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Archive for the 'Scriptura' Category

The Open English Bible: Trendiness, Updated

Posted: Sunday, June 5, 2011 (5:32 pm), by John W Gillis


Along with the previously mentioned CEB, I spent some time last weekend checking out a couple other new Bible translations, one of which was the Open English Bible (New Testament), published electronically in 2011 – I viewed a PDF rendition dated April 4th, 2011.

Primarily an individual effort by Russell Allen, this work is an “open source” revision of the rather obscure 1904 Twentieth Century New Testament. Considered the first “modern English” translation, the TCNT was produced in Britain by a group of mostly laymen seeking to produce an “up-to-date” version. Like the TCNT, the OEB relies on the Westcott-Hort Greek text, which, although considered the “latest & greatest” critical text at the end of the 19th century when the TCNT was translated, is otherwise used today only for the Watchtower Society’s dubious translation, as far as I know.

Rather than being primarily a literary attempt to correct perceived errors or shortcomings in the mainstream (i.e. commercial) versions, the editor’s stated primary purpose in publishing the OEB is to provide a modern version which is not staked to the Tyndale tradition, and which is in the public domain – “completely free”. To its credit, the OEB wisely departs from the 1904 TCNT’s practice of ordering the NT books according to their chronological publishing order, as such chronology had been or might be divined by fashionable scholarship.

Curiously, Allen perceives the need to airbrush out “the Jews” as an adversarial element in the Gospel of John. A similar obfuscation is applied to the references in Paul’s letters to those acts which are, in the Greek and in almost all other translations, precisely identifiable as homosexual. Apparently, he finds the sacred writers themselves left room for discreet improvement by their more enlightened followers! I’ve actually found this version very readable in my limited exposure to it, but I am loathe to get too comfortable with any work that suffers the conceit of improving upon the Word of God for the sake of conforming to modern (or other parochial) sensibilities.

By the same respect, it also fails to correct certain dubious “improvements” or “clarifications” inserted in the original 1904 TCNT, such as in Matt 1:25, where the OEB has: “He made Mary his wife, but they did not sleep together until after the birth of her son“. This appears to blatantly contradict the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, and is therefore clearly a brazen theological assertion, made despite the fact that the Greek text nowhere and in no way asserts that Joseph and Mary “slept together” after the birth of Jesus.

[2015-10-22, Ed. note: As of the 2014.11 version of the EOB, this problematic verse has been corrected to: “He made Mary his wife, but they did not sleep together before the birth of her son“.]

All in all, if a revision fails to correct the worst popular biases of its source translation, further obfuscates the actual original Biblical text to satisfy contemporary biases, and accomplishes its “clarifications” into the target language by flattening phrases like “he will burn with inextinguishable fire” into pedestrian expressions like “he will burn with fire that cannot be put out” (Mt 3:12, TCNT/OEB), it is probably not worth adding to your reference collection, and I will not be adding it to mine.

The Common English Bible: Yet another failed attempt at “The Bible for Dummies”

Posted: Monday, May 30, 2011 (8:48 pm), by John W Gillis


A group calling itself the Church Resources Development Corp is preparing to release yet another new English translation of Sacred Scripture, this one being marketed as the  the  Common English Bible (CEB) (not to be confused with the 1999 Common Edition New Testament, or with the American Bible Society’s Contemporary English Version from 1995, which goes by CEV). This “fresh” translation was an interdenominational effort (predominantly by members of old-line, liberal Protestant denominations, it would seem). It was translated from NA27, using various sources for the OT, by 120 translators from 22 different “faith traditions”. The translation philosophy leans (tilts? dives? collapses?) toward the dynamic on the dynamic/formal scale. Perhaps the best news is that it will include a translation of the Apocrypha. The editors call it a “bold new translation”, and I would say, after spending some time with it online this weekend, that they are half right.

The translation aims for a 7th-grade reading level in a “common language”, which it generally accomplishes by producing vague, mechanical, and imprecise substitutions for characteristically Biblical-sounding terms (what associate editor Paul Franklyn calls “Biblish”), such as substituting “human” for “son of man”, “harass” for “persecute”, “contaminates” for “defiles”, “temple equipment” for “temple vessels”, and “rules handed down” for “tradition”. Temple equipment? How industrially banal!

