Luke for Everyone, reviewed

Luke for Everyone

“On the very first occasion when someone stood up in public to tell people about Jesus,” N.T. Wright writes, “he made it very clear: this message is for everyone.”

“N.T.” (is it coincidence that his initials also stand for “New Testament”?) wants the results of careful exegesis and historical background research (his specialties) to be accessible to the general populace–to everyone. While this is an ambitious target audience, Wright’s extensive knowledge of biblical language and history, coupled with his ability to write accessibly, make the series a success. He writes “especially to people who wouldn’t normally read a book with footnotes or Greek words in it.”

This fall I preached through parts of Luke, and had the benefit of consulting Wright’s Luke for Everyone each week as I prepared. He was often helpful, both with historical background and a better devotional understanding of the text and how to apply it. Regarding the well-known story in Luke 10 of Mary and Martha, he notes the real “problem” with Mary: “Mary was behaving as if she were a man” (Wright’s emphasis). He explains:

In the same way, to sit at the feet of a teacher was a decidedly male role. ‘Sitting at someone’s feet’ doesn’t mean (as it might sound to us) a devoted, dog-like adoring posture, as though the teacher were a rock star or a sports idol. When Saul of Tarsus ‘sat at the feet of Gamaliel’ (Acts 22:3), he wasn’t gazing up adoringly and thinking how wonderful the great rabbi was; he was listening and learning, focusing on the teaching of his master and putting it together in his mind.

“Rabbi” in the above passage is in bold, which means it corresponds to a glossary entry in the back. There are other important glossed terms throughout the book, with their entries in the Glossary.

Wright divides Luke into 89 different passages, so that each story, parable, or section can receive a good amount of treatment. This is not as long as other commentaries, so Wright doesn’t even attempt to do verse-by-verse-level detail, but the 4-5 pages per passage tend to be sufficient enough for a general orientation.

What I especially appreciated about this commentary was having someone whose knowledge of Scripture is fairly encyclopedic writing in colloquial, everyday terms. For example, he leads off his section on the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin with a story of a neighbor down the street who threw a noisy party. It led him to “thinking about how one person’s celebration can be really annoying for someone else, especially if they don’t understand the reason for the party.”

As he exposits the passage, he notes:

In the stories of the sheep and the coin, the punch line in each case depends on the Jewish belief that the two halves of God’s creation, heaven and earth, were meant to fit together and be in harmony with each other. If you discover what’s going on in heaven, you’ll discover how things were meant to be on earth. That, after all, is the point of praying that God’s kingdom will come ‘on earth as in heaven’.

He concludes:

The point of the parables is then clear. This is why there’s a party going on: all heaven is having a party, the angels are joining in, and if we don’t have one as well we’ll be out of tune with God’s reality.

The commentary itself would already be good as-is, but Wright also provides his own original translation of each passage under consideration. It’s a really good translation: highly readable and also faithful to the original. It reads as well as a modern paraphrase, but stays closer to the Greek than a paraphrase does. Here’s an example, the Lord’s Prayer:

‘When you pray,’ replied Jesus, ‘this is what to say:

‘Father, may your name be honoured; may your kingdom come; give us each day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, as we too forgive all our debtors; and don’t put us to the test.’

Luke for Everyone would make a great devotional guide to reading through the book in one’s private Bible study, and someone taking a group through Luke would also benefit from it. Its blend of substance and accessibility is unique. Highly recommended!

Thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for the review copy of Luke for Everyone. You can find the book on Amazon here, or at the publisher’s product page here.

A “Wee Little Man” Shows us How to Respond to Jesus

Zacchaeus, by Niels Larsen Stevns
Zacchaeus, by Niels Larsen Stevns

Even though Zacchaeus was “a wee little man”–he was not “wee” or “little” in terms of his financial standing.

Luke 19:1-2    Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.

He was “a chief tax collector” and he “was wealthy.” Those two things are actually three strikes against Zacchaeus.

Strike one: He was a tax collector.

Tax collectors made out pretty well in Jesus’ day. They contracted with the Roman state to collect taxes from their fellow Jews. As long as the tax collectors paid the Romans a certain amount, they could charge whatever commission they wanted.

Strike two: He was a chief tax collector.

A chief tax collector oversaw other tax collectors. Zacchaeus had a prime position.

