell him this?  Was fear a factor in Joseph's reaction to Mary's condition?  Undoubtedly he felt the pressure on himself from different directions.  We're told that he was "righteous".  Not self-righteous, but genuinely righteous in the sense of walking with God and following God's laws.  He clearly had a love for Mary.  We may suppose that, knowing that both he and Mary were of the line of David, he had hoped that one day their son might turn out to be the Messiah.

And yet if he took Mary as his wife the shame of their first son's being illegitimate would haunt them.  Hopes for the future would be dashed.

We don't know what became of Joseph beyond the first few chapters of Matthew's and Luke's Gospels.  Apparently he died and left Mary a widow by the time Jesus entered His public ministry.  But if Joseph feared shame, the shame would follow his step-Son until Jesus' death.  We read that years later, some of those who opposed Jesus would say to Him, "We weren't born of fornication ..." (John 8:41).  Perhaps that question about Jesus, "Isn't this the carpenter's son?" (Matthew 13:55) was more than simply a reference to Jesus' lowly birth.  There may have been more to it than that.  Perhaps the implication was, "Isn't this the illegitimate child, who that carpenter took for his own.  What a disgrace!"

There are many places in this world, even in this country, where followers of the carpenter's Son may experience fear, shame and disgrace.  There are even places where Christ's followers fear for their lives.  Joseph overcame his fears by simply surrendering himself to the will of God.

Monday, November 17, 2014

DOES COMING OUT MATTER?


Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, recently publicly admitted he is gay, according to an article in The Week Magazine (11/14/2014, page 18).  In a Bloomberg Businessweek essay, he said, "While I have never denied my sexuality I haven't publicly acknowledged it either ...  Let it be clear:  I'm proud to be gay, and I consider being gay one of the greatest gifts God has given me."

The comments were varied:
·       "Cook send an important signal to young gay Americans still living in fear and demonstrated how far our country has traveled on gay rights in recent years."
·       His announcement "was blissfully mundane."
·       "No one cares ... liberals act as if its 1950 and the townsfolk are ready to grab their pitchforks and torches."
·       "If anything, the Apple CEO should have spoken earlier, rather than stay in the closet until He'd made his millions."
·       "Don't expect more Fortune 500 CEOs to follow suit."
·       "Coming out in ... Silicon Valley is one thing ... Corporate America is still dominated by long standing stereotypes of gay men being weak, passive or inferior."
·       And so on - there were many more.

Sports stars, movie stars, celebs of every sort, newsmen, even politicians, have been coming out as gay for quite a while.  Each time they are met with similar reactions.  And, of course, there are other reactions - often more negative - that don't get published.  They can be heard in any office, bar, coffee shop or even church parlor.

As I read these various comments, the question that came to mind was, what if Cook had "come out" as a follower of Christ?  What would be the comments be?  So I re-read the article aloud to Uni, substituting the word "Christian" or some appropriately related word wherever "gay" was used.  We had a few chuckles.

I suppose the reactions would be quite similar, some negative and some positive and some ho-hum.  In some locations in America, the coming out would be expected; isn't everybody a Christian?  Elsewhere in America, he would be the object of mockery and derision.  If he were in some other profession his position would be threatened.

Of course, in some nations of the world, coming out as gay or Christian would invite the death penalty.

Gays want acceptance and in many ways and places they are accepted, though they're not there yet.  They merely want what they feel various ethnic groups have found.  Isn't that what Christians want for ourselves?  And we have it, though there appears to be a rising resentment of us here in America.

Why are Christians accepted in America?  Well, for one thing, Christianity dominates our culture.  Most Americans still consider themselves Christians, so it's no big deal, is it?

But there are many who would object to any public figure who openly professed Christianity.  To many, "Christian" has become a dirty word.  It is equated with ignorance, superstition, bigotry, right wing politics, etc.  So we're either bland - who cares? - or we're hypocrites.

Shouldn't our profession of being a follower of Christ make a radical difference?  We're told in Acts 11:26 that "the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch."  Note that they "were called Christians."  It doesn't say that they called themselves Christians.  Apparently it was outsiders who gave them this label.

And it was the ”disciples" who were labeled thus.  There's no reason to think that Luke changed his definition of disciple from that found in his gospel (see:  Luke 14:26, 27, 33).  Being a Christian does not mean being part of an ethnic or cultural group or a philosophical school or a religious sect.  Being a Christian means being a disciple - a radically committed person who has placed his loyalty to Christ above all else.  It means being a person who actively loves every one of his or her fellow human beings.