Such a vulgarizing tendency can produce some rather bizarre and stylistically embarrassing results, however, especially when they are motivated by something other than a desire to be as faithful as possible to the revelation. Take for example, Genesis 2:22-23 in the CEB:

With the rib taken from the human, the Lord God fashioned a woman and brought her to the human being. The human said, “This one finally is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh. She will be called a woman because from a man she was taken.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate either the challenge of trying to represent in translation the distinction between adam and ish, or the complexity of mapping linguistic concepts across broadly diverse cultures in a comprehensible manner, but what we’re given here is a comically clumsy and silly example of the ironically designated “inclusive language” produced by a well-worn, widespread academic condescension to paranoid and anthropologically divisive feminist narcissism, which here ends up asserting that the very Word of God in Sacred Scripture informs us that men are human beings, while women are… well, something else, apparently. Groan.

The editors express the conviction that this approach makes their translation more “relevant” than the more “challenging” translations – there being nothing more irrelevant, after all, than Biblish. Fortunately, it is a fairly safe bet that nobody will ever read the CEB once the academics who produced it are finished passing copies around to their friends. However, there are several stylishly relevant gift editions being planned…

Grading:

In my book, the Common English Bible gets an “A” for “Awkward”, a “B” for “Biblishlessness”, a “C” for “Common”, a “D” for “Dynamic equivalence”, but an “F” for fidelity to the Word of God in Sacred Scripture.

Was that grading scheme inclusive enough?

The USCCB Swings & Whiffs on the NAB Revised Edition

Posted: Saturday, February 5, 2011 (11:28 pm), by John W Gillis


The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has announced the release on this coming Ash Wednesday (March 9th) of what amounts to the completion of a Revised version of the New American Bible, which will be known as the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE). I should be happy to see the publication of what is being touted as a more formal translation of the Old Testament for the NAB, but I can’t help but feel that the USCCB has bungled this.

NABRE_pb_sbpThis will be the fourth release of the NAB family of translations. The original translation was completed in 1970, and then a second edition containing a Revised New Testament was released in 1986. Five years later, the NAB was released in a third edition with a revised Psalter, and this fourth release now replaces both the 1991 Psalms, and the rest of the 1970 Old Testament – while retaining the 1986 Revised NT translation.

The problem I have with the NABRE stems from the relation of the New American Bible, as published, to the readings in the Lectionary, which is the primary locus of engagement with the Scriptures for most faithful Catholics. The bottom line is that the faithful in the pews, by and large, want to be able to read and study an edition of the Bible that corresponds to what is read from the Lectionary during Mass. This NABRE revision not only does not accomplish this humble and worthy goal, but it further exacerbates the alienation between the two sets of texts.

The Lectionary was revised in 1970 to comply with the significant changes in the liturgy instituted during the Second Vatican Council, and it utilized the original NAB edition for its text. A revision to that was produced following the two revisions to the NAB text, but liturgical Scripture translations are held to a different standard within the Church than are translations for personal use, and the revision work was determined to be not of sufficient quality, mostly owing to a perceived need among a dominant faction within both the hierarchy and American Catholic academia to appease the sensibilities of the victimhood-crazed political correctness speech police of the so-called progressive element in society. The reader knows of whom I speak.

The result was a squishy text (especially the Psalter – the NT was actually mostly an improvement over the 1970 text) that was eventually rejected by the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith. The work had to be modified and corrected under the auspices of the CDF, and then sent back to the US bishops, and only one volume has even been approved. See this excellent site by Felix Just, S.J. for everything you want to know about the Lectionary.

The end result today is that we have one volume of the Lectionary (i.e. the Weekday readings) which is based entirely on the 1970 NAB, which itself has been unavailable since the revision to the NAB NT 25 years ago; and another volume (i.e Sundays & Solemnities) based on the 1970 OT, a modified version of the 1986 NT, and a version of the Psalms that I don’t believe reflects any published version. And now, as of the beginning of Lent, the published version of the NAB will also have a newly revised OT, therein severing any remaining translation consistency between the Word proclaimed in the liturgy, and the Bibles available to the faithful for their personal use.

It might be suggested I’m being unfair to the USCCB by indicting them for simply wanting to release the Revised NAB as soon as it is ready, rather than waiting for what we now know can be an excruciatingly long process of getting a corresponding revised Lectionary approved to go along with it, but a couple of factors mitigate against that suggestion.

The sharpest argument is that the USCCB is publishing the NABRE without the modifications to the revised NT demanded by the CDF for use in the liturgy. I cannot fathom that. That is a clear indicator that neither the USCCB nor the Catholic Biblical Association (CBA: the  translation committee for the NAB) considers a unified text a serious priority, despite the desires (and legitimate needs) of the laity.

The other factor is that the history of the work of the Americans with these translations should not fill anyone with confidence that the OT work they’ve just completed will be completely satisfactory. Given the lack of new direction in American Catholic leadership over this period, even if a new Lectionary edition based on the NABRE was produced and submitted for confirmation in short order, how much confidence should we have that we wouldn’t be undertaking a repeat of the ridiculous 1998 process?