There was really little regulation here. This is sort of like pre-2008 subprime mortgage lending. Only it’s worse, because Zacchaeus as chief tax collector has a lot of other tax collectors doing the dirty work for him. And not only are they getting rich from people’s hard-earned cash, they’re even giving some of it to an imperial power–Rome. And who knows what non-kosher godlessness that money is going to!

Strike three: Zacchaeus was rich.

He was a tax collector, he was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. There’s nothing wrong with being rich, of course, but generally in Luke’s Gospel, the rich people Jesus meets have a hard time loving God on account of all their money.

Zacchaeus got rich off of other people’s money. Think: Ebenezer Scrooge.

As with the tax collector last week, the listeners expect this chief tax collector to be the antagonist.

So it’s no surprise in verse 3 when Zacchaeus can’t see Jesus. Sure, he’s short–probably not even 5 feet tall–but even if he were 6 feet tall, I’ll bet the crowd wouldn’t have made way for a guy like him.

Luke 19:3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd.

Source:  Adrienne Lavidor-Berman (Boston Globe)
Source: Adrienne Lavidor-Berman (Boston Globe)

These people are waiting to see Jesus! This is even more exciting than watching Big Papi and the Red Sox get on a duck boat! No way they’re going to make room for Zacchaeus.

The crowd blocks his line of sight. But Luke says he wanted to see Jesus. He seems to have these three strikes against him, but maybe this is a bit of character development here? Another translation says, “He wanted to see Jesus, who he was.”

He wants to figure out who Jesus is. He’s interested. He’s what church growth gurus in the 1980s and 90s referred to as “a seeker.”

The Motif of Urgency

Luke 19:4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

Zacchaeus runs ahead. He seems to be eager to see Jesus.

It wasn’t until I’d read this passage at least a dozen times and went for a long walk that I picked up on this motif of urgency.

The story picks up the pace at this point. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s about to die. And rise again. He’s aware of what’s coming; his disciples are not, really.

But this is Jesus’ last face-to-face encounter till he gets to Jerusalem. So Luke as a writer is going to pack in as much as he can.

We’ve got lots of Luke’s themes here:

  • Wealth can keep you from God, or you can use it to worship him and serve others
  • Belief in God always leads to action and compassion for others
  • Jesus came to save the lost
  • God is a seeker, who goes after the ones he loves

In Luke this is a sort of final crescendo to close out this movement, before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and then the events of Holy Week. All those themes are here, and Luke the storyteller notes that they are all important–urgently important.

  • verse 4: Zacchaeus runs ahead
  • verse 5: Jesus tells him to come down immediately
  • verse 5 again: Jesus must stay at his house today
  • verse 6: Zacchaeus comes down at once
  • verse 8: Zacchaeus re-directs his giving and quits his cheating ways, and he metes out this retributive justice “here and now,” he says
  • Today,” Jesus says in verse 9, “salvation has come to this house”

So keep that motif in mind as we work through the rest of the passage. Zacchaeus runs up the tree, and Jesus sees him.

Jesus Invites Himself Over

Luke 19:5b  “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”

This culture valued hospitality, but there are still ways to do hospitality and ways not to do it. What you don’t do is invite yourself over to someone’s house. That’s still true today.

Che GuevaraBut Jesus has to–Jesus must–stay at his house. Forget the conventions of hospitality. Forget the conventions of not eating with unclean sinners. Forget that Zacchaeus was a traitor and that there were some in the crowd who just wanted Jesus to be Che Guevera and overthrow Rome.

How does Jesus know Zacchaeus’s name? Luke doesn’t tell us. Jesus other knew him through divine omniscience or through Zacchaeus’s reputation. But he’s got to get to Zacchaeus’s house.

Why? We’ll come to that in a bit.

Already we’re struck by Jesus’ offer of fellowship. His offer to fellowship with him is a standing offer, but as with Zacchaeus, it’s also an offer he wants us to take him up on right now. This very day. This very minute. Jesus wants to come to us, to enter the homes of our hearts and minds, and have communion with us.

God calls the ones he has made good. And when we go bad–as Zacchaeus did–he does not turn away from us, but continues to pursue us, and invite himself into our homes, our work, our daily routines, our lives.

Zacchaeus models a response to Jesus. He comes down with the same urgency Jesus had in calling him.

Luke 19:6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

He receives Jesus into his home as an esteemed guest. No delay. There’s not putting it off till another time. Zacchaeus comes down have fellowship with Jesus right now.