What would happen to the public figure who would come out of the closet as one of those people?

Of course, it's possible that if a person was truly living such a radical lifestyle, he wouldn't have to come out of the closet.  Everyone would already know what he was.

"Let your light so shine before men
that they'd see your good works
 and glorify your Father who is in the Heavens."
(Matthew 5:16)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

IT'S ALL GREEK TO ME!

When I teach or preach from the New Testament, I usually read and translate directly from my Greek text.  I don't do this to show off or to impress people; most who hear me don't even realize I'm doing so, other than those who ask the occasional question as to what translation I use.  (I usually tell them I use the BLT.  If that doesn't satisfy I explain that BLT stands for Bill's Literal Translation).  Of course some actually notice and make the comment mentioned above.

I have been reading and studying my Greek Testament regularly for nearly 40 years.  One requirement for my Master's Degree in New Testament, besides grammatical and exegetical studies was to read through the entire Greek New Testament at least once (though most of it was read more than that).  I was hooked and since then I have read it through at least once a year.  I actually feel more at home in it than in my English New Testament.  I have also read and continue to read in my Hebrew Old Testament (with difficulty) as well as in the Septuagint.  I have never formally taught Greek other than a one hour credit class at the College of Biblical Studies - Houston, entitled:  "The Greek New Testament for English Readers."  I have occasionally tutored or mentored a few persons in the study as well.

So when a friend posted an article on facebook entitled "3 Ways Not To Use Greek in Bible Study" it got my attention.

Though the author of the article concedes that "there is nothing wrong with wanting to know some things about the language that God gave us for the New Testament," he warns us that "there are also dangers involved."  While after my first reading I found myself in essential agreement with the article and even hit "like" on the post, I felt a bit uncomfortable and felt that even though the author asserts that he is "not trying to discourage anyone from studying Greek," he was doing just that.  I also felt that it could become an excuse for those who are teachers and preachers, for neglecting the original languages.

I agree with most of what the article states.  I feel along with this writer that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and I agree with his three points - to a point.  I'd like to add my thoughts to the points made there which I see as actually two.

Point 1:  "Usage Trumps Etymology:  Avoiding the Root Fallacy" and Point 3:  "Context is King:  Avoiding the Overload Fallacy" seem to be saying much the same thing. "... a word's meaning is not determined by its etymology, but by its usage."  "Most words don't have a 'literal meaning' at all - rather, they have a range of possible meanings (the technical term is 'semantic range.'"  "Context usually narrows the possible meanings to one (an exception would be ... puns)."
Point 2:  "Scholars are Necessary:  Avoiding the Cult of the Amateur" seems clear except that it is used simply to reinforce Points 1 and 3.

The article appears to assume that word study is a major aspect in doing Greek exegesis.  Actually the sort of studies described requires little knowledge of the original languages, just some skill in the use of a concordance, which is available to the English reader.

One does not have to be skilled in the original languages to be a gifted Bible teacher.  I myself studied and taught the Bible with a reasonable amount of proficiency for many years before my formal education.  Many of those from whom I learned had no proficiency in the languages; some didn't even have that good a command of our native English!

But I contend that a familiarity with the language in which our Bible was originally written is an asset which the use of helps can only partially provide.  I write this at the desk in my study with volumes of helps - concordances, lexicons and commentaries on the shelves behind me.

As far as the use of words, I agree that usage trumps etymology and that context is king.  But knowledge of the "original" or "root" meanings of words brings a color to the book that simple context definitions cannot.  As in any language, words have many meanings, even in the same context.  Much of language is metaphorical and the careful reader or listener understands that words do have more than one meaning and that though a word may have a single specific meaning in a particular context, it often carries with it its other meanings.  Puns, double entendres, sarcasm and subtle nuances are much more common than a literalistic reader might suppose.

Some examples:
·       Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane with His disciples on the night before His betrayal.  He is burdened down and leaves them to go off alone to pray.  He tells them:  meinate hode kai gregoreite (Mark 14:34).  Most translations, even modern ones translate this something like "stay here and watch," which is probably what was meant.  But gregoreo has the "original" meaning of "stay awake."  To translate it simply as "watch" would be accurate, but the reader would miss the irony of the fact that they fell asleep.
·       Paul exhorts his readers many times, peripateite (Ephesians 4:1, 17; 5:1, 15, etc.).  Some modern versions (though not all) translate this word simply as "live," referring to Christian behavior or conduct.  But the "root" meaning of pateo is "walk" and the prefix peri has the meaning of "around."  The Christian is not exhorted to passively "live" but to have an active life - a life in motion.