And really, without a unified text for both liturgical and personal use, of how much use is the NAB – or NABRE – for personal use? Aren’t there significantly better options, in both Catholic and ecumenical packagings, of the Sacred Word?

Magi from the East

Posted: Thursday, January 6, 2011 (8:13 pm), by John W Gillis


Since today is actually the great Feast of Epiphany – despite what the bishops say! – I thought I would celebrate it by posting a short essay I wrote several years ago on the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel – especially the Visit of the magi, which forms the central mode of our celebration of this feast in the Latin world.

Jesus’ genealogy is a little dicey, and Matthew makes an obvious point of it, recognizing among his ancestors the Canaanite Tamar, who tricked her father-in-law Judah into impregnating her while she posed as a prostitute; Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute of Jericho who assisted Joshua’s spies during the conquest; Ruth, not untoward in character, but nonetheless a Moabitess; and Bathsheba (by inference), the wife of a Hittite, who was taken by King David in highly dubious manner (and is not recorded as having objected).

This diversity seems to be often taken as a sign of the inclusion of the gentiles in the new covenant. However, the text places these women explicitly within the scope of the older covenants, and so is more of a commentary on the proper interpretation of the meaning of God’s people since the time of Abraham than it is a pointing toward something new happening at Bethlehem. It seems to me to defy logic to claim that the inclusion of these women in this genealogy of Jesus within the chosen people is somehow making the assertion that after Jesus, people like these women (who came before Jesus) can finally be counted among the chosen people!

The story of the Magi is another place where the gentile world tends to read itself into the story of God’s people in a breaking-in of new relationship made possible by the universal nature of the salvation offered in Jesus Christ, being a very distinct thing from the nationalistic and tribal salvation proposed by Judaism. However, I’m not convinced that this is Matthew’s intent.

Matthew undoubtedly sees the Messiah ultimately in universal terms, but it does not seem consistent with his story to place gentiles as the first to recognize and offer homage to the King of the Jews. In Mt 10.5-24, Jesus sends his disciples out, but only to the house of Israel “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.” (Mt 10.5). It is only after his resurrection that Jesus sends the remaining disciples out to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28.19). As Paul also ceaselessly observed, the Gospel was to go first to the Jews, and then to the gentiles. Can we really be so certain that Matthew is telling us that the good news of the birth of the messiah came first to gentiles?

The Magi came “from the east” (Mt 2.1), but that is precisely to where both Judah and Israel had been exiled, hundreds of years earlier. Although Matthew makes no mention of it, it seems perfectly reasonable to suppose that these Magi were the descendants of either exiled Jews or Israelites. We tend to project a “We Three Kings of Orient Are” view of these people because of later nativity traditions, but the Bible has them as magi, a term with strong religious connotations that would have referred to people who played roles ostensibly similar to the role of the prophet in Israelite religion, but who used divination and magical arts to “obtain” the divine word – in stark contrast to Yahwistic practices. Yet, according to the Biblical text, they use their astronomical/astrological arts to perceive the birth of Christ.

The term Magi, or a derivative, is used in the New Testament to refer to two other people: Elymas Bar-Jesus in Acts 13:6-11 & Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-24. Elymas was a Jew, and Simon a Samaritan, and so quite possibly at least of mixed Israelite descent. These passages are of great help in understanding what kind of people Matthew is referring to, even putting aside the question of their racial origin. I fail to see the theological significance of making such practitioners the primary heralds of the nativity of the Son of God if indeed they are simply pagan magicians. But if they are Israelites, then we can see in the passage a foretaste of the fulfilling of the messianic promise.

While the messianic promise certainly seemed to involve the nations, at least in a subservient role, it was primarily about the restoration of Israel, of sons that shall “come from afar” (Isa 60.4), and of the final turning toward God of Israel. The “gifts” that the magi offered to Jesus have long been associated in Christian tradition with his ministry of priest, prophet and king, but these things were also perhaps part of the common stock-in-trade of the professional magi. Myrrh ink, for instance, was used to write magical charms, as I understand it. Seen as “tools of the trade,” these offerings can be understood not so much as gifts of homage, but as a declaration of disassociation from former practices. They acknowledged Jesus as Lord and threw away, or offered up as it were, their magic and astrology. They repented, and returned to YHWH through the coming of the Messiah. Now, that makes theological sense!

We know there were many Jews who had stayed behind “in the East” – in Babylon – or who migrated to Persia after Cyrus. And there were, of course, the Israelites, who vanished as a people in those very regions, but who surely survived as occupants in the land. I wonder if it was to a group of one of these peoples that the Lord spoke to in a dream (Mt 2:12), after their repentance.