The people in the crowd don’t like this, of course.

Luke 19:7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’”

They grumble against Jesus. But haven’t they figured out by now that this is the sort of thing Jesus does? Have we learned that yet?

Zacchaeus’s Immediate Response

And then, more urgency:

Luke 19:8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Right now–on the spot, Zacchaeus pays it all back. Retributive justice, it’s called. He makes amends in a way that is appropriate to the crime. Redistribution of ill-gotten wealth was the only way for him to do this.

Saint Augustine once wrote of grace that it “is bestowed on us, not because we have done good works, but that we may be able to do them.”

This is another side of the coin when we consider last week’s tax collector and his uttered prayer. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer of faith made him right with God, Jesus said. Here, there is action, which always accompanies belief. Salvation has come, Jesus says, and that is evident because of what Zacchaeus is doing with his money.

He literally puts his money where his mouth is. His profession of faith is only truly complete as he acts on it. And he acts on it “here and now.”

He held his money loosely. He embodied that offertory prayer: “All things come from thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”

Zacchaeus is going to lose a ton of money here–and think of all the logistics in making sure everyone gets repaid properly.

But no matter–he is eager to express his love toward God through his vocation and his giving.

Luke 19:9-10   Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

Remember how Jesus said, “I must stay at your house today”? Or, as another translation puts it, “It is necessary” for Jesus to stay?

This is because Jesus’ fellowship with Zacchaeus was “mission-critical.” It was the core of Jesus’ mission to “seek and to save what was lost.” He’s doing that here. He has done that here. He sought Zacchaeus, and saved him– “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Zacchaeus did his part, of course–he climbed a tree, pledged to give back money he had extorted from people.

But Jesus is the ultimate initiator, I think. He could have passed by that tree… pretended not to see Zacchaeus.

The Prodigal Son Returns, Rembrandt
The Prodigal Son Returns,

“The Son of Man [Jesus] came to seek and to save what was lost.”

The 1 sheep, lost and wandering away from the other 99. The 1 coin, lost on a dusty floor. The 1 son, lost in his youthful rebellion and waywardness. A despised chief tax collector. Prostitutes. People with diseases. Gentiles. You. Me. Jesus comes to seek and to get all of these.

Our Mission with Jesus

Jesus’ mission is “to seek and to save what was lost.”

This has now become the mission of the church, as the visible expression of Jesus’ body on earth.

Faith and action go hand in hand, as they did with Zacchaeus. For him, following Jesus necessarily entailed that he do all he could to bring about justice. The kingdom ethics of Jesus transformed the way he thought about his business relationships. It revolutionized the way he worked.

Zacchaeus responded to Jesus immediately. There was a sense of urgency in his desire to make things right before God.

And he responded to Jesus with joy.

May we be inspired by this unlikely hero. Zacchaeus allowed his whole life to be transformed by his encounter with Jesus, in the very moment of Christ’s coming to him. Salvation has come to our house today. Let’s receive him with joy.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached this Sunday on Luke 19:1-10, covering the story of Zacchaeus’s encounter with Jesus. All Scripture quotations come from the NIV (1984). See my other sermons, if you desire, here.

What J.D. Salinger’s Franny Knew About Prayer

“Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me,
a sinner!”

“Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me,
a sinner!”

“Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me,
a sinner!”

franny and zooeyIt’s a surprising source, but I have J.D. Salinger to thank for introducing me to the Jesus Prayer in his book Franny and Zooey.

“Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me,
a sinner!”

In a simplified form, that is the prayer of the tax collector in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14): “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It has become known as the Jesus Prayer.

The tax collector is a model for prayer, though if this character in Jesus’ story were worshiping with us today, he’d never let us hold him up as an exemplar.

Two Guys Walk into the Temple to Pray….

Luke 18:9     To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable:

Note the phrases, “confident of their own righteousness” and, “looked down on everybody else.”

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah speaks of such people:

They say, “Keep to yourself!
Don’t get near me, for I am holier than you!”
These people are like smoke in my nostrils,
like a fire that keeps burning all day long.    (Isa 65:5)

Luke 18:10     Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

Of these two men, who do the listeners think is going to be the hero? The Pharisee. Just about everyone hated tax collectors.

Oh, this is going to be good, the self-righteous listeners must have thought. Jesus is about to validate us, as he should!