And while word meanings do change over time, some retain their meanings over centuries, even millennia.  When Paul tells his readers that the Holy Spirit is our arrabon (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:13, 14), he is using a word that already in his day was 2,000 years old; it was actually an ancient Hebrew (or possibly Aramaic) word.  Its first biblical usage is in the Hebrew Old Testament, Genesis 38:17, 18, 20 in the spicy story of Tamar and Judah.  Judah contracts for sex with his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar who has disguised herself as a prostitute.  He promises her "a kid from the flock" for her favors (the going rate?) and gives her his seal, cord and staff as an arrabon.  The word in Paul is translated variously as "earnest," "pledge," "down payment," but I suspect that his astute readers may have recalled the earlier context.  (The word is still found today in modern Greek and is used of an engagement ring.)

And then there are synonyms.  No two words have precisely the same meaning.  While synonyms have an overlap in meaning and in many contexts seem to be used simply for variety, there are many instances where their differences in meaning are quite clear.
·       The words allos and heteros can simply be translated interchangeably in many contexts as "other" or "another."  In 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, Paul uses allos six times and heteros twice with no clear difference.  Most English translations translate both words consistently as "another."  But in his letter to the Galatians, while he uses both words in one context, their subtle differences in meaning are clear.  "I am amazed that so quickly you have moved away from the One who called you in the grace of Christ to another (heteros) gospel - which is not another (allos) ..."  Most modern translations translate heteros here as "a different ..." (Galatians 1:6, 7) bringing out the difference in meaning.
·       The author of the article states, "Turns out that agape and philos (I believe that he meant to say philia) aren't really different kinds of love after all ..."  Apparently this is something that he learned from "scholars" in his "first couple of weeks of class."  However, while the words are synonyms and in many instances may simply be translated as "love," a careful study of all the New Testament usages will demonstrate that there are clear differences.  See:  I LOVE YOU LORD and WHAT IS LOVE?

And of course, language studies are much more than studies of word meanings.  Grammar is an important part.  Greek verb tenses differ from our English tenses.  For instance, while in English we have a simple past tense, Greek has two,  the aorist and the imperfect, which give much more color to the action.  To oversimplify (always dangerous) the aorist presents a snapshot:  "he ran," while the imperfect presents a motion picture:  "he was running."  English often has to use "helper words" to get the same color.

One example:  in John 11:35 we read edakrusen ho lesous.  Normally this is translated "Jesus wept."  But the verb dakruo here is not the normal word for weeping but is related to the word dakruon, "tear."  It is also in the aorist tense.  This, the shortest verse in the Bible, is thus packed with meaning.  It could be translated "Jesus burst into tears!"  The Greek reader could catch this.  Also see:  GRAMMAR AND THE GREAT COMMISSION.

I agree with Point 2  on the value of scholarship.  However, scholars quite often disagree with one another.  If we simply compare Bible translations we will frequently find conflicts.  We all - scholars or lay persons or those in between - fail to distinguish degrees of certainty and can be dogmatic where we have little or no right to be.  This is where some knowledge of the original languages can be of great help - not to arrive at new interpretations but to check on existing ones.  In regard to the experts, we should "trust but verify!"

So, while I would encourage the English reader that we have some excellent translations and excellent commentaries that can be trusted, I would also encourage the student - especially if you teach - to dig a little deeper using a good concordance and lexicon.  Get the feel for the Bible. Remember it's a lifetime process.

And do watch out.  A little learning can be a dangerous thing!

Monday, November 3, 2014

DEATH OF A KING

I recently finished reading the book, Death of a King:  The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King's Final Year, by Tavis Smiley with David Ritz.
 
This is a powerful book but not one to read when you're down.  Though it is brief and well-written, I found I had to chew on it in small bites and I was thankful that it was composed in brief chapters.  There are other, fuller biographies of Dr. King, which I would recommend, such as David Garrow's Bearing the Cross or Taylor Branch's 3-volume set subtitled America in the King Years.  These books will fill in much of what we need to know about Dr. King's life and the Civil Rights' movement in which he was involved.