The point of all this is to argue against a common perception that Matthew’s inclusion of the non-Israelites in the genealogy, as well as his placing of the magi at the nativity seen, can be used to justify an interpretation of his Gospel that has Matthew recording the gentiles shouldering in on the Jews, or even pushing them out of the picture altogether. Reading the entire gospel – especially in Matthew’s extensive use of allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures and claims of their prophetic fulfillment – simply does not support such a view. Rather, Matthew’s purpose was to demonstrate that the advent of Jesus would signal the restoration of Israel through a spiritual rebirth, by means of repentance and adherence to Torah (even if a radical, interiorized adherence), in the process creating a community of “sons of God” to bring the (universal) salvation forth from the Cross to “all nations.”

Regardless of Matthew’s genuine concern for the Gentiles, I think we can see that his primary positioning of Jesus is as a Torah teacher, within the tradition of the Hebrew Prophets, i.e., as one calling for the reformation of the life of the community in conformity to a genuine understanding of Torah, as opposed to a meaningless ritualistic or legalistic perversion of it. And no other gospel writer comes close to displaying Matthew’s concern for defining Jesus as the son of David, right from the first verse. This is very much the Jewish Messiah.

Understanding these magi as gentile, unfortunately, finds the Gospel, in a very real sense, moving from the Gentiles to the Jews, which does not seem to me to be at all consistent with the overall Biblical witness (to which this writer is so sensitive). This gospel states very strongly that salvation comes through true fulfillment of Torah (cf. Mat 5:17f; 7:21; 15:3; 19:17 etc.), not through the circumventing or “abolishing” of it. It is achieved through faith, yes, but that faith is strictly manifested in fulfillment of God’s will (cf. Mat 12:50), which finds its perfection in the Passion of Christ. It looks to these eyes that the inclusion of the Gentiles in the plan of salvation is effected at Golgotha, not Bethlehem (cf. Mat 10:5-6, 28:19-20).

Not the Sort of Divinity One Would Sketch

Posted: Thursday, December 9, 2010 (8:35 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Thursday, December 9th, 2010:

Mark T. Coppenger, from the article The Perennial Challenge to Inerrancy in the Fall 2010 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine:

Whenever I read that someone like Freud or Feuerbach says that God’s a comforting figment or projection of our imagination, I wonder if they’ve ever read the Bible. For our God is not prone to indulge earthly conceits and agendas. Rather, He is insulting, intrusive, inconvenient and insistent – not the sort of divinity one would sketch if left to his own devices.

Amen to that! I’m always baffled by the God-as-crutch sneers that emanate from the depths of unbelief. The God of Biblical (and Christic) Revelation is demanding and challenging – to say the least.

A common corollary to this is the “Jesus was so nice, but you’re so mean” meme (often accompanied by a claim that the “Old Testament God” is not the same as the “New Testament God”).

My favorite? “Jesus invited everyone to his table.” Ummm, Jesus was an itinerant preacher who didn’t own a rock to lay his sleepy head on, never mind a table. Rather, he invited himself to eat at others’ tables, and then told them to stop sinning or they would spend eternity suffering in hell. The only thing he offered at his “table” was his own body and blood- an offer most people found so repugnant they turned and walked away.

Not much has changed in 2,000 years…

Leprosy: 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

Posted: Sunday, February 15, 2009 (2:02 pm), by John W Gillis


healing-leper One of the themes that emerge from this week’s readings is the importance of communion, that is: the role of the Church in not only embracing all people in brotherhood, but doing so by means of bringing all people to a place of graced renewal, for the end, as Paul says in the second reading, “that they may be saved.” The device that is used to characterize this is the ancient scourge of leprosy.

The first reading, from Leviticus, skips over an extensive middle section of the Biblical text on the details of the disease, including regulations on distinguishing forms of the disease that would render a person ritually unclean (cutting them off from the community) from superficial skin diseases such as eczema. While in uncertain cases, one or more seven-day periods of quarantine were called for to see how the situation developed before a judgment of cleanness or uncleanness could be made, once someone was declared unclean, the law demanded that “he shall dwell apart” (Lev 13:46).

The Old Testament tells us of only two people cleansed of leprosy. Miriam, the sister of Moses, was stricken with leprosy when she enlisted Aaron to rebel with her against the supremacy of Moses (Numbers 12). Moses prayed for her recovery, that she “not be as one dead” (Num 12:12), and she was subject only to a seven day quarantine to repent in shame, and not a permanent exile. The other person cleansed was Naaman the Syrian, commander of the Syrian army, who is cleansed by the prophet Elisha (2Kgs 5.1-14). Naaman is mentioned by Jesus in Lk 4.27 as an example of how God’s gifts have always been available to gentiles.