Jesus isn’t out to bash Pharisees with this parable. We have to be careful about this as we read the Gospels. In fact, as one commentator points out, “The Pharisees were admired by the common folk for their piety and devotion to the Mosaic Law. Our contemporary equation of Pharisaism with hypocrisy would not have been made by a first-century Jew.”

It’s the same kind of setup as you get in the Good Samaritan parable–the religious person ends up showing us what not to do, while the real sinner becomes the example.

God Is Lucky to Have Him

Luke 18:11     The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.

Some of the listeners in the audience are saying, “Amen! Good prayer! Jesus gets it!”

This Pharisee starts his prayer out in the right way–“God, I thank you,” a typical beginning to Jewish prayers. 

But it never really was an actual thanking of God for who God is. It was a thanking of God for who the Pharisee was.

He’s at the temple praying, standing up. This is a posture that suggests he was praying for others to hear him.

Note that it says he “prayed about himself.” This is much more soliloquy than prayer. Dear God–but enough about you. Here’s who I am and what I bring to the table. He mentions God, prays to him, but God quickly becomes just a footnote in the prayer. He continuses:

Luke 18:12     “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

What a good, religious guy! No, really–he is living an exemplary life, in terms of spiritual practices.

And he might well be sincere in his fasting and tithing. His fasting twice a week was more than was required. Designating a tenth of everything to God is an Old Testament practice that many continue today when they consider financial giving to their churches.

But he’s missing the point.

The primary subject and actor in this prayer is… the one praying. Not the one he prays to.

He addresses his prayer to “God,” but after that, he thanks God for who he is not. He’s telling God what he’s doing for God, and he’s also making sure to remind God of how rotten these other people are. God, you’re lucky to have me!

This guy’s understanding of himself is interesting to me. He defines himself before God in two primary ways:

(a) who he is not (these other people) and
(b) what he has done.

The guy has identity issues. Can he only be secure in himself by putting others down? Or maybe he’s a little more sincere than that. Maybe he’s like the older brother in the Prodigal Son story–he does his duty, says his prayers, fasts, tithes… but the people around him are moral slackers. And he just can’t stand it.

He’s still missing the point. The despised tax collector, however, really does get it.

He Can’t Even Look at God

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, by Gustave Doré (1832–1883)
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, by Gustave Doré (1832–1883)

Luke 18:13     But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

With the Pharisee, the primary subject and actor in his prayer was… the one praying. The subject and primary actor in this prayer is God. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

That’s it. It’s much shorter prayer than the Pharisee’s prayer.

Before he even prays, he beats his chest, a sign of lament. He did not stand where everyone could see him. The Message version says he was “slumped in the shadows.” 

Clearly he was “supposed to” be the antagonist of the story. A tax collector was in collusion with the Roman occupiers. Assuming he was Jewish, he took money from his own people to pay a foreign power, often with a kickback for himself.

He knows he’s supposed to be the antagonist in the story–he knows his sin too well. He confesses his sin to God.

An Old Testament prayer goes: “O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens” (Ezra 9:6).

But God–and all the listeners to this story knew this–God is a God who forgives wrongdoings. He welcomes the wayward sinner home.

Jesus concludes:

Luke 18:14     “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Remember how the story started? “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.”

They were confident in their own righteousness, their own right standing, their peace with God. But, look, Jesus says, you don’t get that from yourself, so stop trying. If you hold yourself up as righteous, you’ll humbled. But if you are humble, you will be exalted–not a sort of fame or glory with other people, but if you are humble, you will be truly justified before God. You will have peace with God.

“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Where We Fit in the Parable

One writer (quoting another for the first portion below) says that because we know the end of the story:

“We identify with the tax collector and feel silent gratitude that we are decent and humble rather than being self-righteous like that shameful Pharisee.” We can be like the Sunday school teacher who goes through the lesson and says at the end, “Now, children, let us bow our heads and thank God we are not like that Pharisee.”

And that’s one of our reactions reading this text, isn’t it?

Well, yeah, I’d never actually name people in my prayer and say, “God, thank you that I’m not like him or her or those people.” And maybe that’s true. Maybe we don’t explicitly pray prayers like that, certainly not out loud. 

But we might think thoughts like that. This same loathing of others that the Pharisee brings to God… we may do this in more subtle ways.