But this book is different; it is as the title tells us, only concerned with the year preceding Dr. King's assassination.  It does not delve into the details of the movement and its surrounding politics.  It tells little about the rival factions in the movement.  It tells us nothing about Dr. King's assassin.

Smiley is concerned rather with Dr. King himself (whom he refers to as "Doc"), as much as possible getting inside his head.  He uses memoirs and personal interviews with Dr. King's associates and friends.  He delves into his speeches and writings which reveal much about the man.  Smiley does an excellent job; the reader can feel the author's empathy.  Clearly, Dr. King is his hero, yet he is not afraid to portray him warts and all.

The story begins on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before the assassination, with King's "dramatic and controversial speech in impassioned opposition to the Vietnam War" (page 5 - Smiley quotes portions of this and other speeches throughout the book.)

Though Dr. King had spoken against the war before his April 4th speech, it was this speech that marked his final break with the Johnson administration.  One of the great tragedies of our time was the break between these two men.  Lyndon Johnson and Martin King had both previously worked tirelessly together on Civil Rights' legislation.  Lyndon Johnson was and probably still should be regarded as the President who did the most for Civil Rights since Abraham Lincoln.  But his involvement in and escalation of what is perceived by many as a senseless war, drew a shadow over what he had accomplished.

Dr. King saw the war as most wars are, a rich man's war fought by poor men.  The draft took a disproportionate number of those same African-Americans for whom Dr. King - and President Johnson - had fought hard to bring into full rights in the mainstream of America.

And so the man who was recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize was now perceived by many Americans as a traitor, along with others in the Peace Movement.  As Dr. King said, speaking of the nation's attitude toward Muhammad Ali, "There is a very dangerous development in the nation to equate dissent with disloyalty" (page 50).  There were many in the Civil Rights' movement at this time, though who were still supportive of the war, so Dr. King found himself out of step with many of his fellow workers.

Add to this the fact that Dr. King's non-violent path of civil disobedience was perceived by many younger people in the Civil Rights' movement, as being too slow and ineffective.  The more radical Black Power movement was coming to the fore.  And so his following was being shrunk from many directions. All of this on top of the white racism and hatred that he continually experienced.

Dr. King was becoming more concerned not simply with matters of race but also of poverty.  He spent much of this final year attempting to organize a "Poor Peoples' March" on Washington.  And there was the Sanitation Workers' strike in Memphis which he was working in support of.

King seemed to be sliding deep into depression and like many, this drove him into greater activity.  We find him flying from city to city, speaking and organizing.  He appeared exhausted emotionally and physically when he arrived in Memphis.

The story ends with tragic simplicity:
          "Then a shot rings out.
          The bullet finds its mark,
          Doc falls.
          At age thirty-nine, his life on earth ends."

The epilogue contains a eulogy that had been delivered earlier by Dr. King for Joseph Reeb, a murdered white civil rights' worker.  Smiley apparently feels it is a fit tribute to the man who gave it.  And we the readers do so as well.

Tavis Smiley is a well-known host of both PBS and Public Radio programs, as well as a prolific author.  His empathy, even love, for the man who is his subject is clear throughout the book.  He was less than four years old when Dr. King was murdered and so his knowledge is all second hand, yet it feels as though he has known him personally.

I am ashamed to confess that as a white evangelical Christian living in the north, I had little interest in or sympathy with Dr. King and all he was accomplishing during his brief life and ministry.  It was only after I moved south to Houston, TX in 1966 that I even began to understand.

At the time of Dr. King's assassination I was working in the engineering department of a large oil tool company.  As I recall, there were well over 100 men in one huge room (all white, of course).  When news of the assassination was heard, there was celebration.  No work was done for much of the day.  I had not witnessed such "joy" since Japan surrendered after WWII!  Dr. King's death was regarded by all - at least those who were vocal - as some sort of victory.  Of course, this was mixed with "righteous indignation" at those "n____s" who rioted afterward.

Though I didn't speak up, I realized that as a follower of Jesus, I was on a different side than my co-workers, even though many of them also claimed to be Christians.  This was not my first epiphany, but it surely was the strongest.  I believe that many white evangelicals of my day, while we may not have seen ourselves as racists, were simply indifferent as to how racism - even our passive racism - is in total contradiction to the life and teachings of Christ.  I fear this is still a lingering problem.

I strongly recommend this book.  Read it with a copy nearby of A Testament of Hope - the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington.  I'd also recommend one or both of the biographies mentioned above.