Based on the way they read the Israelite King Joram’s reaction to the request from the Syrian King Ben-hadad to cure Naaman’s leprosy ("Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone to me to be cured of leprosy?” 2Kgs 5.7), the rabbis considered the cleansing of leprosy to be as difficult as raising the dead. This explains, at least in part, the expectation that the cleansing of lepers would be a symbolic manifestation of the messianic age. So, when John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he was the “one to come,” Jesus answered him:

"Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” (Lk 7.22)

As important a symbolic place the cleansing of leprosy might occupy in the Gospel (and it is surely no coincidence that Christ sends his disciples out to cleanse lepers in Mat 10:8), only a couple occasions of cleansing are actually related in the New Testament: the leper in today’s readings (the story being retold with somewhat less detail in Luke and in Matthew), and the ten lepers outside the gates in Luke 17.12-19 (only one of which returns to thank Jesus). Interestingly, they each present some kind of challenge to the Messianic mission.

In the cleansing of the ten, it is only a Samaritan (whom Jesus refers to as a foreigner) who returns to give thanks to God, which prefigures the rejection of Jesus as the Christ by the Jews, and the extension of the Messianic promise to foreigners (“Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.” Lk 17:17).

On the other hand, the leper in today’s reading was not particularly well behaved. He was not keeping himself apart as the law instructed, but, audaciously, came up to Jesus. After Jesus “sternly” told him not to tell anyone about his healing, but to go show himself to the priest, the man began telling everyone (and there is no evidence in the story of his going to the priest). This caused Jesus to have to avoid going into the towns – despite Jesus having said two just verses before this story: "Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also; for that is why I came out." Mark 1:38 (RSV). So, while the leper who would not remain apart publicized his healing, Jesus “remained outside in deserted places” (Mk 1:45).

It’s well worth considering how we use our gifts from the Lord, and it’s sobering to consider that we may choose to use them in such as way as to be an obstacle to the work of Christ, even as we focus on our own giftedness. It’s great to be brought back from exile and embraced, but Christ’s work doesn’t end with me.

Magi From the East

Posted: Tuesday, January 6, 2009 (11:55 pm), by John W Gillis


magi-2 Being Epiphany, it’s time for my annual consideration of the story of the Magi. About 15 years ago, I was engaged in a series of discussions on various Biblical readings, and I came to see this story in a somewhat unusual light.

Tradition takes this story as a harbinger of the universality of the salvation offered in Christ, seeing the magi as the first gentiles to come to Christ. It’s a powerful interpretation, and I certainly accept that it is how the Church reads the story, but I haven’t always been convinced that was Matthew’s original intent.

I’m satisfied with how the Church uses this passage in her liturgy, but I still think it might be useful to consider this story from an alternative – hopefully complimentary – interpretation: the possibility of the magi in Matthew’s story not having been pagan gentiles, but rather members of the house of Israel returning from afar (both physically and spiritually) to Jerusalem, at the advent of the Messiah.

Matthew undoubtedly sees the Messiah ultimately in universal terms, but it does not seem consistent with his story to place gentiles as the first to recognize and offer homage to the King of the Jews. In Mt 10.5-24, Jesus sends his disciples out, but only to the house of Israel “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.” (Mt 10.5). It is only after his resurrection that Jesus sends the remaining disciples out to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28.19). As Paul also ceaselessly observed, the Gospel was to go first to the Jews, and then to the gentiles. Can we really be so certain that Matthew is telling us that the good news of the birth of the messiah came first to gentiles?

The Magi came “from the east” (Mt 2.1), but that is precisely where both Judah and Israel had been exiled to, hundreds of years earlier. Although Matthew makes no mention of it, it seems perfectly reasonable to suppose that these Magi were the descendants of either exiled Jews or Israelites. The fact that they come to Jerusalem asking for "the king of the Jews" (as if "the Jews" were a third party) would tend to argue against them being Judahites, but would not be a peculiar phrase if they were descended from the tribes of the old northern kingdom.

We tend to have a “We Three Kings of Orient Are” view of these people because of later nativity traditions, but the Bible has them as magi, a term with strong religious connotations that would have referred to people who played roles ostensibly similar to the role of the prophet in Israelite religion, except that they used divination and magical arts to “obtain” the divine word – in stark contrast to Yahwistic practices. Yet they use their astronomical/astrological arts to perceive the birth of Christ.