We might smugly watch the people going for long walks on a Sunday morning while we drive to church. We might watch the way a parent scolds their child and think: well, I would never do anything like that. We might work hard in the office or even here at the church, and secretly resent those who don’t seem to be as productive as we are. Or we might just look at someone with pseudo-pity and say to ourselves, “I am sure glad I don’t have to be that person.”

“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is the sort of attitude, the kind of prayer that brings us into fellowship with God.

This prayer, in various forms, has inspired people ever since the tax collector prayed it. Ironically enough–the prayer of this humble man has been exalted and used by many.

What Salinger’s Franny Knew About Prayer

J.D. Salinger first wrote Franny and Zooey in the late 1950s as two separate shorts in The New Yorker magazine. Franny is a college student who is becoming disillusioned with college–not with her studies, per se, but with other college students. She thinks they’re fake, shallow, and egotistical. Her boyfriend Lane isn’t much better.

He’s a name-dropper, a complainer. He boasts in his own achievements–his good grades and his upcoming paper he’s going to publish. He’s sort of like the Pharisee in the parable.

What Franny read
What Franny read

Franny is in the middle of an existential crisis. At the recommendation of a prof, she’s been reading The Way of a Pilgrim, a 19th century Russian story about a pilgrim who wants to know how to “pray without ceasing,” as one verse says. He finally finds a spiritual advisor who tells him to repeatedly pray a version of the tax collector’s prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The idea is to make this prayer move from the lips to the heart, so that, as Salinger puts it, the prayer “becomes an automatic function in the person, right along with the heartbeat.”

Franny has been experimenting with the prayer, and at the end of the story, she faints. When she comes to, with boyfriend Lane by her side, she is mouthing the words: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Various Christian traditions suggest praying the prayer repeatedly, as the Russian pilgrim did, and as Franny tried to do.

As one devotes 5, 15, then 30 minutes to praying this prayer, different words stand out each time. Jesus Christ is Lord. Jesus is the Son of God. I am a sinner. Mercy–Jesus has mercy on us, or shows us grace when we don’t deserve it.  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Some recommend breathing in as you pray the first half of the prayer–inhale with “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” then exhale as you pray the second half–”have mercy on me, a sinner.” You internalize this prayer, so that its words become as natural to you as breathing. 

But humility is a tricky thing. Just as soon as we think we are humble, we are tempted to congratulate ourselves on our humility. Maybe not loudly, but quietly. So we cling to the message of this parable, summarized elsewhere in Scripture: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

I wonder if Salinger’s character Franny knew that: even as she saw occasion to criticize shallowness and inauthenticity around her, she clung to the prayer of humility. It moved from her lips to her heart. It became not just a prayer, but a posture. It wasn’t a formula, but her very breath.

It is Christ’s mercy, his “unmerited favor,” as some have defined it, that sets us right with God. We remind ourselves of that mercy each time we confess our sins and call on God for his aid.

“Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory.” (Ps. 115:1)

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached today on Luke 18:9-14, covering the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. All Scripture quotations come from the NIV (1984). See my other sermons, if you desire, here.

Was Jesus Thinking of Sirach 35 in Luke 18?

Sirach=Ben Sira=Ecclesiasticus
Sirach=Ben Sira=Ecclesiasticus

This week’s Gospel lectionary reading is Luke 18:1-8. Quite a few commentaries have noted the (possible) connection between themes in Sirach 35 and Jesus’ parable. The two texts are below (NRSV):

Luke 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Sirach 35:17-22a

He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan,
or the widow when she pours out her complaint.

Do not the tears of the widow run down her cheek
as she cries out against the one who causes them to fall?

The one whose service is pleasing to the Lord will be accepted,
and his prayer will reach to the clouds.

The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds,
and it will not rest until it reaches its goal;
it will not desist until the Most High responds
and does justice for the righteous, and executes judgment.

The overlap of themes, of course, does not prove that either had/has impact on the other, but it is interesting to think about whether Jesus/Luke had the Sirach passage in mind when telling the parable in Luke.

Of Millstones and Mustard Seeds: Bock on Luke 17

"Magisterial" is perhaps not an exaggeration
“Magisterial” is perhaps not an exaggeration

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

 He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

–Luke 17:5-6 (NIV 2011)

This Sunday I’ll preach on the above verses, taken from the lectionary reading of Luke 17:5-10. The rest of the passage goes on:

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

My first three questions of the text were as follows:

  1. How should I take Jesus’ statement about the mulberry tree? Should I really be trying to uproot trees (or move mountains, in a synoptic parallel)? Can I?
  2. What do verses 7-10 have to do with 5-6?
  3. What about Jesus as a servant? Is he here the one being served, and we are just dutiful servants, with no expectation of thanks or “well done” from God?  Continue reading “Of Millstones and Mustard Seeds: Bock on Luke 17”

Jesus Makes a Pun in the Synagogue

Jesus Reads in Synagogue
Jesus makes a pun in Luke 4. I’m not the first one to notice this, but it stood out to me as I read my way through Luke 4:14-21 this past week. I’m preaching on the passage at my church tomorrow.

Jesus enters the synagogue at his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee and opens the Isaiah scroll to Isaiah 61. In the NIV, the Luke passage reads as follows:

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

But a few verses later (v. 24) Jesus tells the people, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” (They tried then to throw him off a cliff.)

The play on words Jesus uses is not readily evident in most translations, but Jesus uses the same word for favor (“year of the Lord’s favor“) as he does for accepted (“no prophet is accepted“). It’s a rare enough Greek word Luke uses, that I can only conclude it’s deliberate–this is the only passage in all the Gospels to use this word. (For Hellenophiles who read this blog, the word is δεκτός.)

The translations aren’t necessarily wrong to obscure the fact that it’s the same word in each verse. After all, context determines meaning, so even this same word carries different nuances the two times it’s used.

But the irony is that in this year of the Lord’s favor, which Jesus notes later in the passage begins “today,” even his hometown will not accept him. There is no acceptance (δεκτός) of this favor (δεκτός).

And before we rush to point backwards at the hard-heartedness of 1st century Nazareth, perhaps we easily enough realize those ways in which we fail to accept the favor that God would lavish on us. May Jesus give us sight where we do not see all that he comes to offer us.

James (Zondervan ECNT), reviewed

James is no “epistle of straw,” as Martin Luther once (in)famously said of the book. But many–with Luther–find it difficult to reconcile Paul and James on faith and works.

Paul: “A person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

James: “A person is considered righteous [i.e., justified] by what they do and not by faith alone.”

Here I review James by Craig L. Blomberg and Mariam J. Kamell, from Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (ZECNT) series. (Click here to find my review of Luke in that same series; below I use some of my same wording from that post to introduce the ZECNT series more generally.)

Like the rest of the ZECNT series, James is “designed for the pastor and Bible teacher.” The authors assume a basic knowledge of Greek, but Greek is not required to understand the commentary. For each passage the commentary gives the broader literary context, the main idea (great for preachers!), an original translation of the Greek and its graphical layout, the structure, an outline, explanation, and “theology in application” section.

The introduction covers an outline and structure of James, the circumstances surrounding its writing, authorship and date, and significance of the book. It is shorter and less detailed than the introductions in Douglas Moo’s James commentary and that of Peter Davids. Immediately I looked for how the authors would resolve the Paul/James (alleged) discrepancy, but they note in the introduction that they discuss James’s theology after “the commentary proper.” (The ZECNT series has a separate “Theology” section at the back of the book that most other commentaries include as part of the introduction.)

They give just two paragraphs in their theology section–with a bit more in the body of the commentary–to “Faith and Works” (compare Moo’s lengthier discussion in his introduction), but they have their reasons for this:

Contrary to what the extent of the discussion of the topic might suggest, faith and works is not the main focus of James’s letter. It is a subordinate point that grows out of his concern for the poor and the dispossessed (2:14-26; cf. 2:1-13).

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that this idea of faith and works as a subordinate point in James had not really occurred to me prior to working with this commentary. (A good trait in a commentary to produce such thoughts!) But if you click on the references above or look through James 2 (and the rest of James) in your Bible, it’s easy to see where the authors are coming from.

In fact, the “three key topics” in James, according to Blomberg and Kamell, are “trials in the Christian life,” “wisdom,” and “riches and poverty.” They follow Davids here, and note that James 1:2-11 lays out each of the major themes, which James then restates in 1:12-27. 2:1-5:18 then consist of “the three themes expanded,” in reverse order, followed by a closing in 5:19-20.