The term Magi, or a derivative, is used in the New Testament to refer to two other people: Elymas Bar-Jesus in Acts 13:6-11 & Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-24. Elymas was a Jew, and Simon a Samaritan, and so quite possibly of at least of mixed Israelite descent – and from a Torah-bound people, regardless. These passages are of great help in understanding what kind of people Matthew is referring to, even putting aside the question of their racial origin. I fail to see the theological significance of making such practitioners the primary heralds of the nativity of the Son of God if indeed they are simply pagan magicians. But if they are Israelites, then we can see in the passage a foretaste of the fulfilling of the messianic promise.

While the messianic promise certainly seemed to involve the nations, at least in a subservient role, it was primarily about the restoration of Israel, of sons that shall “come from afar” (Isa 60.4), and of the final turning toward God of Israel. The "gifts" that the magi offered to Jesus have long been associated in Christian tradition with his ministry of priest (frankincense, for sacrifice), prophet (myrrh, for burial anointing) and king (royal gold), but these things could also have been part of the common stock-in-trade of the professional magi. For instance, I understand that myrrh ink was used to write magical charms. Seen as tools of the trade, these offerings can be understood not only as gifts of homage from the magi to the Christ, but also as a declaration of disassociation from former practices: they acknowledged Jesus as Lord and threw away, or offered up as it were, their magic and astrology; they repented, and returned to YHWH through the coming of the Messiah. Now, that makes theological sense.

We know there were many Jews who had stayed behind "in the East" – in Babylon – or who migrated to Persia after Cyrus. And there were, of course, the Israelites who vanished as a people in those very regions, yet who surely survived as occupants in the land. I wonder if it was to a group of one of  these peoples that the Lord spoke to in a dream (Mt 2:12), after their repentance?

Matthew’s purpose in his gospel was to demonstrate that the advent of Jesus would signal the restoration of Israel through a spiritual rebirth, by means of repentance and adherence to Torah (even if a radical, interiorized adherence), creating a community of "sons of God" to bring the (universal) salvation forth from the Cross to "all nations."

Regardless of Matthew’s genuine concern for the Gentiles, I think we can see that his primary positioning of Jesus is as a Torah teacher, within the tradition of the Hebrew Prophets, i.e., as one calling for the reformation of the life of the community in conformity to a genuine understanding of Torah, opposing a meaningless ritualistic or legalistic perversion of it. And no other gospel writer comes close to displaying Matthew’s concern for defining Jesus as the son of David, right from the first verse. This is the Jewish Messiah.

Understanding these magi as gentile, unfortunately, finds the Gospel, in a very real sense, moving from the Gentiles to the Jews, which does not seem to me to be at all consistent with the overall Biblical witness (which this writer is so sensitive to). This gospel states very strongly that salvation comes through true fulfillment of Torah (cf. Mat 5:17f; 7:21; 15:3; 19:17 etc.), not through the circumventing or "abolishing" of it. Through faith, yes, but that faith is strictly manifested in fulfillment of God’s will (cf. Mat 12:50), which finds its perfection (just as the Torah finds its fulfillment) in the Passion of Christ.

The inclusion of the Gentiles in the plan of salvation is effected at Golgotha, after all, not Bethlehem (cf. Mat 10:5-6, 28:19-20).

Comfort Without Complacency

Posted: Sunday, December 7, 2008 (9:52 pm), by John W Gillis


Comfort, comfort my people.

2nd Sunday in Advent, Year B

1 Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; Indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! 4 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; The rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all mankind shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. 9 Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; Cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! 10 Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; Here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. 11 Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, Carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.

8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. 9 The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out. 11 Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought (you) to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire. 13 But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. 14 Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of God). 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. 3 A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’ ” 4 John (the) Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. 6 John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. 7 And this is what he proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit.”

If Advent is a time of hopeful waiting, the readings for the second Sunday give a good indication of what kind of waiting it is. I dare say that it has little in common with the sentiment of cherub-faced children seen peering out of frosted windows in wondrous winter anticipation that is such common stock on the covers of catalogs that fill the mailbox at this time of year. The “comfort” called for (naham ) is that which is often offered to mourners. It is often used as a messianic promise as well, but not with the idea of making people feel better so much as to transform them. In fact, in certain forms, the word is widely translated as “repent.” We could say that this comforting refers to an act of being moved with pity or compassion.

The idea clearly is that the coming of God is for the purpose of saving His people from tangible distress. There’s no escaping that our waiting is a period of trial – at least if we take the Scriptures seriously. We see a sign of this in the lifestyle of John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the long-awaited Comfort, or Consolation, of Israel, as Simeon shows us in Luke’s Gospel (c.f. Lk 2:25).And yet, like Simeon, we too await the Consolation. Even though we live under the Seal of the Promise, we too await the Lord’s patient wish that “all should come to repentance” and consolation.