Blomberg and Kamell are “the first to grant that we may still be imposing more structure on the text than James had in mind.” All the same, their outline of James makes it easier to work through the book, and then finally does, I think, justify their claim in the theology section that “faith and works” is not the central theme of the letter and should be considered in its broader context. Still, they do have a good way forward in understanding Paul and James together: “But this action, these deeds or works, are not put forward in any attempt to merit God’s favor but as the natural, spiritual outgrowth of one’s faith.”

As with Luke, the graphical layout of each passage (in original English translation) is a unique contribution in James. Being able to see main clauses in bold with subordinate clauses indented under them (plus how they relate back to the main clause) gives the reader a quick, visual grasp of the entire passage at hand. See page 45 of the commentary in this sample pdf to see how it looks. This is a highlight of the ZECNT series, and the fact that it’s in English makes it all the more accessible. The translation is smooth and readable, doing great justice to both the Greek it translates and the English language.

James has the full Greek text of James, verse by verse, and the full English translation (passage by passage in the graphical layout, then again verse by verse next to the Greek). As I’ve said before, a value for me in using reference works is not having to pull five more reference works off the shelf to use the first reference work! The authors make comments like this one in 1:5 throughout the work, wedding grammatical and lexical analysis to exegetical application:

We are told to ask of the “giving God” (διδόντος θεοῦ). Here the present participle suggests that “giving” represents a continuous characteristic of God.

To take another example, on James 2:20, which they translate, “Do you want to know, O empty person, that faith without works is workless?” they write:

James incorporates a pun on the word “work” (ἔργον), using the negative adjective from the same root–“workless” (ἀργή). The term can also mean idle or useless. Faith that lacks works does not work! In other words, it is entirely ineffective to save.

Teachers and preachers especially will appreciate the “Theology in Application” section that concludes each passage. James may already strike the preacher as a book that just preaches itself, but the authors do well in helping the preacher connect the text with today’s concerns. For example, for 2:14-17 they note that although James

provides no treatise on the most effective ways to help the poor…, true believers will take some kind of action. At the very least, they must cultivate generous, even sacrificial giving to help the poor as part of their ongoing personal and corporate stewardship of their possessions. But in light of systemic injustice, we probably need to do much more.

Amen. The authors go on, “James certainly would share the concern of liberation theologians to do far more for the poor, individually and systemically, than many branches of recent Christianity have attempted” (my italics). Moo agrees–though he wants to distance himself “from an extreme ‘liberation’ perspective,” he says “we must be careful not to rob his denunciation of the rich of its power.” And James 5:1-6 are pretty damning of the powerful rich who use their power to oppress the poor.

The authors write,

[These oppressors] are the financially wealthy in a world where the rich occupied a miniscule percentage of the population. James does not call them to change their behavior. Instead, he warns them of impending disaster in their lives by commanding them to mourn their coming fate. …”Wail” [ὀλολύζοντες] appears in the LXX of the Prophets in contexts of judgment and can refer to inarticulate shrieks of terror. …James makes it clear that these rich people are going to undergo a terrible ordeal.

There were a few times in the “Theology in Application” section that I wondered (as other reviewers have) whether the authors weren’t getting a bit off-topic from the text. For example, on 3:9-12 they say,

Abortion and euthanasia offend God deeply because they take lives made in his image. But abuse or neglect of the poor and outcast (including the homosexual) proves equally offensive because such treatments likewise demean individuals God made to reflect himself.

They say this to argue against the “stereotypical agendas of both the political and religious ‘right’ and ‘left,'” but it was hard for me to decide whether this was a case of applying an ancient text well to a contemporary set of issues, or if it was an anachronistic stretch. Nothing they say here is incongruent with James, but I did wonder here (and in another place) whether those verses in James really speak to issues like abortion and homosexuality. A minor critique, though.

Those working their way through the Greek of James may still want to have Davids on hand. But as with the Luke volume in this series, the combination of close attention to the Greek text with contemporary application makes James a commentary very much worth using. I know I will want to go back to this commentary right away when I am doing work with the book of James in the future.

(I am grateful to Zondervan for the free review copy of this commentary, which was sent to me with the understanding that I would then write an unbiased review. You can find the book on Amazon or at Zondervan.)

Luke (Zondervan ECNT), reviewed

The last few weeks I’ve been spending time with David Garland’s Luke volume in Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (ZECNT) series.

Garland’s commentary is more than 1,000 pages, but this should not be a surprise, since Luke is the longest Gospel. Like the rest of the ZECNT series, it is “designed for the pastor and Bible teacher.” Garland assumes a basic knowledge of Greek, but Greek is not required to understand his commentary. For each passage the commentary gives the broader literary context, the main idea (great for preachers!), an original translation of the Greek and its graphical layout, the structure, an outline, explanation, and “theology in application” section.

The graphical layout of each passage is a unique contribution that Garland’s Luke makes to Luke studies. Even though a narrative book like Luke is easier to follow than some of Paul’s detailed arguments, seeing main clauses in bold with subordinate clauses indented under them (plus how they relate back to the main clause) gives the reader a quick, visual grasp of the entire passage at hand. Garland does this well, too. Pages 50 and 62-63 of the commentary in this sample pdf give you a taste.

Luke has the full Greek text of Luke, verse by verse, and full English translation by Garland (passage by passage in the graphical layout, then again verse by verse next to the Greek). A value for me in using reference works is not having to pull five more reference works off the shelf to use the first reference work! This is about as portable as exegesis of Luke gets. Garland’s English translation is a bit wooden at times–just about every καὶ in the opening narrative of 1:5-25 receives the translation “and,” which it shouldn’t always. ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν in 10:27 becomes “He answered and said,” where just “He said,” would be preferred.

Garland’s intro is short, but covers what it needs to. He attributes authorship to Luke and holds to Luke-Acts unity, as many scholars do. (“[Luke] is writing not simply about the life of Jesus but what Jesus inaugurated that continued in the deeds of his followers (Acts 1:1-8)” (27).) He understands Luke-Acts as fitting into the genre of “Hellenistic historiography.” He treats Luke’s potential sources, date of writing, readers, location, purpose, and structural outline. There is an additional “theology of Luke” section at the back of the commentary that complements the introduction. It doesn’t cover all the theological themes in Luke (healing/exorcism, for example, is absent), but it doesn’t claim to, either.

Where Garland really shines in this commentary is in his treatment of the Greek words and phrases that comprise the Luke text. He attends to the lexical meaning of given words, how they function in context, and their use in other parts of Scripture. This is helpful especially for parts of Luke where the Greek vocabulary is more obscure or difficult.

Teachers and preachers especially will appreciate the “Theology in Application” section that concludes each passage. To the pastor wondering how to preach on something like Luke’s prologue, Garland writes:

The purpose of the gospel is not to give information but certainty that will change lives. Erudition about Jesus is not the same as insight into Jesus. The history of Jesus is not to be divorced from the proclamation about Jesus, as if the two were somehow incompatible. (58)

This comes after a detailed exegesis of the first four verses. As someone with preaching experience, I can say this combination of thorough attention to the Greek text with contemporary application is pure gold.

Inevitably no commentary can say everything about every word in the text, but there are parts of Luke that I thought deserved more attention. For example, in Luke 8:31 the demons known as Legion beg Jesus not to cast them into the Abyss (Greek ἄβυσσος). Garland just offers, “The Abyss is the place of punishment for evil spirits” (358). Although he infers that this verse shows the “eschatological dimension” to exorcisms, nothing more is given about ἄβυσσος. For a word that appears just once in the Gospels yet multiple times in the Old Testament and Apocrypha, more background on this term would have been useful to the reader. This could, of course, merely reflect a space limitation in the commentary.

On the other hand, Garland’s commentary on the Good Samaritan parable (“merciful” as Garland has it) leaves out just about nothing. To provide needed historical context to the passage, Garland draws on what Josephus said about priests, what Sirach said about helping those in need, and includes an excursus on the “adversarial history” of Jews and Samaritans. Garland compellingly concludes from the parable:

The original Jewish audience must enter the ditch and accept a Samaritan as a savior, helper, and healer. They must experience being touched by this unclean enemy who treats a wounded man as a compatriot. (446)

Garland seeks to prove right the series claim that “all who strive to understand and teach the New Testament will find these books beneficial,” and he succeeds in this. Preachers or students of Luke will want to supplement Garland’s work with other works on Luke (Bock’s two volume set remains the standard), but the graphical layout of each passage and the theology in application sections alone are enough to warrant careful consideration of this volume.

(I am grateful to Zondervan for the free review copy of this commentary, which was offered to me in exchange for an unbiased review. You can find the book on Amazon here.)

UPDATE: Enter to win a free book giveaway of Ephesians from this same series.