The picture Peter paints is one that seems to me to be quite thoroughly ignored – the picture of everything being dissolved by fire in the Lord’s return. There is a popular tendency to equate heaven with eternity, and to overlook the material aspect of the promise (a new earth). Scripture is quite clear that the end is a new heavens and a new earth; that “Heaven and earth shall pass away” (Mt 24:35).

And so I wonder exactly what it is that we await. On the one hand, it seems exciting, but then I recall that the Lord saw fit to call his followers to vigilance (Mt 25:13, Mk 13:33; Lk 12:37; etc.), which would hardly seem necessary if the waiting was just wide-eyed expectancy. Nor would it seem necessary if the outcome were a certainty. Advent is nothing if not an invitation to shed any complacency.

Oh, That You Would Rend the Heavens and Come Down!

Posted: Sunday, November 30, 2008 (11:41 pm), by John W Gillis


I had the curious privilege this weekend of proclaiming the liturgical reading for the last Mass of the year on Saturday, as well as the readings for the first Mass of the new liturgical year today. I’m sure that’s not particularly unusual, but given as I only read about three days a month, it was a bit curious to draw these exact two assignments.

In reflecting on them both, it struck me how similar they are – in that even the triumphant scene from Revelation of the vision of the tree of life in the Saturday reading is imbued with such a strong sense of expectant waiting: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev 22:7). The confidence of this vision, as well as that of the opening of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that serves as today’s second reading, put us on guard against an overly fatalistic reading of the Isaiah passage from this morning’s liturgy:

1st Sunday in Advent, Year B

16b You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever. 17 Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage. 16b Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, 2 While you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, 3 such as they had not heard of from of old. No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him. 4 Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; 5 all of us have become like unclean men, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; We have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind. 6 There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; For you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt. 7 Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in him you were enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge, 6 as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you, 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus (Christ). 9 God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

33 Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. 35 Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. 36 May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’ “

Yet, for all the confident hope expressed by the end-of-year readings – as well as in paul’s greeting to the Corinthians – both the Isaiah reading and today’s Gospel commend a certain sobriety. “Watch!” Jesus implores us; don’t be lulled into complacency by the times and seasons.

The reason to be on guard against such complacency is made clear by Isaiah. Things had gone badly – very badly – for Isaiah’s people, and he ached for God to “rend the heavens and come down” to rescue His people, as He had done through Moses in ages past. But Isaiah also knew that only a people truly open to God could receive His “awesome deeds,” and he knew that a contrite and penitent spirit alone could be open to God.

The thought that really jumps out at me is “There is no one who calls upon your name.” As I embark upon another Advent, I simultaneously and necessarily also embark upon another one of what used to be called the “Christmas Season,” but is now, mercifully – and more accurately – called the Holiday Season.

Like many Christians, I’ve struggled for years to reconcile the public practice of “Christmas” with my faith. That the American cultural “Holiday” stands in stark contrast to its ostensible origins in the Christian Nativity story and celebration really needs no proof. The commandeering of “Christmas” for the purpose of a societal bacchanalia of materialism is plainly contrary to the humble character of Our Lord’s first coming.

Somewhere along the way, Jesus Christ morphed into Santa Claus – himself a caricature of the ancient Catholic Bishop of Myra, Saint Nicholas, a man renowned for his love for and generosity toward poor women, whom he would anonymously provide dowries for in order to save them from lives of prostitution. Yet, in the transformation, the “bringer of gifts” became one who indulged the rich while overlooking the poor, despite the celebratory thanksgiving song sung by His mother – prayed in unison every evening by the Church in her liturgy for her thousands of years:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty (Luke 1:52-53).

There was a time, I will admit – coincidental to a time when I was poor myself – that I was pretty well convinced that the “Santa Claus” entity was no less than an expression of the anti-Christ. I had many reasons, at the time, for my opinion, having identified a host of ways that “Santa Claus” or “the Spirit of Christmas” not only failed to adequately express the truths revealed in the Incarnation, but operated from fundamentally opposing and contrary notions of the good, and contributed to the growing problem of unbelief by distorting children’s openness to supernatural, revelatory truth. I have no interest in rehashing those arguments here, but merely want to suggest that many things can become clear to a man about the purpose and nature of institutions when he is too poor to get in the door. Christ truly came to blow such doors asunder.

And as “the Season” kicks off again, amidst reports of store clerks being stampeded to death by astonishingly graceless “holiday” bargain hunters, the ancient words of Isaiah haunt me:

There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; For you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt. Isaiah 64:7 (NAB)

As a society that once had at least some sort of claim on God’s heritage, it strikes me that we are every bit in exile as were the Babylonian captives Isaiah ached to see restored to their place as the tribes of God’s heritage. What would seem more impolite than to actually call upon His Name? Rend the heavens, indeed, Lord. Maranatha! Lord, come quickly!

Watchman for the House of Israel

Posted: Tuesday, September 9, 2008 (11:49 pm), by John W Gillis


There is a common thread of real, and very serious, responsibility for neighbor running across all three of this week’s readings.

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Ezek 33:7-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20

It’s not that common for the second reading to dovetail this nicely with the first reading and the Gospel reading. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but perhaps it bears repeating (even in somewhat oversimplified form). . .

The lectionary cycle for Sunday readings consists of two independent threads of content: the primary thread being a sequential reading of one of the Gospels, and the secondary thread being a sequential reading of one of the New Testament letters – this second thread being what is proclaimed in the second reading. The first reading is not independent, but is chosen specifically to provide Biblical context (from the Old Testament, as a rule) for the Gospel reading. So the first reading and Gospel reading always dovetail, while the second reading is usually pretty tangential to the others. A tangent, however, always has some point of contact, and sometimes, like today, it seems to complete the circle remarkably.

As I get older, I find it harder and harder to reconcile modernity’s obsessive individualism with the worldview of the Bible. The Ezekiel reading is quite straightforward in assigning the prophet responsibility – not for the fate of his people, but for their knowledge of God’s Word. The watchman will have on his hands the blood of those whom he fails to warn of their danger. This could not have been a particularly comforting message to Ezekiel. Yes, they are responsible for themselves, but so is Ezekiel. It’s hard not to think of Jonah here, and his attempt to flee rather than proclaim God’s Word – which the Lord would have none of. It also recalls, at least obliquely, that marvelous cry of Jeremiah’s pathos from last Sunday’s first reading:

I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more.

But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones;

I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it. (Jer 20:9, NAB)

Looking strictly at the Gospel passage as it stands, it may not be immediately evident how the Ezekiel reading provides Old Testament context for understanding it – the Gospel message almost seems to be about church discipline, and the “proper” means of correcting the wayward. Yet the simple fact that the liturgy directs us to view the passage through the lens of the demands placed on Ezekiel calls for a closer look.

Seen within the context of the entirety of Matthew 18, it becomes a bit clearer how the Gospel passage relates to the Watchman passage. The chapter begins with the disciples asking Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom, which Jesus answers by holding a humble child. But then Jesus warns of the terrors awaiting any who would cause such a child to sin, and then reasserts, in the parable of the lost sheep, how the Father desires not one of the little ones to be lost. This is the preceding context for our passage, and it could not be clearer that the Lord is reiterating the idea from our Ezekiel passage that the blood of sinners can be – and will be – judged to be on the hands of others.

Then our own passage speaks of how to deal with a brother who sins. Seen in the light of the preceding verses’ focus on the responsibility of some for the spiritual well-being of others – as well as on God’s salvific desire for all – the “process” of correcting the brother begins to look like an actual burden upon the Church, for the sake of reconciling the sinner. Where this differs from the instructions to Ezekiel is in the fact that Christ, as is typical, expands upon the requirements laid out in the Old Testament. No longer is it sufficient for the “watchman” to witness God’s Word to the sinner; he must now be persistent, imploring the help of others in the congregation – even the entire Church.

Implicit in this “correction” is the readiness to forgive – to be reconciled. For what else could it mean to “win over your brother” except to bring him to repentance, and how else could he be brought to repentance by “listening to you” except through an offer of forgiveness? A cynic might counter that he could possibly be shamed, exposed, or verbally beaten into repentance, but how would bringing along “one or two others,” after the fact, make them witnesses of some wrong done in the past? They could only serve as witnesses to your offer of reconciliation, and the repentance – or lack thereof – of the guilty party. The Lord is stressing here the power of Christian community to make Christ present to the world, especially Christ’s forgiveness.

That this is indeed what the Lord is pointing to is, I believe, made clear in next set of verses (closing out chapter 18), which show Peter asking how many times he must forgive his brother, and the Lord responding with the parable of the unforgiving servant – someone blessed with the gift of forgiveness who was severely punished when he did not use his opportunity to extend that gift to another in need of it.

So, having seen how the Gospel passage does, in fact, recapitulate the message of the Ezekiel reading – and even magnify it – we turn finally to the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

“Love is the fulfillment of the law,” Paul tells us, because “love does no evil to the neighbor.” But as we have seen, for those who possess God’s Word (and His forgiveness) the law calls for us to share such gifts with those in need of them, and so doing “evil to the neighbor” must be seen not only as committing sins against them, but sinning against them by omission: failing to warn them of danger, and failing to offer them the freedom of forgiveness. Loving others – even as ourselves – requires putting in the effort to make God present to them in humility, even in the face of the ever-present temptation to pull a Jonah.